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STEVENSON, JOHN, lumberman, businessman, and politician; b. 12 Aug. 1812 in Hunterdon County, N.J., eldest son of Edward Stevenson and Mary Large; m. in 1841 Phoebe Eliza Hall (d. 1882), of Albany, N.Y., and they had seven children; d. 1 April 1884 in Napanee, Ont.
Although John Stevenson was a Presbyterian, his parents were Quakers whose ancestors had immigrated to Pennsylvania from England; his branch of the family moved to New Jersey, then to New York State, and, when he was still a child, to Leeds County, Upper Canada. Stevenson received a brief formal education at Brockville and taught school there for one year. In 1831 he became a clerk in the general store of Henry Lasher in Bath, Addington County, and after a few years a partner in the business with Lasher’s son, John. When the partnership was dissolved in 1848, Stevenson opened his own store at Newburgh and two years later moved to Napanee, where he lived until his death.
Stevenson enjoyed a prosperous and diversified business career. At various times he operated a flourmill, a foundry and axe shop, a brush factory, all in Napanee, as well as the Kingston Piano Company; he was president of the Richmond Road Company, which managed a toll-road running from Napanee to Clareview. He also contracted with Kingston Penitentiary authorities to have convicts manufacture furniture. In 1854 he and David Roblin* secured the contract to build the Grand Trunk Railway bridge over the Napanee River. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s he also conducted a lucrative loan, mortgage, and real estate business in the Napanee area.
It was in lumbering enterprises, however, that Stevenson acquired most of his wealth. In the early 1850s he obtained extensive timber limits in Hinchinbrooke Township, Frontenac County, from the administration of Francis Hincks and Augustin-Norbert Morin*, and erected sawmills at Petworth and Napanee. In 1853 he and such lumbermen as Hugo Burghardt Rathbun and Roblin formed the Napanee and Salmon River Navigation Company to build slides to facilitate floating lumber to the Bay of Quinte. In the 1850s and 1860s lumbermen might engage in the highly speculative square timber trade to Quebec or in the sawn lumber trade across Lake Ontario to New York State. Stevenson wisely avoided investment in the former and thus escaped the financial difficulties suffered by such contemporaries as Roblin and Malcolm Cameron* when the British timber market collapsed after the Crimean War. He concentrated on the American trade and, to help supply his New York agents during the buoyant period following the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854, he had logs from his and other limits sawn at mills owned by Rathbun, Roblin, and Richard John Cartwright*. He also acquired a fleet of four schooners to carry the lumber to his agents in Oswego, N.Y. During the sailing season of 1858, for example, his schooner Richmond made 24 trips to Oswego, carrying nearly 2,000,000 feet of lumber and 5,000 bushels of rye.
Politically, Stevenson was a moderate Reformer. Although he had been secretary of the Reform Association of the Midland District in 1838, he did not contest an election until he moved to Napanee. After serving in 1857 as a councillor in Richmond Township, he was reeve of Napanee from 1860 to 1865, and first warden of Lennox and Addington County from 1863 to 1865. Stevenson had backed David Roblin in the general election of 1854, and the latter’s subsequent support of the Morin-Sir Allan Napier MacNab* coalition. The Conservative Napanee Standard said of Stevenson in 1884: “He was what is called a Baldwin Reformer in politics, and like a good many more of that school did not take very kindly to the spurious article of Reform which later politicians have brought into vogue.” Stevenson, like his Reform friends Roblin, Lewis Wallbridge, Angus Morrison, and John Ross*, thus supported the Liberal-Conservative coalition of 1854 rather than the “spurious” Grittism of George Brown*. Roblin’s election in that year and his support for the Hincks-Morin administration shattered Reform ranks in Lennox and Addington, which became virtually a Conservative constituency, strongly factional and local in its politics. The new situation, however, provided the Reformer Stevenson with considerable political power, for his support of one or other Conservative faction was often sufficient to tip the election scales. Stevenson broke with Roblin in 1857 over a business dispute and in 1861 he was able to swing county Reform support behind a Conservative “loose fish,” Augustus Frederick Garland Hooper, and secure Roblin’s defeat.
The 1863 election contest was undoubtedly the master-stroke of Stevenson’s political manœuvring. He had become the champion of the campaign to separate Lennox and Addington from Frontenac County and make Napanee the county seat; Hooper, however, supported Newburgh’s claim to the seat. Stevenson threw his support behind Hooper’s opponent, the “independent” Richard John Cartwright, on the condition that the latter maintain his independent stance until the county town issue was settled. Billa Flint*’s note to Stevenson shortly after parliament met indicates the outcome: “Mr. Cartwright and myself called on Atty Gen [John Sandfield Macdonald*] this forenoon, and after a friendly conference, we got your matter of [the] County Town arranged.” In the proclamation issued that day, Lennox and Addington was formally separated from Frontenac County, Napanee designated the county seat, and Stevenson named provisional warden.
In the first provincial and federal elections held in Ontario in August 1867, Stevenson and Cartwright, by prior arrangement, ran “in pairs,” and pledged their support for the coalitions of John Sandfield Macdonald and Sir John A. Macdonald* respectively. Stevenson handily carried the provincial seat, and was unanimously elected first speaker of the Ontario assembly. The speakership was a particular source of pride for Stevenson, who as a youth had supported another Lennox Reformer, Marshall Spring Bidwell*, elected speaker of the Upper Canadian assembly in 1829.
Stevenson’s term as speaker from 1867 to 1871 has been described as one of “fair and impartial rulings” in which no decision was reversed. His correspondence with Sandfield Macdonald was devoted largely to matters reflecting the premier’s penchant for government economy, such as reducing the number of house messengers or replacing permanent clerks with temporary help. On Stevenson’s defeat in 1871 by the independent Conservative John Thomas Grange, a Napanee druggist, Sandfield wrote: “you became the unanimous choice of the first body of Representatives under the Confederation Act, for Ontario, and you discharged your duties faithfully.”
The speakership was to be Stevenson’s last public office. At the urging of friends he agreed, reluctantly and at the last minute, to oppose Cartwright in the federal election of 1872. He ran as an independent and was defeated after a campaign in which he supported many administration policies and several Liberal proposals. Ironically enough, his last campaign was in 1878, when the ageing Reformer, who as a lumberman opposed the proposed National Policy, stumped Lennox in favour of the now Liberal Cartwright while the finance minister was touring the Maritimes. If Stevenson’s political career lacked consistency, it was because factional local issues were often at odds with larger political loyalties; many county politicians could survive only through flexibility.
Lennox and Addington County Museum (Napanee, Ont.), Lennox and Addington Hist. Soc. coll., Roblin family papers, A, David Roblin papers; John Stevenson papers (mfm. at PAC). United Counties of Frontenac, Lennox and Addington, Minutes of the Municipal Council (Kingston, [Ont.]), 1850–53, 1861–62. Lennox and Addington County, Minutes of the Provisional Council (Napanee), 1863–64; Minutes of the Council (Napanee), 1865–66. Napanee Standard (Napanee), 1854–84. Canadian biog. dict., I: 211–12. J. A. Eadie, “Politics in Lennox and Addington County in the pre-confederation period, 1854–1867” (ma thesis, Queen’s Univ., Kingston, 1967). W. S. Herrington, History of the county of Lennox and Addington (Toronto, 1913; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1972).