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WENTWORTH, JOHN, lawyer, office holder, and politician; b. c. 1768 in Portsmouth, N.H., son of Thomas Wentworth and Anne Tasker; d. c. 1820, probably in Paris, France.

John Wentworth was born into the premier family of New Hampshire, one that had provided a number of the colony’s leading administrators. His father died about the time of his birth, and his mother in 1770 was remarried to Captain Henry Bellew; the family moved to England at the outset of the American revolution. John was educated at the Inner Temple in London, and between 1797 and 1799 published a ten-volume legal compilation always known as “Wentworth on Pleading.” Popular at the time, the work was not of lasting value; its author, in spite of his claims to originality, had cannibalized a small number of similar collections, and one later critic pronounced it of “no authority at all,” and “extremely incorrect.” Nevertheless, the tomes attracted the attention of someone within the Home Department, and in 1799 Wentworth found himself appointed attorney general of Prince Edward Island in the place of Joseph Aplin. Wentworth’s distant relationship to the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, Sir John Wentworth, may also have influenced his appointment.

Given the many complaints about legal practice on the Island, a man of Wentworth’s competence must have seemed particularly attractive to the home authorities. His appointment having been made after the sailing of the ships for Halifax in 1799, Wentworth was forced to travel via New York, and he did not arrive in Charlottetown until May 1800. Lieutenant Governor Edmund Fanning used the delay to press for the appointment of his own preferred candidate, the acting attorney general, Peter Magowan.

The political and legal situation into which Wentworth stepped was a tangled and complex one. For years a number of legal cases had lain dormant, largely because of the difficulty of obtaining justice in the Supreme Court; many of the suits involved the family of Peter stewart, himself chief justice, and his son Charles, the clerk of the court. Inevitably, in his private practice Wentworth found himself acting for the political opponents of the administration, as well as for the many proprietors and ordinary settlers who were attempting to take legal action against members of the tightly organized Fanning government. He took on briefs for proprietors James William Montgomery, Edward Ellice*, and Captain John Macdonald of Glenaladale, as well as for a large number of Acadians opposing eviction from their lands by John Stewart*. According to John Hill*, Wentworth was almost immediately retained in more than 200 causes, at least 50 of them involving the chief justice and his relatives. He applied for the chief justiceship in succession to Peter Stewart, and he managed to dismiss Charles Stewart as clerk of the Supreme Court, greatly frightening government officials. To their relief, Fanning received authorization in September 1800 to appoint Magowan attorney general, the Home Department having assumed that Wentworth’s delay in reaching the Island meant that he would not take up his post. Although the slowness of communications gave Wentworth good grounds for retaining his position, Fanning, in a political manœuvre typical of the Island, made no attempt to present his case and in fact dismissed him from the Council. Wentworth’s own protests against his treatment were ignored in London, perhaps because the lieutenant governor had convinced the home authorities that the former attorney general had excited “a litigious spirit hitherto unknown.” After losing the attorney generalship Wentworth remained to see his cases through; however, he soon found himself charged with malpractice by John Cambridge. His supporters claimed that he could prove his innocence in any impartial court, but was being hounded off the Island as others had been before him. James Douglas wrote to William Montgomery* that Wentworth would return to England “with such an Account of the Misconduct here that would quite surprize you.”

Instead of returning to England to protest his treatment, Wentworth made his way back to the United States and was soon practising law in Portsmouth. On 7 Jan. l 802 he married Martha Wentworth, granddaughter of the former governor, Benning Wentworth, and by 1804 he was sufficiently settled in New Hampshire to deliver a Fourth of July oration and compose a patriotic ode for the national celebration. The oration supported the Republican party of Thomas Jefferson and strongly attacked the British “system of tyranny and corruption,” a subject about which Wentworth understandably had strong feelings. But he did not in the long run prosper in Portsmouth, and returned to London in 1816. Wentworth took up residence on Charles Street in Westminster, and spent his final years piteously memorializing Whitehall as a suffering loyalist who had unfairly lost his appointment on Prince Edward Island. He died around 1820, probably in Paris where his last petitions were written.

J. M. Bumsted

John Wentworth is the author of A complete system of pleading: comprehending the most approved precedents and forms of practice; chiefly consisting of such as have never before been printed . . . (10v., London, 1797–99); An oration, delivered at Portsmouth, New–Hampshire, on the fourth July, 1804 (Portsmouth, 1804); and “Patriotic odes; composed for the national jubilee, July 4th, 1804” (broadside, n.p., [1804]) (copy at American Antiquarian Soc., Worcester, Mass.).

PAC, MG 11, [CO 226] Prince Edward Island A, 17: 272–77. PAPEI, RG 6, Supreme Court, docket book, 1788–1843. PRO, CO 226/1: 31, 36. SRO, GD293/2/19/1, 10. C. H. Bell, The bench and bar of New Hampshire, including biographical notices of deceased judges of the highest court, and lawyers of the province and state, and a list of those now living (Boston and New York, 1895), 726. John Wentworth, The Wentworth genealogy: English and American (3v., Boston, 1878), 554.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

J. M. Bumsted, “WENTWORTH, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 30, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wentworth_john_1768_1820_5E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wentworth_john_1768_1820_5E.html
Author of Article: J. M. Bumsted
Title of Article: WENTWORTH, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: August 30, 2014