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Chapter I - Ancestry and Early Life

THE contest for responsible government which was carried on in all the provinces of British North America for so many years resembled in some of its features a modern battle, where the field of operations is so wide that it is impossible for a general to cover it with his eye or to keep control of all the movements of his subordinates. In such a case, everything depends on the ability of the generals who command the different army corps, who, operating in remote parts of the field, must take the responsibility of success or failure. The two Canadas were so far removed from New Brunswick, and the means of communication were so poor, that there was but little help, even in the way of suggestion, to be expected from them, while the contest for responsible government was being carried on. Even the efforts in the same direction which were being made in the province of Nova Scotia had but little influence on the course of events in New Brunswick, for each province had its own particular grievances and its own separate interests. Thus it happened that the battle for responsible government in New Brunswick was fought, to a large extent, without reference to what was being done in the other provinces which now form the Dominion of Canada, and the leaders of the movement had to be guided by .the peculiar local circumstances of the situation. Still, there is no doubt that the efforts of all the provinces, directed to the same ends, were mutually helpful and made the victory more easily won.

Among the men who took a part in the contest for responsible government in New Brunswick, Lemuel Allan Wilmot undoubtedly held the foremost place, not only by reason of the ability with which he advocated the cause, but from the trust which the people had in him, which made him a natural leader and the proper exponent of their views. There were, indeed, men working in the same field before his time, but it was his happy fortune to witness the fruit of his labours to give the province a better form of government, and to bring its constitution into line with the system which prevailed in the mother country. He not only viewed the land of promise from afar, but he entered into it, and he became the first native lieutenant-governor of the province,—a result which even he, sanguine as he was, could hardly have contemplated when he began his career as a public man.

Lemuel Allan Wilmot was born in the county of Sunbury, on the banks of the St. John River, on January 31st, 1809. He was the son of William Wilmot, a respectable merchant and lumberman, who was in partnership with William Peters, grandfather of Sir Leonard Tilley. William Wilmot was the son of Lemuel Wilmot, a Loyalist, who was a resident of Poughkeepsie, New York, at the beginning of the Revolution. He (Lemuel) raised a company of soldiers for the service of the king, and became a captain in the Loyal American Regiment which was commanded by Beverley Robinson, serving in that corps during the war. At the peace, he came to New Brunswick and settled in Sunbury County on the river St. John. The Wilmots were a respectable English family, and the first of the name in America was Benjamin Wilmot, who was born in England in 1589 and came to America with his wife Ann, probably prior to 1640. He was one of the early settlers of New Haven, Connecticut, and the records of that colony show that he took the oaths of fidelity at a court held on May 2d, 1648. He died in 1669. His son William, who was born in 1632, was probably also a native of England. He married Sarah Thomas in 1658, and died in 1689.

Thomas Wilmot, his son, was born in 1679. He married Mary Lines, and their son Ezekiel was born in 1708. Ezekiel Wilmot and his wife Beulah were the parents of Lemuel, who was born in 1743. Lemuel Wilmot married Elizabeth Street, and William, the father of the subject of this biography, was their son. William Wilmot married Hannah Bliss, a daughter of the Hon. Daniel Bliss, a Massachusetts Loyalist, who became a member of the council of New Brunswick and was the father of John Murray Bliss, one of the judges of the supreme court of that province. His grandfather was Colonel John Murray, a Massachusetts Loyalist, who was for many years a member of the general court of that colony and who became a mandamus councillor. It will thus be seen that Lemuel Wilmot came from the best New England stock, and that his connections were highly respectable and even distinguished. He was proud of his New England descent, and claimed the usual ancestor from among the passengers of the Mayflower who landed at Plymouth in 1620. If this claim is correct, his descent from the Pilgrim Fathers must have been through the female line, and no record of it has been preserved. The matter is not of much consequence at the present day, for the Wilmots have made a record in their province far more distinguished than that which they won in New England, for they have given to New Brunswick five members of the legislature, a senator and member of the House of Commons of Canada, two members of the executive of New Brunswick, and one of the privy council of Canada, an attorney-general and a provincial secretary of New Brunswick and two lieutenant-governors.

