The Tribune of Nova Scotia
Chapter II. Birth and Training


Howe was born on the 13th of December 1804, in an old-fashioned cottage on the steep hill that rises up from the city side of the Northwest Arm, a beautiful inlet of the sea stealing up from the entrance of the harbour for three or four miles into the land behind the city of Halifax. A 1 lawn with oak-trees round the edges,’ a little garden and orchard with apple and cherry trees, surrounded the house. Behind, sombre pine-groves shut it out from the world, and in front, at the foot of the hillside, the cheery waters of the * Arm ’ ebbed and flowed in beauty. On the other side of the water, which is not much more than a quarter of a mile wide, rose knolls clothed with almost every native variety of wood, and bare rocky hills, with beautiful little bays sweeping round their feet and quiet coves eating in here and there. A vast country, covered with boulders and dotted with lovely lakes, stretched far beyond. Amid these surroundings the boy grew up, and his love of nature grew with him. In later years he was never tired of praising the ‘ Arm’s enchanted ground,’ while for the Arm itself his feelings were those of a lover for his mistress. Here is a little picture he recalls to his sister Jane’s memory in after days :

Not a cove but still retaineth
Wavelets that we loved of yore,
Lightly up the rock-weeds lifting,
Gently murmuring o’er the sand;
Like romping girls each other chasing,
Ever brilliant, ever shifting,
Interlaced and interlacing,
Till they sink upon the strand.

In his boyish days he haunted these shores, giving to them every hour he could snatch from school or work. He became very fond of the water, and was always much at home in it. He loved the trees and the flowers; but naturally enough, as a healthy boy should, he loved swimming, rowing, skating, lobster-spearing by torch-light, or fishing, much more. He himself describes these years:

The rod, the gun, the spear, the oar,
I plied by lake and sea—
Happy to swim from shore to shore,
Or rove the woodlands free.

In the summer months he went to a school in the city, taught by a Mr Bromley on Lancaster’s system. ‘What kind of a boy was Joe?’ was asked of an old lady who had gone to school with him sixty years before. ‘ Why, he was a regular dunce; he had a big nose, a big mouth, and a great big ugly head; and he used to chase me to death on my way home from school,’ was her ready answer. It is easy to picture the eager, ugly, bright-eyed boy, fonder of a frolic with the girls than of Dilworth’s spelling-book. He never had a very handsome face; his features were not chiselled, and the mould was not Grecian. Face and features were Saxon; the eyes light blue, and full of kindly fun. In after years, when he filled and rounded out, he had a manly open look, illumined always as by sunlight for his friends, and a well proportioned, ‘buirdly’ form, that well entitled him to the name of man in Queen Elizabeth’s full sense of the word. And when his face glowed with the inspiration that burning thoughts and words impart, and his great deep chest swelled and broadened, he looked noble indeed. His old friends describe him as having been a splendid-looking fellow in his best days; while old foes just as honestly assure you that he always had a ‘common’ look. It is easy to understand that both impressions of him could be justifiably entertained. Very decided merits of expression were needed to compensate for the total absence of beard and for the white face, into which only strong excitement brought any glow of colour.

Howe was fortunate in his father. John Howe was a Loyalist, of Puritan stock which had come to Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. When the American Revolution broke out, alone of his family he was true to the British flag. Many years afterwards his son told a Boston audience that his father learned the printing business in this city. He had just completed his apprenticeship, and was engaged to a very pretty girl, when the Revolution broke out. He saw the battle of Bunker’s Hill from one of the old houses here; he nursed the wounded when it was over. Adhering to the British side, he was driven out at the evacuation, and retired to Newport, where his betrothed followed him. They were married there, and afterwards settled at Halifax. He left all his household goods and gods behind him, carrying away nothing but his principles and the pretty girl.

