STEWART, JOHN, army officer, politician, office holder, and author; b. c. 1758 in Kintyre, Scotland, eldest son of Peter Stewart* and Helen MacKinnon; m. first 24 April 1780 Hannah Turner in Charlottetown; m. secondly 29 May 1817 Mary Ann James in St John’s; m. thirdly 17 June 1832 Mary Rain; father of two sons and two daughters; d. 22 June 1834 at his estate, Mount Stewart, P.E.I.
John Stewart arrived on St John’s (Prince Edward) Island in November 1775 with his father, recently appointed chief justice of the colony, his brother Charles*, and several other family members. The American revolution had broken out, and he soon obtained a lieutenancy in the military corps raised by Administrator Phillips Callbeck* for the defence of the Island. In the fall of 1779 a ship carrying part of a Hessian regiment was forced to land by a gale, and Stewart was appointed acting commissary to the troops.
He first came to political prominence as an opponent of Governor Walter Patterson*, with whom the Stewart family had fallen out. As chief justice, Peter Stewart sat on the Council, and during the 1784 election campaign for the House of Assembly, the Stewarts used their knowledge of an impending, but as yet unannounced, tax with great effectiveness. Patterson reported that John Stewart, “a very intemperate young man . . . by every artifice in his power infused into the people’s minds the dread of a general tax.” Almost two-thirds of the members elected were of the anti-Patterson party, and when the assembly met on 6 March John Stewart was chosen speaker. This first taste of office was brief, for Patterson shortly dissolved the house and called another election which, with the aid of an influx of loyalist voters, he won. Stewart lost his seat. When the new assembly met in 1785, it was discovered that the journals of the previous session were but copies of the originals and that “matters of the highest tendency” had been either totally omitted or mutilated to such a degree that they could scarcely be understood. An investigation revealed that the journals had been recopied under Stewart’s direction, apparently “to prejudice the Governor in the minds of His Majesty’s ministers.”
In fact, Patterson was already in trouble with London for disobeying instructions and was doomed despite the discovery of Stewart’s little conspiracy. He was dismissed in 1787 and replaced by Edmund Fanning*, who allied himself with the Stewarts and their friends. With their help, in 1790 he finally secured the election of an assembly subservient to his wishes. John Stewart, who had been successful in 1787 and again in 1790, was chosen speaker of this house in 1795 and held the position until 1801. Even more important was his appointment to the influential post of receiver general of quitrents in 1790. When he had solicited this post originally, he had found himself in competition with Robert Gray, Fanning’s private secretary, but he had succeeded in obtaining it through the interest of Lord Frederick Campbell in Britain.
The “Hellfire Jack” of Prince Edward Island politics, Stewart gave clear evidence of his turbulent disposition early on. During his voyage to the Island as a teen-age immigrant, he had been involved in a fight on board ship. Then, in 1784 he had accosted judge Thomas Wright* on his way to the court-house, castigating him relative to a case in which he, Stewart, was a party. He renewed the abuse on the judge’s way home and physically attacked James Curtis* and another man who intervened. The Reverend Theophilus Desbrisay narrowly escaped violence himself when he tried to pacify him. Stewart avoided prison on the intervention of his brother Charles, who successfully appealed to the injured parties’ sense of chivalry by mentioning that the assailant’s wife was “unwell and much alarmed.” Having been made captain in one of the Island provincial companies in 1794, Stewart applied to the fort major, Charles Lyons, in the autumn of 1797 for permission to take two artificers from the public works to saw a threshing floor for his farm. Lyons refused and Stewart challenged him to a duel; when they met, however, they were prevented from fighting. As a result of this incident, Stewart’s rank was temporarily reduced by sentence of a general court martial.
In 1789 Stewart had become the neighbour of another turbulent Islander, John MacDonald* of Glenaladale, by purchasing part of Lot 37. There, on a rising stretch of ground overlooking the Hillsborough River, he built his country home, Mount Stewart. The formidable Glenaladale, no friend of the Stewarts, was the proprietor of Lot 36. In 1797, as the movement for escheat of the lands on which proprietors had not fulfilled the terms of their grant gained fresh momentum, Glenaladale complained of a “Levelling Party” whose object was to prevent the settlement of the lands and thereby make them liable for escheat. When pressed to reveal the names of the members of the supposed party, he obliquely mentioned Stewart, among others. Stewart disclaimed all knowledge of a levelling party; however, he declared that he had noticed a recent revival of the subject of escheat. This, he felt, was due to the machinations of Glenaladale himself, who was endeavouring to gain the confidence of the proprietors in Britain for the furtherance of his views against the local government.
On one occasion in the winter of 1797–98, Stewart insulted Glenaladale in the streets of Charlottetown and Glenaladale attacked his tormentor with a small dirk. Bound up “in two heavy watch coats and loaded with other defenses from the cold, so as to be scarcely able to move,” Glenaladale would have been unable to withstand the pressure from Stewart’s “prodigious long cut-and-thrust sword,” he later declared, had his opponent’s sword arm not trembled. As it was, the combatants were parted before any injury was done. The feud, however, continued.
