SAUNDERS, JOHN, judge and politician; b. 1 June 1754 in Princess Anne County (Virginia Beach), Va, son of Jonathan Saunders and Elizabeth –; m. 16 Feb. 1790, in London, Arianna Margaretta Jekyll Chalmers, daughter of James Chalmers, former commander of the Maryland Loyalists; d. 24 May 1834 in Fredericton.
Originally from England, the Saunders family was well established in Virginia by the mid 18th century. In the 1760s Jonathan Saunders had an estate there of 1,200 acres and a fine brick house, “the best in the County.” When he died in 1765, his wife managed the property until her own death four years later. At that time Jacob Ellegood, who in 1768 had married John Saunders’s eldest sister, Mary, became guardian of the younger children. John attended the College of Philadelphia from 1769 to 1772 and returned home without a degree to study law. In 1775 he assumed control of the Saunders estate.
When the American Revolutionary War broke out, loyalists were in a minority in Virginia, especially among the aristocracy. Saunders, a young man with a large estate, might have been expected to side with the rebels but he did not, and there are several reasons for his decision to remain loyal. Although a member of the planter élite, he also had ties with the commercial community, which formed the chief loyalist support in Virginia; for years the Saunders estate had supplied merchants with white-oak timber for European markets. But if Saunders’s loyalism was in part motivated by economic considerations, far more important in determining his stand were his upbringing, and the influence of his family. In later life he claimed that he had been taught from infancy “to fear God and honor the King,” and these tenets were reinforced by the staunch loyalism of his brother-in-law and former guardian.
Efforts had been made by friends and acquaintances to win Saunders’s support for the attempt to secure colonial rights but he refused to compromise himself. He would not endorse the Continental Association of October 1774, which called for the breaking of commercial ties with Great Britain, since he felt it was illegal. Pressured by friends to sign, he eventually did, but added a large “No” after his name. As a result he was denounced and ostracized. Saunders showed in this controversy not only the respect for law and order that would mark his later years but also his strong conservatism, his loyalty to the crown, and his personal courage.
After the success of Governor Lord Dunmore in a minor skirmish with the Virginia militia in November 1775, many loyalists declared themselves openly. Later that year the Queen’s Loyal Virginia Regiment was formed with Ellegood as commander; Saunders served as a captain, having raised a troop of cavalry at his own expense. A number of the “loyalists” in this unit were to desert the cause when Lord Dunmore abandoned the colony in August 1776, but not Saunders. He went with Dunmore to New York and his property in Virginia was subsequently confiscated by the rebels.
When the remnants of the Queen’s Loyal Virginia Regiment were incorporated into the Queen’s American Rangers, Saunders became an infantry captain. In his first engagement with this unit, the battle of Brandywine, Pa, on 11 Sept. 1777, he showed his bravery and was severely wounded. Five months later he was able to rejoin his regiment, now known as the Queen’s Rangers and commanded by Major John Graves Simcoe*. Saunders became a cavalry instructor and in August 1780 the commander of a cavalry troop. Detached from his unit in October, he was sent to Virginia and then to South Carolina, where he was involved in operations around Dorchester and Charleston. For a time he was in command at Georgetown before being recalled to New York in 1782.
Although Saunders was a good soldier, his military career was marred by an incident that took place at Dorchester in 1781. After one bloody skirmish he ordered the execution of a prisoner. His action was, another loyalist wrote, “the most disgraceful thing I ever heard of a British Officer,” but it does not appear to have damaged his reputation with other officers, especially Simcoe. Nevertheless, it does seem very much out of character, given Saunders’s respect for law and order. Simcoe, who described his subordinate as “an officer of great address and determination,” later lamented that Saunders had not kept a journal during the war to relate the “series of gallant and active services” that had characterized his “boldness and prudence.” Saunders sailed for England in November 1782 and the respect and friendship of his commanding officer were to aid him in London.
