Nova Scotia’s Strangest Son

Was Joe Howe a patriot or a traitor ? This riddle still stirs the Maritimes. But the angry editor who was fond of rum and wenches gave freedom of the Press to the nation and democracy to his province

DAVID MacDONALD April 1 1953

Nova Scotia’s Strangest Son

Was Joe Howe a patriot or a traitor ? This riddle still stirs the Maritimes. But the angry editor who was fond of rum and wenches gave freedom of the Press to the nation and democracy to his province

DAVID MacDONALD April 1 1953

Nova Scotia’s Strangest Son


Was Joe Howe a patriot or a traitor ? This riddle still stirs the Maritimes. But the angry editor who was fond of rum and wenches gave freedom of the Press to the nation and democracy to his province


JOSEPH HOWE, Nova Scotia’s immortal enigma, has been dead for nearly eighty years. The inscription on his granite tombstone says as much, but it’s difficult to prove. Bluenose politicians out in the hustings mention his name as often as taxes for if, stall works votegetting magic. He crops up frequently in the provincial legislature’s debates and his picture moves from the right, to the left of the Speaker’s chair as Liberals and Tories change places in the circular assembly.

Nova Scotians, who do more than their share of looking back, have no trouble remembering Joe Howe. His name is linked with their best and worst moments in history. Many revere him as the greatest man who ever lived. A few claim he was a vain popinjay who sold out his province and betrayed those who trusted him. Saint and sinner, patriot and traitor— he was called them all.

Howe’s entire life was a riddle. A man with practically no formal education, he was one of the most brilliant of his era; the conqueror of a despotic form of government, he wielded as much power as any dictator; though he dreamed of a united Canada, he fought Confederation; and, unable to beat his enemies, he joined them.

For almost forty years this burly big-nosed man with the ghostly white face was the dominant figure in Nova Scotia. Wherever he went idolizing crowds met him. Farmers and fishermen would brag that Joe Howe had spent a night with them and discussed the problems of the day over a bottle of rum. Young men in the towns imitated his speech and gestures and copied his light-grey suit and tall white hat.

Newspaper editors of the old school were supposed to be courageous two-fisted crusaders. Howe was, in spades. He first began to attract, attention, this ugly muscular young man with the too-large head, as the editor of the Nova Scotian, a weekly published in Halifax. He had quit school at thirteen and gone to work. While gentlemen’s sons finished their schooling in England Howe set hand type in his father’s printing shop. Though his father was postmaster at Halifax he was always poor and Joe was put to work to help the family.

Halifax society snubbed Joe, who had a reputation for chasing wenches and drinking. But he combined these pursuits with a diligent study of the Bible and the classics and long hours in the dark print shop. When he Continued on pape 30

was twenty-four Howe bought the Nova Scotian and hit out on his own.

On foot or on horseback he would roam all over the province picking up news and the local talk. Most of it in those days was about government. Nova Scotia was under a virtual dictatorship. An executive council of twelve men, chosen by British authorities from the wealthy class, ruled with a free hand, unhampered by any responsibility to the people. There was an elected legislature but it had little or no power.

In his travels Howe had seen many signs of graft and corruption. Nova Scotians were being bled white by their rulers. He began to write increasingly bold attacks on the lieutenant-governor, a Briton, and his council and to call for reform. By 1835 the spirit of unrest that led to bloodshed in Ontario and Quebec could be felt all over Nova Scotia. The people were ready to act, but they had no leader—not until their enemies gave them one.

On Jan. 1 a letter signed by “The People” appeared in the Nova Scotian. If; accused the magistrates who governed Halifax of negligence and corruption.

The magistrates hit back They resigned and demanded that the attorney-general prosecute Howe for criminal libel. To the surprise of no one he complied. To preside over the trial he named the chief justice, Sir Brenton Halliburton, who was a member of the Council of Twelve and one of Howe’s favorite targets.

The young editor went from one lawyer’s office to the next. They all told him his case was hopeless, that he should settle or go to jail. But Howe borrowed their books on the libel law and pored over them for a week.

The courthouse was packed the day Joe Howe and the Press went on trial. Men walked or rode miles to stand around outside in the cold. Howe stood up and admitted printing the letter— an outright admission of guilt, according to the law of the day. Then he began his defense. He had memorized only the two opening paragraphs. Howe was known as a writer, not a speaker. But, two minutes after he began, he noticed tears running down the cheeks of an old man. The man was a juror. At that moment Joe Howe became an orator. He threw back his frock coat in a gesture that was to become famous and he suddenly switched to aggression.