In 1802 Glenaladale, in London at the time, was horrified to learn that John Stewart, also in London, was to return to the Island with powers to prosecute for arrears of quitrents. He predicted that his own wife and children would shortly be “without a house to shelter them or a bed to lie upon . . . and without a bit of bread to eat.” Events did not move that swiftly. Upon his arrival Stewart did commence proceedings against a number of the defaulters and, having obtained the requisite court judgements, eventually made his report to the Colonial Office. In the mean time, however, a change of administration had taken place in London, and he received no directions to proceed further. A compromise in 1803 on the matter of quitrents owing satisfied the Stewarts and began their turn away from the escheat movement.
In 1804, the year Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres was appointed to succeed Fanning, John Stewart left the Island to take up duties as paymaster general of the British forces in Newfoundland. He held this office until it was abolished in 1817. An important event of these years was the publication in 1806 of his book, An account of Prince Edward Island. This work won for its author the distinction of being the first Island historian. Its chief value today is the description it gives of the natural history of the colony at an early period. Of blueberries, Stewart notes: “A gallon of spirits resembling gin in flavour has been distilled from a bushel of them. In some districts they are in such pleanty as to furnish the swine with their chief food for several weeks.” The work is intelligently written, gives evidence of keen powers of observation, and reveals genuine attachment to the Island and interest in its development.
Stewart earned a reputation for acquisitiveness regarding land. In 1795, alleging that the laying out of lots (done by Charles Morris*) almost 30 years before was in error, he had had the boundary between Lot 37 and Lot 38 resurveyed. The new survey, conducted by his brother-in-law, had assigned much additional territory to Stewart. The matter, however, became the subject of interminable litigation. On a visit to the Island Stewart gained fresh hope of a determination when he found that a bill had been proposed that would take the final settlement of boundaries out of the lieutenant governor’s hands. DesBarres felt insulted by the bill because of his past career as a surveyor, and he managed to have the measure rejected by the assembly.
As early as 1807 Stewart was intriguing for DesBarres’s recall. He advised Colonial Secretary Lord Castlereagh that even a cursory consideration of the colony’s affairs would lead his lordship to conclude that he ought “to provide the Island with a new Governor.” The Stewarts were no longer in favour of escheat, having by this time acquired an interest in the status quo, and they no doubt feared that under the influence of the Loyal Electors DesBarres would support land reform. The proprietors in Britain secured DesBarres’s dismissal in 1812 and his successor, Charles Douglass Smith*, arrived the following year.
At this period the Colonial Office was engaged in preparing a new scale of quitrents for the Island, and in 1816 Smith, under instructions from London, summoned John Stewart from Newfoundland to prepare an account of his receipts and expenditures as receiver general of quitrents. Although ill, Stewart did as he was bidden. He was also forced to resign the post; declaring that he was in great pain, he said he was going away, “most probably never to see the Island again.”
By 1823, however, Smith was advising the Colonial Office that “John Stewart, of political notoriety during the time of my two immediate predecessors, has chosen to resume his practice of agitating the public mind.” It could not be said that Stewart’s behaviour was unprovoked. In 1822 Smith had renewed his efforts to have arrears of quitrents collected. When requests failed, John Edward Carmichael, who was Smith’s son-in-law and the acting receiver general of quitrents, took a distress on the estates of Donald McDonald*, the son of Glenaladale, and John Stewart for non-payment. He then proceeded into the eastern district of Kings County, where the greatest number of small proprietors resided, with a demand for their respective arrears.
Stewart experienced no difficulty in obtaining signatures to a petition calling upon John MacGregor*, the high sheriff, to convene meetings to consider the lieutenant governor’s behaviour. Although he dismissed MacGregor, Smith permitted the gatherings, the most important of which was held in Queen’s Square, Charlottetown, in March 1823. There, a series of resolutions covering “upwards of thirty pages of foolscap paper” was moved by Stewart and seconded by McDonald. Highly critical of Smith’s administration, the resolutions had been framed at numerous meetings presided over by Stewart. Petitions were subsequently prepared asking for Smith’s recall and were circulated across the Island. It was intended that Stewart should be sent to England to work for the removal of the lieutenant governor.
On the pretext that some of the charges in the complaints were libellous, Smith moved to apprehend Stewart. On the night of 14 Oct. 1823 a search was made of his haunts in Charlottetown, but to no avail. A trip to Mount Stewart proved equally futile. Stewart had effected his escape, having been shipped from the Island, according to tradition, in a cask as produce.
On 21 Oct. 1824 Stewart, his popularity at its height, returned to Charlottetown accompanied by the new lieutenant governor, John Ready*. At a great victory celebration held at the Wellington Hotel, Stewart, who presided, spoke of “the general joy which His Excellency’s arrival diffused throughout the Island.” His words were reinforced by the “joyous acclamations” of the crowds who surrounded the building until a late hour.
