Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
December 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


John Neilson


[This biography was published in 1862. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]

JOHN NEILSON, sixth child of William Neilson and Isabel Brown his wife, was born in Scotland, at Dornald in the parish of Balma­ghie, in the stewartry of Kircudbright, on the 17th July, 1776. He received his early education in one of those parish schools of Scotland, which have so greatly contributed to elevate the charac­ter of her population ; but the acquirements he brought from school could but have formed the foundation of his subsequent success, which he mainly owed to his own assiduity in self improvement in after life. When about fourteen years of age, his family sent him to seek his fortune in Canada, placing him under the care of his elder brother, Samuel Neilson, who had just then succeeded his uncle, Mr. W. Brown, in the property and editorship of the Quebec Gazette, which had been first published by him and his partner, Mr. Gilmour, on the 21st June, 1764.


Mr. S. Neilson died in 1793, and Mr. J. Neilson being yet a minor, the publication of the Gazette was conducted by the late Reverend Mr. (afterwards Dr.) Sparks, his guardian, until 1796, when, Mr. Neilson coming of full age, he assumed the direction of the paper, and from that period it took a new character of interest and importance. In 1810, the increasing demand for political intelligence and the importance of the public questions which began to be discussed in the legislature, induced Mr. Neilson to enlarge the size of the paper, and to publish it twice a week, and, as had formerly been the case, in both languages. Under the management of its judicious editor, the Quebec Gazette acquired a perceptible and increasing influence on public opinion, by the ability and discretion with which political subjects were discussed in it; the personal influence of its editor naturally increased with that of his journal; his capacity for civil affairs, attracted the Attention of his fellow citizens, and in 1818, he was brought forward as a candidate and elected to the provincial assembly, as a member for the county of Quebec: he thus entered upon a new and more important political career; he was now in the full vigor of his age and ripened intellect, and, as might be expected from his character, he soon took a lead in the active business of the legislature. At an early period after he became a legislator, he turned his attention to the measures necessary for the promotion of two of the most important and enduring interests of civil society—education and agriculture; and, as an auxiliary to the latter, he sought to effect an improvement in the system of granting the waste lands, to encourage the survey and exploration of unknown territory within the limits of the province, and thus to assist the development of the resources of the country.


He bore a leading part also in the discussion of the grave ques­tions which, after 1818, occupied the public mind, and led to differences between the executive government and the Assembly, as to the control and appropriation of the public revenues—the accusations brought against public functionaries—the plurality of offices, and the alleged abuses or evils in the administration of government, Mr. Neilson's conduct was marked by firmness and impartiality, and by that spirit of justice which was part of his individual character.


But as the Quebec Gazette was employed by government as the vehicle of public notifications, and might thus be represented as in some sort its organ, Mr. Neilson, in 1822, in order to be free in his political capacity from even the appearance of any such con­nection, transferred the whole establishment to his son, Mr. S. Neilson, who, shortly afterwards, accepted a commission from government as king's printer and editor, and for about a year the paper bore the imprint, " by authority." But the commission having been revoked in 1823, the Gazette resumed and thence-forth retained the character of an independent paper, which it had borne since its establishment.


The disputes between the executive government and the Assembly, on financial matters, had, in 1822, apparently become so irreconcilable, that the Imperial Government, pressed at the same time by Upper Canada to interfere in a question of finance pending between the two provinces, determined to propose to Parliament to re-unite the provinces. The intelligence of this measure created general uneasiness among a large part of the people of Lower Canada, and a strenuous spirit of opposition to it being aroused, it was determined by those adverse to it to send delegates to England with representations against it. M. Neilson was chosen as the delegate from the district of Quebec, and Mr. Papineau, for that of Montreal, and through their remonstrances, supported by the influence of Sir J. Macintosh in Parliament, or rather by his withdrawal of the assistance which the government had understood him to have promised, the measure was, in 1823, abandoned for the present.