He demanded to know why the magistrates hadn’t charged him with civil libel. This would have given him a chance to prove his innocence by showing that the accusations against the magistrates were true and had been made in the interests of the people. To the jury, he said:

Gentlemen, they dared not do it. 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 valor 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 worse condition than Falstaffs ragged regiment . . .

Then, as the chief justice shifted about on his bench in obvious discomfort, Howe proceeded to show how the magistrates had stolen, even from the local poorhouse. He spoke for six hours and a quarter.

Sir Brenton told the jurors bluntly that they should find him guilty. They were back in ten minutes. When the foreman pronounced Howe not guilty, spectators and jurors alike broke into cheers. They lifted him on their shoulders and carried him through the streets. There was parading and singing all that night in Halifax. Thousands clamored outside Howe’s home until he appeared at a window and spoke to them. In the drawing rooms of the ruling classes there was no rejoicing. It was the beginning of an amazing era in Canadian history.

Overnight Howe had found a new power in his voice and the people had found their leader. He continued his attacks. “In England,” he wrote, “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.”

The ruling families hated Howe. Their women ran from him on the street and their men plotted against him. One night a young aristocrat, bolstered by rum, mounted bis horse and rode down the street to the Nova Scotian office. Sword drawn, he clattered up on the wooden sidewalk and started smashing the printing-shop windows, shouting for Howe to come out.

Seconds later the editor appeared in the doorway. His hands and trousers were covered with ink. His big white face reddened. As the swordsman took a swipe at him Howe grabbed the horse’s bridle and yanked it. His attacker lurched and Howe had him by the wrist. The sword slipped from his fingers. As bystanders shouted Howe pulled the man from his horse and knocked him out, then turned and walked into his shop.

In 1836 Howe and a close friend, William Annand, ran for the legislature and were elected as Liberal members. Four years later John Halliburton, the chief justice’s son, was infuriated by one of Howe’s articles about his father’s salary and challenged him to a duel. Howe couldn’t refuse. Early one morning he went out with his second. A dead shot, Howe took careful aim. Halliburton fired first, and missed. Howe drew a bead on his challenger, then raised the gun contemptuously and fired in the air. “Let the creature live,” he said, walking away.

His courage proved, Howe was later able to turn down another challenge with the acid comment that he couldn’t match shots with every public official whose worth be might contrast with his salary.

In his first session in the legislature Howe managed to have twelve resolutions passed against the lieutenantgovernor, Sir Colin Campbell, and his council. These had a certain nuisance value. Rut Howe’s letters to the Colonial Office in London gradually made it apparent that the Canadian colonials were mature enough for selfgovernment and that those in Nova Scotia were determined to win it. Campbell was recalled to England. In his place came Lord Falkland, a snobbish dandy whose chief talent consisted of being the son-in-law of William IV.

Falkland considered Nova Scotians uncouth savages. Accustomed to the niceties of court life he would rather have had to deal with the devil than with Howe, who made a point of acting as bluntly as possible in his presence. Falkland’s personal and hygienic sensitivities were shocked by the fact that the local idol would stop on the street, shake hands with a cod fisherman or a drover and then come into Government House and offer him the same hand.

Howe’s manner was hearty and fresh and his everyday speech was the coarse earthy speech of the people. When a visitor told him he had big ambitions for a man in such a small province he answered: “You don’t need a big field to raise a big turnip.”

Howe’s repeated attacks in the Nova Scotian, from public platforms and in letters to England brought about the retirement of four of the executive council and Falkland was instructed to replace them with Howe and three of his associates. The monopoly was broken. At thirty-six Howe became speaker of the legislature. He sold the Nova Scotian to have more time for politics.

In his dispatches back to England, Falkland frequently made snide remarks about Howe and other Nova Scotians. Howe warned that if the practice didn’t soon stop “some colonist will . . . hire a black fellow to horsewhip a lieutenant-governor.”

After a fight with Falkland, Howe resigned from the council in 1843, became editor of the Morning Chronicle (the Nova Scotian’s successor) and lit into the government again. He journeyed from one end of the province to the other, speaking at day-long open-air meetings. Everywhere huge crowds gathered to hear him. His name was a household word.

Ry 1846 Falkland found himself in a hopeless position. Howe had stirred the entire province against him. He packed up and sailed back to England. His successor, Sir John Harvey, was a more broad-minded man who soon sympathized with the reformers’ cause.

