From Bibliotheca Canadensis, or a manual of Canadian Literature, by Henry J Morgan. Published in Ottawa in 1867.

John A Neilson, born at Dornall, Balmaghie, 1776.

Hon. John. A Neilson, Canadian Statesman and Journalist. Born at Dornall, parish of Balmaghie, Stewartry of Kircudbright, Scotland, 17th July, 1776. Died at Quebec, 1st February, 1848. Educated at one of the parish schools in his native country. (Sixth child of William Neilson & Isobel Brown).

When about 14 years of age, his family sent him to seek his fortune in Canada, placing him under the care of his elder brother, Samuel Neilson, who had just then succeeded his uncle, Mr. W. Brown, in the property and editorship of the Gazette (Quebec.) which had been first published by him and his partner, Mr. Gilmour, on the 21st June, 1764. Mr. S. Neilson died in 1793, and Mr. J. Neilson being yet a minor, the publication of the Gazette was conducted by the late Rev. Dr. Sparks, his guardian, until 1796, when, Mr. Neilson coming of full age, he assumed the direction of the paper, and from that period it took a new character of interest and importance. In 1810, the increasing demand for political intelligence and the importance of the public questions which began to be discussed in the legislature, induced Mr. Neilson to enlarge the size of the paper, and to publish it twice a week, and, as had formerly been the case, in both languages. Under the management of its judicious editor, the Gazette acquired a perceptible and increasing influence on public opinion, by the ability and discretion with which political subjects were discussed in it; the personal influence of its editor naturally increased with that of his journal; his capacity for civil affairs attracted the attention of his fellow citizens, and in 1818, he was brought forward as a candidate and elected to the provincial assembly, as a member for the Co. of Quebec ; he thus entered upon a new and more important political career; he was now in the full vigor of his age and ripened intellect, and, as might be expected from his character, he soon took a lead in the active business of the legislature.

At an early period after he became a legislator, he turned his attention to the measures necessary for the promotion of two of the most important and enduring interests of civil society - education and agriculture; and, as an auxiliary to the latter, he sought to effect an improvement in the system of granting the waste lands, to encourage the survey and exploration of unknown territory within the limits of the province, and thus to assist the development of the resources of the country. He bore a leading part also in the discussion of the grave questions which, after 1818, occupied the public mind, and led to differences between the executive government, and the Assembly, as to the control and appropriation of the public revenues - the accusations brought against public functionaries - the plurality of offices, and the alleged abuses or evils in the administration of government., Mr. Neilson's conduct was marked by firmness and impartiality, and by that spirit of justice which was part of his individual character. But as the Gazette was employed by government, as the vehicle of public notifications, and might thus be represented as in some sort its organ, Mr. Neilson, in 1822, in order to be free in his political capacity from even the appearance of any such connection, transferred the whole establishment to his son, Mr. S. Neilson, who, shortly afterwards, accepted a commission from government, as king's printer and editor, and for about a year that paper bore the imprint, "by authority."

But the commission having been revoked in 1823, the Gazette resumed and thenceforth retained the character of an independent paper, which it had borne since its establishment. The disputes between the executive government and the Assembly, on financial matters, had, in 1822, apparently become so irreconcilable, that the Imperial Government, pressed at the same time by Upper Canada to interfere in a question of finance pending between the 2 provinces, determined to propose to parliament to re-unite the provinces. The intelligence of this measure created general uneasiness among a large part of the people of Lower Canada, and a strenuous spirit of opposition to it being aroused, it was determined by those adverse to it to send delegates to England with representations against it. Mr. Neilson was chosen as the delegate from the district of Quebec, and Mr. Papineau, for that of Montreal, and through their remonstrances, supported by the influence of Sir J. Macintosh in Parliament, or rather by his withdrawal of the assistance which the government had understood him to have promised the measure was, in 1823, abandoned for the present.

