MACLEAN, DUNCAN, merchant, farmer, politician, and newspaper editor; b. between 15 April and 8 Aug. 1799, probably in Scotland; d. 15 April 1859 in Charlottetown.
No record of Duncan Maclean’s birthplace appears to have survived, but shortly after his death a contemporary, Edward Whelan*, referred to him as a “Scotchman.” Although no precise information is available concerning his schooling, Maclean was generally credited with having had a good education, particularly in mathematics and science, which he described in 1843 as forming his “chief recreation and pleasure.” In the same memorial he referred to himself as “a sworn surveyor.” He is known to have married at least twice and to have had at least five children. According to his own account, also dated 1843, he immigrated to “the Colonies” around 1818. His destination apparently was the West Indies, where he was “exclusively engaged in commerce.” As one of the “Colonial Dragoons” he took an active part in suppressing an 1831 slave revolt in Antigua. He moved to Montreal the following year, and was once again occupied as a merchant. His possible role in the rebellion of 1837–38 was later the subject of much recrimination in Prince Edward Island, and it appears, from his own account and the testimony of prominent Montrealers several years afterwards, that he was on the loyalist side. Nevertheless, on the Island the rumour persisted into the 20th century that he had been Louis-Joseph Papineau*’s secretary and that he had been a fugitive; this story, like one concerning an alleged bankruptcy in Montreal, may have originated in confusion between him and someone else of the same name.
Maclean had arrived in Prince Edward Island by late 1839, and his departure from Montreal appears to have had a dual motivation. He wanted “to exchange a commercial life for a rural one,” and was “desirous of residing in what I then conceived to be a less disturbed colony than Canada.” On 1 Nov. 1839, for £100 currency, he acquired from Charles Worrell the improvements on a well-situated farm of 100 acres on the Cundall estate, at New London, Lot 20, in northwestern Queens County, with a 1,000-year lease at an annual rental of £5 sterling. His wife died on 30 March 1840 at age 20; when he married again at the end of 1844 his bride was Ann Smith of New London. He continued to farm over the years – in 1851 he stated that he had cleared more than 40 acres since his arrival – and resided on the same property until his death.
Finding that farming did not supply “my accustomed activity,” Maclean in 1842 successfully contested a Queens County constituency that included New London. During the campaign he made a distinctly negative impression on the lieutenant governor, Sir Henry Vere Huntley*. When sending a list of assemblymen to the Colonial Office on 13 Aug. 1842, Huntley, as well as identifying Maclean as a land surveyor and conceding that he was “said to be clever, & educated,” described his electoral card and speeches as “most violently revolutionary.” More than once in later years Maclean expressed the opinion that the story, allegedly spread by his political enemies, that he had been a Lower Canadian rebel and fugitive had actually helped him to be elected. His conduct in the session of 1843, during which he made caustic remarks about the veracity of the lieutenant governor, provoked James Douglas Haszard*, editor of the Royal Gazette, to insert in the report of the debates a note regretting Maclean’s behaviour. These verbal attacks further alienated Huntley, who informed London that Maclean was “a new member of little ability, but infinitely rancorous.”
The political universe of Prince Edward Island had been convulsed throughout the 1830s by the land question, particularly the controversy over the proposed solution of escheat, whose advocates, led by William Cooper*, argued that landlords’ titles should be forfeited for non-fulfilment of the terms of their grants, and the land given to tenants. The Escheators, who had won the election of 1838, lost that of 1842, a turn of events which pleased Huntley and the Colonial Office. However, the struggle against leasehold tenure continued in the countryside, and on 28 Feb. 1843 there was a public meeting at New London; James Scott, who had come to the Island with Maclean and was apparently residing with him, acted as secretary for the meeting. It resolved that the Island government was conducted “for the benefit of a couple of dozen of land Speculators, their connexions, dependents, and parasites.” In March, Maclean took the report of the meeting to John Ings and James Barrett Cooper*, two newspaper publishers in Charlottetown; both refused to print it in full, and at least one provided the authorities with a copy of the offending resolution. After being advised by Attorney General Robert Hodgson* and Solicitor General James Horsfield Peters* that it was libellous, and that Maclean, by his actions, was legally responsible for circulating a libel, Huntley ordered that he be prosecuted. Even had the lieutenant governor wished to prosecute others, Scott had left the Island “very shortly after the meeting,” and Maclean had taken the precaution of erasing the name of the chairman from the report of the meeting. Consequently, although Maclean had not been present, he was charged with libelling the government.
