Joseph Howe
Chapter II - Colonial Government


THE political problems confronting the people of Nova Scotia in 1830, when Howe began to take an active part in political discussions, were essentially the same as those which were agitating all the provinces of British North America. The struggles of the next few years in all parts of British North America may be characterized as an evolution of the principles of self-government. The imperial government was somewhat perplexed to determine an accurate policy in respect of that portion of North America which had remained loyal to the empire during the great revolutionary struggle, and had Become the home of the United Empire Loyalists when the revolting colonies had obtained their independence. When the treaty of peace was signed in 1784, no very high estimate of the value of the remaining possessions in North America was entertained by the English people. The population was extremely small. Nova Scotia had only a few thousands of English-speaking people; New Brunswick was constituted a province not until 1784, and had but a paltry handful of settlers. Prince Edward Island was a small island with very few inhabitants, and Canada, which was the most important division of them all, meant at the beginning, for the most part, Lower Canada, which was preponderatingly French and governed very largely as a Crown colony.

The experience of the imperial authorities in governing the large English colonies, which had just successfully revolted, left them in a somewhat confused condition as to what course should be pursued in the government of those remaining loyal. If too much was conceded, they feared that revolt and independence would ensue; and, if too firm a policy was adopted, these small communities might be driven to cast in their fortunes with the republic beside them. To all, legislatures had been conceded, but to these legislatures all power was not committed. The legislative council, or second chamber, of all of them was composed of the direct nominees of the Crown, and these were chosen from the wealthy or official class especially devoted to maintaining the interests of the executive. The lieutenant-governor acted under a commission which gave him large control, and, therefore, while the legislature existed necessarily for the purpose of law-making, it did not for a moment possess the power of determining the political complexion or policy of the executive. It did not even possess the greatest leverage which the House of Commons from the earliest time has possessed, the control of supplies. The revenue of these provinces was derived from three sources: first, duties on certain classes of imports, which duties were collected by virtue of imperial acts, their control being vested in the governor; secondly, sales of Crown lands, also treated as a prerogative of the Crown, and the money received from these lands was at the disposal of the king's representative without respect to the legislature. In addition to these, there was another source of revenue derived from duties on imports imposed by the provincial legislature. The control of this money was in the hands of the people's representatives, but from the first two sources enough money was obtained for the purpose of carrying on the government, paying the salaries of officials from the lieutenant-governor down, including the judges and departmental officers of the government. Therefore, it was quite possible for the governor and his friends and officials to go on administering the affairs of the country according to their own views, whether the legislature was favourable or not, because they had at their own command the monies to pay their salaries and. administer executive functions generally.

The result of this condition of things could easily be foreseen. The official class would continue to please themselves, and as one favourite departed from the scene another favourite would be chosen to occupy his place, and in consequence the real functions of government would be in the hands of a privileged class, and the great mass of the people permanently excluded from all hope of participation therein.

Such were the conditions of government in all the provinces. In Upper Canada the governing class was dubbed "the family compact"; in Lower Canada it was "the oligarchy"; in Nova Scotia those supporting the government were called "Tories," but the substantial point at issue was the same in all. English-speaking people, wherever placed, will invariably struggle for the right of self-government. The people of England were the very first who insisted upon popular representation and continued the struggle for several centuries, until the power of the House of Commons ultimately overshadowed the power of both the Crown and the Lords. At the time of which we speak Great Britain enjoyed the full privileges of responsible government. No administration could exist for a moment which did not command the support of the House of Commons, and the power of the Crown was limited by checks and guards which the constitutional privileges of the Commons had securely grasped. The sovereign could spend no money until it had been voted by the Commons; he could carry on no war until the means for sustaining such war had been voted by the Commons; his advisers must always be men who had the confidence of the people as represented in the Commons. As all these various provinces adhered to Great Britain, and as a considerable portion of the population were the descendants of Loyalists who had sacrificed everything for British connection, naturally these men looked to England for models of government, and it was inevitable that nothing would ultimately satisfy them but a condition of responsibility to the people as full and ample as that which prevailed in the motherland.

Such a condition did not prevail in any of the British North American provinces in 1830. The lieutenant-governor, as has been seen, exercised powers under commission far in excess of those which any British sovereign would have dreamed of assuming. The members of the executive council were chosen at the will of the governor, and all the important offices of the province were in the hands of a few favourites, and, in the case of Nova Scotia, mostly members of the Church of England. It did not concern the members of the executive or such officials as the provincial secretary, the attorney-general, etc., whether the House of Assembly was favourable to their policy or not. Their tenure was the will of the Crown. If a vacancy in an important office occurred, the strings were at once pulled at Downing Street for appointment to the vacancy, and this system of favouritism and lack of responsibility to the popular will, not only prevailed in the capital and in connection with the government, but it existed in all the shire towns in respect to the county offices, such as sheriffs, prothonotaries and clerks of the Crown, customs officers, registrars of deeds, etc.

