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James Glenie in New Brunswick

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James Glenie in New Brunswick


James Glenie was the son of an army officer and was born in England. He studied divinity but soon discovered that his greatest talents lay in mathematics. He published several papers on mathematics over his lifetime and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Scotland for his accomplishments. He began a military career and was valued for his engineering abilities. He refused to accept the authority of his superiors, however, and was court martialed. By the time he was in his mid-thirties he resigned his position as an officer to avoid another confrontation with people more powerful than him.

Glenie came to New Brunswick shortly after the arrival of the Loyalists and tried to set up a cattle raising operation. This failed when he could not get the required grants of land from Thomas Carleton who had been an officer on his court martial. He then started a mast cutting operation, but became the loser in an industry consolidation.

Glenie had a caustic tongue and was given to outbursts of name-calling and insults against anyone who stood in his way. This explains the court martial and the resignation and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the failure of his two business ventures. The mostly old settlers of Sunbury County liked his ferocity, however, and he was elected to the New Brunswick Assembly where he unleashed a torrent of abuse on the Governor, and the powerful elites.

Glenie was more than just a discontent. He had talents in military strategy and a keen understanding of the role of the elected Assembly within the English system of colonial government. He was a champion of Assembly rights but, after several years, his fellows in the Assembly distanced themselves from his bombastic approach and he finally lost their support.

Glenie remains a very controversial figure today. Over the years, he has been called a traitor; a radical visionary; and a pioneer of parliamentary democracy in New Brunswick. On the other hand, no one today would call him disloyal, and neither would he now be called a radical. His accomplishments are also questioned, in that they might have been achieved even without him. Everyone agrees only that he cannot be ignored.

And so I will pose another characterization: that he was a tragically flawed hero in the mode of Greek theatre. He might have achieved more were it not for his approach. It can still be argued, however, that if he had lacked these flaws, then he might not be remembered today.

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James Glenie:

James Glenie was born in Fife, Scotland in 1750. He began divinity studies at St. Andrews University in 1766, but soon showed greater talents in the study of mathematics, for which he won prizes in 1769. Upon graduation, he embarked upon a military career; was made a second lieutenant in late 1776; and was sent to serve in Quebec.

The first couple of years in Canada proceeded well enough but, by late 1778, there were disputes between the soldiers of his group and Glenie’s superior, Captain Thomas Aubrey. Some men complained of Aubrey, and Glenie complained that the men were not working well together. This developed into a dispute between Glenie and Aubrey directly, and Glenie was told by the Governor to obey his superiors without question. This did not stop the contest between Glenie and Aubrey. Indeed, Glenie circulated a petition against Aubrey and was arrested and ordered to court martial for signing “a false return.”1

The court martial was underway and Glenie was vigorously on the attack (as became his hallmark in life) when, in 1779, he submitted two mathematical papers to the Royal Society of Scotland and was elected a Fellow for his accomplishments. This made him ‘fire proof’, as they say, and the more serious charges against him were dropped. The court martial, which included Lieut. Col. Thomas Carleton, found him guilty only of having behaved in a manner unbecoming an Officer and a gentleman.

Glenie returned to England but, as it turned out, his career was not over. His engineering talents were valued, and he had been called “the most capable Officer I know in the Province.”2 The Governor, who had warned him against insubordination, and others, wrote letters of recommendation arguing that he was simply more of an engineer than he was a soldier and that some place had to be found for his extraordinary talents. The court martial was overturned and his rank and reputation were restored. His personality was unchanged by these events and, in 1785, he published an anonymous pamphlet arguing against an expensive military defense project which, as a result, had to be abandoned. Anonymous or not, his responsibility for the pamphlet was known and he had raised a new crop of powerful enemies.

Glenie’s New Brunswick career began when he was stationed on the Saint John River and, in 1785, made a proposal to his old nemesis and the new Governor, Thomas Carleton, for a cattle raising venture on the Oromocto River. This would require grants of land well in excess of what ordinary Loyalists were to receive and the proposal was refused. Glenie modified the proposal and resubmitted it whereupon it was refused again.

