John Murray Bliss, lawyer, militia officer, office holder, politician, colonial administrator, and judge was born 22 Feb. 1771 in Massachusetts, the only child of Daniel Bliss and Isabella (Isabel) Murray and they had two sons and four daughters.
The father of John Murray Bliss was a prominent Massachusetts lawyer and loyalist who immigrated to New Brunswick with his family after being appointed to the first provincial council in 1784. His mother’s father was Colonel John Murray, another prominent lawyer, who had been appointed a councillor in Massachusetts though he was never sworn in. In 1797 Bliss married his first cousin Sarah Green Upham, the daughter of Judge Joshua Upham, another member of the New Brunswick Council, and in 1819 their son George Pidgeon Bliss married the daughter of Thomas Wetmore, the attorney general of New Brunswick. By the 1820s the Blisses, Murrays, Uphams, and Wetmores thus composed an interrelated network of loyalist families and the acknowledged patriarch of “this powerful family,” as Lieutenant Governor Sir Howard Douglas*described it, was John Murray Bliss.
Bliss studied law in the offices of Jonathan Sewell and Jonathan Bliss, was admitted to the bar in 1792, and began to practise in Fredericton. In 1794 he became judge advocate to the forces in New Brunswick, a post he was to hold for nearly 20 years. As a youth he was known for his hot temper and in 1800 he fought a duel with Samuel Denny Street, both men escaping unharmed. Their dispute arose out of a court case and was in part a reflection of the intense rivalry among the members of an overcrowded bar for fame and fees. During the 1790s Bliss had been so despondent about his prospects that he had seriously considered returning to the United States, but he persevered and gradually built up an extensive practice.
After his father died, Bliss acquired the family estate in Lincoln, N.B., and completed the construction of Belmont, said to be the finest house in the colony.
In 1798 he had been placed in command of a militia company and when the militia was embodied in 1808 he served as a major; during the War of 1812 he was to act as provincial aide-de-camp to the administrator and commander of the forces, Major-General George Stracey Smyth. He succeeded Ward Chipman as solicitor general in 1809 and two years later he became clerk of the House of Assembly. In 1809 he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the assembly, but he was subsequently returned in a by-election in York County and took his place in the house on 26 Jan. 1814. On 17 May 1816 he was raised to the Council and on 9 July, with some reluctance since he claimed to be earning £1,500 per annum in private practice, he became an assistant judge of the Supreme Court, filling the vacancy left by the death of Edward Winslow. Because of the “delicate health” of Chief Justice Jonathan Bliss, the frequent absences of assistant judge Ward Chipman and later his son, Ward Chipman* Jr, and the refusal of Chief Justice John Saunders to go on circuit, Bliss performed an unusually large share of the business of the Supreme Court over the next two decades.
From 21 Feb. 1824 until the arrival of Sir Howard Douglas on 28 August, Bliss also served as administrator of New Brunswick. His most controversial action was the dismissal of George Shore from the offices of surveyor general, receiver general, and auditor general, and the appointment of his son George Pidgeon Bliss to those posts. Douglas was unable to confirm the appointment but to pacify the ex-administrator he persuaded the authorities in London to confer the position of receiver general on the younger Bliss. While Douglas remained in the colony he managed to maintain an uneasy balance of power and patronage between the older loyalist families and a rival faction which gravitated towards Thomas Baillie, the powerful commissioner of crown lands whose appointment had greatly diminished the value of the office of receiver general. After Douglas departed in 1829, Bliss persuaded the Council to vote for a substantial reduction in Baillie’s emoluments, but this recommendation was set aside by the British government. According to Douglas, Bliss had been “deeply wounded & mortified” by the decision of the Colonial Office to prohibit judges from acting as administrator, and during the 1830s he played a less active part in the political affairs of the colony, particularly after judges were excluded from the Council in 1831. In 1834 he applied for the position of chief justice but was turned down in favour of the younger Ward Chipman, who, although Bliss’s junior on the bench, had greater influence in London.
Later that year Bliss died while on a visit to Saint John; he was buried in the old Public Burial Ground in Fredericton. According to the cemetery map, this is all that’s left of his gravestone.
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