Saunders had lost much in supporting the crown. His property in Virginia had been sold and he filed a claim with the loyalist claims commissioners for over £5,000. They allowed him an annual pension of £40 at first and then in 1789 gave him the sum of £4,850. These awards, combined with his salary as a half-pay captain, made him a fairly wealthy man. With his future reasonably secure, in January 1784 he entered the Inns of Court to study at the Middle Temple. He hoped eventually to acquire a government position. He also hoped to build a great estate somewhere to compensate for the one he had lost in Virginia. That he did so in New Brunswick was in part the result of Jacob Ellegood’s decision to settle there. Saunders visited his brother-in-law in 1788 and made his first purchases of land in the colony. At the time property was cheap since many disbanded soldiers were willing to sell their rights to land so that they could move elsewhere. Saunders was able to purchase many of these claims and he also submitted his own application for a large grant. To re-estabish a position such as he had occupied in Virginia, however, Saunders needed more than land. If he were to have authority and social status in New Brunswick, he needed a government position. He returned to England late in 1788 and on 6 Feb. 1789 was admitted to the bar. Now he was at least qualified for a legal career.
Saunders must also have felt the time was ripe to choose a wife. On 16 Feb. 1790 he married Arianna Margaretta Jekyll Chalmers, one of the five marriageable daughters of a distinguished Maryland loyalist. The union was to increase his wealth since his father-in-law gave him a cash settlement of £5,000 and provided his wife with a life annuity of £300.
A month after his marriage Saunders was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of New Brunswick. His advancement was probably due to the influence of Simcoe, who was promised the lieutenant governorship of Upper Canada that same year. Saunders was now in a position to return to New Brunswick. Leaving his wife, who was expecting a child, he sailed for Saint John in July 1790. She and their baby daughter, who was the mother’s namesake, joined him the next year. Another daughter, Eliza, would be born in 1794 and a son, John Simcoe*, in 1795. Saunders’s first house was in Fredericton, but his real love was to be the home he built in 1795 at the Barony, his estate near the mouth of the Pokiok Stream in Prince William Parish, about 40 miles from Fredericton. It was almost identical to the one he had lost in Virginia except that it was constructed of wood rather than brick.
In attempting to achieve status in New Brunswick, Saunders was not content with his judicial functions. In February 1791 he stood for election to the House of Assembly as a member for York County. In putting himself forward he may have intended to compensate for the fact that all the other judges of the Supreme Court sat on the Council while he did not. With his election he became the only member of the court ever to hold a seat in the house. The historian James Hannay* claims that this “raid” into the assembly was a bold move in keeping with his character. Saunders remained in the house only until 1792 and was not a candidate in the elections of the following year. While he was a member, one hotly debated issue concerned the power of the Supreme Court and the place of its meetings. From 1785 the inferior courts had shared with the Supreme Court jurisdiction in cases involving up to £50, and plaintiffs could ask that their cases be heard by the superior court. The Supreme Court, however, held only four sessions a year and always in Fredericton. Since travelling was difficult and the expenses of the judges were not paid, they showed a great reluctance even to consider the possibility of holding sessions in other parts of the province. Those who had cases before the Supreme Court consequently had to travel to Fredericton or employ lawyers there to represent them. This inconvenience led the assembly to pass a bill in 1792 calling for the court to meet twice a year in Saint John and giving the inferior courts exclusive jurisdiction in cases involving up to £10. Saunders opposed the measure in the assembly and the Council threw out the bill. Such actions soon earned him and the other judges a reputation for being enemies of popular causes. A bill enlarging the jurisdiction of the inferior courts was finally passed in 1795.
Saunders achieved full recognition as a member of the loyalist élite in May 1793 when he was made a member of the Council. He took this appointment seriously as he did anything connected with duty and responsibility. He was one of those who from 1795 to 1798 voted to throw out the appropriation bills, since he was opposed to paying the members of the assembly, and he thus contributed to a legislative impasse that brought the government virtually to a halt [see James Glenie*]. Saunders regularly attended meetings of the Council and, against the wishes of his family, continued to do so until just before his death. He expected an honourable course of action from his fellow councillors and his own conduct seems to have been above reproach. For this reason in 1802, when there was a question of corruption in the Council, he introduced a motion calling for an investigation. The matter had arisen as the result of charges by a Westmorland County assemblyman that members of the Council had offered him government preferment if he would vote the way they wished in the house. Saunders’s motion was unsuccessful, but it revealed his strong concern that everyone should act within the law.