Glenie returned to England, resigned his commission as a lieutenant in the face of continued reaction to his ‘pamphlet’ and, in late 1787, arrived in New Brunswick again, this time with his wife Mary Ann Locke. His plan this time was to secure his finances by cutting masts for the British navy; and so he established mast ponds at French Lake on the Oromocto River and at two locations on the Saint John River. His requests for timber cutting licences ran counter to Thomas Carleton’s settlement plans for the Loyalists, but he (Glenie) nonetheless obtained one with the help of his friend John Wentworth, Surveyor General of the King’s Woods.

The masting business made Glenie an employer in Sunbury County and paved the way for his election to the Assembly. The business was cutthroat, and politically controversial, however. The woods were full, it seemed, of contractors, sub-contractors, aspiring independent businessmen and thieves anxious to grasp already-cut timber out of the hands of all of the others. Glenie had difficulty getting his masts to market without allowing his men to keep whatever portion they wanted, and much of what was cut was left either to them or to rot on the ground. It was also debatable whether the granting of large timber cutting licences was in the public interest when so many Loyalists needed land for settlement. Carleton and the elite favoured agriculture and opposed large timber reserves which, again, put Glenie in conflict with the establishment. Contracts for mast-cutting were consolidated by 1794 or 1795, and Glenie was left out of the industry.

In 1789, Glenie took to the hustings in a by-election and was elected to the Assembly representing Sunbury County. The house did not meet for another year, but Glenie busied himself by accusing the cream of the Loyalist elite of being villainous, ignorant, uncouth, stupid liars who were afraid that he would lead the Assembly in  further uncovering their incompetence. The Governor was termed ‘simple Tom’, which others also used to describe him. Glenie even suggested judicial appointments to replace some of the elite, while he was a mere new member of an Assembly session which had not yet met.

Many of Glenie’s causes in the Legislature reflected his Sunbury County electorate, such as to oppose a marriage law that was neglectful of dissenting Protestants and to propose another measure in its place. He also opposed public works to better accommodate the legislature and the courts, and opposed the establishment of Kings College. Elias Hardy also opposed building a university and favoured establishing grammar schools instead; but no one has claimed that Hardy and Glenie were allies either on this matter or in general.

The marriage act dispute was a prime example of Glenie standing forth in support of his Sunbury County constituents. The act which Glenie opposed gave the right to perform marriages first to the Church of England or, if there was no Parish, to Justices of the Peace. Few exceptions were allowed to this rule and the dissenting Protestants were not allowed any rights whatever. Glenie proposed a liberalization of the act, but every member of the Church of England voted against him in the Assembly.

Notably, he opposed and attacked Thomas Carleton and the Loyalist establishment in almost everything. It is said that he was vindictive following the court martial affair, the mast cutting failure and other matters that had brought him into conflict with these people; but one is inclined to look for other motives. Better angels are difficult to find, however, and we are left seeing Glenie as a combative warrior against anyone who had ever opposed him.

Nonetheless, much of Glenie’s opposition was based on his assessment of military requirements. He also opposed any public expense that had not been passed by the Assembly, and any military work that ought to be paid for by the mother country. He opposed the building of barracks in Fredericton as a waste of money, for example; and thought that other proposals were strategically incorrect. He wrote letters to England criticizing Thomas Carleton personally and his military proposals in particular.

Glenie returned to England in 1793 and missed two sessions of the Assembly of which he was still a member. He met with prominent people, accusing Thomas Carleton and his brother Guy (Lord Dorchester) of mismanagement and incompetence in defence strategy and other matters. His pleadings had little effect because of the Carletons’ elevated status versus Glenie’s relative lack of it. It is interesting, however, in showing that Glenie: the mathematician, the logger, the would-be cattle raiser, the military man, and the Sunbury County politician could also move comfortably through the halls of power in London.

Glenie returned to New Brunswick in early 1795 and found an Assembly already in conflict with the Governor’s Council. The Assembly and Glenie then wrote protests to the Council in support of Assembly rights within the English colonial system of government. Some defence expenditures were also opposed and it was during this session that the debate over King’s College took place.