In politics John Howe was a high Tory; in religion a dissenter of the dissenters, belonging to a small sect known as Sandemanians. But neither narrow orthodoxy in politics nor narrow heterodoxy in religion can hide from us the noble, self-less character of Joe Howe’s father. No matter how early in the morning his son might get up, if there was any light in the eastern sky, there was the old gentleman sitting at the window, the Bible on his knee. On Sunday mornings he would start early to meet the little flock to whom for many years he preached in an upper room, not as an ordained minister, but as a brother who had gifts—who could expound the Word in a strain of simple eloquence. Puritan in character, in faith, and in devotion to a simple ritual, he gave token that the Puritan organ of combativeness was not undeveloped in him. As a magistrate, also, he doubtless believed that the sword should not be borne in vain ; and being an unusually tall, stately man, possessing immense physical strength, he could not have been pleasant in the eyes of lawbreakers. The story is told that one Sunday afternoon, as Mr Howe was walking homewards, Bible under his arm, Joe trotting by his side, they came upon two men fighting out their little differences. The old gentleman sternly commanded them to desist, but, very naturally, they only paused long enough to answer him with raillery. ‘Hold my Bible, Joe,’ said his father. Taking hold of each of the combatants by the neck, and swinging them to and fro as if they were a couple of noisy newspaper boys, he bumped their heads together two or three times; then, with a lunge from the left shoulder, followed by another from the right, he sent them staggering off, till brought up by the ground some twenty or thirty feet apart. ‘Now, lads,’ calmly remarked the mighty magistrate to the prostrate twain, ‘let this be a lesson to you not to break the Sabbath in future'; and, taking his Bible under his arm, he and Joe resumed their walk homewards, the little fellow gazing up with a new admiration on the slightly flushed but always beautiful face of his father. As boy or man, the son never wrote or spoke of him but with reverence. ‘For thirty years' he once said, ‘he was my instructor, my playfellow, almost my daily companion. To him I owe my fondness for reading, my familiarity with the Bible, my knowledge of old Colonial and American incidents and characteristics. He left me nothing but his example and the memory of his many virtues, for all that he ever earned was given to the poor. He was too good for this world ; but the remembrance of his high principles, his cheerfulness, his childlike simplicity and truly Christian character, is never absent from my mind.’ It was John Howe’s practice for years ‘to take his Bible under his arm every Sunday afternoon, and, assembling around him in the large room all the prisoners in the Bridewell, to read and explain to them the Word of God. Many were softened by his advice and won by his example ; and I have known him to have them, when their time had expired, sleeping unsuspected beneath his roof, until they could get employment in the country.’ So testified his son concerning him in Halifax. When too old to do any regular work, he often visited the houses of the poor and infirm in the city and beyond Dartmouth, filling his pockets at a grocer’s with packages of tea and sugar before setting out on his expeditions.

After the Revolution Great Britain was not regardless of her exiled children. She treated the Loyalists with a liberality far exceeding that of the United States to the war-worn soldiers of Washington. John Howe was rewarded with the offices of King’s Printer, and Postmaster-General of Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and the Bermudas. But in spite of these high-sounding titles, the family income was small, and all the economies of Joe’s mother—his father’s second wife, a shrewd practical Nova Scotian widow—could not stretch it very far. At the age of thirteen young Joe was told that he must go to work. His eldest brother had succeeded to his father’s positions, and into the printing-office the boy was sent. He began at the lowest rung of the ladder, learned his trade from the bottom upwards, sweeping out the office, delivering the Gazette, and doing all the multitudinous errands and jobs of printer’s boy before he attained to the dignity of setting up type. ‘So you’re the devil,’ said a judge to him on one occasion when the boy was called on as a witness. ‘Yes, sir, in the office, but not in the Court House,’ he at once answered, with a look and gesture that threw the name back on his lordship, to the great amusement of all present.

His education went on while he learned his trade. The study of books, talks in the long evenings with his father, and intimate loving communion with nature, all contributed to build up his character. While he read everything he could lay hold of, the Bible and Shakespeare were his great teachers. He knew these thoroughly, and to his intimate acquaintance with them he owed that pure well of English undefiled which streamed with equal readiness from his lips and his pen. His taste was formed on English classics, not on cheap novels. His knowledge, not only of the great highways of English literature, but of its nooks, corners, and byways, was singularly thorough. In after years it could easily be seen in his speeches that his knowledge was not of the kind that is crammed for the occasion. It flowed from him without effort, and gave a charm to his ordinary conversation. Though living in the city during his teens, he spent as much of his time at home as he possibly could. He loved the woods, and as he seldom got away from work on a week day, he often spent Sundays among the trees in preference to attending the terribly long-drawn-out Sandemanian service.