Saunders appears to have had only a moderate influence in the structure of power in the province. His position must have been evident to him in 1808 on the death of Chief Justice George Duncan Ludlow*. Since his friend and patron Simcoe had died, he had to rely on Lieutenant Governor Thomas Carleton* for support in his attempt to attain the highest judicial office. His brother-in-law Alexander Jekyll Chalmers tried to persuade Carleton, then in England, to back Saunders’s petition, but the lieutenant governor, who as one of his supporters admitted “had a natural dislike of exerting himself to serve any one,” claimed he could do nothing. The administrator of the province, Major-General Martin Hunter*, helped kill any chance Saunders may have had by recommending Jonathan Bliss or Ward Chipman, with Saunders only a “fair candidate” since he was not very experienced at law before he became a judge. The office went the following year to Bliss, and Saunders, who was 55, must have been bitterly disappointed; it looked as if he had missed his one chance of ever becoming chief justice.
In 1808 Saunders’s military abilities had been recognized when there was a threat of war with the United States. A lieutenant-colonel in the militia from 1797, he was placed in command of the units around Fredericton. Administrator Edward Winslow* paid tribute to “the unremitted exertions” and “steady perseverance” of Saunders and his officers: “A corps has been formed and disciplined which, had the threatened hostilities taken place, could not have failed to render essential service in defending the Country.”
Saunders seems to have kept alive the dream of establishing a landed aristocracy in New Brunswick longer than most members of the loyalist élite. After his first purchases he had continued to buy land, hoping that it would increase in value as the province developed. At the Barony he took possession of over 5,000 acres, although he did not get a clear title to this estate until 1819. He also owned 3,000 acres in another tract and 2,300 in different lots at various places. He was continually buying property in Fredericton and along the Saint John River and he became one of the largest, if not the largest, landowner in the province. To build up his estate he hoped to attract tenants but he was not very successful, and indeed much of his land remained worthless. In 1811 Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Gubbins noted that “his house stands in the midst of a wilderness of his own creation, without a neighbour or a practicable road, and his cleared lands are growing again up into forest.”
In 1790 the granting of free land had been restricted by the British government in the hope that crown lands could be sold, a policy that tended to keep immigrants out and drive others from the province. Saunders profited to some extent from the restriction by buying land from those who left. After land grants were reinstituted in 1807, the population of the province steadily increased. Saunders was instrumental in the formation of the Fredericton Emigrant Society in 1819, served as its president from 1821 to 1829, and was still an active member in 1833. He was also involved in the formation of the New-Brunswick Agricultural and Emigrant Society in 1825 and was its first president. He dropped out the next year, however, possibly because of his dislike for Thomas Baillie*, one of the leaders in the organization.
Believing that an education in England was preferable to one in the colonies or in the United States, Saunders sent both his son and his elder daughter there. In the case of his son, whom he supported through school, university, and law studies, he came to regret his decision, since John Simcoe developed attitudes towards New Brunswick which his father did not share, acquiring, Saunders later wrote, “habits and prejudices perhaps impossible . . . to overcome.” John Simcoe became contemptuous of the province and disinclined “to degrade my prospects . . . by practising in such a miserable place.” He was also scornful of his father’s success, claiming that it was his own ambition “to mount to the top of the top of the [tree] but it must be the summit of the lofty oak . . . not the summit of the lowly shrub whose branch is incapable of support.” He later compared his father’s advancement with that of the Lower Canadian judge Jonathan Sewell*, who “after an active career retires to the highest post of honor with more than two thousand a year”; Saunders himself would retire “with four hundred & fifty still obliged ‘to bow the knee & the neck’” to Lieutenant Governor George Stracey Smyth.
John Simcoe also felt that the family estate was rather pretentious. In 1821 he sarcastically commented that he was pleased to hear “the Barony was again about to shine forth with that brightness which so justly becomes the respected family mansion of the Saunders.” “When I last saw it,” he noted, “it was with difficulty the foundation could be supported with props.” Saunders was still maintaining his discontented son when the latter was in his thirties, but to his father’s relief John Simcoe returned permanently to New Brunswick in 1830. He eventually had a successful career in government.
