Jonathan Belcher, Jr.:
Chief of the North
Like his father Governor Jonathan Belcher (1682-1757), the colonial governor of Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, and New Jersey, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. (1710-1776) was an important and influential colonial leader. In the case of Jonathan Belcher, Jr., the colony was Nova Scotia, which before Jonathan Belcher, Jr.’s arrival was basically a frontier military outpost. As the first chief justice of Nova Scotia, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. firmly established the foundation of Nova Scotia’s judiciary. He also contributed significantly to its laws, and played an instrumental role in creating Nova Scotia’s representative government. As an acting governor and lieutenant governor of the colony, "Chief of the North" Jonathan Belcher, Jr. helped Nova Scotia mature into a thriving province. It is now one of the Atlantic Provinces of Canada, with a population of over 800,000 people.
Present-day Nova Scotia (Latin for "New Scotland") is one of the Atlantic Provinces of Canada, consisting of a peninsula and Cape Breton Island. Prior to its integration into the Dominion of Canada in 1867, Nova Scotia, located just north of lands previously belonging to the colony of Massachusetts Bay, was itself a separate British colony. Its status as a colony with a fully-developed government was a tribute to the skillful management of an extremely capable leader, "Chief of the North" Jonathan Belcher, Jr. (1710-1776). Before he came in 1754, Nova Scotia had been a frontier military outpost, established by the British to counterbalance French forces at Louisbourg, but Chief Justice Belcher brought the backwoods province into the mature light of civilization.
As matters stood on the morning of October 21, 1754, the future looked distinctly brighter to the freedom-loving colonists. A chief justice was coming to the province — its very first chief justice — and the group of British and American settlers gathered in the long room of the Pontac, a local dining house, made merry as they assembled to the breakfast prepared in honor of the chief justice’s inauguration. That day was an auspicious occasion for the ladies and gentlemen of Halifax, Nova Scotia, for the chief justice would secure law and order and establish a solid legal system, which at the time was much needed in the frontier community. Halifax, the capital of the province, was barely five years old and was a reminder of the recentness of the British settlement of Nova Scotia.
It had been about forty years since Great Britain had gained possession of Nova Scotia in 1713 when France had ceded the peninsula portion (excluding Cape Breton Island) as part of the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht. Since then, the civil government of the province had largely been directed by the army officers stationed at Annapolis Royal, and though further administration was exercised by the Royal Governor and the Council, there as yet existed no complete legislative or judicial system. Efforts on the part of the local government to install English legal precedents and court procedures had so far met with failure. During the short interval from the beginning of British occupation, a formal court system had not been established.
But that was to change with the arrival of the chief justice. The army officers mingling at the Pontac, likewise waiting to congratulate him on his arrival, were useful in protecting the province from marauding Indians and hostile Frenchmen, but they were hardly jurists. With a war impending with the French and Indians and with French pirates roaming the Atlantic, the establishment of a military garrison at Annapolis Royal was a good tactical move on the part of the British to protect the New England border against attack, but unfortunately, the structure of Nova Scotia’s civil government was rudimentary. The judiciary, especially, needed a strong guiding hand, and that couldn’t be found in this pioneer province where many of the inhabitants had no formal education, much less extensive legal training.
The people of Nova Scotia, whether from England, New England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, or Sweden, were mainly fishermen, farmers, and shipbuilders. They needed the establishment of an orderly judicial system to secure their safety by administering law in the province. In particular, the settlers arriving from New England were accustomed to the Assemblies of colonies such as Massachusetts Bay and called for similar government in Nova Scotia. Complaints from several residents of Halifax regarding the Inferior Court of Common Pleas resulted in the sending of a request to the British home government for the appointment of a chief justice. Spurred into action, the Board of Trade proposed that an able, well-trained individual be appointed to the office.
Fortunately for the Board of Trade and Nova Scotia, there was such a man. He was Jonathan Belcher, Jr., a well-known and accomplished lawyer and the son of Governor Jonathan Belcher (1682-1757). (Governor Belcher was the governor of Massachusetts Bay and New Hampshire from 1730 to 1741, and the governor of New Jersey from 1746 to 1757).
