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John Hamilton Gray

Portrait: John Hamilton Gray


John Hamilton Gray.

(1814 - June 5, 1889)

John Hamilton Gray of New Brunswick was one of two men by that name involved in the Confederation Conferences. He was a long-standing supporter of British North American union. He was also a respected lawyer, who went on to serve on the Supreme Court of British Columbia after his political career.

John Hamilton Gray was born at St. George, Bermuda, in 1814; his father, although based in Halifax, was naval commissioner there. He studied at King's College in Windsor, Nova Scotia, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. He later studied law and was admitted to the bar in New Brunswick by 1837. He established a practice at Saint John, where he developed a reputation as a powerful courtroom speaker. For his legal efforts, he was made a Queen's Counsel in 1853. Gray also joined the colonial militia in 1840. He married Elizabeth Ormond, the daughter of an army associate, while on a trip to Ireland in 1845.

Gray began his political career in 1850, when he was elected to the provincial assembly as a reformer (despite his conservative roots). He became a leading member of the opposition, with a reputation even among his opponents as a great orator. He so impressed the governor that he was invited to become a member of the Executive Council. However, his acceptance of the position drew criticism from his reform colleagues, and gained him a reputation for vacillation that followed him for the rest of his career. Gray became the Tory leader in the assembly, but when the Liberals won a majority in 1854, he was once again relegated to the opposition. Two years later, in 1856, the provincial governor dismissed the Liberal Executive Council and replaced them with a government led by Gray.


"The Chesapeake Affair", The British Colonist (Halifax), December 22, 1863.

Gray's tenure as premier was brief. By 1857, he was unable to muster a majority in the assembly, and he resigned. He did attempt a political comeback in 1860, realigning himself with the Liberals, but was defeated in the election of 1861. While he was out of politics, Gray took part in several official inquiries, acted as a facilitator in fishing disputes between the United States and Great Britain, and was part of a commission looking at the absentee landlord question in Prince Edward Island. Gray also practised law, and acted as counsel for three New Brunswick men involved in the Chesapeake Affair.

Despite his changing political affiliations, Gray was a long-time supporter of British North American union. He made remarks supporting the idea as early as 1849. After being re-elected to the provincial assembly in a by-election in the early 1860s with the support of the premier Samuel Leonard Tilley, Gray was chosen as a delegate to the Charlottetown Conference and the Québec Conference in 1864. The extreme unpopularity of union in the province of New Brunswick saw Gray and many of his colleagues lose their seats in the general election of 1865. An anti-Confederation coalition led by Albert Smith took power, but was unable to effectively unite its disparate elements; after another general election in 1866, Tilley returned as the premier. Gray was re-elected to the assembly but was no longer at the centre of the struggle for union; he was not invited to the London Conference.

Gray was elected to the House of Commons in the first federal election after Confederation, but did not stand for re-election in 1872. Instead, he sought and was given an appointment to British Columbia's Supreme Court, beginning in 1872. As a judge, Gray was noted for his defence of the rights of the Chinese, and for his authoritative work on Canada-United States boundary issues. In 1889, Gray was planning a reception for Tilley when he was stricken with paralysis. He died that June.


"Gray, John Hamilton". -- Macmillan dictionary of Canadian biography. -- Ed. W. Stewart Wallace. -- 4th ed. -- Toronto : Macmillan of Canada, 1978. -- P. 313-314.

Wallace, Carl M. -- "Gray, John Hamilton (NB Premier)". -- Canadian encyclopedia : year 2000 edition. -- Ed. James H. Marsh. -- 3rd print ed. -- Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, 1999. -- P. 1011.

Wallace, C. M. -- "Gray, John Hamilton". -- Dictionary of Canadian biography. -- Ed. Francess G. Halpenny. -- Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1982. -- Vol. 11, p. 372-376.