Saunders’s eldest daughter, Ariana Margaretta Jekyll, had married Captain George Shore* in 1815. She and her husband cultivated the friendship of Lieutenant Governor Smyth and by 1822 Shore was acting at times both as his private secretary and as his aide-de-camp. This relationship may have helped Saunders realize his own ambition. In 1822 he was appointed chief justice of New Brunswick on the death of Jonathan Bliss. Smyth’s dislike for Ward Chipman, the other candidate for the position, undoubtedly also contributed to his success.
At the time of his appointment Saunders was 68 years old. He had lived to see many changes in New Brunswick, few of which met with his approval. Therefore he was apprehensive when Sir Howard Douglas* was appointed lieutenant governor. “He appears to be a man of business thus far,” he wrote in September 1824, “but the time to try him will be when the legislature meets.” “I have never,” he continued, “been altogether pleased with the line of conduct of any of his predecessors – they have been generally too conceding to the lower house and not sufficiently firm but at the same time conciliating and moreover not sufficiently acquainted with the principles of our constitution.” These comments are another clear indication of Saunders’s conservative tendencies and his distrust of the assembly.
Much of the political controversy of the 1820s centred on Thomas Baillie, who was appointed commissioner of crown lands in 1824 and whose arrogance made him many enemies. Saunders disliked him from the beginning, perhaps in part because he also took over as surveyor general, replacing George Shore who was temporarily filling the office. The chief justice viewed Baillie’s appointment as a threat to the established New Brunswick families. “It is a matter of some surprise here,” he wrote to his son, “that so young a man . . . should have offices bestowed upon him, the income of which . . . would comfortably provide for at least 8 of our young men whose education and rank in this society certainly entitle them to expect some of the passing benefits of the Government.” The chief justice felt that the colonial secretary had conferred more power on both Douglas and Baillie “than is either constitutional or advantageous for the King or the Colony.” To Saunders’s alarm, the Colonial Office appeared to be pushing New Brunswick towards more independence. He therefore opposed a proposal in 1825 that the salaries of those on the civil list be paid out of assembly funds, believing with Douglas that implementation of such a plan would reduce the status of the executive by making its members financially dependent on the assembly and that the connections between mother country and colony would thus be weakened. Similarly he opposed proposals in Britain for removing the preferential duties on colonial timber.
That Baillie became quite friendly with John S. Saunders and George Shore must have annoyed the chief justice. However, Baillie’s relationship with Shore did not continue and from the late 1820s they were to find themselves on opposite sides in all crucial votes in the Council. The friendship with John S. Saunders was of longer duration and, possibly because of it, the latter was appointed to the Executive Council in 1833. Any resentment John Saunders may have felt over his son’s associations was exacerbated by the fact that. the appointment was a personal humiliation for him. The Council had been divided in 1832 and there were now two bodies, the Executive Council and the less prestigious Legislative Council. When the new councillors were announced the following year, Baillie and John S. Saunders were members of the Executive Council, while John Saunders, as chief justice, was to lead the Legislative Council (of which his son was also a member). Although these appointments were consistent with the policy followed in other colonies, Saunders felt he had been demoted and slighted. He was the more discomfited because Sir Archibald Campbell* gave Baillie precedence over the older members of the Executive Council and thus the right to assume the administration of the province in the lieutenant governor’s absence; Saunders was one of those who protested to the Colonial Office. The matter was eventually resolved when the senior military officer in the province was designated to act as administrator.
Saunders in 1833 was no doubt already smarting because two years earlier he had been obliged by the commissioner of crown lands to pay for a town lot in Fredericton on which he had not fulfilled the terms of his grant. Baillie further annoyed him by encouraging Irish immigration. Saunders was not pleased with the influx of Irish settlers since on the whole they were poor, uneducated, and unskilled and they did not make good tenants. Many were Roman Catholics and Saunders was a firm supporter of the Church of England, serving as a warden and vestryman of Christ Church in Fredericton and a churchwarden in Prince William as well. He opposed the bill for the relief of Roman Catholics which was passed in 1830. Modelled on a British act, it allowed Roman Catholics to hold civil and military offices and to sit in the House of Assembly. Saunders felt that concessions might have been necessary in Britain but were not in New Brunswick since “the Roman Catholics in this colony have not made any complaints, or attempted to show that they are in any manner oppressed or aggrieved by the present laws.” In truth, he disliked change of any kind. Describing him as “a Tory of the old school, on whose dull mind the progress of the world made no impression,” Hannay states that as a councillor “he opposed all reforms until he came to be looked upon with contempt, even by those who had formerly been with him on the side of obstruction.”