Glenie agreed that the form of government in the colonies should be modeled after that in England, but that this was not being properly applied in the case of New Brunswick. The Council and the Supreme Court were nothing like the English House of Lords, for example. Councilors in New Brunswick served at the pleasure of the Governor, while removal of a councilor in England was much more difficult.

Glenie’s proposals for an updated relationship with England were presented in his bill “declaratory of what acts of Parliament are binding in this province.” This is the document for which he is remembered to this day, and proposed that all acts of Parliament passed prior to 1750 should apply in New Brunswick but only to the extent that they were appropriate to the colonial situation. Likewise, no Act of Parliament made or passed since 1750 should extend to New Brunswick unless such intent was included in the legislation.

Glenie’s bill was passed by the Assembly but created uproar and was immediately disallowed by Council without even reading it. One observer compared it with proposals leading to the American Revolution. Others at least agreed that it was a rebellion against the colonial system. James Hannay wrote in the early 1900s, on the other hand, that “Glenie was a reformer of the most advanced type, and was a full half century in advance of his time.”3 For a third point of view, W.G. Godfrey cites D.G. Bell as establishing once and for all that the bill was not as radical as it has been portrayed and would not have succeeded in the sorts of changes that Glenie had in mind. Others argue that Glenie’s proposals were bound to fail because he defended them in such an aggressive and seemingly radical manner that he could not maintain the support of his fellow legislators. On the other hand, if he had been less aggressive and radical in his presentation then he might not have gained any attention at all and likewise might not be remembered today. Glenie has become a very controversial character, indeed!

Edward Winslow is sometimes quoted to show that the Glenie era contributed to a better understanding of the parliamentary system within the Assembly. Winslow made similar comments in a letter to Jonathan Sewell but put a different spin on them as follows: “I am sickened at the anticipation of the renewal of our controversies led by Glennie, analyzing all the principles of government, fixing the political longitudes and latitudes, and establishing the boundary lines between prerogative and privilege.”4 John Coffin also had strong feelings and, in 1797, challenged Glenie to a duel. Glenie was wounded in the leg. A neighbour observed that it was a “Pity he fought”, to which Glenie’s wife replied “If Glennie had not fought Coffin [I] would have.”5

Glenie’s influence in the Assembly was waning. It had been five years since a provincial budget had been approved. Every year the Assembly put forth a budget including a pay allowance for their members and, with no line-item veto powers, the Council rejected the entire proposal each time. By 1799 there was political pressure to have a budget and a compromise was forged. Glenie was unhappy with this compromise and launched a vicious attack on his adversaries, but to no effect. By 1801 Glenie was campaigning against the building of a legislature and court buildings, but the Assembly would not support him in this either.

Glenie’s last major campaign was in 1802 over the issue of who had the authority to appoint an Assembly Clerk. The Governor and the Council were in hot debate with the Assembly and Glenie and others boycotted the session to deprive them of a quorum. The session continued, however, and Glenie had once again been out maneuvered.

James Glenie’s career was over. He went to England leaving his wife behind. They say that Mrs. Glenie was left without financial support and that she lived off of the charity of others. Glenie received some appointments in these later years, but essentially disappeared from the record and died in poverty in 1817. He was buried in the churchyard of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London.


  1. Bell, D.G., Early Loyalist Saint John, New Ireland Press, 1983.
  2. Godfrey, W.G., James Glenie, in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
  3. Hannay, James, History of New Brunswick, Vol. I, Saint John, N.B., 1909.
  1. Lawrence, Joseph Wilson, The Judges of New Brunswick and Their Times, Acadiensis Press, 1983.
  2. MacNutt, W.S., New Brunswick, a History: 1784-1867, Macmillan of Canada, 1963.
  3. Maxwell, L.M.B., An Outline of the History of Central New Brunswick to the Time of Confederation, 1937.

End Notes:

  1. Godfrey.
  2. Godfrey.
  3. Hannay, p. 212.
  4. Lawrence, p. 131.
  5. Lawrence, p. 79.

Written by johnwood1946

April 4, 2012 at 10:01 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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