Maclean brought a substantial number of supporters from the New London area to attend his trial at the Supreme Court in Charlottetown at the end of June 1843; estimated at “about 160” by Huntley and at a minimum of 911 by Maclean, they filled the court-room and surrounded the court-house. In what was probably a further attempt to emphasize the political nature of the case, Maclean conducted his own defence before the presiding judge, Edward James Jarvis, although with the assistance of a lawyer, Charles Young, whose advice he rejected. These tactics did not save him from conviction by a special jury composed of persons with a higher than usual property qualification and empanelled at the request of the attorney general, Hodgson, who believed that the case “required a Jury of more intelligence than is to be found amongst that Class usually selected for Petit Jurors in this Island.” None the less, Maclean escaped sentencing because Huntley, who, according to his own account, had commenced the action to discredit Maclean in the eyes of his followers, requested that sentence not be passed, to avoid creating a martyr while teaching a lesson about the legal limits of free speech.
Although the jury delivered its verdict on 30 June 1843, Maclean learned of Huntley’s decision only when Hodgson announced it in court on 12 Jan. 1844. In the mean time, on 8 August, Maclean had written to the colonial secretary, Lord Stanley, soliciting the surveyor generalship, which was already occupied by George Wright*. Even though his memorial focused on Prince Edward Island, he also stated that, if asked to serve, he would go “wherever he may be ordered”; in a subsequent letter, he specified his willingness to do surveying in “the polar circle,” Africa, or Australia. When forwarding the memorial, Huntley, whose own health had apparently suffered because of the climate while serving in western Africa, suggested that Maclean, who declared himself to be of vigorous constitution, be given a post there. Apart from the bizarre aspect of Maclean’s request under the circumstances, the fact of his memorial must have prompted the suspicion that, with sufficient inducement, he could be removed from the reform camp. On 8 September an anonymous letter appeared in a conservative newspaper, purportedly from a reformer, challenging Maclean to disprove the report that he “has directly proposed to the home government to abandon us and agitation for an appointment worth 200 l. or 300 l. a year.”
During his first term in the House of Assembly, Maclean usually voted with the minority, and although he was not a dominating figure in debate, his intemperate rhetoric, especially concerning the land question, led to heated exchanges with such tory leaders as Joseph Pope* and Edward Palmer*. But by 1847, when the leading issue in local politics was responsible government, he was voting with the tories in the most important partisan divisions. He absolutely refused to follow Alexander Rae and other reform leaders into their alliance of convenience with Huntley, who had fallen out with the family compact. He had never forgiven the lieutenant governor for his libel prosecution, and as recently as 8 April 1846 had declared in the assembly that he “felt nothing . . . but pity and contempt” for him.
Maclean had been re-elected later in 1846 on the basis of an electoral card in which he promised to support responsible government as a step towards abolition of leasehold tenure. He explained his behaviour by claiming that the reform leadership, in failing to insist upon the settlement of the land question as an indispensable condition for supporting Huntley, had abandoned principle in an opportunistic quest for office. Indeed, although Maclean’s motives were suspect, and almost certainly included resentment at Rae’s failure to follow his advice, he was justified in finding the new alignment strange. But even after Huntley had been replaced and his successor, Sir Donald Campbell*, had split with the reformers over responsible government, Maclean continued to support the tory leadership. During the sessions of 1848 and 1849 he contributed to debate infrequently, and in the election of February 1850 he was defeated. His career in electoral politics was over, and in 1853, prior to the next general election, he declined nomination.
In early March 1850 Maclean had become editor of the Islander, a tory newspaper owned by John Ings, one of the publishers who had testified against him at his libel trial. Although Ings had founded the Islander in 1842, it was only after he engaged Maclean that editorial articles on local themes began to appear regularly. During the 1850s Maclean’s role in Island politics was that of leading journalistic spokesman for the tory party. He published column upon column of merciless attacks on the reform triumvirate of George Coles*, James Warburton, and Edward Whelan, in the form of editorials, signed open letters, and apocryphal accounts of their doings presented as “intercepted correspondence” between “Jarge Coals,” “Jamie Wearbottom,” and “Neddy.” He also poured invective upon Sir Alexander Bannerman* and Sir Dominick Daly*, the lieutenant governors under whom the liberals occupied office almost continuously from 1851 to 1859, accusing them of partisanship.
To the delight and entertainment of the reading public, Maclean carried on a running battle through the decade with the immensely talented Whelan, liberal editor of the Examiner. The local poet John LePage*, a contemporary, wrote, “Both trained to vigorous intellectual strife, / They wrote – as Roman Gladiators fought – for life!” Maclean and Whelan had collaborated on the latter’s first Island newspaper, the Palladium, founded in 1843, and they had enjoyed, in Whelan’s words, a “long and very close friendship.” But they eventually fell out and, as well as being political foes and journalistic rivals, became bitter personal enemies, reviling each other as “the Dirty-faced Urchin” and “Donkey Maclean,” respectively. On one occasion Maclean successfully sued Whelan for libel, yet the token award of one farthing led the latter to crow that this was the value the judge placed on the plaintiff’s character. None the less, despite all the abuse and taunts which passed between them, each appears to have had a genuine respect for the other as an antagonist worthy of serious attention.