Like many of the refugee “gentlemen” who first administered New Brunswick, Saunders was dedicated to maintaining the imperial connection and to perpetuating in the colony the authority of the loyalist élite. Since the loyalists’ position rested on the pensions, land grants, and offices they had received from the imperial government, they viewed any weakening of ties with Britain as not only undesirable in itself but as a threat to their pre-eminence, the more inexpedient because both the colonial economy and the province’s defence were dependent on the mother country. In Saunders’s eyes, the removal of British regiments from the province, the opening of the West Indies trade to the Americans, the plans to alter the preferential duties on New Brunswick timber, and the restriction on land granting in 1790 all jeopardized the established order. Similarly, within the colony, any diminution of the executive authority or granting of power to outsiders seemed to endanger his way of life. Since most of those who shared his view were dead by the 1830s, Saunders stood out as a reactionary to the new figures struggling for political power in the province. His son learned to adjust to and work within a changing society but Saunders either could not or would not.
For all his conservatism, and though he came from a slave-owning family, Saunders for some reason opposed slavery, and his attitude was in marked contrast to the view of many leading loyalists in New Brunswick. In 1800 he had been one of two Supreme Court judges who ruled against the master in a well-known test case on the legality of slavery in the province [see Caleb Jones*]; the bench was equally divided, however, and no judgement was rendered. Saunders later changed his mind about the legality of slavery – as became clear in a second case in 1805 – but there is no evidence to suggest that he ever supported the institution. His stand in 1805 appears to have been based solely on the belief that slavery was legal under the existing laws.
Saunders tried a number of interesting cases in New Brunswick, including one in 1808 involving deserters accused of murdering a man who had attempted to apprehend them. In 1822 he went to Miramichi to preside over the trial of a number of rioters, a case that involved some 59 sentences. That same year he also tried two men charged with murder as the result of a duel [see George Ludlow Wetmore]. Saunders’s address to the jury on this occasion was a strange one: although everyone knew full well who was involved in the duel, Saunders claimed that the prosecution’s case was based on presumption and that in such instances “character is a great weight.” Hannay has suggested that if this address is any indication of the legal knowledge of the judges at the time, then it was probably not of the best. The man charged with firing the fatal shot, George Frederick Street*, was a member of a prominent family and for that reason Saunders felt he should be acquitted, as he indeed was. The whole affair seems to diminish Saunders’s reputation as a strong supporter of law and order. With him, it appears, status in society was an important consideration in cases involving the law.
When the 50th anniversary of the coming of the loyalists was celebrated in Saint John in 1833, about 200 people attended the ceremony. Among those invited was Saunders. He was unable to be present but he sent a letter which was read at the dinner. In it he attempted to sum up his philosophy of life: “He was taught from his earliest infancy to fear God and honor the King, which he has made the two great objects of his life hitherto – And which, with the blessing of God, he will persevere in, till he shall be called to sleep with those, whose inflexible fidelity made them, at every hazard and sacrifice, to stand firm in their allegiance to their King, and in support of the glorious constitution under which they were born.” As much committed to the old ways at the end of his life as he had been in 1774, Saunders was not happy with what he saw around him. That his baronial estate was still very much a wilderness was a personal disappointment; moreover, he was at odds with the new social and political order typified by Baillie and seemingly illustrated by his own eclipse in the council changes. Nevertheless, he continued to do his duty as chief justice until a few days before his death. He was buried with full military honours and his funeral was attended by members of the assembly, the Executive and Legislative councils, the lieutenant governor, members of the bar, and students and professors of King’s College.