In 1828, the discussions between the local government and the Assembly having become more and more exasperated, a petition of grievance was sent to England, addressed to the Sovereign and Parliament, complaining of the administration of the government, and bearing the names of upwards of 80,000 inhabitants of the province. Mr. Neilson was again chosen as a delegate jointly with Mr. D. B. Viger and Mr. Cuvillier, to support the complaints and demands of the petitioners before the imperial authorities; and a committee of inquiry having been appointed by the House of Commons, Mr. Neilson and the other delegates were examined, with many other witnesses; and a report was made favorable in the main to the views of the petitioners. The testimony given by Mr. Neilson, with respect to the Legislative Council, gave occasion subsequently to a charge against him of having recommended that that body should be made elective; but an unprejudiced perusal of his evidence, taken as a whole, will shew that then, as at all times afterwards, both in his editorial articles and in his place in the Assembly, he discountenanced all suggestions of fundamental changes, and maintained that the existing constitution and frame of government, if properly administered, were sufficient “for the peace, welfare, and good government of the province.”

In like manner, both before and after that celebrated inquiry, Mr. Neilson always expressed his entire confidence in the good intentions, liberality and justice of the British Government, in everything that concerned the welfare of the people of Lower Canada; and the recommendations of the report then made, being carried into execution, in a spirit of concession and conciliation by a new governor, (Sir James Kempt), had the effect of producing a greater degree of tranquility, in the province. On the 29th March, 1830, Mr. Neilson received the thanks of the House of Assembly for his services on this mission to England.

Nor was this vote of thanks the only public mark of approbation which Mr. Neilson's services to the people called forth. In January, 1831, a silver vase, which cost 150 guineas, (raised by public subscription) was presented to him at a public dinner, given to him by a large number of his fellow citizens, in testimony of their gratitude for his services in England in 1823 and 1828.

It was about this period that a difference of opinion on points of political importance began first to shew itself between Mr. Neilson and the leaders of the party with whom he had generally hitherto acted. His career was in nothing more remarkable than for his constant desire to maintain the ancient institutions, usages, and social arrangements of the French Canada portion of the population; and he vigorously opposed the measure called Le Bill des Fabriques, in 1831, which he considered as a needless and mischievous encroachment on the laws and customs by which the parochial ch. corporations had hitherto been governed, and, as tending to create disorder and confusion, where tranquility and contentment had generally prevailed before.

The separation thus made was widened still further at the same period, and the political quiet partially restored by the measures of administration in 1829 and 1830, was again disturbed by the agitation of the question of an elective Legislative Council, by the imprisonment of 2 publishers of newspapers for alleged libels on that body, and, by the deplorable events at the Montreal election, in 1832, when the editor of one of those papers was elected to the Assembly. When this unfortunate occurrence was made the subject of investigation before the committee of the Assembly, and the feelings of party and origin were aroused into irritated action, Mr. Neilson abstained from taking any part in the proceedings, and his conduct on that occasion was justly considered as indicating his marked disapprobation of the course pursued by his political friends, who strove to cast the whole odium of the occurrences in question upon the civil and military authorities.

He looked with ill-boding and prophetic eye on the measures of his party, as mischievously intermeddling with what ought to have been left to the proper tribunals of justice ; and from that period may be dated his entire separation from that party. The consequences of that separation to himself personally were soon evident; for, on the occasion of the general election of 1834, he was thrown out of the representation of the Co. of Quebec, for which he had sat for 15 years. In the session of 1834, the celebrated 92 resolutions on the state of the country, (which a minister of the crown described as a "paper revolution," but which have now almost become a reality,) were adopted, and were brought before the Imperial Parliament, in a petition, calling for organic changes in the constitution, and the general adoption of the elective principle.

Those who desired to maintain the constitution of the country unimpaired, formed themselves into "Constitutional Associations," throughout the province; and sent home petitions to the government and parliament in England. True to his principle of seeking administrative and opposing needless constitutional changes, Mr. Neilson accepted the appointment of a delegate from Quebec, associated with Mr. W. Walker, an advocate, of Montreal, to carry these petitions to England, and urge the objects of them there. Upon this third mission, Mr. Neilson proceeded to England in the spring of 1835, and communicated with the new Colonial Secretary, Lord Glenelg; but, in the month of July, the British cabinet determined to transfer the further inquiry into these political distractions to the province itself, by recalling Lord Aylmer, and sending out Lord Gosford, as governor-in-chief, with a commission also, jointly, with 2 others, as commissioners of inquiry. Mr. Neilson, consequently, returned immediately to Canada.