Fresh from his legal triumphs in Ireland, where he co-authored An Abridgement of the Statutes of Ireland, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. was eminently suited for the position of the first chief justice of Nova Scotia, an office requiring knowledge of both law and leadership. His abridgment of the laws of Ireland demonstrated his legal proficiency and earned him considerable respect in legal and governmental circles. So Lord Halifax and the Board of Trade recommended Jonathan Belcher, Jr. as the person most qualified to be the first chief justice — and at that time, the sole justice — of Nova Scotia.
Inauguration of His Honor the Chief Justice
Chief Justice Belcher, who also was appointed a member of the Nova Scotia Council, arrived at Nova Scotia on October 11, 1754. The residents of Halifax and other regions of the province anticipated the magnificent ceremony attending his inauguration on October 21. The province’s civil officials formed a procession in front of the governor’s house, to honor the new chief justice. Resplendent in the scarlet robe of a chief justice, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. walked with dignity in the procession, accompanied by Lieutenant Governor Charles Lawrence, the members of the Council, and attorneys wearing their traditional robes. When the crowd in the Pontac’s long dining room saw the approaching procession headed by the provost marshal and the judge’s tipstaff, the ladies, gentlemen, and military officers received the procession’s participants and warmly greeted Chief Justice Belcher.
After breakfast, the procession went to St. Paul’s Church and then on to the Court House, which was stately decorated for the event. Jonathan Belcher, Jr. sat under a canopy during the historic ceremony, with the Lieutenant Governor sitting to his right. Lifting up His Majesty’s commission, the Clerk of the Crown gave it to Jonathan Belcher, Jr., who then formally possessed the title of His Honor the Chief Justice. Subsequent to these proceedings, the court adjourned for the day and the procession marched back to the governor’s house. The dignity of the proceedings produced a profound effect on the wilderness province.
It was a ceremony reminiscent of the inauguration of Chief Justice Belcher’s father as governor of Massachusetts Bay and New Hampshire, and Chief Justice Belcher’s own inauguration was a step toward the achievement of some of his major goals: first, to make the best use of his legal knowledge, especially in a province such as Nova Scotia that so greatly needed his talents; and secondly, to return to North America, his native land. His father, Governor Jonathan Belcher, had been the "Governor of the Bay," and Chief Justice Jonathan Belcher, Jr. was now a "Chief of the North."
Family and Education
Born in Boston, Massachusetts on July 23, 1710, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. was about three years old when Nova Scotia was ceded to Great Britain. He was the second son of Governor Jonathan Belcher and the Governor’s first wife, Mary Partridge (1685-1736). Governor Belcher’s marriage to Mary Partridge took place in January 1706 at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, after his return from his grand tour of Europe, where he visited the Royal Family at the Court of Hanover and met George II, the future King of England. Mary Partridge was the daughter of William Partridge, a former lieutenant governor of New Hampshire.
Governor Jonathan and Mary (Partridge) Belcher’s first son, Andrew Belcher (1706-1771), served on the Massachusetts Council from 1765 to 1767 and in other offices. Andrew married Elizabeth Teale, and to them Governor Belcher gave his estate in Milton, Massachusetts and his land in Dorchester and Braintree, Massachusetts. Jonathan Belcher, Jr., Governor Belcher’s second son, married Abigail Allen (1727-1771) on April 8, 1756 at King’s Chapel in Boston, Massachusetts. Abigail was the daughter of Jeremiah and Abigail Allen. The same year that they were married, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. and his wife, Abigail, had their portraits painted by the famous artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Jonathan and Abigail had several children, among whom was Andrew Belcher (1763-1841), who became a member of the Nova Scotia Council and the father of Admiral Sir Edward Belcher (1799-1877) of the British Royal Navy.