In the hectic election campaign of 1847 Howe spoke sixty times in ninety days and his speeches often lasted for hours. He was cheered by the shipbuilders of Hants, the fishermen of Sambro and the Scots of Cape Rreton. Though the German settlers of Lunenburg had always supported the government Howe dared to address a thousand of them.

“I half expected them to break my head,” he told friends. Instead they carried him off in triumph and elected his candidates.

A year before the election Sir John Harvey had offered Howe and several other Liberals a place in his Tory council. They refused, grabbing at the chance to make the next election a

straight contest between the parties.

Howe’s party won a big majority in the House of Assembly but the executive council gave no indication of resigning. The House met and passed a no-confidence motion. Finally, under pressure, the government resigned and Harvey asked the Liberals to form the cabinet. The government now had the support of the House and would stay in office only as long as it held it. Responsible government had been won in Nova Scotia without bloodshed.

The man who had done more than anyone else to win it marked the occasion by doing nothing for a month but playing with his children and reading to them. Howe’s popularity, by now even greater, was due as much to his captivating personality as to his deeds. When he visited a house he would shake hands with all the men and kiss all the wives and grown daughters. He would eat anything, sleep anywhere and go to any man’s church with him.

He did inherit from his father, however, an absolute inability to hold onto money. His house was always open and his obliging wife fed all comers. Howe would toss half-crown gold pieces to stable boys and pay off the debts of old supporters to get them out of jail. His friends gave money to him readily and asked no return. When he did repay them he insisted they accept interest.

“Brag of Your Country”

Once when Howe was practically broke he needed one thousand pounds in a hurry. Two friends put up five hundred pounds each. Years later, when one of them was sick and apparently dying, he remembered that he still held Howe’s note. If he died his executors would certainly press for it. He managed to get out of bed, found the old note and burned it. For this act of charity he was rewarded in this world. He survived the illness.

Howe was treated less cordially outside Nova »Scotia. In 1855, during the Crimean War, he was sent to the United States on a cloak-and-dagger mission to get recruits for the British Army. Most Americans, particularly those of Irish descent, were pro-Russian. Howe was mobbed in New York and had to flee through a hotel window.

Many stories were told of Howe in Nova Scotia that never found their way into history texts. His wife bore him ten children but he was generally credited with having made a greater contribution to the province’s population. He was also reputed to be a mighty man with a bottle. Defending one of his pleasures against crusading prohibitionists he said: “What the

Almighty has not done or attempted, what he could have done with so much ease, yet refrained from doing, I think it not wise for man to attempt.”

Howe probably founded that spirit which makes a career of being a Nova Scotian. “Roys, brag of your country,” he once told a crowd. “When I am abroad I brag of everything that Nova Scotia is or has or can produce; and when they beat me at everything else I turn around and say, ‘How high do your tides rise?’ ”

He didn’t know how to back away. Once when the Young Ireland Party had stirred a crowd against him he strolled among the muttering mob on election day, laughing and joking as he had done when they were with him. That night, after he had won, his supporters paraded him home. Speaking to them from his doorway he suggested that the Irishmen leave their shillelaghs on his front porch for firewood. Some of them did.

Howe resigned from the cabinet in 1854 to become Nova Scotia’s first chief railway commissioner. For twenty years he had advocated the building of colonial lines and, in 1851 at a public meeting in Halifax, he predicted that many listening to him would live to hear the whistle of a steam engine in the passes of the Rockies and to cross the continent in five or six days. As a commissioner he retained his seat in the House and drew a salary of seven hundred pounds.

While he was on his recruiting mission to the United States trouble was brewing for Howe at home. Each recruit that Joe found was given a card which bore the cryptic initials, N.S.R., which fitted the Nova Scotia Regiment, or, in a pinch, the Nova Scotia Railroad.

Among the enlistments he sent back to Nova Scotia were about sixty Irishmen. They were met by a William Condon, president of the Charitable Irish Society, an organization whose members wished Britain nothing but the worst in her war with Russia.

A short time after he talked with the American recruits they came out with the claim that they’d been hired to work on the Nova Scotia Railroad, not to join the regiment. The Irish in Halifax backed them and the governor, lacking proof to the contrary, put the recruits to work on the railroad. Howe was still away.

Other Men Had Other Dreams

A general election was called in 1855 but Howe, feeling his seat was safe, didn’t return until midway through the campaign. His opponent, Dr. Charles Tupper, a political unknown, handed him his first defeat. Tupper was aided by the Irish. The Liberal Party remained in power though, and a year later when a vacancy occurred in the House both parties asked Howe to take it. Before he did, rioting broke out in the rail camps. The Irish swore that no Protestants should work on the line and they began a reign of terror.

