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Chapter X - Judge and Governor

THE opinion that was entertained of Mr. Wilmot by those who were closely associated with him in the work of Reform was well expressed by the late Mr. George E. Fenety, in his Political Notes.

“A great luminary,” says Mr. Fenety, “set in semi-darkness on the day that Mr. Wilmot left the forum for the bench. He was the light of the House for sixteen years, the centre from whence radiated most of the sparkling gems in the political firmament. It was at a time of life (comparatively a young man) and a period when talents such as his were most wanted by his party and his country. Notwithstanding his supposed mistake in having joined a Conservative government, the Liberals were always willing to receive their old leader back with outstretched arms—ready to forgive and go along again with him over the old road, and, to a man, would have held to him had he made a stand against Sir Edmund Head, and told him—‘thus far and no farther shalt thou go’.”

Many of Wilmot’s friends regretted that he should have accepted the office of judge on the conditions under which it was offered. They thought that as attorney-general he was entitled to the position of chief-justice, and that in consenting to take the puisne judgeship he had lowered himself. It is hardly necessary to discuss a question of this kind at the present day. No doubt he had reasons of his own for retiring from the arena of politics. The work he had been doing for the public had placed a great strain upon him and interfered with his legal business to a very serious extent. He was never a wealthy man, and had therefore to consider his own future, while a position on the bench was one of honour and dignity which was regarded as worthy of acceptance by any member of the legal profession.

There was nothing worthy of note in the career of Mr. Wilmot as a judge. He was never considered to be a deeply read lawyer, but he filled the office of judge with dignity and general acceptance. His duties were not sufficiently arduous to prevent him from having leisure to engage in other lines of inquiry, for his mind was much interested in questions connected with science. He frequently appeared on the lecture platform and always with success.

When confederation was accomplished, it was felt that of all the natives of New Brunswick he was the most worthy to be appointed its first lieutenant-governor under the new regime. Judge Wilmot himself was willing to accept the office as a fitting close to his long and active career as a public man; but for some reason, which it is now impossible to ascertain, the appointment was not made until about a year after confederation. Judge Wilmot became lieutenant-governor on July 23rd, 1868, and continued to hold that honourable and important office until November 14th, 1873, when he was succeeded by the Hon. S. L. Tilley.

So far, we have been considering Wilmot as a politician and member of the legislature, but a very imperfect idea of his character would be gathered from regarding him merely in these capacities. He was a many-sided man, and had other interests which occupied his attention as much as, or more than, those public questions to which he devoted so much of his vigour. It has already been stated that his father was a member of the Baptist Church, and one of the founders of the church of that denomination in Fredericton. It does not appear that the son ever identified himself with that Church, or that while a youth he gave much attention to religious matters. It was not until after the death of his first wife, which took place in 1833, that he became affected by religious influences and began to attend the services of the Methodist Church, the pulpit of which was then filled by the Rev. Enoch Wood, a man of much ability and eloquence whose style of oratory was very impressive. Under his ministrations Mr. Wilmot became a convert, was baptized and joined the Methodist Church in Fredericton, and from that time until the close of his life he was a very prominent figure in it. He filled the office of superintendent of its Sunday School for upwards of twenty-five years, and was the leader of the church choir for thirty years. When he was appointed governor it was thought that he would give up these offices, but he still continued to fill them, and was superintendent of the Sunday School up to the day when his life came to an end. He always took a great interest in questions relating to the Bible, and frequently lectured on topics connected with it. He vehemently opposed the teachings of Darwin and others who followed the same line of inquiry, and he stoutly maintained that wherever the Bible and science were in conflict, science was in the wrong. He seems to have been, from first to last, an unquestioning believer in the doctrines of the Christian religion, and he viewed with great disfavour any one who ventured to question any part of its creed. As a lecturer he was eloquent and though discursive, always interesting. None of his lectures were written, so that to-day they are only a fading memory to those who heard them delivered. Though found acceptable at the time, it is hardly likely that, if delivered at the present day, they would enjoy so high a degree of popularity. People are not now so willing to accept sweeping assertions which are in conflict with the conclusions of scientific men who have devoted their lives to a patient study of the phenomena of life and the records of creation.

