Common Clerk of Saint John

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Common Clerk of Saint John

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Dates of existence

fl. 185-


The city charter of Saint John, New Brunswick, granted the franchise to the freeholders or property owners and to freemen of the city. A freeman did not have to own property in the city in order to vote. The original Loyalist settlers were made freemen on the payment of a fee. Later, newcomers could be granted freeman status by the mayor, on payment of a fee determined by their social class.

In 1785 some 500 of 1100 male Loyalist settlers between the ages of 16 and 60 paid the fee and became freemen. After 1785, freedom was restricted to those sons and unmarried daughters of Loyalists who had served an apprenticeship with a master or merchant in the city. The original intent was to restrict the freedom of the city to the original freemen and their offspring forever. However, the charter allowed the Mayor to admit others to the freedom through purchase and throughout the colonial period, Saint John Common Council kept a fee schedule for this purpose. By payment of a fee ranging from £1 10s and £ 5, strangers could obtain citizenship. Gentlemen and merchants paid the full £ 5 fee; masters, ship captains, grocers and tavern keepers paid a lesser amount. School masters were at the very bottom of the scale. Those who served an apprenticeship paid £1.

Freedom of the city also provided an important economic benefit as the city protected the occupations of its freemen by denying employment to non-freemen. In practice it only enforced this rule against the higher status occupations although, in theory, exclusion was to include common labourers and servants from the urban labour force. Most menial workers never obtained the freedom but were permitted to spend their entire working lives in the city. Only British subjects could become freemen. Americans could work legally as servants, live outside the city or pay an annual fee of £25 to secure a license to work in the city. Between 1785 and1840 about 3000 people, almost all male, were admitted as freemen. Over the next 20 years, another 4000 were admitted.

By 1815, there were 6 legal divisions of men and single working women in the city: freeholders, freemen, non-freemen British subjects, aliens, blacks, and business women. Only freeholders and freemen possessed the franchise. Non-freemen British subjects could acquire the franchise and aliens who became naturalized citizens acquired the franchise after a period of at least 5 years. Blacks could not attain voting rights nor could single working women although they could be admitted as freemen.

In 1853, an act of the legislature established annual elections for Mayor, aldermen, councillors and constables. It required the Common Clerk of the city to prepare a list of freeholders and freemen eligible to vote in the election. He was also required to display the list in his office for at least 6 days before the election was held. Any freeman or freeholder who had been left off the list could have his name added on the presentation of appropriate proof of his status.

Source: T.W. Acheson, Saint John The Making of a Colonial Urban Community


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