The system of government which existed in all the British North American colonies at the time when L. A. Wilmot was born was practically the same. New Brunswick had been separated from Nova Scotia in 1784, and, in the autumn of that year, its first governor was sent out in the person of Thomas Carleton, a brother of Sir Guy Carleton. Thomas Carleton had been an officer in one of the regiments which fought during the War of the Revolution, but he was in no way distinguished, and had no special qualifications for the position he was called upon to fill. That fact, however, did not concern the persons in England who appointed him. In those days, fitness or ability had very little to do with colonial appointments. Carleton continued to fill the office of governor and lieutenant-governor until his death in 1817; but for the last fourteen years of his term he resided in England, and the duties of his office were performed by a succession of administrators under the name of presidents. To assist him in his deliberations, Carleton had a council of twelve members, who were appointed by the Crown and were therefore wholly under the influence of the governor and the authorities in England. In 1809, its number had been reduced to ten, and it was composed of the four judges of the supreme court, the provincial secretary and the surveyor-general, who held their offices for life, and four other persons. This council, in addition to its executive functions, also sat as the upper branch of the legislature, and, besides being wholly irresponsible except to the governor, it sat with closed doors, so that the public had no opportunity of knowing what was being done. It was not until the year 1833 that any portion of the journals of the legislative council was published.

The House of Assembly consisted of members chosen by the freeholders of the several counties and the freeholders and freemen of the city of St. John. This House was able to exert but a limited influence on the government of the country, for all authority was vested in the lieutenant-governor and he was able to act in a manner quite independent of the legislature. All the appointments to office were in his hands, and they were made in many cases even without the knowledge of his council. In England, even under the most despotic kings, parliament was always able to curb the power of the Crown by refusing to grant supplies; but this check did not exist in New Brunswick, or in the other colonies of British North America at that time, because the governor had sources of revenue quite independent of the legislature. The British government maintained a customs establishment in the colonies, which levied duties on all merchandise imported, and over which the legislature had no control. The British government also retained the revenues arising from the Crown lands of the province, and these revenues the governor expended as he pleased. The House of Assembly, therefore, might refuse to vote supplies; but the governor could go on without them, and the only effect of such a procedure was to injure its own officials, and to deprive the people of the money which was expended on roads and bridges.

Another feature of the system of government in New Brunswick was the predominant influence it gave to the members of the Church of England. Every member of the council of the province belonged to that denomination, and it was not until the year 1817 that any person who was not an adherent of the Church of England was appointed to the council. This exception was William Pagan, a member of the Church of Scotland, and his was a solitary instance because up to the year 1833, when the old council was abolished, all its other members were adherents of the Church of England. The same rule prevailed with respect to all the great offices in the gift of the Crown. All the judges of the supreme court for the first sixty-seven years of the existence of the province were members of the Church of England. L. A. Wilmot, who became attorney-general in 1848, was the first person not a member of the Church of England who filled that office, and he was the first judge not a member of that Church who sat on the bench of New Brunswick.

For some time after the foundation of the province, the salaries of the Church of England clergymen were paid by the British government, and large grants of land were made for the purpose of supporting the churches. In addition to this, financial assistance was given to them in erecting their places of worship. No dissenting minister was allowed to perform the marriage ceremony, that privilege being confined to clergymen of the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Quakers and the Church of Rome. This was felt to be a very serious grievance, and, needless to say, produced a great deal of inconvenience.

Another grievance was the fact that the great offices were held by members of certain favoured families. These families, from their social position and in some cases from their wealth, had the ear of the governor, or of the authorities in England, and were able to obtain and hold all the valuable places. The two Odells, father and son, held the office of provincial secretary for sixty years. The Chipmans were another favoured family, both the father and son being successively judges of the supreme court, and the former receiving large sums from the British government as one of the commissioners who settled the boundary between Maine and New Brunswick. One of the greatest offices in the province—that of the surveyor-general—was held by one person for thirty-three years, and this individual was in no sense responsible to any authority in New Brunswick except the governor. Those in power at that day were very fond of expatiating on the glories of the British constitution and the privileges the people enjoyed under it. But nothing less like the British constitution can be imagined than the system which then prevailed in the British North American colonies.

