Joseph Howe
Chapter XII - Howe's Social Qualities


IT is much easier to picture a great man in his public capacity, to report his speeches, to dramatize his actions, to reproduce his sentiments in relation to matters of public concern than it is to portray his personal characteristics in his every day life. In Mr. Howe's case, these constitute such an interesting and striking phase that one seems baffled in the attempt. A more delightful personality could scarcely be imagined. Although occupying prominent official positions most of his life, Howe was absolutely free from the conventional pose of an official personage. When not actively employed in public duties, (and no one led a busier life, made more speeches, wrote more articles, attended to more official routine,) he was not happy for long without congenial companionship. Did he leave the provincial secretary's office some afternoon at four, it was to seize upon a congenial friend and take a long ramble, telling stories, cracking jokes, or indulging in poetic outbursts; or, again, seeing a good, fat, Irish ward-politician near, he would, in a most genial manner, take him by the arm and whisper that he was greatly perplexed with some important matter of public policy and was earnestly desirous of having his advice. He would then gravely unfold the situation and hold earnest converse with his Hibernian friend, luring him into precisely the view of the situation which he himself desired to adopt, and, finally, leave him with a warm pressure of the hand with the impression upon his mind that he was himself playing an important part in the government of the country and that Joe Howe was the boy who knew how to do things.

Picture a great Liberal demonstration held in one of the country districts of Nova Scotia to celebrate some electoral victoryŚlarge crowds gathered in a spacious field with baskets of provisions and little family picnics in all quarters. At last a team drives up with four spirited grey horses, decorated with the Liberal colours, and in a large and handsome carriage sit the Hon. Messrs. Young, Archibald, Annand, McCully, Weir and Howe. As they alight, the leading men gather round and are presented one by one to these distinguished statesmen. Messrs. Young, Archibald, etc., in a dignified posture, remain in a group to receive their friends and admirers in a manner befitting their high official station. Where is Howe? In an instant he is flying among the crowd, speaking to every woman he knows, probably calling her by her christian name. At one moment he has the charming Mrs. Smith upon his arm, perfectly happy to be thus honoured by the great Joe Howe, but in five minutes he has reached Mrs. Brown, another admirer, and by some subtle process not quite easy to describe, Mrs. Brown is seen smiling and happy leaning upon Mr. Howe's arm, until, indeed, the delightful Mrs. Jones is seen, whereupon, by a similar process, Mrs. Jones is likewise revelling in the rapture of a stroll with Mr. Howe. The other dignitaries are entertained at luncheon in a special tent provided for this purpose. Is Howe there ? Not a bit of it. He is lying on the ground taking his picnic with the Robinsons with an admiring circle from the other families gradually gathering about him. When the time for speaking arrives, the chairman is conducting Messrs. Young and company, in fitting form, to the platform, which has been erected and festooned for the occasion. Where is Howe? With a cigar in his mouth, flying about, arranging that all the best seats near the platform are filled with his lady friends, and this lasts until, finally, he is captured and himself conveyed to the platform and planted among the distinguished speakers. Solemn discussions of the great public questions ensue in speeches by Messrs. Young, Archibald and McCully, but when Joe Howe is upon his feet everybody is on the qui vive for they know that some delightful bit of humour will characterize his opening remarks, and then they look for an outburst upon the local scenery and historical memories of the place. When at last the period comes, when, throwing back his coat, he begins to dwell upon public affairs, the heart of every man, woman and child in the vast audience thrills with the magnetic home-made eloquence, which falls naturally and gracefully from his lips.

Again, fancy him entering one of the innumerable homes he was accustomed to frequent in his constant rambles over the province. The moment he was inside the door, he would fling his arm round the wife and salute her with a hearty kiss. If there were any grown up girls in the house, they were submitted to the same salutation. If, in their modesty, they ran away, they were chased and pursued until they were captured and kissed, and this was Howe's almost invariable custom for thirty years. Once in the family circle, all dignity was laid aside and every moment was occupied with delightful and entertaining conversation. He told stories to the children and entertained the grown ones by incidents of his travels, and anecdotes of every kind which had occurred during his varied experiences in the world.