His apprenticeship itself was a process of self-education. He worked the press from morn till night, and found in the dull metal the knowledge and the power he loved. One woman—a relative—taught him French. With other women, who were attracted by his brightness, he read the early English dramatists and the more modern poets, especially Campbell, Mrs Hemans, and Byron. He delighted in fun and frolic and sports of all kinds, and was at the head of everything. But amid all his reading and his companionships elsewhere, he never forgot home. He would go out to it in the evening, as often as he could, and after a long swim in the Arm would spend the night with his father. One evening his love for home saved him from drowning. Running out from town and down to the water below the house, he plunged in as usual, but, when a little distance out from shore, was seized with cramp. The remedies in such a case—to kick vigorously or throw oneself on one’s back and float—are just the remedies a man feels utterly unable at the time to try. He was alone and drowning when, his eye being turned at the moment to the cottage upon the hillside, he saw the candle for the night just being placed on the window-sill. The light arrested him, and ‘there will be sorrow there to-morrow when I’m missed’ passed through his mind. The thought made him give so fierce a kick that he fairly kicked the cramp out of his leg. A few strokes brought him to the shore, where he sank down utterly exhausted with excitement.

Had he been anything of a coward, this experience would have kept him from solitary swims for the rest of his life. But he was too fond of the water to give it up so easily. When working in after years at his own paper, midnight often found him at the desk or at the press. After such toil most young men would have gone upstairs (for he lived above his office then) and thrown themselves on their beds, all tired and soiled with ink; but for six or seven months in the year his practice was to throw off his apron and run down to the market slip, and soon the moon or the stars saw him bobbing like a wild duck in the harbour. Cleaned, braced in nerve, and all aglow, he would run back again, and be sleeping the sleep of the just ten minutes after. When tired with literary or political work, a game of rackets always revived him. There was not a better player in Halifax, civilian or military. To his latest days he urged boys to practise manly sports and exercises of all kinds.

Such a boy, fond of communing with nature, with young blood running riot in his veins, and with wild vague ideals and passions intertwined in his heart, inevitably took to writing poetry. But though he had the poet’s heart, he had not the concentration of the great poet. All through his life he loved to string together verses, grave and gay. Some of his pasquinades are very clever ; some of his serious verse is mellifluous enough ; but as a poet he is not even a minor bard. Yet one of his early effusions, named Melville Island, written when he was twenty, was not without influence on his future. Such was its merit that Sir Brenton Halliburton, a very grand old gentleman indeed, went out of his way to compliment the lad and to advise him to cultivate his powers. The few words of praise from a man deservedly respected roused in Howe the high resolve to make letters his career. He deluged the local newspapers with prose and verse, much of which was accepted. In 1827, when just twenty-three years of age, he and another lad bought the Weekly Chronicle, and changed its name to the Acadian, with Howe as editor-in-chief. Before the year had ended his young ambition urged him to sell out to his partner and to buy a larger and more ambitious paper, the Nova Scotian, into possession of which he entered in January 1828. To find the purchase-money he did not hesitate to go deeply into debt.

In the same month he added to his responsibilities and his happiness by his marriage with Catharine Susan Ann Macnab. Men’s wives bulk less largely in their biographies than in their lives. Mrs Howe’s sweetness and charm were an unfailing strength to her husband. She moderated his extravagance, and bore cheerfully with his habit, so trying to a housekeeper, of filling the house with his friends at all hours and at every meal. Above all, she never nagged, or said ‘I told you so.’ She believed in him and in his work, and cheered him in his hours of depression. A man of such buoyant feelings, with such charm of manner, was quick to feel the attractions of the bright eyes of the pretty Nova Scotian girls. Many a wife would have taken deep offence at her husband’s numerous but superficial flirtations, but Mrs Howe knew better; and when in 1840 he was called out to fight a duel, he could say with truth, in a letter which he wrote to her, and which he entrusted to a friend to be delivered in case he should not return: ‘ I cannot trust myself to write what I feel. You had my boyish heart, and have shared my love and entire confidence up to this hour.’

