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New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Lemuel Allan Wilmot

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By JohnWood1946@hotmail.com

Lemuel Allan Wilmot

I – Introduction

Lemuel Allan Wilmot is remembered as one of Fredericton’s and New Brunswick’s foremost citizens. He was a champion of the rights of the people; a tireless campaigner for responsible government; a stalwart of the Methodist Church and a campaigner for the rights of non-conformist religions; and a founder of the University of New Brunswick from King’s College in 1860. His oratorical talents were legendary, and he “was destined to become the most eloquent advocate of the rights of the people that this province ever had.”1 “As a Judge of the Supreme Court, L.A. Wilmot was largely withdrawn from the public gaze, but in his appointment to the Bench the ermine was worn with dignity, grace, and unsullied purity.”2

With such a reputation, it is easy to look back at Wilmot with admiration and thanks – and that is what normally happens. Such a reputation is bound to tarnish, however, and that process began even during his career.

Following is a summary of L.A. Wilmot’s life and career, followed by some details of particular aspects of it.

II – Lemuel Allan Wilmot’s Life and Career

Lemuel Allan Wilmot was born in Sunbury County in 1809, the son of William Wilmot and Hannah Bliss. William Wilmot was involved in ‘commerce’ (probably lumbering) and was not successful. Lemuel’s story of his father having moved to Fredericton and subsequently losing all of his worldly possessions has been quoted at least twice in this blog.

Lemuel went to school in Fredericton and attended King’s College for a while, before joining a law office in 1825 and becoming an attorney in 1830. He was admitted to the bar in 1832 and became a queen’s counsel in 1838, when he was still in his late twenties.

Wilmot was a trial lawyer, known for his powerful oratory and his ability to sway a jury. His life would be dedicated to politics, however, and he ran in a by-election in York County in 1834 and won a seat in the Assembly. A full election was then called, and he ran and won again in the same year. He was about twenty five years of age at the time, but did not believe in ‘learning curves’, it seems, and set about straight away introducing bills on a number of important topics. His hours-long speeches in the Assembly were captivating enough that, in 1836, he was chosen to join a committee to travel to London and to demand that the administration of New Brunswick’s crown lands be turned over to the Assembly and, by implication, to criticize Commissioner Thomas Baillie who was the subject of another posting in this blog. Wilmot had been an active critic of Baillie.

The trip to London was successful. Lord Glenelg agreed to hand over the crown lands in return for a permanent civil list. This compromise reflected the ongoing rancour between the Assembly and the Governor and Council on the nature of the English parliamentary system and how much authority should reside with the Assembly. There had been times when budgets had not been passed for years in a row because of these disputes, and civil lists were continually being disputed. Lord Glenelg also directed that that the Council be enlarged “to ensure the presence in the Council of Gentlemen representing all the various interests which exist in the Province, and possessing at the same time the confidence of the people at large.” The effects of that bombshell reverberated for years; beginning with the Governor who did whatever he could to get around it. The Assembly was not to be undone, and they sent the committee back to London, but unnecessarily as it turned out because the Governor was then replaced. The deal for a larger Council and for a permanent civil list could now be implemented.

The election of 1843 saw Wilmot campaigning on responsible government. Governor Colebrooke decided to form a more inclusive Council in order that the Assembly might be appeased and quieted, and appointed Lemuel Wilmot among others. This was followed by Colebrooke’s appointment of his son-in-law Alfred Reade to the position of provincial Secretary. This appointment was in the mode of royal prerogative and was not submitted to either the Council or the Assembly. It was therefore contrary to the principles of responsible government and Wilmot and three others resigned from Council in protest. The Assembly passed a vote of non-confidence but this did not sway the Governor.

Another election in 1846 raised the possibility that Wilmot might again be invited to join the Council. This happened, and he accepted on the provision that four other liberal-minded Assemblymen were also appointed. Wilmot offered to suggest nominations, but Colebrooke refused the condition and Wilmot was left out; whereupon he spent a year criticizing the government.

In 1848, there was a new Governor, Sir Edmund Walker Head, who was determined to form a coalition in the Council and to bring some peace to the decades-long arguments with the Assembly. Wilmot and several others were appointed and Wilmot was offered the position of provincial Secretary. He refused, and insisted instead to be named Attorney General. This appointment was made, and Wilmot became the first non-conformist to hold the position.

The position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court became vacant with the death of Ward Chipman in 1850, and Council decided to leave the position open and the court in the hands of the three remaining judges. Lemuel Wilmot then wrote a letter to Governor Head, retracting his vote in Council and accepting that the Governor could appoint anyone who he pleased, regardless of any principle of responsible government. The Governor then appointed a new Chief Justice, and Wilmot became a regular Judge of the Supreme Court. These appointments came as a great surprise when they were published in the Gazette without prior announcement, but there was relatively limited protest.

Wilmot’s time as a judge was mostly uneventful, except that he was more active in public life than other judges, and therefore remained in the public eye. The great fire of 1850 left most of Fredericton including the Methodist church in ruins, and it was Lemuel Allan Wilmot who championed rebuilding the church in its present form with the hand pointing heavenward atop the steeple. The hand has now been removed, but Wilmot United Church still stands as a remembrance of his lifelong dedication to the Methodist Church.

Wilmot’s membership in the Methodist Church might not have been expected at the outset, since his father had been a Baptist. William Wilmot had been elected to the Assembly, but after 1818 he was refused to take his seat on account of his being a clergyman. Lemuel was always an advocate for non-sectarian school systems, and for the liberalization of King’s College. He also debated revisions to the marriage act to liberalize requirements as to who could perform marriages.