In this 'way he became a domestic personality in hundreds, if not thousands of homes in Nova Scotia. Women were absolutely devoted to him, and taught their children to regard him as a hero. If death came to any household with which he was thus closely linked, there promptly came a beautiful letter from Howe (and who could write such letters?), full of sympathy and consolation. And these, we may be sure, were not written for dramatic effect, but because his own heart was warm and his own great soul sympathized with sorrow in every form. His private correspondence with his wife and children reveals a warmth of affection and tenderness of soul rarely found in the. correspondence of any of the world's heroes whose letters have seen the light.

To old men who had been associated with his early struggles, Howe was especially devoted. In his wanderings over the province he never passed by a house in which an old friend lived, without entering and talking to him in the most affectionate terms. In 1868 when he was travelling through the western part of Nova Scotia, he entered the house of an old man who had passed his eightieth year and was confined by age and infirmity to his easy chair by his fireside. He had been one of Howe's devoted friends in early days. Howe sat down beside him, talked in loving terms of their old associations, and on rising to leave him, kissed his furrowed cheek, down which could be seen rolling tears of affectionate and grateful appreciation. With such incidents as these, a matter of almost every day occurrence, is it any wonder that he became in a peculiar degree, and in a sense, quite different from that which pertains to the average public man, the idol and hero of thousands of Nova Scotians, became, indeed, a distinct figure in the public mind, and a living, breathing personality in the public imagination? Johnston, Young and Tupper could be mentioned with a fitting sense of provincial pride, and at a later date after confederation Sir John Macdonald, Blake, Mackenzie, Laurier and Thompson evoked the respect and admiration due to eminent men who were dedicating their lives and energies to the public service. But people thought of Joe Howe in a different sense. He was part and parcel of the daily life and thought of the people, woven into the very woof of their existence.

A bitter day came to many devoted friends of Mr. Howe in 1869, when, for reasons which have been amply set forth, he felt it necessary to accept confederation and take a seat in the government of Sir John Macdonald. The antipathy to confederation at that time was very intense. The method by which it had been forced upon the country in defiance of the popular will, had aggravated the bitterness, and coming so soon after the splendid victory of 1867, Howe's action bore the semblance, in the popular mind, of desertion and treason. The old veterans who had for thirty years fought under Howe's banners, and loved him as a brother, were forced, with bitterness of heart, to cast him from them as one who had betrayed their cause. In his goings to and fro in the province in the latter part of 1868, he was met by many cold looks, and some lifelong friends refused to give him their hand, and it can easily be imagined how keen and poignant would be the pain which this would cause to a warm arid sensitive nature. If there was one yearning desire ever present in Howe's heart, it was that he should maintain the love and confidence of his fellow-countrymen. In his speech at Windsor at the first meeting after he had taken office in 1869, he referred at the close of his address to the fact that it had been charged upon him that he had deserted his principles and entered the government from ambition. Throwing back his coat in the old familiar way, he uttered these passionate words:Ś

"Ambitious, am I? Well, gentlemen, I once had a little ambition. I was ambitious that Nova Scotia should have a free press and free responsible government. I fought for it and won it. Ambitious I am I ? Well, gentlemen, an old man at my time of life can be supposed to have but little ambition. But, gentlemen, I have a little ambition, I am ambitious that when, in my declining years, I shall ride up and down the length and breadth of Nova Scotia, I may receive the same sympathy, confidence and love from her sons as in days gone by I received from their sires."

No public man that ever lived in British America and few that have ever lived in the world, within the range and sphere in which they moved and acted, exercised such a far-reaching influence upon the people within the circle of their influence as Joe Howe. To his impulses may be traced the race of clever men whom Nova Scotia has contributed to the public life of Canada, and not alone to public life, but to the literary and intellectual life of the country. From the period at which Howe was at the zenith of his power until after his death a great number of the brighter Liberals were insensibly imitators of his style and manner. The familiar gestures which were so characteristic were seen reproducing themselves in many young men who were mounting the political platform and essaying to influence the world with their oratory. It is impossible to estimate the number of young men in Nova Scotia whose breasts were stirred to honourable ambition by the writings and speeches and the personal influence of Joseph Howe. When he left his party, if indeed his action can be so characterized, in 1869, some of those who had been his lifelong admirers and imitators were among those who went to Hants county to confront him on the platform during his campaign, and it was not far from ludicrous to see young lawyers, whose eloquence had been fashioned in Howe's school, actually hurling their thunder bolts at the old man's head, with gestures and intonations which had been aptly borrowed from their former hero. These small lights were seeking to destroy their old master by the inspiration which they had drawn from his breath.