Thus in January 1828 Howe found himself with a wife to support and a newspaper to establish. He had to fight with his own hand, and to fight single-handed. When he commenced, he had not ‘a single individual, with one exception, capable of.writing-suparagraph, upon whom he could fall back.’ He had to do all himself: to report the debates in the House of Assembly and important trials in the courts, to write the local items as well as the editorials, to prepare digests of British, foreign, and colonial news; in a word, to ‘run the whole machine.’ He wrote voluminous descr ptions of every part of the province that he visited, under the title of ‘Eastern and Western Ramblings.’ Those rambles laid the foundation of much of his future political power and popularity^ He became familiar not only with the province and the character and extent of its resources, but also with every nook and corner of. the popular heart. He graduated with honours at the only college he ever attended—what he called ‘the best of colleges—a farmer’s fireside.' He was admirably qualified physically and socially for this kind of life. He didn’t know that he had a digestion, and was ready to eat anything and to sleep anywhere. These were strong points in his favour; for in the hospitable countryside of Nova Scotia, if a visitor does not eat a Benjamin’s portion, the good woman of the house suspects that he does not like the food, and that he is pining for the dainties of the city. He would talk farm, fish, or horse with the people as readily as politics or religion. He made himself, or rather he really felt, equally at home in the fisherman’s cabin or the log-house of the new settler as with the substantial farmer or well-to-do merchant ; he would kiss the women, remember all about the last sickness of the baby, share the jokes of the men and the horse-play of the lads, and be popular with all alike. He came along fresh, hearty, healthy, full of sunlight, brimming over with news, fresh from contact with the great people in Halifax,—yet one of the plain people, hailing them Tom and Jack, and as happy with them as if in the king’s palace. ‘Joe Howe came to our house last night,’ bragged a little girl as she skipped along to school next morning; ‘he kissed mamma and kissed me too.’ The familiarity was seldom rebuked, for his heartiness was contagious. He was as full of jokes as a pedlar, and had as few airs. A brusqueness of manner and coarseness of speech, which was partly natural, became thus ingrained in him, and party struggles subsequently coarsened his moral fibre. From this absence of refinement flowed a lack of perception of the fitting that often made him speak loosely, even when men and women were by to whom such a style gave positive pain. No doubt much of his coarseness, like that of every humorist, was based on honesty and hatred of shams. When he saw silly peacocks strutting about and trying to fill the horizon with their tails, he could not help ruffling their feathers and making them scream, were it only to let the world know how unmelodious were their voices. It was generally in the presence of prudes that he referred to unnamable things; and he most affected low phrases when he talked to very superfine people. Still, the vein of coarseness was in him, like the baser stuffs in the ores of precious metals; but his literary taste kept his writings pure.

From his twenty-third to his thirty-first year his education went on in connection with his editorial and other professional work. He became intimate with the leac ng men in the town. He had trusty friends all over the country. His paper and he were identified as paper and editor have seldom been. All correspondence was addressed, not to an unknown figure of vast, ill-defined proportions called Mr Editor, but simply to Joseph Howe. Even when it was known that he was absent in Europe, the country correspondence always came, and was published in the old way:

'Mr Joseph Howe, Sir.’ He cordially welcomed literary talent of all kinds, giving every man full swing on his own hobby, and changing rapidly from grave to gay, from lively to severe. He cultivated from the first the journalistic spirit of giving fair play in his columns to both sides, even when one of the sides was the editor or the proprietor. After he entered the House of Assembly, the speeches of opponents were as fully and promptly reported as his own. Able men—and the province could boast then of an extraordinary number of really able men gathered round him or sent contributions to the paper, while from all parts of the country came correspondence, telling Mr Howe what was going on. As he began to feel his powers and to know that if he had power in reserve; to hold his own with older and better educated men; and to taste the sweets of popular applause, that fame which he, like all young poets, had affected to despise appeared beautiful and beckoned him onwards. He loved his country from the first, and, as it responded to him, that, love increased, until it became one of his chief objects to excite in the bosoms of the people the attachments to the soil, that gave them birth, which is the fruitful parent of the virtues of every great nation.

To promote this object he made sacrifices. He published, between 1828 and 1839, ten volumes, connected with the history, the law, and the literature of the province, often at his own risk. Another of his literary enterprises was the formation of ‘The Club,’ a body composed of a number of friends who met in Howe’s house, discussed the questions of the day, and planned literary sketches, afterwards published in the Nova Scotian. Among those who thus gathered round him, such men as S. G. W. Archibald, Beamish Murdoch, and Jotham Blanchard are now only remembered by students of Nova Scotian history. Even the Irish wit and humour of Laurence O’Connor Doyle gives him but a local immortality. But the names of Thomas C. Haliburton (Sam Slick) and Captain John Kincaid of the Rifle Brigade are known even to superficial students of English literature, and no two men were more regular members of ‘The Club.’

Literary rambles and literary sketches were all very well, but what really roused enthusiasm in those days was the political struggle. ‘Poetry was the maiden I loved,’ said Howe in after years, ‘but politics was the harridan I married.’ In the early nineteenth century aristocracy and democracy, alike in politics and in society, were fighting their battle all over Europe, and the struggle had spread to the British colonies. In the first year of his editorship. Howe had a little brush with the lieutenant-governor and his circle, but not for some time did the crisis come. On the 1st of January 1835 an anonymous letter appeared in the Nova Scotian criticizing the financial administration of the city of Halifax and impugning the integrity of its administrators. Howe as editor was responsible. With his trial for criminal libel, and his speech in his defence, his real political life begins.


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