Previous to Howe's advent to the political arena, many men had arisen in the legislature who were disposed to enlarge the powers of the House and curtail the extraordinary powers of the governing authorities. In Nova Scotia, one anomaly, especially objectionable, existed. The executive and legislative councils were identical, that is, the same men who, in their capacity as a second chamber, passed upon all laws, constituted the executive council to execute them. In this council sat the chief justice, the bishop, the collector of customs and other officials. When acting as a legislative council, while the legislature was in session, this body sat with closed doors and its deliberations were as secret as when acting in its capacity as an executive council. Such men as S. G. W. Archibald, Alexander Stewart, Beamish Murdoch, Jotham Blanchard and others had already begun to assert the powers and privileges of the House of Assembly, and by a free criticism of the existing conditions had frequently come into conflict with the "Council of Twelve," as the legislative and executive council was then called, (owing to the fact that is was composed of twelve members). Through the influence and agency of these men, a large proportion of the population of the various counties had become imbued with liberal principles; but these leading reformers had always been careful to avoid any definite or far-reaching measures which would bring them into direct conflict with the governor and the influential men who surrounded him. At that time government house was the social centre of the city and no man who aspired to occupy an important place in the affairs of the province cared to risk exclusion from the governor's dinner table. The consequence was, that, notwithstanding the existence of a Liberal party contending for the rights of the people in the House of Assembly, nothing definite in the way of sweeping away existing abuses or of introducing a system of executive responsibility had been yet accomplished.

Mr. Howe as early as 1830 began in his newspaper to take an active part in the discussion of political matters, at first with considerable prudence and impartiality, but by degrees he became imbued with Liberal principles, and the columns of the Nova Scotian for the next five years exhibited a steady advancement on the part of Howe in the direction of ultra reform principles. In 1830 a general election took place, and Howe took an active part in supporting candidates of the popular party in this election. The composition of the assembly returned was decidedly favourable to those who were struggling for a system of popular government, but, during the five or six years that this legislature continued, nothing substantial was accomplished, and all the efforts of the so-called reformers ended in failure. They were, as a matter of fact, constantly overawed and baffled by the council of twelve. Howe, during this period began to write boldly in support of reform measures, and not only gave offence to the government by his attitude, but also drew upon his head the enmity of the Liberal members by stoutly demanding that they go forward and do the work for which they were elected.

In 1835 fate presented a great opportunity to Howe. At this time the city of Halifax had no charter and was governed as a part of the county of Halifax by a bench of magistrates appointed by the governor, and in no sense responsible to the people. The general belief then prevailing was that this bench of magistrates had become negligent and corrupt in the administration of the affairs of the city, and Howe was quite free with his criticisms of this body from time to time. At last he published a letter signed "The People," arraigning the magistracy of Halifax in scathing terms. The writer declared that he ventured to affirm, without the possibility of being contradicted by proof, that the magistracy had by one stratagem or another taken from the pockets of the people in fines, exactions, etc., amounts in the aggregate that would exceed £30,000. "Could it not be proved," he said, "and is it not notorious that one of the present active magistrates has contrived for years to filch from one establishment, and that dedicated to the poor and destitute, at least £300 per annum ?" He further declared that from the pockets of the . poor and distressed at least £1,000 was drawn annually and pocketed by men whose services the country might well spare.

The result of the publication of this letter was startling. The magistrates of Halifax, a powerful body, tendered their resignation, and they also demanded the prosecution of Howe for libeL The attorney-general submitted an indictment for criminal libel to the grand jury of the county, and a true bill was found. The magistrates believed, undoubtedly, at this moment that Howe, whose newspaper was becoming very troublesome to the governing class, was about to be destroyed. It was known that he was without means and that the entire influential class was hostile. He would be tried by a chief justice appointed by the governor, and a member of the council of twelve. He would be prosecuted by an attorney-general identified with the government and interested in maintaining the privileges of the chosen few. Once convicted and sentenced to imprisonment, as they hoped, his paper would be destroyed, he himself discredited and ruined, and a blow thereby struck which would have its due moral effect upon any other incipient reformer who might essay to follow in his footsteps.

