SAMSON, JAMES HUNTER, lawyer, politician, and office holder; b. c. 1800 in Ireland, son of James Samson, who later became an officer in the British army; m. 4 March 1828 Alicia Fenton Russell, niece and ward of Sir John Harvey*, in London, and they had no issue; d. 26 March 1836 in Belleville, Upper Canada.
James Hunter Samson probably came to the Canadas in 1813, when his father’s regiment, the 70th Foot, began its tour of duty there. At the age of 16 he sought, unsuccessfully, an ensigncy in the 70th. Studying at York (Toronto) in 1818, he became the close friend of Robert Baldwin*. In 1819, as a law student in Christopher Alexander Hagerman’s Kingston office, he began a regular correspondence with Baldwin. His letters show Samson as articulate, sensitive, fond of poetry, hard-working, and ambitious, but also insecure, subject to fits of depression, and extremely jealous of anyone who threatened to come between himself and Baldwin.
After Samson was called to the bar in November 1823, he became the first resident lawyer at Belleville. Life was not easy in this lumbering, farming, trading community of fewer than 500 people. He claimed “many battles and storms” with one judge and he was financially embarrassed on occasion. He came, however, to enjoy a reputation as a “Barrister of no ordinary talent” and was recognized by the Law Society of Upper Canada, which elected him a bencher in 1835. Samson championed the cause of the fledgling Church of Scotland congregation at Belleville, serving as a trustee, writing letters to the press and various officials, and putting up the first minister after his arrival from Scotland. When cholera threatened in 1832, he donated funds to help build Belleville’s first hospital, personally supervising its hasty construction within a fortnight. He also served as a member of the local board of health and was a member of the village council.
From 1828 until his death he represented the riding of Hastings in the House of Assembly. Initially, he claimed to be a moderate, supporting the “principles of Whiggism”; however, in 1829 during the assembly’s first session Samson revealed his true colours. After attempting, unsuccessfully, to delete comments that were highly critical of the executive branch of government from the reply to the speech from the throne, he was the lone member to vote against the reply. His military background, allegiance to Hagerman (regarded by historians as a pillar of the “family compact”), aristocratic connections through marriage, and basic distrust of republicanism probably explain this vote.
Samson’s subsequent voting pattern led William Lyon Mackenzie* to call him “a selfish illiberal creature” and place him prominently on his “Black List” for 1830. Stung by this attack, Samson played a leading role in the libel and breach of privilege charges against Mackenzie in December 1831. He described articles in the Colonial Advocate as “gross, scandalous, and malicious libels – intended and calculated to bring this House and the Government of this Province into contempt.” The assembly declared Mackenzie guilty of the libel and also approved Samson’s resolution that Mackenzie’s defence tactics made him “guilty of a high breach of the privilege of this house.” Samson then won support for his motions expelling Mackenzie from the house and calling for a new election.
When Mackenzie’s supporters touched off a series of protest rallies, Samson appeared at the Belleville meeting to expose the “falsehood, absurdity and inconsistency” of Mackenzie’s position. His own resolution of loyalty recognized that Upper Canada’s institutions were imperfect, but it maintained “we have less cause of complaint, than any people on earth; and the means of redress are in our own power.”
From 1832 to 1835 Samson played a modest role in the assembly. He chaired several committees, including the 1832 select committee on grievances that dealt with civil rights and favoured the creation of additional banks in the province. He also spoke out on the need for improving navigation of the St Lawrence. In 1836 his health and state of mind became topics for local editorial comment when he was unable to attend the house. His father’s death in 1832 had been a serious blow and political differences with Baldwin had diminished this once vital friendship he had clung to. Samson sought solace in alcohol, which contributed to his death in March 1836, aged 36.
AO, MU 2008, no.21; RG 22, ser.155. Lennox and Addington County Museum (Napanee, Ont.), Lennox and Addington Hist. Soc. Coll., Benson family papers. MTRL, Robert Baldwin papers, esp. A69: 19–76. PAC, MG 24, C12; RG 8, I (C ser.), 6: 967. U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1825–36. British Whig, 1834–36. Chronicle & Gazette, 1833–36. Colonial Advocate, 1828–34. Kingston Chronicle, 1820–33. G.B., WO, Army list, 1810–33. The service of British regiments in Canada and North America . . . , comp. C. H. Stewart (Ottawa, 1962). R. M. and Joyce Baldwin, The Baldwins and the great experiment (Don Mills [Toronto], 1969). G. E. Boyce, Historic Hastings (Belleville, Ont., 1967); Hutton of Hastings: the life and letters of William Hutton, 1801–61 (Belleville, 1972).