Howe stood up at a public meeting in Halifax and swore that at any cost he would fight against disloyalty to the crown. His stand was courageous, but unpolitic. Two fifths of Halifax was Catholic, and the Catholics had always backed him.

The Government was ousted on a want - of - confidence vote in which Catholics in the Liberal benches sided with the Tories. Two years later, after the religious issue had died down, the Liberals were re-elected and in 1860 Howe became Premier for the first time. But he wasn’t a very successful party leader. Tupper’s star, on the other hand, was rising. In the election of 1863 he challenged the government on the old issue of economy and led his party into power.

By the time Howe had become Premier his ambitions were bigger than Nova Scotia. He dreamed of a united Canada with ten representatives in the British parliament. But other men had other dreams. One of them was Tupper. He had plans for a Maritime Union. Though the two were bitter enemies, Tupper invited Howe to attend the preliminary talks in Charlottetown. Howe couldn’t make it. After his defeat by Tupper he had been made a West Atlantic fisheries commissioner

by the British government and his new duties kept him away. While the talks were on, and progressing none too favorably, Sir John A. Macdonald arrived on the scene from Upper Canada with proposals for a union of all the provinces of British North America. The meeting that followed in Quebec virtually settled the deal.

The people of Nova Scotia wanted no part of the scheme. They distrusted the Upper Canadians. Protest meetings were held in hotels and barns, parks and back yards. Though Howe’s party had been practically wiped out by Tupper in the last election he still remained the foremost man in Nova Scotia. The people started asking: “Where does Joe Howe stand? What does Joe say?”

There is no doubt that Howe recognized immediately an ideal chance to regain power. The Reciprocity Treaty was about to expire, ending his job as a fisheries commissioner. Though he had often spoken in favor of a union of the British colonies he saw it being effected, in part, by his archrival. By putting himself at the head of the opposition movement, as he had done years before, he might easily discredit Tupper and drive him from Province House.

In an unguarded moment he was heard to say: “I will not play second fiddle to that damn Tupper.”

On the other hand, Howe seemed to have no big desire to get back into public life. He had even agreed to be editor of the daily New York Albion at a salary of thirty-five hundred dollars a year.

As the hostile feeling against Confederation mounted, readers of the Chronicle picked up their papers one morning and noticed a contributed article titled, The Botheration Scheme. There was no mistaking the author. Joe Howe was against Confederation. Liberals and Conservatives alike rallied around him. His main objections were that in a scheme of representation by population the Maritimes would be swamped, and that the Canadas were always getting into trouble, anyway.

The Fathers of Confederation intended to ratify the Quebec scheme in their local legislatures without first referring it to the people. Howe offered to drop all opposition if the question was put to a test at the polls. But the Confederates refused.

A fund was raised to send Howe to London to fight them. He went for a few weeks and remained nine months. He issued pamphlets, wrote newspaper articles and discussed the question with leading members of parliament. But Britain was determined that Canada should be united and the British North America Act was passed.

Nova Scotians made their feelings clear. On July 1, 1867, many British flags were flown at half - mast. Others were torn down and trampled. The newspapers printed black borders around the front pages that told of t he creation of a new Dominion.

Howe might have admitted defeat then. But he made one more try. He came back to Nova Scotia to wage the best campaign of his career in Canada’s first, federal elections. The people didn’t let him down. They elected anti-Confederates to all but one of the nineteen federal seats allowed Nova Scotia and to thirty-six of the thirtyeight seats in the local legislature. Howe himself was elected to the House of Commons. The only Confederate sent to Ottawa was Tupper.

Howe and Annand, who had become Premier of Nova Scotia, were sent again to London to seek a repeal of the British North America Act. Howe sensed immediately that they would fail. Tupper followed them to offset Howe’s influence. There the two old opponents met. Tupper asked him, in effect, “What now, Joe?” Annexation to the United States? Rebellion? Both were out of the question for a patriot like Howe. Would he then waste his talents in a hopeless cause, or would he make the best of the situation as it was? The seed of doubt was planted. Before leaving England, Tupper wrote Sir John Macdonald: “Howe will soon be with us.” The two men sailed home on the same ship.

Howe was met at the dock in Halifax by noisy crowds and a band; Tupper by a few close friends. Howe sat quietly while speakers cheered his efforts to


With tooth and nail, he battles them;

Yet, every time he fails.