His return to the Island being permanent, Stewart began collecting offices. Elected in 1824, he became speaker of the assembly in 1825 and in 1828 was reappointed receiver general of quitrents. He was speaker until 1830 and receiver until his death. The post of collector of customs eluded him. After a bitter struggle for it with his nephew Theophilus DesBrisay Jr, which he seemed to have won, a ruling of the customs department precluded him from receiving it because of his age. It went instead to John Stewart, son of Charles.
Stewart is associated with the founding of the Kirk of St James, the first Presbyterian church in Charlottetown. In June 1825 a meeting was held at the court-house with Stewart as chairman and it was resolved that a clergyman should be obtained, a suitable building erected, and a subscription opened to obtain funds. Stewart headed the subscription committee, and a considerable sum was contributed on the spot. The church was opened for worship in 1828.
Stewart is sometimes taxed with religious bigotry for his stand on the enfranchisement of Roman Catholics. Although they made up about half of the Island’s population, they did not have the vote. When a bill to remove this civil disability was brought before the assembly in 1827, members were equally divided on the issue and Stewart, as speaker, cast his vote in the negative. Thus, until 1829, when the Island was ordered by Britain to give full political rights to members of that religion, it remained the only British North American colony to have an assembly for which Catholics could not vote. It is not known whether Stewart genuinely believed that the enfranchisement of Catholics was beyond the assembly’s power or whether he was motivated by a fear that Catholics would strengthen the forces of the escheat movement.
After 1830 Stewart took little part in public affairs but “lived retired at his beautiful residence of Mount Stewart,” according to Charlottetown’s Royal Gazette. The house itself was destroyed by fire in the 19th century; however, the magnificent view of the Hillsborough and Pisquid rivers is probably not greatly altered. In the distance stood the Roman Catholic chapel at St Andrews, the seat of Bishop Angus Bernard MacEachern. According to tradition, Stewart sometimes invited that prelate to accompany him to Charlottetown in his large boat, rowed by retainers in Highland costume with a piper in the bow.
On 3 May 1834 an inquisition de lunatico inquirendo was held at Mount Stewart to ascertain Stewart’s mental state. The investigation was the result of struggle between two individuals for the role of Stewart’s attorney. The jury’s verdict was that “John Stewart now is, and hath been for the last eight months past, of unsound mind, and incapable of transacting business, and . . . during that time he did not enjoy lucid intervals.” Stewart died at his home on 22 June, reportedly of a surfeit of fat meat.
It is unfortunate that much of the surviving record pertaining to this remarkable man consists of the violent diatribes of his enemies. The record reveals him to have been one of the most tempestuous figures ever to agitate the political life of Prince Edward Island. Yet, the same record, biased as it is, discloses one who had a genuine love for his adopted homeland and was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to rid it of an unpopular administration. As he once said of himself, he was not a “good natured man by no means addicted to quarrelling.” Neither was he one whose sole mission in life was the execution of mischief.
PANL, Vital statistics, vol.26A, 29 May 1817. PAPEI, Acc. 2320; RG 5, minutes, 15, 29 April, 9 May, 20 July 1797; 11 Aug. 1828; RG 16, land registry records, conveyance reg., liber 22: f.147. PRO, CO 226/8: 81–89, 171–77; 226/9: 71–73, 184–86, 188–90; 226/10: 31–32; 226/18: 99–101, 114–16, 137–38, 162–206, 211–22; 226/22: 140–42; 226/24: 52–92; 226/26: 165–75; 226/27: 49–52; 226/31: 142–48; 226/39: 11–14, 26–28, 416–23; 226/40: 130–31, 198–205, 232–34, 249–50, 254–56, 366–72 (mfm. at PAPEI); CO 228/2: 107. St Paul’s Anglican Church (Charlottetown), Reg. of marriages (mfm. at PAPEI). Supreme Court of P.E.I. (Charlottetown), Estates Division, liber 3: f.39 (will of John Stewart) (mfm. at PAPEI). John MacGregor, British America (2v., Edinburgh and London, 1832), 1. P.E.I., House of Assembly, Journal, 28 March, 2 April 1785; 13 July 1801; 14 Jan. 1825. Prince Edward Island Register, 13 Sept., 1 Nov. 1823; 30 Oct. 1824; 1 July 1825; 17 April 1827. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 29 Oct. 1833; 11 March, 13 May, 24 June 1834. J. M. Bumsted, “‘The only Island there is’: the writing of Prince Edward Island history,” The Garden transformed: Prince Edward Island, 1945–1980, ed. Verner Smitheram et al. (Charlottetown, 1982), 11–38. F. L. Pigot, A history of Mount Stewart, Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown, 1975). Island Guardian and Christian Chronicle (Charlottetown), 31 Oct. 1890. J. E. Rendle, “The phantom bell ringers; a story of the auld kirke,” Prince Edward Island Magazine (Charlottetown), 1 (1899–1900): 361.