Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sewell, Jonathan

SEWELL, JONATHAN (1766–1839), chief justice of Lower Canada, son of Jonathan Sewell (1728–1796), the last attorney-general of Massachusetts, was born at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in June 1766, in the ‘old family mansion,’ came over to England with his parents, and was educated at Bristol grammar school. In 1785 he went with his father to New Brunswick and studied law in the office of Ward Chipman, going to Quebec in 1789, where he was called to the bar of Lower Canada on 30 Oct. 1789. In 1793 he became solicitor-general, and in 1795 attorney-general and advocate-general; about the same time he entered the House of Assembly as member for William Henry, for which he sat through three parliaments, till in 1808 he became chief justice of Quebec, speaker of the legislative council, and president of the executive council.

One of his earliest acts as chief justice produced a remarkable episode in Canadian history. In 1809 he introduced rules of practice into the procedure of the courts. In 1814 they were attacked by the assembly, under the leadership of James Stuart (1780–1853) [q. v.], as a breach of privilege by law-making and as affecting the liberty of the subject. Sewell was impeached for subverting the constitution, and charged with malicious influence over the governor, leading to various specified acts which covered the whole range of conflict between the house and the government under Sir James Henry Craig [q. v.], the press cases, the Bedard case, and the John Henry scandal. Monk, chief justice of Montreal, was joined in the indictment. The new governor, Sir George Prevost (1767–1816) [q. v.], tried to bring the assembly to reason and incurred its wrath. Sewell went to England to defend himself, and was by its order in 1815 restored to his post. It was clear to the home government that the action of the assembly was due to political and religious animosity which had probably been inflamed by Sewell's sarcasm and indifference; but Sir John Coape Sherbrooke [q. v.], who had succeeded Prevost, stated that Sewell's reinstatement added enormously to the difficulties of the government. Early in 1817 an effort was made to revive the impeachments, but Stuart suddenly seemed to lose his influence; the matter was dropped, and Sewell received compensation for ill-treatment. The rest of his career was uneventful. In 1829 he resigned his seat on the council, and in 1838 the post of chief justice. He died in Quebec on 12 Nov. 1839, and was buried amid general mourning. Sewell was married, and had three sons, who settled in Quebec.

Sewell was an excellent chief justice, stern, but with great command of temper. He was created an honorary LL.D. by Harvard University.

He published:

  1. ‘A Plan for the Federation of the British Provinces of North America,’ 1814.
  2. ‘An Essay on the Judicial History of France,’ 1824.
  3. ‘The Advantages of Opening the St. Lawrence,’ 1824.
  4. ‘Dark Days of Canada,’ 1831.

[Morgan's Sketches of Celebrated Canadians, and Bibliotheca Canadensis; Quebec Mercury, 12 Nov. 1839, and a letter in issue of 16 Nov. 1839; Roger's History of Canada, pp. 254–7, 321, 326.]

C. A. H.