As the son of a royal governor (Governor Jonathan Belcher) and the grandson of a lieutenant governor (William Partridge), Jonathan Belcher, Jr. was introduced to the elite of American society quite early in life. He was an excellent student and won honors at Harvard College, where he interested himself in the study of law, religion, English literature, shorthand, and French. His father told him that his French would stand him in good stead if he ever journeyed to Europe, for while visiting the Court of Hanover, his father had spoken at length in French with a member of the Royal Family.
Sharing his father’s true respect for God, the studious Jonathan Belcher, Jr. was a member of the "Society of Young Men," Harvard’s first religious organization for undergraduates. Indeed, Jonathan originally wanted to become a minister of the Gospel, but finally chose the law as his profession instead. Upon his graduation in 1728, Jonathan was chosen to deliver the commencement address. He subsequently entered graduate study at Harvard, where he earned his Master of Arts degree.
After his father became governor of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. journeyed to England to study law at the Middle Temple, one of London’s Inns of Court (legal societies that granted admittance to the English bar). From 1731 to 1734, there he studied law in earnest, spending his vacations in such pursuits as reading civil law under Professor Dickens of Cambridge and studying mathematics. Governor Belcher also reminded his son to take the time to relax and have fun by engaging in activities such as walking, riding, bowling, and fencing.
Above all, Governor Belcher wanted his son to be a Christian and a gentleman in addition to being a good jurist. The Governor advised his son to maintain his honesty and faith in God, and to continually strive to gain the understanding that leads to salvation through Jesus Christ. A self-disciplined life and devotion to true religion would reap many rewards, the Governor said. Additional rewards for work well done would follow, the Governor promised.
In his spare time, Jonathan the law student and his uncle, Richard Partridge, acted as Governor Belcher’s agents in England, including making appearances before the Board of Trade and the Privy Council. Jonathan Belcher, Jr. also exchanged visits with his father’s friends and several influential persons in England, such as the Duke of Newcastle, the Bishop of Lincoln, and the Speaker of the House of Commons. He also visited the Royal Family. Governor Belcher had the pleasure of knowing that his son was warmly received by these individuals.
On January 19, 1733, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. received the degree of Master of Arts from Trinity College, University of Cambridge (England). While reading law at the Middle Temple (one of the Inns of Court), Jonathan added to his private library, which, like that of his father, included volumes containing bookplates with the Belcher coat of arms, which bears a strong resemblance to the coat of arms of the Great Seal of the United States. Since he was a learned scholar and an enthusiast of English classical literature, it was natural for writing to be one of his interests.
Upon the marriage of the Princess Royal to the Prince of Orange in 1734, the University of Cambridge presented to the Royal Couple a gift — a volume of poetic congratulations honoring their marriage. One of the poems in the volume was written by Jonathan Belcher, Jr., a Cambridge graduate. Thus, the Prince of Orange and his Princess, the relative of Governor Belcher’s friend the King of England, received an original Royal Wedding present. An autographed copy of the volume of poetry also was presented to Jonathan Belcher, Jr.’s American alma mater, Harvard College in Massachusetts. (Incidentally, when Jonathan’s father, Governor Jonathan Belcher, visited the Royal Family in 1704, Princess Sophia, the mother of King George I, presented the future governor with a gold medal.)
His legal education completed, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. was admitted to the bar on May 24, 1734, at the age of twenty-three. Soon after beginning his law practice, he undertook an important legal case, which he won handily. More business followed in the wake of this success, and Jonathan Belcher, Jr. attained distinction at Westminster Hall and in cases presented before the Board of Trade, which several times consulted him for legal advice. The talented lawyer displayed his eloquence in the courtrooms of Westminster Hall and participated as a counselor in the famous case of Phillips v. Savage (1738), debated before the King in Council.
Regarded as a brilliant lawyer, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. was well liked for his diligence, honesty, and good character. Indeed, Jonathan’s workstyle (what type of things he was most likely to do and the way in which he went about doing them) reminded one acquaintance of Captain Andrew Belcher, Jonathan’s grandfather, who was also a man of much honor and industry. An individual’s workstyle is determined by his beliefs. Because Jonathan revered God, he obeyed God’s commands such as those commanding honesty and a strong work ethic. Like his father and grandfather, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. indeed proved serviceable to God, his king, and his country. Individuals such as these give us excellent examples to follow.