One feature which is not to be lost sight of in considering the political condition of the province at that time is the social element. The distinctions between the upper classes and others was then far more marked than it is at present. The officials and the professional men formed a class by themselves, and looked with contempt upon those who were engaged in business. The salaries of the government officials were then three or four times as large as they are at present, and they kept up a corresponding degree of state which others were not in a position to imitate. This assumption of superiority was carried out in all the relations of life, and the sons of those who occupied an inferior station were made to feel their position keenly. This was the case with Lemuel Allan Wilmot, for, although his family was as good as any in the provinces, he was the son of a man who was engaged in business and who. was not only a Dissenter but was actually a preacher in the denomination to which he belonged. No doubt the insults which the son received from those who claimed to occupy a higher station had a good deal to do with his zeal for the cause of Reform, and influenced his future career to a considerable extent.

William Wilmot, although he afterwards failed in business, was in prosperous circumstances when his son Lemuel was born. He was a Baptist and was one of the original members of the Baptist Church at Canning, in Queens County, which was founded in 1800. On Christmas Day, 1813, William Wilmot and nine others received their dismissal from the Canning Church for the purpose of founding a Baptist Church in Fredericton. Wilmot was a local preacher and used his gift of eloquence in that way. He also aspired to legislative distinction, and was elected a member of the House of Assembly for the county of Sunbury in 1816. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the same seat in 1819, and again in 1820. At the general election of 1827 he ran for the county of York, to which he had removed several years before, but was again .defeated. This was his last attempt to become a member of the House of Assembly. His loss of three elections out of four had certainly been discouraging, and was in singular contrast to the fortune of his distinguished son, who never experienced a defeat.

Lemuel Wilmot’s mother died when he was only eighteen months old, so that he never knew a mother’s love or a mother’s care. But his father early recognized his youthful promise, and gave him all the educational advantages then available. He became a pupil at the College of New Brunswick, which was situated in Fredericton, of which the Rev. Dr. Somerville was the president and sole professor. This college was in fact merely a grammar school, but Wilmot acquired there some knowledge of the classics. However, his scholastic career was not prolonged, for in June, 1825, he entered as a student-at-law with Charles S. Putnam, a leading barrister of Fredericton. He was admitted an attorney of the supreme court in July, 1830, and a barrister two years later. He was then twenty-three years of age.

The men who were contemporaries of Mr. Wilmot as a youth are all dead, and not many anecdotes of his career as a student have been handed down to us. Being of an ardent and ambitious disposition, he took a keen interest in the stirring events that were being enacted around him; for it was a time of great political excitement, and the business troubles of the province increased the difficulties of its inhabitants. In 1825, all the lumbermen in the province were ruined, and the bad management of the Crown lands office which had added to the business difficulties became more than a political question, for by cramping its leading industry it affected the prosperity of every man in New Brunswick. It was then that young Wilmot resolved to enter upon a political career and to do what he could to redress the wrongs from which the people were suffering. Strange to say, at this time he, who afterwards became most eloquent, had an impediment in his speech, which it took much labour to overcome. To improve his knowledge of French, he spent some months with a French family in Madawaska, among the descendants of the ancient Acadians. In this way he acquired a colloquial knowledge of that language.

Wilmot’s ambition was to become a public man and to assist in the reformation of the constitution of his native province. He enjoyed many advantages for the role he had undertaken. He was tall, his height being upwards of six feet, well proportioned, handsome and striking in his features, and he possessed a voice of great strength and sweetness. He was proficient in all athletic exercises, and took an interest in all those movements which commend themselves to young men of enterprise and force of character. He was a lieutenant in the first battalion of the York County Militia when he was only eighteen years of age, and his devotion to the militia force continued until the end of his life. Possessed as he was of all the elements which make men popular and prominent, he was early marked for advancement in the field that he had chosen for the exercise of his talents.

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