He needs a better stratagem Than biting on his nails.


beat the Confederates and spoke of new plans. But his mind was troubled.

Tupper and the New Brunswick leader, Tilley, urged Macdonald tocome to Halifax and seek out Howe. Win him over, they reasoned, and the repeal movement would be broken. When Macdonald’s visit was announced one of the repeal papers, the Acadian Recorder, suggested that Sir John be given a rough reception. Howe wrote to the paper, angrily: “If we have lost our constitution, let us preserve our manners.” It was his first utterance since his return from England and a revealing one.

For the second time he was faced with a choice between right and wrong. But which was which? Nova Scotia was tinder dry. Should he again be the spark? Or should he abandon the cause and be branded a traitor?

Macdonald forced his hand. He sent a letter to Howe inviting him to come to Ottawa to discuss Nova Scotia’s financial gripes about Confederation. Howe was prepared to go, but Annand, still a hell-for-leather repealer, wanted to make another try in London.

“What if that fails again?” Howe asked him. “What then?”

Annand’s reply, according to Howe, was one word: “Annexation.” At that time a majority of the people of Nova Scotia were prepared to join the United States rather than the Canadian union. Howe would have died first. He broke with his life-long friend.

The four men who had carried the tight, to London were asked to appear before the legislature to be honored by the Speaker. Annand and the others showed up. But Howe stayed away. He couldn’t bring himself to accept praise from men who he knew might soon turn against him when his decision became known.

Rumors now went about that Howe was waiting for a chance to feather his own nest, that Macdonald was offering him lures and that the British government had promised him a soft appoint-

ment if he would quiet Nova Scotia. Still trying to hold him the repeal forces offered Howe more than six thousand dollars for his efforts in London. He refused it.

“I have no faith in a further appeal to London,” he said, “and I cannot lie to the people of Nova Scotia and amuse them with vain delusions and another expensive delegation.”

Howe met Macdonald at Portland, Me., and the two men worked out. a j better financial deal for Nova Scotia. But. the shrewd Macdonald didn’t stop there. He told Howe the concessions he bad made could only be put through the House of Commons if there was assurance that the repeal movement would stop. And the only real guarantee of this would be the presence in the federal cabinet of the anti-Confederate leader. Howe really had no choice.

Still undecided, Howe went to Ottawa with Macdonald. The two men were walking through a park at night when Joe broke the silence. “What else can I do,” he said, despairingly. Then, according to Macdonald, he sat down on a bench and burst info tears. On Jan. 30, 1869, he was sworn in as president of the Privy Council.

In earlier days Howe would have come back to Nova Scotia and told the people of the better terms he had won for them. But the telegraph had since been invented and the first news to reach Nova Scotia was cruelly blunt: Joe Howe had sold out. Some said he got thousands of dollars. Others claimed the price of honor was a bottle of rum. Many today trace a decline of Nova Scotia to that date in history.

When Howe came home to Halifax, old friends crossed to the other side of the street to avoid meeting him. Younger men, who had once tried to be like him, insulted him openly. Annand wrote in the Morning Chronicle:

Turn backward, turn backward and blush for shame, O man whom Nova Scotia has hitherto been delighted to honor, whom she has raised and petted and placed high in honorable office and who has made her so bare and ungrateful a return.

Joe Howe stood for election in Hants County with old enemies at his side and old allies against him. He was now j an old man, his strength and vigor gone. At. one meeting he lay down at the back of the stage and rested while other speakers spoke, then got up, brushed off his long grey coat and found a bit of his old oratory. He won the election and the repeal cause was beaten. With it went that chance that Nova Scotia might break away from Canada and perhaps fly the Stars and Stripes. (This feeling didn’t die easily. Nineteen years after Confederation the Liberals swept Nova Scotia on a platform of secession from the Dominion.)

Howe remained in Ottawa until 1873, latterly as secretary of state for the provinces. Then he was offered the , lieutenant-governor’s office in Nova Scotia. To Howe it was the supreme reward for a life of service, or perhaps, more vainly, a final triumph. To others it was the pay-off.

The scene in Halifax when Howe arrived on a steamer from New York was a pitiful contrast to former days.

As he stepped ashore the large crowd was there as before. But they were silent, the sympathetic and the curious. There were no cheers, no handshakes. The old warrior was escorted through a voiceless crowd to a waiting carriage.

Joe Howe, who once drove two men from Government House, now came to take possession of it, a tired broken salire of himself. He was sworn in on May 10. Twenty-one days later he j died. I