Howe had an inordinate and undying love for the beautiful and picturesque, and as he went abroad in Nova Scotia, he sought in every way to inspire a taste for the aesthetic among the people.

For trees especially he had a great love. It is related that on one occasion when passing along the road near Truro, he saw a farmer beginning to cut down a beautiful row of willows which grew by the roadside in front of his house. Howe was shocked, jumped from his carriage and expostulated. The farmer replied that he could sell them and he needed the money. Howe said: "What will you take to let them stand?"

"Oh, I suppose five pounds," answered the farmer, and Howe instantly drew from his purse the five pounds, and those who travel in the vicinity now can see to this day the beautiful row of trees still standing.

In religion, Howe was absolutely free from sectarian prejudices or denominational influence. His father belonged to a sect called Sandemanians, or Glassites, who held somewhat peculiar views, accepting the Bible as final authority, but being utterly opposed to an established church and a paid clergy. A small knot of these men, of whom Mr. John Howe was one of the leaders, used to gather together on Sundays for worship, and so strong was Mr. John Howe's prejudice against a paid clergy that, although naturally a man of generous instincts, he would refuse to remain in the same room with a salaried clergyman. As the result of his father's lack of denominational affiliations, Howe never united himself with any religious body nor could he be reckoned as an adherent of any particular religious sect. He was, nevertheless, a man of strong religious feelings. No man in his day studied the Bible more thoroughly and carefully than he, and he constantly expressed the opinion that its literature was among the finest and its truths the most sublime. Quotations from the Scriptures are found inwoven into his public utterances on all occasions. Howe's habit of going to the country and actually living in the fields for a week or ten days has been already mentioned. One of the places which he thus frequented was the house of a coloured couple named Deers, at Preston. One evening a Baptist minister happened to arrive at the Deers's house to remain all night. He details the fact that during the evening he got into free conversation with Howe and when the time came for bed the latter informed him that he had made a practice during his whole life of reading a passage from the Scriptures before going to bed. He got down the Bible for this purpose, and after he had finished reading, asked the minister to engage in prayer. But it is proper to add that Howe bore no general character for piety during his active political life. On the contrary, his duties brought him in contact with ward politicians and his convivial nature brought him boon companions at the festive board, and his reputation was that of a jolly good fellow. Those only who knew him intimately were able to appreciate the strong undercurrent of religious feeling which pervaded his nature. During his life he usually went to church wherever he was, and it mattered to him not in the slightest degree whether the service was Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist or Methodist. Mrs. Howe belonged to the Presbyterian faith and in Halifax Mr. Howe frequently attended church with her.

Howe was constantly endeavouring in Halifax to keep up some sort of interest in intellectual matters. It was very considerably by his personal influence that the Mechanics' Institute became a permanent and useful institution in the city, maintaining a course of lectures and literary discussions. Howe himself was a frequent contributor to the lecture course and a constant attendant of the other lectures, frequently moving the vote of thanks and imparting new life to the discussion by his happy observations. It is related that on one occasion when Mr. George R. Young had lectured before the institute, Mr. Howe, in the course of the general discussion which followed, made some remarks in a spirit of banter touching certain features of the lecture, which were not altogether pleasing to Mr. Young, who, in responding to the vote of thanks which had been accorded him, took occasion to say that he did not come to such occasions with stale jokes bottled up in his breeches' pocket; to which Mr. Howe on the instant remarked that no one was in a position to state what jokes Mr. Young carried bottled in his breeches' pocket, but all could bear testimony to the fact that he never drew the cork !

Mr. Howe had ten children, of whom only two, Mr. Sydenham Howe and Mrs. Cathcart Thomson, are now living.


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