STEWART, CHARLES, office holder, lawyer, politician, army officer, and land agent; b. c. 1759 in Campbeltown, Scotland, second son of Peter Stewart and Helen MacKinnon; d. 6 Jan. 1813 in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
In 1775 Charles Stewart accompanied his family to St John’s (Prince Edward) Island, where his father had been appointed chief justice. A collector of offices – frequently as a deputy doing the work of others – he received his first appointments in 1784, as deputy surveyor of pines for the Island and deputy mustermaster of the disbanded troops and loyalists both on the Island and in Nova Scotia. That same year he assisted his father and his elder brother, John*, in their successful opposition to Lieutenant Governor Walter Patterson* in the House of Assembly elections, and was admitted an attorney before his father’s Supreme Court. About this time as well he married Mary, daughter of Thomas Desbrisay, thus cementing an alliance (initiated by his sister Margaret and Theophilus DesBrisay*) between the Island’s two most extensive families; the couple were to have 13 children.
Charles’s career received a considerable boost during the administration of Lieutenant Governor Edmund Fanning, a 17-year period in the course of which the Stewart clan became closely associated with the executive. First elected to the assembly in 1790 from Prince County, he served in 1797 on the committee which reported on Island settlement and recommended that the proprietors either be compelled to fulfil the terms of their grants or have their lots escheated and regranted to residents. This stand assured him easy re-election in 1803 and 1806.
Although in 1800 Attorney General John Wentworth dismissed Stewart as deputy clerk of the Supreme Court for neglect of duty, he was still a principal office holder, having obtained posts as acting clerk of the Council (where he deputized for his father-in-law), coroner of the crown, clerk of the errors, registrar in Chancery, receiver of inland duties, overseer of working parties for the engineering department, assistant acting engineer, and lieutenant (later captain) in one of the Island’s fencible companies. According to one hostile observer, John Hill*, Stewart “had a share” in “all the disputes in the island,” generally as “the Governor’s Agent and Messenger, when any particular plan was to be set on foot, in which the Governor did not care to appear himself.” The loss of his Supreme Court appointment proved a blessing in disguise: by 1802 Stewart was again practising before the courts as an attorney, and he ultimately made a reputation as one of the most able lawyers on the Island.
When in 1804 John Stewart left to become paymaster general to the forces in Newfoundland, Charles became his brother’s deputy as receiver of quitrents. Moreover, absentee landowners increasingly turned to him as their local agent, since by this time the Stewarts had made peace with the proprietors in Britain and had become the backbone of their opposition to the administration of Lieutenant Governor Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres*. The Stewart faction and the proprietors feared that DesBarres would reopen the land question on the Island, which had been solved to their satisfaction in 1803 with a compromise on the issue of quitrents in arrears. In 1807 Charles was appointed solicitor general, and the success of his career was assured that same year when the Island’s principal absentee landholder, the Earl of Selkirk [Douglas], began to put his business into Stewart’s hands. On his visits to the Island in 1803 and 1804 Selkirk had been impressed with Stewart’s efficiency and knowledge, and by 1810 he was prepared to turn management of his extensive estates over to the Charlottetown attorney. Added to Stewart’s other agencies – which included work for the Dundas, Ellice, and Montgomery family interests – the Selkirk connection made him, as he was described in 1810, the “first employed man of business on the Island.”
When Attorney General Peter Magowan died in 1810, Stewart was an obvious candidate to replace him. DesBarres opposed Stewart on the grounds that he had only a local education, which afforded “but little knowledge in theory and still less in practice.” But the British proprietors were frightened by James Bardin Palmer*, the lieutenant governor’s candidate, and, led by Selkirk, succeeded in gaining Stewart the appointment and forcing an investigation of the Loyal Electors, a society that Palmer had helped to organize. This group had entered the political fray in the elections of 1806 in opposition to the official clique, known by its enemies as the “cabal,” which had long dominated Island politics and of which Stewart was now the acknowledged leader. Soon after Stewart became attorney general, a packet containing protested bills of exchange drawn by Palmer was placed on the doorstep of his house with the message “Now have at him, Amen – Peter M’Auslane Esq.” M’Auslane denied vehemently any involvement in the incident, which nevertheless contributed to a rapidly escalating political crisis. In a hotly contested election in 1812 Stewart was defeated as a candidate for the House of Assembly. Though the Loyal Electors managed to increase their representation, they could not counteract the influence of the proprietors in Britain: DesBarres was recalled in August 1812 and Palmer was stripped of all his public offices. While these events were taking place Stewart was ordered to attend the September session of the House of Assembly to answer questions about his conduct. He refused, according to one witness replying he would be “damned if he would attend the House.” In ill health, he died soon afterwards.
Charles Stewart and his brother John had been an effective partnership for many years in furthering the family’s economic and political interests. Unlike John, whose personal notoriety and hot temper had brought him the sobriquet “Hellfire Jack,” Charles was a man who preferred to work quietly behind the scenes rather than in the public eye. His epitaph was pronounced by his close friend Caesar Colclough*, who described him as a man “intimately acquainted with the Private Thoughts of any individual on the Island as well as his circumstances.” In contrast to most Island politicians, Stewart was a political manager and did not profit personally from his activities; he died in penury, leaving a large family who lived in poverty for many years.
National Library of Ireland (Dublin), Dept. of mss,