Although Maclean managed a tory newspaper for a tory publisher, he maintained a measure of political independence. This was particularly evident in the late 1850s, when he adamantly refused to participate in the tory campaign for the “open Bible” in the schools. Skilled in the logical dissection of arguments, he insisted that, regardless of the declared intentions of Palmer and Thomas Heath Haviland*, the wording of their 1857 resolution in the assembly to bring the question forward entailed compulsion, and that compulsory use of the Bible in denominationally mixed schools would drive the large Roman Catholic minority out of the public educational system, thus dividing the colony along religious lines. This position was consistent with his strong criticism in the assembly during 1845 of a proposal to open the Central Academy, a publicly supported grammar school in Charlottetown, to the Bible. On that occasion he had declared that “when he was a boy at school, he had been compelled with others to read the Bible as a class book, and the effect produced on his mind was a dislike to the perusal of the Bible ever since.” Indeed, Maclean was widely believed to be an “infidel,” the contemporary Island term for atheist, agnostic, Unitarian, or apostate; in his own words, “I was known to entertain independent opinions in religion.”
The controversy over putting the Bible into schools provided one of the few occasions in the 1850s when Maclean and Whelan, an Irish-born Catholic, found common ground and came to one another’s aid. As an “infidel,” Maclean was a prime target for the Protector and Christian Witness of Charlottetown, an ultra-Protestant newspaper which supported the tory leadership on the issue. He became sufficiently estranged from his party that for a time Ings closed the editorial columns of the Islander to him with respect to the Bible question, forcing him to resort to signed letters and, on at least one occasion, to paid advertising in another conservative paper. Yet when the tories won the election of 1859 – primarily through effective exploitation of the Bible question – they decided to make him commissioner of public lands. In reviewing the appointment, Whelan pronounced him “quite competent to discharge its duties.” Maclean did not live to assume the post, for on his way from New London to Charlottetown to be sworn in he caught a severe cold which led to pleurisy and inflammation, resulting in his unexpected death on 15 April 1859 after a week of illness. He was survived by his wife, Ann, and two sons and three daughters by their marriage. He died intestate, and one of two bondsmen in 1860 for the administrators of his modest estate, his widow and her new husband, was none other than Edward Whelan.
Duncan Maclean had been immersed in controversy throughout his public career in Prince Edward Island. Even his record in Antigua and Lower Canada became a subject of dispute. For years he bombarded the Colonial Office with memorials and complaints, sometimes rambling and abusive, written in a virtually illegible scrawl. When transmitting to London two of Maclean’s letters in January 1857, Lieutenant Governor Daly stated that they led him to believe that “the doubts I have frequently heard expressed as to the sanity of their author, are not without foundation. Habits of intemperance, to which he has long been addicted, are producing their ordinary effects in his case, & he is without the slightest influence in this community.” Daly went on to claim that Maclean lived 30 miles from Charlottetown “for the advantage of greater personal Safety from consequences that might follow upon his slanderous attacks on private character.” In London, Arthur Johnstone Blackwood, a senior clerk in the Colonial Office, commented in 1857 concerning one of Maclean’s letters that “a more slanderous low communication was never addressed to this Office – unless it may have been previously by himself.” Such was the unflattering impression he created among many in authority: an extraordinarily combative, personally offensive, possibly unbalanced polemicist.
Yet among Maclean’s contemporaries on the Island warm memories of his ability and logical powers as a writer, and of his epic battles with Whelan, lasted many years. Maclean’s writings in the Islander reveal a curiosity about scientific matters in general, particularly astronomy, on which, although not an accomplished speaker, he gave several public lectures. Interested in science, a religious sceptic, and flagrantly disrespectful of authority, he seems to have contained the essential elements of a cranky 19th-century radical. Yet on the Island he soon left the radical camp and became a spokesman for conservatism. The reasons for his conversion – the sincerity of which Whelan frequently professed to doubt – are not entirely clear, and were probably a mixture of personal relations, political strategy, and future prospects: clashes with other strong personalities in the reform party, differences over the course to be followed when Huntley and the compact split, and the realization that the tories were abler than the reformers to provide him with security. As might be expected, he tended to play down the extent to which he changed – “of all the old liberal party D. Maclean alone has never wavered,” he wrote in 1850 – and to account for his new allegiance by referring to alleged betrayals of the reform cause by Coles, Whelan, and Warburton, to whose party he gave the name “Snatchers,” because of their supposed desire to snatch the emoluments of public office. Local tories used the epithet for many years, and Whelan retorted with the label “Snarlers,” calling Maclean “Chieftain of the Snarler Clan.”