Howe's conduct in respect to this libel suit marks in a striking manner the moral fibre of the man. He has furnished an account of his course when confronted with the indictment. This is probably the most authoritative statement of the matter:—"I went to two or three lawyers in succession, and showed them the attorney-general's notice of trial, and asked them if the case could be successfully defended. The answer was * No. There was no doubt that the letter was a libel. That I must make my peace or submit to fine and imprisonment.' I asked them to lend me their books, gathered an armful, threw myself on a sofa and read libel law for a week. By that time I had convinced myself that they were wrong and that there was a good defence, if the case were properly presented to the court and jury. Another week was spent in selecting and arranging the facts and public documents on which I relied. I did not get through before a late hour of the evening before the trial, having only had time to write out and commit to memory the two opening paragraphs of the speech. All the rest was to be improvised as I went along. I was very tired but took a walk with Mrs. Howe, telling her as we strolled to Fort Massey, that if I could only get out of my head what I had got into it, the magistrates could not get a verdict. I was hopeful of the case, but fearful of breaking down, from the novelty of the situation and from want of practice. I slept soundly and went at it in the morning, still harassed with doubts and fears, which passed off, however, as I became conscious that I was commanding the attention of the court and jury. I was much cheered when I saw the tears rolling down one old gentleman's cheek. I thought he would not convict me if he could help it, scarcely expected a unanimous verdict, as two or three of the jurors were connections, more or less remote, of some of the justices, but thought they would not agree. The lawyers were all very civil, but laughed at me a good deal, quoting the old maxim that 4 he who pleads his own case has a fool for a client.' But the laugh was against them when all was over."

Up to this period, although for seven years actively engaged in newspaper work, there is no record that Howe had ever undertaken to deliver a speech in public, and yet, rejecting the advice of the lawyers, he was proposing to face a court politically hostile, the attorney-general and associate counsel, and boldly make his own defence in a criminal action, in which under the rules of law, he would be precluded from offering evidence in support of the truth of the statements in the libel. The difference between a great man and an ordinary commonplace man is usually manifested by one or two striking incidents. The ordinary man, in Howe's situation, would have made his peace with the magistrates. A careful apology would have been drawn up and published in the Nova Scotian, the proceedings withdrawn, and the abuse not only continued but fortified by this token of cowardly surrender. The great man, the heaven-inspired hero, is he who is able to brush aside all considerations of expediency, all timorous opportunism, and recognizing the moral principles involved in the issue, boldly dares to put everything at stake and challenge fate. Such a man was Joseph Howe, and in the splendid heroism which characterized his action in 1835 we have the key to the qualities and character of one of the greatest men British America has yet given to the world.

The day of trial came. Sir Brenton Halliburton, the chief justice, presided, Mr. S. G. W. Archibald, the attorney-general, prosecuted, and with him was associated Mr. James F. Gray, a well known advocate. A jury was sworn, and Mr. Gray opened the case for the Crown. At the conclusion of the opening address Mr. Hugh Blackader was called to prove publication, but did not appear, because, being in warm sympathy with Mr. Howe, he refused to attend. Steps were about to be taken to issue a warrant for his arrest. Not to be excelled in generosity, Howe arose promptly and admitted that he was the proprietor of the Nova Scotian, and that the article had appeared in that paper on January 1st, with his knowledge. The Crown's case being thus admitted, Howe rose to speak in his own defence. That speech has been preserved and can be found in the "Speeches and Public Letters." It was delivered by a layman, unused to courts, and at that time unused to public speaking. Many of the topics dwelt upon in his speech were local in their character and are of no permanent interest to the world, but nevertheless, it is scarcely going too far to say that the whole history of forensic eloquence in British jurisprudence has rarely furnished a more magnificent address to a jury than Mr. Howe's, and certain passages of it will not suffer when placed side by side with the great forensic orations of Burke, Sheridan, Erskine and Webster.