In 1828, the discussions between the local government and the Assembly having become more and more exasperated, a petition of grievance was sent to England, addressed to the Sovereign and Parliament, complaining of the administration of the government, and bearing the names of upwards of 80,000 inhabitants of the province. Mr. Neilson was again chosen as a delegate jointly with Mr. D. B. Vigor and Mr. Chillier, to support the complaints and demands of the petitioners before the imperial authorities ; and a committee of inquiry having been appointed by the House of Commons, Mr. Neilson and the other delegates were examined, with many other witnesses; and a report was made favorable in the main to the views of the petitioners. The testimony given by Mr. Neilson, with respect to the Legislative Council, gave occasion subsequently to a charge against him of having recommended that that body should be made elective; but an unprejudiced perusal of his evidence, taken as a whole, will shew that then, (as at all times afterwards, both in his editorial articles and in his place in the Assembly,) he discountenanced all suggestions of fundamental changes, and maintained that the existing constitution and frame of government, if properly administered, were sufficient "for the peace, welfare, and good government of the province."


In like manner, both before and after that celebrated inquiry, Mr. Neilson always expressed his entire confidence in the good intentions, liberality and justice of the British Government, in every thing that concerned the welfare of the people of Lower Canada; and the recommendations of the report then made, being carried into execution, in a spirit of concession and conciliation by a new governor (Sir James Kempt), had the effect of producing a greater degree of tranquillity in the province.


On the 29th of March, 1830, Mr. Neilson received the thanks of the House of Assembly for his services on this mission to England ; and we extract a part of his answer to the Speaker on that occasion :

" In performing a duty imposed upon me by my fellow citizens, I did nothing more than was incumbent on any inhabitant of the province, who might be honored with their confidence; and whose means might allow of those sacrifices of ease and individual interest which we all owe to the common welfare, and of which so many of my most esteemed friends, both in and out of the committee by which I was delegated, have set such an honorable example. Next, after the consciousness of having faithfully endeavored to discharge a public duty, the best reward is, the certainty that we have been successful as to obtain the approbation of those for whom we have acted ; it is in this respect, that I set the highest value on the testimony of approbation, with which the representatives of the people have been pleased to honor me."


Nor was this vote of thanks the only public mark of approbation which Mr. Neilson's services to the people called forth. In January, 1831, a silver vase, which cost one hundred and fifty guineas, (raised by public subscription) was presented to him at a public dinner, given to him by a large number of his fellow citizens, in testimony of their gratitude for his services in England, in 1823 and 1828. This tribute bore the following inscription :


" A JOHN NEILSON, Ecr., M. P. P., député deux fois auprès du Parlement Impérial pour défendre les droits des Canadiens; ce léger tribut de reconnaissance lui est offert en mémoire des services qu'il a rendus au pays, et comme un hommage d ses vertus civiques."


Mr. Neilson's well known modesty, however, prevented any' notice of this public honor from appearing in the Quebec Gazette, and we have been obliged to take these details from a contemporary journal. It was about this period that a difference of opinion on points of political importance began first to shew itself between Mr. Neilson and the leaders of the party with whom he had generally hitherto acted.


His career was in nothing more remarkable than for his con­stant desire to maintain the ancient institutions, usages, and social arrangements of the French Canadian portion of the population; and he vigorously opposed the measure called Le Bill des Fabriques, in 1831, which he considered as a needless and mis­chievous encroachment on the laws and customs by which the parochial church corporations had hitherto been governed, and, as tending to create disorder and confusion, where tranquillity and contentment had generally prevailed before.


The separation thus made was widened still further at the same period, and the political quiet partially restored by the measures of administration in 1829 and 1830, was again disturbed by the agitation of the question of an elective Legislative Council, by the imprisonment of two publishers of newspapers for alleged libels on that body, and, by the deplorable events at the Montreal election, in 1832, when the editor of one of those papers was elected to the Assembly. When this unfortunate occurrence was made the subject of investigation before a committee of the Assembly, and the feelings of party and origin were aroused into irritated action, Mr. Neilson abstained from taking any part in the proceed­ings, and his conduct on that occasion was justly considered as indicating his marked disapprobation of the course pursued by his political friends, who strove to cast the whole odium of the occurrences in question upon the civil and military authorities. He looked with ill-boding and prophetic eye on the measures of his party, as mischievously intermeddling with what ought to have been left to the proper tribunals of justice; and from that period may be dated his entire separation from that party. The consequences of that separation to himself personally were soon evident; for, on the occasion of the general election of 1834, he was thrown-out of the representation of the county of Quebec, for which he had at for fifteen years.