Somewhat of an ideological enigma, a political turncoat, and a personal misfit, as well as an “infidel,” Duncan Maclean, perhaps partially for these reasons, is almost entirely absent from the historical literature of Prince Edward Island. Yet he deserves to be remembered as a significant political and a major journalistic figure in the middle decades of the 19th century, particularly during the 1850s, when he edited the Islander, which he claimed had, by the latter half of the decade, the largest circulation of any newspaper in the colony. Eccentric and unrestrained as he was, he was also a force and a talent to be reckoned with.
[Apart from material appearing in W. L. Cotton, “The press in Prince Edward Island,” Past and present of Prince Edward Island . . . , ed. D. A. MacKinnon and A. B. Warburton (Charlottetown, ), 115, and I. R. Robertson, “Religion, politics, and education in Prince Edward Island from 1856 to 1877” (ma thesis, McGill Univ., Montreal, 1968), chap.1–3, and “The Bible question in Prince Edward Island from 1856 to 1860,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 5 (1975–76), no.2: 13–15, 22, basic information about Duncan Maclean must come from primary sources.
Maclean’s career as an assemblyman is documented in P.E.I., House of Assembly, Journal, 1843–49, and in the reports of debates which appeared in the Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 1843–49. For 1845, however, reports which appeared in the Islander and Palladium, both of Charlottetown, should also be consulted. The Islander survives for the years Maclean was editor, 1850 through 1859; a note from the compositors complaining of his handwriting appeared in the issue of 19 Nov. 1852. The journalistic rivalry with Edward Whelan is recalled in verse in John LePage, The Island minstrel, miscellaneous papers (Charlottetown, 1885), 13–17, and in prose in the Island Argus (Charlottetown), 21 Sept. 1875. Concerning his involvement with Whelan’s Palladium, see Examiner (Charlottetown), 11 Sept. 1848, 18 June 1855, 31 Oct. 1859, and PRO, CO 226/83: 66. Obituaries will be found in the Islander, 15, 22 April 1859; Examiner, 18 April 1859; and Monitor (Charlottetown), 20 April 1859. A poetic tribute appeared in the Islander, 24 June 1859.
Over the years Maclean wrote many letters or memorials of complaint or self-justification in which he revealed something of his personal history. The most useful of these will be found in PRO, CO 226/66: 121–22, 154–62; in the Islander of 25 Jan. 1856 he alludes to a case of mistaken identity with a Montreal merchant of the same name. Statements signed by Montrealers attesting to Maclean’s loyalty during the Lower Canadian rebellion can be found in PRO, CO 226/66: 123–24, 167–68.
The events and controversy surrounding Maclean’s libel trial in 1843 can be followed in the Islander, 17 March, 30 June, 7 July, 25 Aug., 8 Sept., 3 Nov. 1843; 12 Jan. 1844; Colonial Herald, and Prince Edward Island Advertiser (Charlottetown), 1, 8 July, 4, 25 Nov. 1843; 13 Jan. 1844; Palladium, 16 Nov. 1843, 7 March 1844; PAPEI, RG 6, Supreme Court, minutes, 27–28, 30 June, 1 July, 31 Oct., 2 Nov. 1843; 12 Jan. 1844; PRO, CO 226/65: 195–235, 251, 256; CO 226/66: 125–26, 142–47.
Land transactions relevant to Maclean on the Island are documented in PAPEI, RG 16, Land registry records, conveyance reg., liber 47: f.48; liber 48: f.299; liber 77: f.188; liber 86: f.698. Papers of administration for Maclean’s estate are in Supreme Court of P.E.I. (Charlottetown), Estates Division.
Other references to Maclean include: PRO, CO 226/64: 30–31; 226/65: 90; 226/80: 599; 226/88: 4–6, 9; Examiner, 11 April, 18 July 1859; Islander, 17 May 1850; 29 Aug. 1851; 18 Feb., 25 March 1853; Protector and Christian Witness (Charlottetown), 1 April, 15 July 1857 (copy at PAPEI). i.r.r.]
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Cite This Article
Ian Ross Robertson, “MACLEAN, DUNCAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 20, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/maclean_duncan_8E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Ian Ross Robertson|
|Title of Article:||MACLEAN, DUNCAN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||March 20, 2023|