One would have expected some timidity from a man situated as Howe was, but he had scarcely proceeded ten minutes before he assumed a bold and aggressive tone, and this he maintained to the end. He commented very early upon the fact that instead of taking proceedings against him civilly for libel, in which case he would have been able to furnish proof of the statements, they had chosen to proceed criminally, by which method all enquiry as to the truth or falsity of the libel was precluded, and only his motive in publishing it could be judicially enquired into. "Why," he demands, " if they were anxious to vindicate their innocence, did they not take their proceedings in a form in which the truth or falsity of the statements made could have been amply enquired into?" And then he answers the question in these terms:—

"Gentlemen, they dared not do it Yes, my' Lords, I tell them in your presence and in the presence of the community whose confidence they have abused, that they dared not do it. They knew that ' discretion was the better part of valour,' and that it might be safer to attempt to punish me than to justify themselves. There is a certain part of a ship through which when a seaman crawls, he subjects himself to the derision of the deck, because it is taken as an admission of cowardice and incompetence ; and had not these jobbing justices crawled in here through this legal lubber-hole of indictment, I would have sent them out of court in a worse condition than FalstafFs ragged regiment— they would not have dared to march, even through Coventry, in a body."

It is difficult to avoid the temptation of quoting many passages from this remarkable speech, but, as it occupied six and one-quarter hours in delivery and covers many pages, this is impossible. A paragraph or two of the peroration may be fittingly inserted, which cannot fail to impress any one possessed of a shadow of sentiment or imagination with the wonderful power of this young man.

"Will you, my countrymen, the descendants of these men; warmed by their blood ; inheriting their language; and having the principles for which they struggled confided to your care, allow them to be violated in your hands ? Will you permit the sacred fire of liberty, brought by your fathers from the venerable temples of Britain, to be quenched and trodden out on the simple altars they have raised ? Your verdict will be the most important, in its consequences, ever delivered before this tribunal; and I conjure you to judge me by the principles of English law, and to leave an unshackled press as a legacy to your children. You remember the press in your hours of conviviality and mirth - oh I do not desert it in this its day of trial.

"If for a moment I could fancy that your verdict would stain me with crime, cramp my resources by fines, and cast my body into prison, even then I would endeavour to seek elsewhere for consolation and support. Even then I would not desert my principles, nor abandon the path that the generous impulses of youth selected, and which my riper judgment sanctions and approves. I would toil on, and hope for better times—till the principles of British liberty and British law had become more generally diffused, and had forced their way into the hearts of my countrymen. In the meantime I would endeavour to guard their interests—to protect their liberties; and, while Providence lent me health and strength, the independence of the press should never be violated in my hands. Nor is there a living thing beneath my roof that would not aid me in this struggle; the wife who sits by my fireside, the children who play around my hearth; the orphan boys in my office, whom it is my pride and pleasure to instruct from day to day in the obligations they owe to their profession and their country, would never suffer the press to be wounded through my side. We would wear the coarsest raiment; we would eat the poorest food; and crawl at night into the veriest hovel in the land to rest our weary limbs, but cheerful and undaunted hearts; and these jobbing justices should feel, that one frugal and united family could withstand their persecution, defy their power, and maintain the freedom of the press. Yes, gentlemen, come what will, while I live, Nova Scotia shall have the blessing of an open and unshackled press."

He was replied to by the attorney-general, and the jury was charged by the chief justice, whose instructions to the jury were decidedly unfavourable to the defendant. In summing up he said:— "In my opinion, the paper charged is a libel, and your duty is to state by your verdict that it is libellous."

It is needless to say that the court-house was thronged from beginning to end of the trial, which occupied two days. After the judge's charge the jury retired, but they only deliberated ten minutes. When they filed into the box and pronounced their verdict—" Not guilty," the immense crowd in and out of the court-house burst into vociferous cheers. On leaving the court-house, Howe was borne to his home upon the shoulders of the populace. Bands paraded the streets all night, and Howe was compelled during the course of the evening to address the crowd from the windows of his house. He besought them to keep the peace, to enjoy the triumph in social intercourse round their own firesides, and to teach their children the names of the twelve men who had established the freedom of the press. Shortly afterwards a number of Nova Scotians residing in the city of New York raised a subscription and purchased a solid silver pitcher, bearing this inscription:—"Presented to Joseph Howe, Esq., by Nova Scotians resident of New York, as a testimony of their respect and admiration for his honest independence in publicly exposing fraud, improving the morals, and correcting the errors of men in office, and his eloquent and triumphant defence in support of the freedom of the press. City of New York, 1835."

This was forwarded to Halifax and presented to Mr. Howe publicly by a committee of leading citizens, and accepted by him in a graceful and modest speech.