In the session of 1834, the celebrated ninety-two resolutions on the state of the country, (which a minister of the crown described as a " paper revolution," but which have now almost become a reality,) were adopted, and were brought before the Imperial Par­liament, in a petition, calling for organic changes in the constitu­tion, and the general adoption of the elective principle. Those who desired to maintain the constitution of the country unimpaired, formed themselves into "Constitutional Associations," throughout the province ; and sent home petitions to the government and parliament in England. True to his principle of seeking administrative and opposing needless constitutional changes, Mr. Neilson accepted the appointment of a delegate from Quebec, associated with Mr. Walker, an advocate, of Montreal, to carry these petitions to England, and urge the objects of them there. Upon this third mission, Mr. Neilson proceeded to England, in the spring of 1835, and communicated with the new colonial secretary, Lord Glenelg ; but, in the month of July, the British cabinet determined to transfer the further inquiry into these political distractions to the province itself, by recalling Lord Aylmer, and sending out Lord Gosford, as governor-in-chief, with a commission also, jointly, with two others, as commissioners of inquiry. Mr. Neilson, consequently, returned immediately to Canada. In this year, the health of his son, the editor of the Gazette, which had been for some time failing, sank under the labor of a daily publication, (a change which had been adopted in 1832, when the Gazette appeared alternately in the two languages), and he was obliged to go to the south of Europe ; and, having died at New York, on his return to his family, his father, at the age of three score, while suffering under this afflicted bereavement, and the disappointment of his hopes, resumed his editorial labors, in order to maintain the old establishment.


Amongst the events of 1837 and 1838, Mr. Neilson was found true to those loyal principles, which he had always inculcated—recommending order and obedience to the laws, and respect to the constituted authorities. Notwithstanding the deplorable revolt of a portion of the population, he still shewed himself the firm and constant friend of the French Canadians, and maintained that the mass of the people were untainted by disloyalty or disaffection. He was, in truth, attached to them as a people—he loved to talk of their primitive manners and customs, their simple character and habits, and the peculiar changes and occurrences of their history; for their clergy, too, he entertained a high respect; which was returned by equal respect and regard, on their part, which followed him, it is believed, to the last moments of his life, and still attends his memory.


The union of the provinces, which followed upon the events of 1837-8, was opposed by Mr. Neilson, so long as he conceived that opposition could be of any avail ;—having been called to the special council, in 1839, after the suspension of the constitution, he there voted against the union, being supported only by two other mem­bers, (Messrs DeRocheblave and Quesnel), and in June, 1840, at a general meeting of the inhabitants of Quebec, he proposed a series of resolutions, which were embodied in a petition sent to England, remonstrating against the measure.


When the act of union passed, Mr. Neilson came forward, and was elected without opposition, as member for his old county of Quebec, in the united legislature. One of the first measures introduced by him, was an act to restore to the electors of the suburbs of St. Roch and St. John, the right of voting for members, which had been taken away from them by the electoral arrangement, under the act of union.


Mr. Neilson's rooted desire to stand by old institutions, and even usages, again manifested itself in his constant disapprobation of what is called " responsible government;" and, his opinion upon this innovation upon the old system of colonial government, are to be found thickly scattered through his editorial articles in the Quebec Gazette, from the adoption of the resolutions upon this subject in the Assembly, in 1841.


On the formation of a new government, in November, 1843, he was urged to accept the honorable past of Speaker of the Legislative Council ; but he declined it, as he had uniformly declined every office of emolument, in fulfilment of a public declaration he once made to his constituents, and it was not till the session of 1844, that he consented, though the offer had before been fre­quently made to him, to become a member of that branch of the legislature.