Wilmot’s strong anti-French and anti-Catholic opinions were well known at the time and were not anachronistic. They would, however, be unacceptable today and are rarely mentioned in describing his career. His accusations of libel against critical journalists, amounting to attacks on a free press, are also not often chronicled.

Wilmot was a strong supporter of Confederation and, in recognition of this, he was appointed to a five year term as Lieutenant Governor in 1868. He died in 1878.

III – Lemuel Allan Wilmot as a Public Speaker

Wilmot’s oratory was legendary from the very beginning of his career. His “fine resonant voice, commanding figure, and piercing eyes, were prominent among his natural gifts.” He was able to perform in any venue, “whether as a political debater, a platform lecturer, or a Sunday-school speaker.”3 He was well known for being able to sway a jury.

An early example of his power over a crowd happened in 1834, when he was speaking from a platform in Fredericton. “A young scion of the ruling order, taking umbrage at some of Wilmot’s utterances on the nomination day, rode up to the crown and demanded that they should pull him down. The only effect was to draw from the candidate such a burst of indignant eloquence, denunciation and patriotic appeal as aroused the crowd to a high pitch of enthusiasm, and stamped Wilmot from that day as a champion of the people’s rights.”4

At around the same time a correspondent for the Courier noted his talents and the impact that they were having. “He would be serious, then amusing, and then become serious again.”5

Legislatures then, as now, were full of heckling and catcalls, but Wilmot was a match for the entire room. His speeches in the Assembly could go on for hours, peppered with improvised replies to comments from the benches flowing as easily as any prepared text.

One of his speaking tours in 1860 drew the comment from the Saint John Globe that “The Judge is all action. The listener feels his heart vibrating like a reed in the wind before his wonderful and powerful gesticulation. The oratory is both that of intellect and body; the whole man is brought into action.”6

IV – Lemuel Allan Wilmot as a Campaigner for Responsible Government

Wilmot always campaigned on the issue of responsible government, and his reputation as a ‘champion of the rights of the people’ has proved durable. This reputation was challenged from the beginning, however, and there is ample evidence that he was not as steadfast in his principles as he seemed to be. Wilmot’s use of phrases from the Durham report were well known, but his understanding of the issues has always been questioned. “Charles Fisher … [was] credited by his own generation as providing the ammunition for Wilmot’s rhetorical and long-winded attacks upon the government.”7

The Saint John Chronicle referred to Lemuel Wilmot as “That inflated bladder of wind” as early as 1840. Wilmot did not take well to this sort of remark and other criticisms, and sued for libel – but lost.

Wilmot allowed himself to be appointed to the Council by the Governor in 1843, without approval or confirmation of the Assembly. There was no uproar about this at the time, but it seems that appointing a few Assemblymen to Council was sufficient, in his view, to satisfy the principles of responsible government. If it did not satisfy those principles, then it at least satisfied the Glenelg compromise of 1836, which was good enough.

By 1848, he had resigned Council once, and had been refused a seat on another occasion, over matters of executive appointments and the composition of the Council. Therefore, when he was again offered a seat in 1848 he accepted without preconditions except that he needed to be made Attorney General. None of this was with the approval of the Assembly. He, and another Assemblyman in the same position, had once been seen as leaders but were now seen as abandoning their principles in favour of advancement. James Hannay, a turn-of-the-century historian, thought that not only had the principles of responsible government been disregarded, but that Assembly representation on Council was too small to be effective in any case.

Finally, there were the events of 1850, when Council decided not to fill the position of Chief Justice. There is hardly any other way to describe it, but that Wilmot cut a deal with the Governor allowing him to appoint whoever he liked without regard to any notion of responsible government. “After all the fine professions on the part of the British Government with reference to the rights of the Provincial Government to regulate the internal affairs of the Province, this judicial appointment was made, not only without their consent, but entirely contrary to their wishes.”8 Wilmot got a judgeship out of it.

Lemuel Wilmot was a talented political campaigner and public performer. His oratory was legendary and he was vocal in the support of responsible government. For these reasons, he is remembered as a ‘champion of the rights of the people’. He campaigned for a non-sectarian public school system and was instrumental in the early development of King’s College into the University of New Brunswick. He was also a stalwart of the Methodist Church and supported liberalized rights for dissenters in general. For these reasons, he is held to have been one of Fredericton’s foremost citizens.

Wilmot came under criticism during his lifetime, and this criticism has continued to this day. The greatest complaint against him is to ask how he could be remembered as a campaigner for responsible government and a champion of the people when so many of the critical events in his rise to political power disregarded these principles. It is wondered whether he did not understand the principles of responsible government or whether he was just not as dedicated to them as he said. My guess is, if we check back in another couple of hundred years, that his reputation will be not much changed.

Footnotes:

  1. Hannay, James, History of New Brunswick, Saint John, N.B., 1909, Vol. 2, p 28. Hannay was speaking of Wilmot’s 1830s elections
  2. Lawrence, Joseph Wilson, The Judges of New Brunswick and Their Times, consolidated edition, Acadiensis Press, Fredericton, N.B., 1983, p 450
  3. Lawrence, ibid., p. 430: quoting George Fenety
  4. Lawrence, ibid., p 433
  5. MacNutt, W.S., New Brunswick, A History: 1784-1867, Macmillan of Canada, Toronto, 1963, p 242
  6. Lawrence, ibid., p 451
  7. MacNutt, ibid., p. 292
  8. Hannay, ibid., p 142

Other References:

The following was also consulted: Wallace, C.M., Wilmot, Lemuel Allan, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

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Written by johnwood1946

July 4, 2012 at 9:14 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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