While in England, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. visited John Belcher and William Belcher, his relatives living near Paul’s Churchyard, London. In 1736, the young lawyer visited James Belcher, Secretary to the Lord Justices of Ireland, and James’ family in Dublin, Ireland, and sent them a copy of the Belcher pedigree which his father, Governor Belcher, had researched while he was in Europe in 1704.
Deputy Secretary to the Lord Chancellor of Ireland
In 1742, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. was appointed Deputy Secretary to the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and James Belcher, the Secretary to the Lord Justices, invited the attorney to come to Dublin. Though Ireland wasn’t America — the land where Captain Andrew Belcher had been a pioneer and to which Jonathan wished to return — Jonathan decided it was time for a change. He went to the Emerald Isle.
During his stay in Ireland, Deputy Secretary Jonathan Belcher, Jr. busied himself with his governmental duties. Part of Jonathan’s activities involved the co-authoring of An Abridgement of the Statutes of Ireland — a noteworthy accomplishment, for which he was honored with a Master of Arts degree by the University of Dublin. In 1756, after he returned to North America, he was awarded a Master’s degree from the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton University).
During the colonial era, it was rare for an American to possess degrees from so many different institutions. Jonathan possessed four Master’s degrees in addition to his Bachelor’s from colleges as diverse as Harvard, the University of Cambridge (England), the University of Dublin (Ireland), and Princeton University, not to mention his terms at the Middle Temple (of the Inns of Court) which qualified him to be an English barrister.
Jonathan’s abridgment of the laws of Ireland revealed that he would make an excellent leader for an infant government. There were few individuals more versed in legal and legislative matters or colonial administration than Jonathan, and so when the plea came from the people of Nova Scotia for the appointment of a chief justice, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. was the obvious choice. On July 30, 1754, he received his commission.
Founder of Nova Scotia's Judicial System
Jonathan Belcher, Jr. found the local government of Nova Scotia in need of a helping hand. Most of his terms as Chief Justice were engaged in founding Nova Scotia’s judiciary, which he successfully built upon a solid basis. Thus, he was the principal founder of Nova Scotia’s judicial system. It was a mammoth task — nothing less than the building of a branch of government — but Chief Justice Belcher was a strong, capable leader who successfully upheld the great responsibilities entrusted to him.
Immature provinces, such as Nova Scotia, usually lacked a well-organized system for promoting justice, but this matter Chief Justice Belcher corrected. At the same time, he brought respectability to the wilderness proceedings, which in itself did much in the way of reversing the province’s backwardness. The Chief Justice’s firm, steady hand helped bring the province out of its immaturity and guided the administration of the courts, encouraging them to observe the laws of the land. Chief Justice Belcher helped prepare many of Nova Scotia’s statutes and a report on the validity of the province’s constitutional law. Thus, the foundation stones of Nova Scotia’s legal system were laid by Chief Justice Belcher.
Father of Representative Government
Until Chief Justice Belcher’s tenure, an Assembly had not been called in Nova Scotia due to the lack of sufficient numbers of British subjects. The French residents, of course, refused to give allegiance to the British king. Without an Assembly (a House of Representatives), theoretically the legislative branch of government was incomplete. In 1755, the Board of Trade told Governor Lawrence (1709-1760) that they believed the election of an Assembly was absolutely necessary for the success of the province’s government, and instructed him to confer with Chief Justice Belcher regarding the best way to call an Assembly. Chief Justice Belcher drafted a plan for the election of an Assembly. In his plan the province at large (the province’s voters as a whole) would elect the Assembly’s members. In 1758, the Board of Trade recommended that a modified version of Belcher’s basic idea be followed.
Meanwhile, the influx of settlers from New England increased the population of the province to the sufficient numbers required to hold an election for the members of Nova Scotia’s legislative Assembly. After the representatives were elected by the people, the members of the Assembly met in October 1758. The election of the first Assembly brought representative government to the province and began a new era in the province’s history. Instrumental in making this history was Jonathan Belcher, Jr., the father of Nova Scotia’s representative government.