He was now verging to the appointed period of three score years and ten, and his constitution betrayed the inroads of age. He had already seen many contemporaries go before him to the grave, with whom he had been connected in the relations of sincere friendship, or in those of political life; but he still continued to take that active part which he considered to be his duty, as a member of society, in all public measures, either within the legislature or without, which appeared to him conducive to the public weal; on such occasions, he shrunk not from meeting or co-operating with those who might be of an adverse political party, and the respect with which his suggestions were received in the public assemblies of his fellow citizens, shewed the weight attached to his opinions, and the confidence reposed in his ripened judgment and long experience in public affairs.


It was at last in discharging a voluntary duty that he had taken upon himself, by attending with his brethren of St. 'Andrew's Society, to receive the representative of his sovereign with due honor on his visit to Quebec, in October, 1847, that Mr. N. brought on himself the malady which proved ultimately fatal to him ; he was on that occasion exposed for a considerable time to a chilling rain, but persisted in remaining to read the address of his fellow citizens, to his excellency, on his first arrival in the ancient capital of Canada.


He was shortly after taken ill, and never fully shook off the disease; but in spite of increasing weakness, his spirit failed him not, nor his habits of application to business ; so that neither his family nor his medical attendants perceived the full extent of his danger, and it may be said that he "died in harness," for the very evening before his death, he wrote off for the next issue of the Gazette, and with a steady hand, and almost without obliteration, the two remarkable articles, his last impressive words to his fellow citizens, which appeared in the Gazette of 31st January, 1848 ; the following day he was no more. He had some days before left his town residence for his loved retreat at Cap Rouge, where his family hoped that retirement and repose might help to check his malady and prolong his days, but the morning before his death he was seized with a shivering, from which he passed into a lethargic slumber, and gently breathed his last at four o'clock in the morning of the 1st February, at the age of seventy-one years, six months, and a few days.


After thus tracing Mr. Neilson's public career, from its com­mencement to its close, it remains for us to notice the principal features of the character which he had established, by his abilities and integrity, in the course of a long and laborious life, and which he left as the best heritage to his descendants.


As a public journalist, his labors, spread over thirty volumes of the Gazette, attest his industry, ability, firmness and moderation, in delivering to the public the opinions upon the various subjects of political discussion which occupied the public attention oftentimes during the periods of great difficulty and agitation. In his style of writing he was a model for journalists—plain, simple, concise, terse and idiomatically English. When the occasion required, as may be seen in some of his communications to the Quebec Gazette, then conducted by his son, in the summer of 1812, after the fatal occurrences at the Montreal election, he threw into his compositions a degree of eloquence and force seldom surpassed in any public journal. His forte lay in compressing into a small compass of well arranged thoughts and well chosen words, what ordinary writers would spread over columns with a flux de paroles.


To his earnest pursuit, as a legislator, of what seemed to him to be for the public good, ample testimony is afforded by the statute book of the province, and the journals of the legislative bodies to which he belonged.


As a member of society, sincerely aiming at the welfare of all, he was remarkable for the absence of self-seeking—carried even to the extent of sacrificing or neglecting his personal interest this freedom from selfish views, and his clear integrity, kept him out of the vortex of those petty intrigues, which, in colonies especially; are often used by meaner minds, as the crooked paths to attain wealth or power; if he had a feeling of contempt for any persons, it was for those who trod such paths.


Lifting the veil of private life, which it were only fitting to do in these pages, there he was seen the head of a family regarded by him, and he by them, with unbounded affection, and the most unrestrained confidence. In his personal friendship in society, his moderation and openness of character insured their constancy. If ever a man became his enemy, it was because he chose to be so. Of enmity to others he seemed to be incapable, except "the strong antipathy of good to bad,"—and if occasionally an observation was made to him, on the misrepresentations of his conduct and opinions to which, as must happen in political discussions, he was often exposed, he would reply with a smile,—" never mind, wait a while, and let us in the meantime only return good for evil."


In social intercourse he was remarkable for a natural good breeding, a constant cheerfulness, good humor and pleasantry, that shewed a mind and heart well poised and tempered within; habitually under the influence of true benevolence, disturbed by no angry passions, and enjoying "the ceaseless sunshine of a kindly breast"


In his personal habits he was not only temperate but abstemious in his mode of living —active in mind and body—fond of rural and sylvan life, and of the wild scenes of nature. He had built a lonely cabane on one of the mountains overlooking the valleys through which the Jacques Cartier river finds its way from the north ; and here he loved sometimes to resort, and enjoy the unbounded solitude. Even in the last year of his life he expressed a wish to explore the wilderness through which that river flows, and onwards to Lake St. John, and proposed to make up a party for the purpose, as a winter excursion.