In this year, the health of his son, the ed. of the Gazette, which had been for some time failing, sank under the labor of a daily publication, (a change which had been adopted in 1832, when the Gazette appeared alternately in the two languages,) and he was obliged to go to the south of Europe; - and, having died at New York, on his return to his family, his father, at the age of 3 score, while suffering under this afflicted bereavement, and the disappointment of his hopes, resumed his editorial labors, in order to maintain the old establishment. Amongst the events of 1837 and 1838, Mr. Neilson was found true to those loyal principles, which he had always inculcated - recommending order and obedience to the laws, and respect to the constituted authorities. Notwithstanding the deplorable revolt of a portion of the population, he still showed himself the firm and constant friend of the French Canadian’s, and maintained that the mass of the people were untainted by disloyalty or disaffection. He was, in truth, attached to them as a people - he loved to talk of their primitive manners and customs, their simple character and habits, and the peculiar changes and occurrences of their history; for their clergy, too, he entertained a high respect; which respect was returned by equal respect and regard, on their part, which followed him, it is believed, to the last moments of his life, and still attends his memory.

The Union of the Provinces, which followed upon the events of 1837-8, was opposed by Mr. Neilson, so long as he conceived that opposition could be of any avail; - having been called to the Special Council in 1839, after the suspension of the constitution, he there voted against the Union, being supported only by 2 other members, and in June, 1849, at a general meeting of the inhabitants of Quebec, he prepared a series of resolutions, which were embodied in a petition sent to England, remonstrating against the measure. When the Act of Union passed, Mr. Neilson came forward, and was elected without opposition, as member for his old county in the united legislature. Mr. Neilson's rooted desire to stand by old institutions, and even usages, again manifested itself in his constant disapprobation of what is called " Responsible Government;" and, his opinion upon this innovation upon the old system of colonial government are to be found thickly scattered through his editorial articles in the Gazette, from the adoption of the resolutions upon this subject in the Assembly in 1841.

On the formation of a new government in November, 1843, he was urged to accept the honorable post of Speaker of the Legislative Council; but he declined it, as he had uniformly declined every office of emolument, in fulfillment of a public declaration he once made to his constituents, and it was not till the session of 1844, that he consented, though the offer had before been frequently made to him, to become a member of that branch of the legislature. He was now verging to the appointed period of 3 score years and 10, and his constitution betrayed the inroads of age. He had already seen many contemporaries go before him to the grave, with whom he had been connected in the relations of sincere friendship, or in those of political life; but he still continued to take that active part which he considered to be his duty, as a member of society, in all public measures, either within the legislature or without, which appeared to him conducive to the public weal; on such occasions, he shrunk not from meeting or co-operating with those who might be of an adverse political party, and the respect with which his suggestions were received in the public assemblies of his fellow citizens, shewed the weight attached to his opinions, and the confidence reposed in his ripened judgment and long experience in public affairs. It was at last in discharging a voluntary duty that he had taken upon himself, by attending with his brethren of St. Andrew's Soc. to receive the representative of his sovereign with due honor on his visit to Quebec, in Oct. 1847, that Mr. Neilson brought on himself the malady which proved ultimately fatal to him; he was on that occasion exposed for a considerable time to a chilling rain, but persisted in remaining to read the address of his fellow citizens, to His Excellency, on his first arrival in the ancient capital of Canada.

He was shortly after taken ill. and never fully shook off the disease; but in spite of increasing weakness, his spirit failed him not, nor his habits of application to business; so that neither his family nor his medical attendants perceived the full extent of his danger, and it may be said that he "died in harness," for the very evening before his death, he wrote off for the next issue of the Gazette, and with a steady hand, and almost without obliteration, the 2 remarkable articles, his last impressive words to his fellow citizens, which appeared in the Gazette of 21st Jan., 1848 ; the following day he was no more.

As a public journalist his labors, spread over 30 volumes of the Gazette, attest his industry, ability, firmness and moderation, in delivering to the public the opinions upon the various subjects of political discussion which occupied the public attention oftentimes during periods of great difficulty and agitation. In his style of writing he was a model for journalists - plain, simple, concise, terse and idiomatically English. When the occasion required, as may be seen in some of his communications to the Gazette, then conducted by his son, in the summer of 1832, after the fatal occurrences at the Montreal election, he threw into his compositions a degree of eloquence and force seldom surpassed in any public journal. His forte lay in compressing into a small compass of well arranged thoughts and well chosen words, what ordinary writers would spread over columns with a flux de paroles. To his earnest pursuit, as a legislator, of what seemed to him to be for the public good, ample testimony is afforded by the statute book of the province, and the journals of the legislative bodies to which he belonged.