The following blog post is an abridged version of a study of the century-long rivalry between Saint John and Fredericton over which city should be the capital of New Brunswick.
by Ged Martin
When New Brunswick became a separate province in 1784, Saint John was the original “seat of government”. The Assembly met there in 1786. Since New Brunswick was part of the British empire, its capital was London, England: hence the term “seat of government” for the local headquarters.
In 1785 New Brunswick’s first governor, Thomas Carleton, decided to switch the local capital to Fredericton. It took two years to complete the move, as Fredericton barely existed. In wonderful language, Carleton explained that Fredericton was “centrical” to the whole province. Saint John resented Carleton’s decision. Its representatives helped block the construction of a legislative building in Fredericton until 1800.
Objections to Fredericton were not just locational but also ideological. The isolated settlement was a symbol of the privileged elite who controlled early New Brunswick. In 1803, radical critic James Glenie called Fredericton “the most abominable of all Cities, over which the infamous whore of Babylon presides”. When Fredericton’s Anglican cathedral was built in the 1840s, Saint John nicknamed its sleepy upriver rival the “Celestial City”.
By the mid-19th century, Saint John was much larger and livelier than Fredericton, prompting attempts by its citizens to regain the capital. In 1846, a Saint John newspaper threatened: “as sure as they’ve got seats to their pantaloons, they’ll lose the Seat of Government next Winter. They’ve had it long enough; and we intend now to take it by storm”. In 1848, a petition from 614 residents asked that “the Seat of Government may be established at its ancient Site, the City of Saint John”.
Formal attempts to shift the capital downriver were made in 1848, 1858-9 and 1880. The issue simmered for decades, and the insecurity probably harmed the economic development of Fredericton. Who would invest in a city that might lose its major source of income?
Hence there was something of a vicious circle. A Saint John newspaper alleged in 1848 that there was “a lethargy, want of life, vigour and intelligence” in Fredericton, “no public opinion to correct and give energies to the proceedings of the Legislature”.
Attempts by Saint John to deprive Fredericton of its status provide a window into the operation of New Brunswick politics in the 19th century.
There was an undercurrent of suspicion and even hostility towards the province’s largest city. One Fredericton newspaper warned, “the more St John gets the more she will ask and expect”. In 1858, a Gloucester County member protested that “Saint John is already too big for the country”.
In 1858, the Assembly narrowly voted for a commission of enquiry to investigate the cost of relocating the capital. Its report, in March 1859, stopped the campaign in its tracks. The cost of a new parliament and departmental offices in Saint John would equal half the annual government revenue. Veteran Saint Johners would argue in 1880 that the city’s failure to offer sites for government buildings in 1859 was a tactical error. Their proposal then was to build a parliament in Queen Square.
Ironically, Fredericton was saved partly because its local economy was moribund. It was impossible to finance relocation to Saint John by selling the existing government buildings, because there was very little going on in Fredericton apart from government. In 1880, it was alleged that one Saint John editor sneered that the Fredericton government offices should be converted into a glue factory.
The controversy left an indirect mark on modern Canada. At the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, Canadian and Nova Scotian politicians hoped to combine Confederation with Maritime Union, so that the Atlantic region would form a single province, roughly balancing Ontario and Quebec. New Brunswick politicians objected, warning that the seat of government issue would torpedo the project with their voters. It was through this episode that I became aware of the divisiveness of the controversy.
It was bad enough having Saint John squabbling with Fredericton, but if both cities united against Halifax, it was unlikely that British North American union would be accepted. Hence New Brunswick joined Confederation as a separate unit, even though its population was far smaller than those of Ontario and Quebec.
As Saint John was recovering from the devastating fire of 1877, a third spat broke out. In February 1880, Fredericton’s legislative building was damaged by fire. Saint John promptly launched a fresh campaign to become the capital, arguing that a new parliament would have to be built anyway, hence moving to their city was cost-neutral.
The Saint John fire of 1877.
Fredericton complained that Saint Johners believed “that the whole Province should of right belong to and become the exclusive property of their city.”
Saint John claimed that railways had improved access to their city from all corners of New Brunswick. “Railways have brought Restigouche near Saint John,” said one campaigner.
New Brunswick politics involved building coalitions of local interests, but it is surprising how little effort Saint John made to win support across the province. Even nearby Charlotte County was lukewarm towards the city’s ambitions.
The seat of government issue also cut across party lines. The Smashers, who took power in 1858, are regarded as New Brunswick’s first organised political party. But caucus solidarity broke down when Saint John made its bid for the capital that year. In 1880, both premier James A. Fraser and opposition leader Andrew G. Blair were York County (Fredericton) representatives. They joined forces to oppose two of Fraser’s cabinet colleagues, who sat for Saint John.
In 1880, Saint Johners seemed obsessed with the idea that they had been cheated out of the capital and that it should be handed back to them simply by right. One spokesman dismissed Fredericton as “some little town in the interior”. But others recalled how people across the province had generously rallied to help Saint John after the devastating fire of 1877, and found their pretensions ungracious and ungrateful.
A major force behind the 1880 push was the Saint John legal community. Prominent city lawyers specialised in appeals, and pointed to the inconvenience and expense of having to take cases to Fredericton. But locating the appeal courts in Saint John was probably an unwelcome idea to small-town businesspeople who might find themselves in conflict with big city merchants. A neutral, central venue was preferable.