Mr. Neilson's funeral took place on the 4th of February. He was interred according to his often expressed desire, in the burial ground which had been given by himself to the Presbyterian church at Valcartier, a settlement about sixteen miles from Quebec, in the progress and prosperity of which he had always taken a deep interest. To that romantic spot his remains were followed by a long cortege of mourners, on one of the stormiest days of the season. But the funeral service over him was in St. Andrew’s church, Quebec, which was crowded with citizens, both of French and British origin. An extract from the address of the Reverend Dr. Cook on that occasion may appropriately conclude this notice:


" It is a saying of the great apostle—' no man dieth unto himself ' and in the widest sense of which the words are capable, it is a saying which holds emphatically true. By the unalterable arrangements of the Divine Providence, we are bound together in too many and too close relations, ever to remain altogether unaffected by what breaks up and dissolves these relations for ever. Even in the case of the humblest individual in society, and the most isolated from the ordinary relations of kindred and love, there is power to reach our hearts and to awaken our sensibilities, in many tokens, however rude and simple, by which we are made aware that a human spirit has departed; that with another of our race, the work and the battle of this life are over, and the mystery of a new life begun. We feel the tie of brotherhood with the departed. We recognize in what hath befallen him, the common destiny of all; and we give way to an awe, which is neither ignoble in a rational spirit, nor unworthy of a Christian believer, while antici­pating so great an event in the progress of our being as that which is to separate us for ever from this world of living men, and to place us amidst the interests, the employments and the retributions of the world invisible.


" But seldom is it, indeed, that any one passes away from this life, without affording proof more ample and direct, that he died not to himself -  that in the great change which had come over him, he was not alone interested. In the neighborhood to which a man belonged; in the circle of society, however small, in which he moved; among the friends and associates with whom he was in daily converse and communion, his loss is felt; and, at all events, in the household to which he belonged, there are some whose hearts are wounded, and on whose relations with this life, and their condition in it, a serious and irrevocable change has been effected. Seldom does any one pass away unmourned and unmissed by all. God hath not bound together the children of the human family with ties so loose and uncertain.


" The feeling of loss and mournful regret over the ashes of the dead, by which we bear testimony that the departed died not to themselves alone, must of course be extensive in its range, and intense in degree, in proportion to the place which they who are gone, held in the public eye, and the public estimation ; to the talents which they had displayed ; to the public services which they had rendered; to the worth of their character; to the kindli­ness of their nature; to the existence and exercise within them of those affections which win our love, and those higher principles which command our esteem and admiration. Where these have been eminent; where these have been long acknowledged ; death comes not to the individual alone, nor to the sanctuary of domestic affection, but it carries sadness into the general community, and each feels as if a friend and a benefactor had passed away.


"Let it be one, for example, who for more than fifty years had been known in a community, as a good and valuable citizen; who had early established a character for inflexible honor and up. rightness, and continued to bear it to the last; in whom steady application to the duties of life, and purity of moral princi­ple, were combined with the powers of a singularly shrewd and clear and perspicacious understanding, and a promptness to bring the strength of his understanding, and the weight of his character to bear upon every measure that was designed to promote the general good; let it be one, too, who was known to all, and had a word of kindness for every one; to whom the humblest could have access for advice and assistance, who was at once liberal and un-ostentatious in his charity, who treated his dependents rather as his friends and his children, than as inferiors, and manifested ever, in his whole bearing and intercourse with society, that genuine and unassuming simplicity, which is the characteristic of a noble nature; can such a one be said, in passing away from this life to ‘die unto himself’ ? Is there not a general loss under which all suffer, and their sense of which it is natural and reasonable that (in humble submission to the will of Providence), they should openly and earnestly express ?