Chief Executive of Nova Scotia
Greater things were still to come. After Governor Charles Lawrence died in 1760, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. became the acting governor of Nova Scotia, and the President of the colony’s Council (the upper house of the colony’s legislature). In 1761, the British government commissioned him to be the lieutenant governor of the colony. At the same time, he was re-commissioned as chief justice.
Jonathan Belcher, Jr. was lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia from 1761 to 1763. He was the acting governor of the colony from 1760 to 1763 during the absence of the colony’s new governor, Henry Ellis (who never came to Nova Scotia). Thus, during this time, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. was Nova Scotia’s Chief Executive, the President of its Council, and its Chief Justice — in other words, the "Commander-in-Chief" of Nova Scotia. Since he was the only justice of the colony’s Supreme Court, in his hands lay the power of the judiciary, as well as the power of the executive office. This situation was extremely rare, and a subsequent change in Nova Scotia’s laws later made the re-creation of such a circumstance almost impossible. Speaking of great historical achievements — at only one time in Nova Scotia’s history did one man possess the supreme authority in three branches of government. "Chief of the North" Jonathan Belcher, Jr. was that man.
At the time these events were occurring, the French and Indian War raged throughout the American colonies. Jonathan Belcher, Jr.’s father, Governor Jonathan Belcher, the governor of New Jersey from 1746 to 1757, worked to secure aid for General Braddock during that war. In turn, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. protected the people of the more northern Nova Scotia. French and Indian attacks against the settlers living in Nova Scotia intensified, and French pirates cruised against the province’s citizens. Needless to say, these factors made the maturation of the colony even more difficult. Jonathan Belcher, Jr. negotiated peace treaties with the Indians in 1761 and took measures to secure peace in the province. Like his father had before him, he advanced the cause of Christianity. Jonathan Belcher, Jr. is credited as being one of the first settlers of Halifax, and as Chief Justice, Chief Executive, and President of the Council, his administration matured Nova Scotia into a model royal colony, with an Assembly for the representation of its citizens, and a sound legal system to administer justice. In all these undertakings, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. succeeded as an effective administrator.
Chief of the North
After the completion of his acting governorship in 1763, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. remained Chief Justice and chief authority of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court until his death in 1776 — the year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. As he had done in Ireland, he contributed significantly to the laws of Nova Scotia, including the editing and revision of the Perpetual Acts of the Province of Nova Scotia to 1766. His successful administration enhanced the development of the province’s constitution. Modern-day Nova Scotia owes much to this competent, proficient "Chief of the North," the founder of its legal system and father of its tradition of representative government. As had been the case with his father, Jonathan Belcher, Jr., Chief of the North, was an influential colonial administrator.
Chronology of the Life of Jonathan Belcher, Jr.
1710: Jonathan Belcher, Jr. is born on July 23 in Boston, Massachusetts. He is the son of Governor Jonathan Belcher (1682-1757) and Mary (Partridge) Belcher (1685-1736).
1713: Great Britain gained possession of Nova Scotia from France as part of the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht.
1723: Jonathan enters Harvard College, where he becomes a member of the "Society of Young Men," Harvard’s first religious organization for undergraduates.
1728: Jonathan receives his bachelor’s degree from Harvard College, delivering the commencement address. After his graduation, Jonathan studies theology at Harvard until 1730, originally intending to become a minister of the Gospel.
1731: Jonathan receives a Master of Arts degree from Harvard College.
Jonathan begins the study of law at the Middle Temple, one of London, England’s Inns of Court (legal societies that granted admittance to the English bar).
1733: On January 19, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. receives the degree of Master of Arts from Trinity College, University of Cambridge (England).
1734: Upon the marriage of the Princess Royal to the Prince of Orange, the University of Cambridge presents to the Royal Couple a gift — a volume of poetic congratulations honoring their marriage. One of the poems in the volume was written by Jonathan Belcher, Jr.