The context of the competition between the two cities also changed, undermining the Saint John argument that it could provide a stimulating environment for the legislature. The July 12th riot in 1849 enabled Fredericton apologists to make sarcastic allusion that the benign influence of the enlightened opinions of the people of York Point — unfair, since Saint John’s Irish Catholic community had been the victims of an Orange nativist assault. The 1854 cholera epidemic — and the city’s inadequate response — showed that it was not just Saint John’s notorious fogs that made the place unhealthy.
Basically, there was a widespread feeling that the province’s largest city had enough influence already. “Just imagine a hundred lawyers surrounding the Assembly and roaring to have some bill passed by the Legislature,” said a Sackville paper in 1880. “What chance would the representatives have?”
Meanwhile, Fredericton had become less objectionable on social grounds. The conversion of the elite King’s College into the University of New Brunswick in 1859-61 neutralised one target for egalitarian wrath. The British garrison, with its snobbish officer caste, departed in 1869. Local lieutenant-governors changed the atmosphere of Government House. As a Methodist, Lemuel Allan Wilmot believed dancing was sinful. He refused to hold an official ball even when Queen Victoria’s son Prince Arthur visited. His successor, Temperance advocate Samuel Leonard Tilley, banned booze from official functions. By 1880, Fredericton aroused more sympathy than resentment.
Not everybody treated the 1880 row seriously. The rising city of Moncton also made a cheeky bid for the capital, offering a twenty acre (8.1 hectares) site for a provincial parliament. A Chatham newspaper claimed that the Miramichi would make a much better capital than Fredericton, but added: “We think too much of ourselves to take an unfair advantage of a country town like that.”
On 23 March 1880, the Assembly decided for Fredericton, by 20 votes to 18. The two-vote majority probably exaggerates the threat to Fredericton. Members actually divided on a technical amendment to delay the decision, Saint John partisans recognising that they lacked the support for outright confrontation.
In any case, until 1891 New Brunswick had a nominated upper house, the Legislative Council, which might well have exploited divisions among the elected members to block, or at least delay, any move to Saint John.
An emerging political force, French New Brunswick, helped save Fredericton. All three Acadian members of the Assembly, plus the province’s only French-language newspaper, opposed Saint John. Whether their motivation was cultural or regional requires further research.
February 1882 saw the inauguration of the present provincial parliament building in Fredericton. In the following decade, two railway projects influenced internal relationships within New Brunswick. The Canada Eastern line, to Chatham, gave Fredericton a direct link to the North Shore, restoring its “centrical” position. But it was the CPR “Short Line” through northern Maine that probably reconfigured the role of the rival cities.
The Short Line’s freight traffic effectively made Saint John an outport of Montreal, and this probably widened its disconnect with the rest of the province. It also brought visitors from central Canada. Fredericton began to market itself to upmarket tourists as a quaint, quirky, laid-back place — adopting precisely the pejorative image that Saint John had lambasted half a century earlier. An 1897 civic guide was even titled The Celestial City.
I have published “Fredericton versus Saint John: The New Brunswick Seat of Government 1785 to 1882” on my website as work in progress because it is both broad and shallow. At around 20,000 words, the text is too large for a journal article. I am constantly amazed at the range of sources that I can conjure up on my computer here in Ireland, but only a handful of 19th-century New Brunswick newspapers are on line, and a full study of the seat of government issue requires a deeper analysis of regional opinion, and of Assembly debates. Archival sources perhaps also exist throwing light on the motivation of key proponents of moving the capital, William Johnstone Ritchie in 1848, Albert J. Smith in 1858 (a Westmorland politician fighting a Saint John issue) and the historian Joseph W. Lawrence in 1880, the last being perhaps a warning against encouraging members of our calling to involve themselves in political campaigns.
Whatever the shortcomings of “Fredericton versus Saint John”, I hope that the essay does point to the vast areas that remain to be explored in the New Brunswick past. In particular, I strongly believe that we need a full-scale political history of the province. Of course, I do not mean the kind of narrative account that James Hannay published back in 1909, telling us that Premier Bloggs ousted Premier Scroggs and changed the start of the moose-hunting season. Wherever in the world we sit and hammer the keyboard, we all need an overall analysis of the province that can supply a unifying framework to the important research we already have that illuminates New Brunswick’s ethnic, gender, social and urban history. We need a volume, perhaps team-written, that looks thematically at two and a third centuries, tracing the interplay of communications, communities, and cultures.
My study ends in 1882. I am well aware that Saint John-Fredericton rivalries continued, because I first visited the province back in the days when the provision of a second university campus was a hot issue. But I simply do not know whether Saint John ever again mounted a formal bid for the capital after 1882, because there is no obvious and accessible source that would tell me.
In February 2015, a website called themanatee.net ran an amusing story claiming that Fredericton, Saint John and Moncton would make Dragon’s Den-style presentations in support of their claims to become provincial capital. Some respondents failed to spot that this was a spoof. Arguments voiced included a claim that Saint John was the original capital (“Bring it back home!”) and a complaint that the province could not afford such a project –both 19th century arguments. Comments on the CBC website report of an interview about “Fredericton versus Saint John” on Information Morning also suggest a certain triangulation of ill feeling among the three principal cities, which of course it has been in no way my intention to provoke.
Ged Martin is Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh. In 2014 he delivered UNB’s W. Stewart MacNutt Memorial Lecture in History. His most recent book was John A. Macdonald: Canada’s First Prime Minister (Dundurn, Toronto, 2013), and he now lives in Ireland.