"And the supposition we have made may be still farther extended. Let such a one, with all the claims to respect in a limited community, which we have now been describing, have also for a long period of time applied his talents to the higher duties of the legislator and the statesman, with honor to himself and advantage to the public ; let him have set an example, known and acknow­ledged by all, and but too rare in the unhealthy atmosphere of pro­vincial politics, of a perfectly honest and independent man, actuated by no selfish motives ; seeking no personal advantage, deferring neither to the men in power, nor to the popular leaders, when in his own clear judgment, he thought either in the wrong; ready to co-operate with any party, up. to the point, that in his conscientious opinion, they were seeking the public good, and their efforts tending to promote it; sure to leave and to oppose them, the moment they overstepped that point, without regard to party connections, or the abuse which his independent conduct could not fail to bring down upon him, and that too, from different points in the political compass; the determined foe of every abuse in the execu­tive government, and yet in whom unflinching loyalty was not the dictate of convenience and temporary expediency, but a princi­ple of honor and conscience, which his reason approved, and to tamper with which, he counted a crime, to be regarded with abhor­rence. Let such a one be called away from the midst of us, and shall there not be a yet deeper and more wide-spread conviction of the public loss; token that as he had not lived, so he did not die to himself alone ?


"Once more let us extend this supposed case, into another sphere of public labor and usefulness. It is not easy to set too high a value on the power of the press in these times, to influ­ence the public mind for good or for evil. And he who has the opportunity of expressing his opinions to the public in a widely circulated and frequently published journal, and the capacity of expressing these opinions tersely and clearly, setting them forth in the fairest light, supporting them with argument, and illustrating and enforcing them with facts drawn from a capacious and well stored memory, cannot fail to be, to a very considerable extent, the corrupter or the benefactor of the community. Let such a one then, as we have before described, be for a long series of years in possession of this powerful engine for influencing the public mind ; and let him use it for wise and good purposes, not so as that wise good men may not sometimes differ from him in opinion, yet so as that all shall acknowledge the purity of his motives and the gen­eral soundness of his principles; let it never be turned into a vehicle for slander or personal malignity ; let the sacred sanctions of religion and morality be ever treated with reverence, and solemnly enforced on every proper occasion ; let the benefits of industry, and order, and general education be unceasingly incul­cated; let a sober tone of feeling be expressed respecting the possi­ble benefits of political measures and political changes, and the necessity be ever shown, of personal exertion, and moral principle, in private individuals, to the general prosperity of the country ; let all this be taught from day to day, and from year to year, till it fails not materially to influence the public mind; and let the career of the editor be closed, without giving cause for making one personal enemy, and with a few short and simple sentences embody­ing the principles, moral and political, which he had cherished for a life time, and forming, though without any such purpose on his part, a befiting charge with which to close the scene of life, would not the public calamity be unspeakably enhanced, in the loss of such an able and sober-minded instructor and guide of public opinion?


"My friends and fellow-citizens, I need not say, it is such a calamity under which we are now suffering. It is the loss of such a man we this day deplore—which, coming unexpectedly on us, has thrown a gloom over our whole community, and has brought u- in solemn mourning to the house of God. It has not been at all my aim, in what I have said, to delineate fully the character of the eminent and venerable man whose ashes are this day to be laid in the dust. That will be done by others better fitted for executing the task. Already, one who served him faithfully for fifteen years, has paid an affectionate tribute to his memory ; and another may be expected from an old and much esteemed friend. I have but indicated such claims to the public respect as all will acknowledge that he possessed. The faults and frailties which cleave to all men, it little behoves us to remember, in the case of those who have passed from the judgment of man to the judgment of God. These we leave to Him, who doing ever right, is yet unspeakably more merciful and loving than the best and most benevolent of men. It is the good in the departed which it behoves us to remember; and to remember that we may imitate it. And long, I trust, it will be, ere the memory pass away from this community, of the private and public virtues of him, whose remains now lie before us ; or ere that memory cease to have a powerful and beneficial efficacy on those who cherish it."


Source: Henry J. MORGAN, Sketches of Celebrated Canadians, and Persons Connected with Canada, from the Earliest Period in the History of the Province Down to the Present Time, Quebec, Hunter, Rose & Co., 1862, 779p., 297-308.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College