On May 24, the twenty-three-year-old Jonathan Belcher, Jr. is admitted to the English bar.
1734: Soon after beginning his law practice, Jonathan undertakes an important legal case, which he wins handily.
1736: Jonathan visits James Belcher, Secretary to the Lord Justices of Ireland, and James’ family in Dublin, Ireland.
1738: Jonathan participates as a counselor in the famous legal case of Phillips v. Savage, debated before the King in Council.
1742: Jonathan Belcher, Jr. is appointed Deputy Secretary to the Lord Chancellor of Ireland.
1754: Jonathan Belcher, Jr. coauthors An Abridgement of the Statutes of Ireland.
On July 30, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. receives his commission as the first Chief Justice of Nova Scotia.
On October 11, Jonathan arrives in Nova Scotia.
On October 21, Jonathan is inaugurated as Chief Justice of Nova Scotia during a magnificent ceremony.
1755: The Board of Trade tells Governor Lawrence that they believe the election of an Assembly is absolutely necessary for the success of Nova Scotia’s government, and instruct him to confer with Chief Justice Belcher regarding the best way to call an Assembly. Chief Justice Belcher drafts a plan for the election of an Assembly.
1756: Jonathan Belcher, Jr. is awarded a Master of Arts degree by the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton University).
1756: On April 8, at King’s Chapel, Boston, Massachusetts, Jonathan marries Abigail Allen (1727-1771), the daughter of Jeremiah and Abigail Allen.
Jonathan and Abigail Belcher’s portraits are painted by the famous artist, John Singleton Copley (1738-1815).
1757: On January 22, Jonathan and Abigail have their first child, Jonathan, born at Halifax, Nova Scotia.
1758: The Board of Trade recommends that a modified version of Belcher’s basic idea for electing an Assembly be followed.
In October, following their election by the people, the members of Nova Scotia’s Assembly meet. This marks the beginning of Nova Scotia’s representative government.
1759: On May 17, at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Jonathan and Abigail have their second child, Gilbert-Jonathan.
1760: On June 3, at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Jonathan and Abigail have another child, Mary-Emilia-Elizabeth.
After Governor Charles Lawrence dies in October, Jonathan Belcher, Jr. becomes the acting governor of Nova Scotia, and the President of Nova Scotia’s Council. He is the acting governor of the colony from 1760 to 1763.
1761: In March, the British government commissions Jonathan to be the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, and re-commissions him as Chief Justice. He is lieutenant governor from 1761 to 1763.
In the summer, Jonathan negotiates peace treaties with the Indians.
1761: On November 12, at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Jonathan and Abigail have another child, Abigail.
On November 21, Jonathan is sworn in as Lieutenant Governor.
1763: On July 22, at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Jonathan and Abigail have another child, Andrew. This Andrew Belcher (1763-1841) later becomes a member of the Nova Scotia Council and the father of Admiral Sir Edward Belcher (1799-1877).
1765: Jonathan and Abigail have another child, Jonathan, who is born on August 14, at Halifax, Nova Scotia.
1767: The Perpetual Acts of the Province of Nova Scotia to 1766, which were edited and revised by Chief Justice Belcher, are published.
1770: On May 7, Jonathan and Abigail have another child, William-Jeremiah, born at Halifax, Nova Scotia.
1771: On October 9, Chief Justice Jonathan Belcher, Jr.’s wife, Abigail, dies.
1776: On March 29, Chief Justice Jonathan Belcher, Jr. dies at Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Genealogy of Jonathan Belcher, Jr.
William Belcher (d. 1580)
of Guilsborough, Northamptonshire, England
of Kingswood, Wiltshire, England
Thomas Belcher (d. 1618)
of London, England
Andrew Belcher (d. 1673)
of Sudbury and Cambridge, Massachusetts
Captain Andrew Belcher, Jr. (1648-1717)
of Cambridge, Massachusetts
Governor Jonathan Belcher (1682-1757)
Governor of Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, and New Jersey
Founder of Princeton University
Jonathan Belcher, Jr. (1710-1776)
First Chief Justice of Nova Scotia
Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia
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