Hon John M. Johnson

John Mercer Johnson of Chatham was a Father of Confederation in every sense of the word. He attended the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences in 1864 and the London Conference in December 1866. He was the only New Brunswicker besides Sir. Leonard Tilley to attend all three conferences.

One school of thought says that the true Fathers of Confederation are the sixteen men who attended the London Conference and formulated the British North America Act. The Miramichi area was well represented in the persons of Newcastle's Peter Mitchell and Chatham's John M. Johnson.

Representatives were present from the Charter provinces--Ontario and Quebec (formerly Upper and Lower Canada) and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

It was at London's Westminster Palace Hotel that the seventy-two resolutions were fashioned into what became the British North America Act, officially proclaimed on July 1, 1867.

Peter Mitchell, just a few months earlier, had led the Confederation Party to victory and had become Premier of New Brunswick. He and John M. Johnson had been advocates of Confederation for many years and with their fiery oratory and forceful personalities, had been instrumental in determining the course of New Brunswick's history.

John M. Johnson's career in politics had been an illustrious one. First elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1850, at the age of 32, he was a member of the first Liberal Cabinet in the province's history. He held the portfolios of Solicitor General, Postmaster General, Speaker of the House and Attorney General. The only time he was defeated was in 1865, when the Anti-Confederation party came to power for a term that lasted approximately one year.

Picture Johnson: strong, dominant, a forceful and polished speaker; mentally and physically robust. He was a hard worker and a man of the times.

Such a strong supporter of confederation was he that after the Union became official on July 1, 1867 he resigned his seat in the Legislature and ran for the federal seat, defeating Conservative Thomas Gillespie, a Foundry owner. Johnson had become Northumberland County's first member of Parliament. Along with Peter Mitchell in the Senate, he helped to start Canada on its way.

John M. Johnson was well fitted for this position, with his experience in the legal profession and his sixteen-year career in the Legislature. He had more than ordinary intellect and his quickness of repartee and punmaking ability made him conspicuous in parliament.

Gifted and Versatile

He was a highly gifted gentleman. He had a bent for poetry and one of his religious poems entitled "Crucifixion Day" is in the possession of one of his great grandsons, Leonard Johnson of Chatham.

Johnson was also a fancy skater. In London during the winter of 1867 the Thames froze over and it is said that he dazzled the spectators with his skating ability.

Another interest far removed from poetry and skating was his involvement with the Chatham Rifles which he helped organize and in which he served as a captain.

Back in Chatham in May, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Mitchell were tendered a banquet. The address was given by William Wilkinson who was Johnson's law partner at this time and later a judge who lived in the stately home in Bushville, which is now the Miramichi Golf and Country Club. William Muirhead was one of the speakers at the banquet.

His Early Life

Born in Liverpool, England in 1819, Johnson was brought to Chatham in 1821 to join his parents who had emigrated here. The community was becoming prosperous due to the efforts of Chatham's founder Francis Peabody and of Joseph Cunard, who came in 1820. John M. Johnson Sr. became prominent, holding such offices as Magistrate, Coroner, and High Sheriff of Northumberland County.

John M. Johnson Jr. attended the Northumberland County Grammar School and then studied law at the office of John A. Street, Newcastle. Admitted to the Bar in 1840, he entered into partnership with C. A. Harding of Newcastle. Each had his office in his own home town.

In 1847 he went into a similar partnership with Peter Mitchell which lasted five years. It was during this period that the "Northumberland County Smashers" got deeply interested in politics. Johnson was first elected in 1850 and Mitchell in 1856.

In 1840 Johnson married Henrietta Shirreff, daughter of A. D. Shirreff, High Sheriff of Northumberland County. They had 12 children, six of whom grew up. The Johnson home was located where the parking lot of St. Michael's Church is now.

Charles Whitty of Chatham remembers that the Johnson house stood on a bluff. In the early part of the century the Whitty family rented the house for sixteen years from the Bishop of Chatham and five of the Whitty children were born there.

"The house was surrounded by acacia trees, rose bushes and lilacs. There were English cherries, red plums and even a grapevine. The gardens were lovely and there was an apple orchard.

"The house, which was torn down in the 1920's, had large verandahs around it. The front door was of heavy oak framed by ornate glass panels above and at each side. There was a well house on the south side and I can remember people stopping for a nice cold drink of water. If you look closely you can see an indent in the pavement where the well was located," Mr. Whitty said.

An Untimely Death

John Mercer Johnson was not destined to write any more on the pages of Canadian history. Shortly after his election to the House of Commons his health began to fail. He died in Chatham on November 8, 1868 at the age of 50. He is buried at St. Paul's Anglican Churchyard, Chatham Head.

His obituary reads, in part, "New Brunswick has lost one of her most accomplished men and Northumberland County one of its brightest ornaments. When the plan for confederating these provinces was first publicly agitated he was one of its warmest supporters. He was one of the delegates that perfected the scheme in England and was soon after elected as Northumberland's first representative to the House of Commons."

(Northumberland News, February 25, 1981)

Copyright © Lois F. Martin, 1985. All rights reserved.