One of the most pleasing features of Judge Wilmot’s character was his fondness for children. He was never so happy as when among the young people, and long after he became a judge he took an intense interest in drilling the schoolboys and instructing them in all martial exercises; indeed, he seemed to be quite as much devoted to this work as he was to any other of his numerous employments. When a very young man, he became an ensign in the first battalion of York County militia, and speedily rose to be captain. When the so-called Aroostook War [The Aroostook War arose out of the unsettled boundary question between Maine and New Brunswick. There was a large area on the St John River, the ownership of which was in dispute, and in 1839 the difficulty came to a head in consequence of the governor of Maine undertaking to solve the question in his own way by taking possession of the territory. Governor Fairfield, of Maine, sent eighteen hundred militiamen to the front and Sir John Harvey, the governor of New Brunswick, issued a proclamation asserting the right of Great Britain to guard the territory while it was in dispute, and calling on the governor of Maine to withdraw his troops. Fairfield denied the right to issue a counter proclamation and called on the state for ten thousand men. Sir John Harvey then sent Colonel Maxwell with the 36th and 69th Regiments and a train of artillery to the upper St. John to watch the movements of the militia. A large force of New Brunswick militia was also embodied and sent to the front Fortunately, President Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott to Maine with full power to settle the difficulty. He got into a friendly correspondence with Sir John Harvey, which led to an understanding by which the troops on both sides were withdrawn and all danger of war averted. The boundary question was afterwards settled by the Ashburton Treaty.] broke out in 1839 he was major of a company of rifles attached to that battalion, and he volunteered for active service at the front. His interest in military matters continued until a late period, and, in the first military camp organized in the province by the lieutenant-governor, the Hon. Arthur Gordon, in 1863, he commanded one of the battalions. If Wilmot had not been a politician and a lawyer, he might have been a great evangelist or a great soldier.

Judge Wilmot was very fond of flowers, and the beautiful grounds at Evelyn Grove, where he resided, were looked upon as the finest in the province. Nearly every visitor to Fredericton found his way to that charming place and was sure of a cordial welcome from the judge, who delighted to show strangers what he had been able to accomplish in growing flowers and rare plants. Not the least interesting feature of such visits was the conversation of the host, who abounded in knowledge of horticulture, and was always ready to give others the benefit of his information. It was in this lovely retreat that the last years of Mr. Wilmot’s life were passed. When his term as governor expired, the government of Canada very properly gave him a pension as a retired judge. In 1875 he succeeded the Right Hon. Mr. Childers, as second commissioner under the Prince Edward Island Land Purchase Act. He was nominated as one of the arbitrators in the Ontario and North-West Boundary Commission, but did not live long enough to act in that capacity.

During the last two or three years of his life he suffered much from chronic neuralgia, which sometimes prevented him from stirring out-of-doors. No serious result was anticipated, and he was generally able to take active exercise and engage in his usual routine of duty. On Monday, May 20th, 1878, while driving in his carriage with his wife, he complained of a sudden and severe pain in the region of the heart. He was at once driven home and a physician summoned, but in a few minutes he passed away. He had not quite completed his seventieth year. His death evoked expressions of regret and sympathy from every part of the province, and tributes of respect and admiration from many who resided in other parts of Canada and in the United States.

Judge Wilmot was twice married. His first wife, whom he married in 1832, was Jane, daughter of Mr. James Balloch, of St. John. She died very soon after their marriage, and in 1834 he married Miss Elizabeth Black, daughter of the Hon. William Black, of Halifax, and granddaughter of the Rev. William Black, who is regarded as the apostle of Wesleyan Methodism in the Maritime Provinces.

In estimating the character and achievements of L. A. Wilmot, regard must be had to the conditions under which the battle for responsible government was fought, and the peculiar difficulties he had to face. He had not only to contend against governors determined to use their power to the utmost, an immovable legislative council and a reactionary executive, but he had to attempt to inspire with something of his own spirit a House of Assembly which had but little sympathy with his views. That he did not accomplish more is less a matter of surprise than that he accomplished so much. With heavy odds against him, he contended for the rights of the people and the improvement of the constitution, and he lived to see the principles for which he had fought so firmly established in his native province that they can never be disturbed.

It was never his good fortune to be the leader and master of a government or to have a free hand in the work of legislation. We are therefore left in the dark as to what he might have accomplished under more favourable conditions. Yet there is but little doubt that, had he remained in public life, the progress of Reform would have been greatly accelerated, and that such important measures as the establishing of free schools would have been brought about much earlier than was the case without his vigorous support. The faults of Wilmot were those that belong to an ardent, enthusiastic and liberty-loving temperament. He hated injustice in every form, and in his denunciation of evil he was sometimes led to use stronger language than men of cooler feelings approved. In this way he aroused opposition and left himself open to attack. Yet it is doubtful whether the censure of his enemies was as injurious as the flattery of some who professed to be his friends, and who were ready to applaud whatever he said or did. Being accepted as a leader when a mere youth because he had made a few eloquent speeches, he missed the wholesome discipline which most men have to undergo before they achieve fame. He would have been a greater and wiser man if he had been spared the unthinking flattery which was too lavishly bestowed upon him. Yet, after all has been said by those who would seek to minimize his merits, the fact remains that this son of New Brunswick stood for years as the foremost champion of the rights of the people, and that it is impossible to deny him a place among the great men who have assisted to build up Canada.

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