Saunders’s obituary described him as a man of “sound judgment” and “the highest integrity of purpose,” “a disciple of the old school . . . unwavering in his political principles.” These were admirable qualities. However, he was also inflexible and unwilling to change, and his letters show little evidence of wit or sense of humour. His wife appears to have been an efficient lady of strong character. When John S. Saunders was concerned that his father might leave the management of his lands to himself and George Shore, he was told, “It is not my intention to trouble either of you upon that account as I am quite certain that she would be more capable of managing her affairs herself than both of you put together.” Saunders and his wife had formed no strong ties with other prominent loyalist families in New Brunswick; with one exception, all their children and grandchildren married partners from outside the province.
After his father’s death John Simcoe gradually disposed of some of the family’s land, but the Barony was not put on the market until after his own death in 1878. It had remained, as Moses Henry Perley* commented, “a waste howling wilderness” more properly entitled a “barren, eh!” – a symbol of the frustrated hopes of the loyalist élite. Its sale brought to an end John Saunders’s dream of a landed estate that would be the base for the establishment of his family forever. If he had never quite regained the status he had lost in Virginia, he had none the less made a place for himself in his new home. As he himself once said, “I shall always wish to be of some importance in the society where I might live.” He was certainly that in New Brunswick.
[The most useful sources for this biography were the Saunders papers at UNBL (MG H11) and Diana Ruth Moore’s ma thesis, “John Saunders, 1754–1834: consummate loyalist”(Univ. of N.B., Fredericton, 1980). w.a.s.]
PANB, MC 1156, V: 81; RG 10, RS108, John Saunders, 1792, 1818. PRO, AO 12/54, 12/100, 12/109; AO 13, bundles 33, 79. UNBL, MG H2, 7:44, 69, 121; 8: 6, 13; 13: 74; 14: 7, 63–65, 87, 93, 97, 124; 15: 5–6, 14, 19, 78. Gubbins, N.B. journals (Temperley). Loyalist narratives from Upper Canada, ed. J. J. Talman (Toronto, 1946). N.B., Legislative Council, Journal [1786–1830], 27 Feb. 1830. [M. H. Perley], “Scenery on the St. John – reflections – Woodstock,” New-Brunswick Courier, 29 Sept. 1832: 2. Revolutionary Virginia: the road to independence, comp. W. J. Van Schreeven et al., ed. R. L. Scribner et al. (7v. to date, [Charlottesville, Va.], 1973– ). J. G. Simcoe, Simcoe’s military journal (Toronto, 1962). Winslow papers (Raymond). Gleaner: and Northumberland Schediasma (Miramichi, N.B.), 3 June 1833. New-Brunswick Courier, 25 May 1833. Royal Gazette (Fredericton), 28 May, 4 June 1834. I. L. Hill, Some loyalists and others (Fredericton, 1976). E. A. Jones, American members of the Inns of Court (London, 1924). C. F. McIntosh, “Genealogy: Saunders–Princess Anne County, Virginia,” Va. Magazine of Hist. and Biog. (Richmond), 32 (1924): 92–96. Sabine, Biog. sketches of loyalists. Beckwith Maxwell, Hist. of central N.B. Sheila Carr, “John Saunders: Virginia loyalist” (graduate essay, Univ. of N.B., Fredericton, 1970). Esther Clark Wright, The St. John River and its tributaries (n.p., 1966). Kenneth Donovan, “The military career of a Virginia loyalist: Captain John Saunders, 1774–1782” (graduate essay, Univ. of N.B., 1972). Hannay, Hist. of N.B. Douglas How, The 8th Hussars: a history of the regiment ([Sussex, N.B.], 1964). C. J. Ingles, The Queen’s Rangers in the Revolutionary War, ed. H. M. Jackson (n.p., 1956). Lawrence, Judges of N.B. (Stockton and Raymond). MacNutt, New Brunswick. E. A. Jones, “A letter regarding the Queen’s Rangers,” Va. Magazine of Hist. and Biog., 30 (1922): 368–76.
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Cite This Article
W. A. Spray, “SAUNDERS, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 31, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/saunders_john_6E.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:||W. A. Spray|
|Title of Article:||SAUNDERS, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||March 31, 2023|