This prosecution for libel, by one sudden bound, placed Howe in a most conspicuous place in the eyes of his fellow-countrymen. Early in the next year, 1836, the House of Assembly was dissolved and Howe and William Annand were chosen as the Liberal candidates for the metropolitan county of Halifax. Thus began the intimate friendship between these two men, which lasted without interruption until they separated, in 3869, upon the Repeal question. Both Howe and Annand were elected by large majorities. In his speeches on the hustings prior to this election, Mr. Howe laid down clearly the principles of government which he was seeking to establish in Nova Scotia. These may be epitomized in the following extract from one of his speeches:—

"In England, one vote of the people's representatives turns out a ministry, and a new one comes in, which is compelled to shape its policy by the views and wishes of the majority; here we may record five hundred votes against our ministry, and yet they sit unmoved, reproducing themselves from their own friends and connections, and from a harrow party in the country, who, though opposed to the people, have a monopoly of influence and patronage. In England the people can breathe the breath of life into their government whenever they please; in this country, the government is like an ancient Egyptian mummy wrapped up in narrow and antique prejudices—dead and inanimate, but yet likely to last forever. We are desirous of a change, not such as shall divide us from our brethren across the water, but which will ensure to us what they enjoy. All we ask is for what exists at home—a system of responsibility to the people extending through all the departments supported at the public expense."

Thus, at length, Howe has achieved a seat in the assembly of his native province. The situation at that moment demanded high service if the entrenched system of irresponsibility and favouritism was to be swept away, and a form of responsible government established. The task must fall upon the shoulders of a man especially fitted for this work. No man had up to this time appeared upon the scene who had given evidence of the qualities necessary to achieve this great purpose, and it must be understood that the process by which responsible government could be extorted from the imperial authorities and made applicable to one province would be available for all the other British American provinces, and, indeed, would constitute a model for colonial government throughout the empire. It may be fitting for a moment to examine Howe's endowments for the great task which was now before him.

Howe had a splendid physique and an excellent physical constitution. His height was a little above the medium, with broad shoulders, well expanded chest, and a neat, well-formed figure with tapering limbs. He was reputed at the time to possess great physical strength and power. While lacking a scholastic education, he had, nevertheless, the advantages of a thorough training in journalism and had improved his mind by a wide range of reading of the best authors. Shakespeare seems to have been his favourite, and he was intimately familiar with his plays. His temperament was buoyant, and he may be characterized as a splendid optimist. He was eminently social and brimful of humour, which bubbled forth from hour to hour in his daily intercourse with his fellow-men. His mental powers were of the highest order; his mind was incapable of narrow views, and he looked at all questions from the broadest prospective. He had acquired a matchless style in writing, easy, natural, terse, luminous and spiced with an unfailing touch of human nature and graceful humour. Previous to his great speech at his trial for libel, he was not known to possess any special talent as a public speaker. That occasion revealed remarkable powers of eloquence, and from the time he entered parliament to the end of his career he enjoyed without diminution the reputation of being one of the greatest orators of his day and generation. His style of public speaking differed totally from that of other great men in British America with whom he may be contrasted. These brought information and sound reasoning to their public utterances, but, while Howe was surpassed by none in the range of his knowledge on great questions which he discussed, and had extraordinary powers of lucidity in unfolding his views and presenting his ideas in a plausible and taking manner, he differed from all his compeers in the wealth of imagination which he could throw upon any subject with which he was dealing, the delightful humour, and, above all, the subtle and irresistible personal magnetism which marked all his great public utterances. These are rare endowments, but they do not constitute the supreme test of Howe's fitness for the great work before him. Intellectual endowments and capacity to speak and write effectively are important qualities for a public man and political leader, but, beyond these, great occasions require moral stamina, dauntless courage, and these constitute Howe's crowning glory. His father's instincts were Tory, his three elder brothers were distinctly in sympathy with the dominant Tory views of the day. All the influential agencies surrounding the capital and the outlying county towns were hostile to any radical change in the existing condition of affairs, and these elements formed a strongly entrenched power which it was difficult to resist and dangerous to attack. Howe, as has been said, was of an eminently social disposition and no one was better fitted to shine in society. To attack existing powers meant social ostracism, a penalty from which most men would shrink with dismay. It also meant that upon his head would fall all the thunder-bolts of ridicule and contempt which entrenched power can fulminate. Those who had been professedly fighting the battles in the assembly were not devoid of intellectual strength and of parliamentary eloquence and power, but they lacked the moral heroism which could challenge the worst and bring matters to a crisis. Such a man was Joseph Howe, and the events will presently show that he was one of those heroes so graphically portrayed in Carlyle, as now and then vouchsafed by Providence to mankind to straighten out the tangles which injustice and incompetency have created, and to introduce a new epoch into the conditions of human affairs. The history of the world is the biography of its great men. Howe was distinctly a maker of history.


Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus

Quantcast