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Sir Albert James Smith, (1822–1883)  ‘the Douglas of Dorchester’

 

 

 

 

Lawyer and politician in Canada, Sir Albert James Smith (1822–1883) was born in Shediac, Westmorland county, New Brunswick, on 12 March 1822, the third of the seven children of Rebecca Beckwith (1798–1870) and Thomas Edward Smith (1796–1871), a retail and timber merchant. The family were loyalists, originally from New England. Albert Smith attended the local Madras School and the Westmorland county grammar school. He worked briefly in his father's store before embarking upon a legal career, when he was articled in the Dorchester law offices of Edward Barron Chandler, the leader of the New Brunswick government. He was admitted as an attorney in 1845 and was called to the bar in 1847.

An imposing and combative man, Smith seemed destined for a distinguished career in commercial and marine law. A member of the Church of England, he could have carved out a niche within the tory establishment. But in 1852, since he disapproved of the power and privilege of the governing establishment, he stood for election in Westmorland county as an opponent of Chandler's ‘compact’ government. He won, and was soon in the front ranks of a growing opposition ‘party’.

When Reformers won a majority of seats in 1854, Smith became a member of the executive council in Charles Fisher's government; but although he supported his colleagues in advocating electoral reforms and fiscal responsibility, he was at odds with them on other issues. His campaign to remove the seat of government to Saint John and his condemnation of the special privileges accorded King's College led to a bitter feud with Fisher, the registrar of King's College and Fredericton's representative in the assembly. He opposed Samuel Leonard Tilley's Prohibitory Liquor Bill in 1855, but, in 1861, the more conciliatory Tilley, now government leader, appointed Smith attorney-general. However, in 1862, when the executive council proposed to underwrite the construction of an intercolonial railway, the new QC resigned in protest. Thus Smith was not a member of the council when negotiations for maritime union, and later the union of British North America, began in 1864. Nor did Tilley invite him to be a member of New Brunswick's delegation at the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences.

Smith, ‘the Douglas of Dorchester’, ‘the Lion of Westmorland’, the incisive lawyer, formulated the opposition platform. He argued that, with a mandate to discuss only maritime union, the delegates had acted unconstitutionally in considering a British North American union. He warned that New Brunswickers would be burdened with heavy taxes to pay the Canadas' debts, incurred in constructing canals and railways. Moreover, representation by population would ensure that ‘in a few years we shall be at the feet of Canada—Upper Canada—who will exercise control not only over Lower Canada but also over us’ (Wallace, ‘Life and times’, 45).

The confederation issue cut across party lines, destroying traditional divisions. In the 1865 election, New Brunswickers sent twenty-nine anti-confederates, eleven unionists, and four independents to the legislative assembly. Arthur Hamilton Gordon, the lieutenant-governor, invited Smith, the Reformer, and Robert Duncan Wilmot, a Conservative, to form a government. Their executive council included men who supported union but opposed the Quebec plan, and men who opposed all union schemes.

As premier Smith proved unsuccessful as a leader of men. His debating style was aggressive and confrontational, and, coupled with his hot temper, had earned him a reputation as something of a bully. It is not surprising that Gordon, a British aristocrat who found colonial politicians beneath contempt, had no love for him. Nor is it surprising that Smith failed to hold his disparate coalition together.

Smith's alternative to confederation was neither inward looking nor parochial: he advocated continued reciprocity with the United States, and the construction of both a western extension railway from Saint John to the American border and a rail link between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. But when financial constraints prevented his government from implementing railway construction schemes and the Americans rejected reciprocity, Smith was left without a programme. Defections and declining support pushed him towards compromise, but the centre would not hold and Gordon forced his resignation. In the 1866 election the anti-confederates were routed.

In the confederation election of 1867, Smith was elected to the House of Commons as an independent. Although a supporter of Sir John A. Macdonald's government by 1872, he opposed the construction of a railway to the Pacific and once again broke with a political party over the issue of railway subsidies. Having returned to the Liberal fold, in 1874 he became minister of marine and fisheries in Alexander Mackenzie's newly elected government. One of the ablest marine lawyers in the country, Smith directed the preparation of Canada's brief, presented before the Halifax fishery commission of 1877, convened under the terms of the treaty of Washington to arbitrate the amount of compensation to be paid by the United States for east coast fishing rights. Canada was awarded $4,500,000, and in 1878 Smith was created a KCMG.

These were satisfying years for Smith. On 11 June 1868 he had married Sarah Marie (1847–1926), the daughter of John Wilson Young, a Halifax merchant. He built a comfortable home in Dorchester, where the couple brought up their son, John Wilson Young Smith.

Although Mackenzie's government was defeated in 1878, Smith easily retained his seat. But he was less visible in opposition, and was defeated in the 1882 election. Out of politics for the first time in thirty years, he seemed to lose direction. His health deteriorated, and, on 30 June 1883, at Dorchester, he died.

As a politician, Smith served his conscience and his province. An independent thinker, he succeeded as a good ‘party man’ only in support of a leader who was as uncompromising as himself. Smith has not captured the imagination of New Brunswickers as Joseph Howe has captured the imagination of Nova Scotians, yet his opposition to confederation was equally perceptive. When he failed to carry the electorate with him in 1866, he sought to protect the province's interests at the federal level and, returning to his Reform roots, found his place in the federal Liberal Party.

 

 

 

 

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Last modified: Saturday, 18 March 2017