Joseph Howe to Lord John Russell

My Lord, The next passage of the Speech of the 3rd of June, which I am bound to notice, is that in which you say:- “The Governor might ask the Executive Council to propose a certain measure. They might say that they could not propose it unless the members of the House of Assembly would adopt it, but the Governor might reply that he had received instructions from home commanding him to propose that measure. How, in that case, is he to proceed ? Either one power or the other must be set aside; either the Governor or the House of Assembly; or else the Governor must become a mere cipher in the hands of the Assembly, and not attempt to carry into effect the measures which he is commanded by the Home Government to do.” This objection is based upon the assumption, that the interests of the mother country and those of the colonies are not the same; that they must be continually in a state of conflict; and that there must be some course of policy necessary for the Imperial Government to enforce, the reasons for which cannot be understood in the colonies, nor its necessity recognized. This may have been the case formerly in the West Indies, where the conflict was one between the ideas engendered by a state of slavery and a state of freedom; but it is not true of the North American Provinces, to the condition and claims of which my observations are chiefly confined. Of all the questions which have agitated or are likely to agitate Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, of Prince Edward Island, how few, when rightly understood, can be said to involve any Imperial interests; or trench upon any principle dear to our brethren at home, or the concession of which could disturb the peace of the Empire? Have any of these colonies claimed the right to regulate the foreign trade or foreign policy of the Empire? lave they ever interfered, except to carry out the views of 1-er Majesty’s Government, with any of the military or naval operations? Have they exposed a grievance, the continued existence of which is indispensable to the well-being of the British Islands; or demanded a right, the concession of which would not be serviceable to themselves, without doing the least injury to the people of Britain? For what have they asked? For the control of their own revenues and the means of influencing the appointment and acts of the men who are to dispense them; and who are, besides, to distribute hundreds of petty offices, and discharge functions manifold and various within the Colony itself? The people of England have no knowledge of these matters, nor any interest in them, to give them the right to interfere. Interference does much mischief to the Colonists, and can do no good to their brethren across the water. If British statesmen would let these things alone-and it is over these only that we claim to enforce responsibility and confine themselves to those general arrangements affecting the whole Empire, of which we admit them to be the best judges, and in the conduct of which we never asked to take a part, it would be impossible to conceive how such a case could arise as that supposed by your Lordship, or how the Governor could be charged with “a measure which his Executive Council would not dare to propose.” Admitting that there might be some subjects requiring discussion in the Provinces, but which the Colonists were not prepared to adopt, surely an Executive Councillor could be got, even if he were opposed to the views of the ministers, to submit the measure and explain those views to the popular branch; or might there not be ” open questions” in the Colonies as at home? The conclusion at which my mind arrives, then, after the best attention that I can give to this branch of the subject, is, that if the duties and responsibilities of government are fairly and judiciously divided between the Imperial and Colonial authorities, no such case as that assumed by your Lordship can occur; and, if it should, surely the good sense of all parties concerned may safely be trusted, to avoid any violent or unpleasant collision. But did it never occur to your Lordship to inquire, whether the very evil anticipated, as an insuperable objection to the new system, does not disfigure and annually occur under the old? What else were the Executive Councillors in Upper and Lower Canada doing for a series of years but “proposing certain measures,” to be as certainly rejected by the popular branch? What else are they about now in Newfoundland? What but this were they doing in New Brunswick, down to the close of Sir Archibald Campbell’s Administration? In all these Provinces a state of constant collision between the Executive and the popular branch, which could by no possibility arise under the system I contemplate, would answer the objection, even if the difficulty suggested could be fairly taken into account. If it be said that the Councillors now do not refuse to propose measures, I answer, But if the Legislatures invariably reject them, does government gain anything, or is public business advanced by the system? What a figure did the Executive cut in Nova Scotia, in 1838, when the Councillor who brought down from the Governor a grave proposition, led the opposition against it? And how stand things in this Province now? Are not all the Councillors selections from a lean ninority of the commons, in which body almost every debate terminates in a vote of implied want of confidence in them; and where the Governor they surround bas, on several occasions, only been saved from an insulting vote of censure by the good temper and moderation of the majority? This is a state of things too ridiculous to be long continued. To me it seems essential that, Her Majesty, in every colony, should be represented by an Executive not only willing “to attempt” but ” able to carry” any measures that it may be necessary to propose. The next objection taken by your Lordship to the introduction of Provincial responsibility, one eminently calculated to have weight with the body you addressed, and to alarm the timid everywhere, was drawn from an application of the principle, to the management of foreign affairs. ” If,” says your Lordship, ” the Assembly of New Brunswick had been disposed to carry the point in dispute with the North American States hostilely, and the Executive Council had been disposed to aid them, in my opinion the Governor must have said that his duty to the Crown of this country, and the general instructions which he had received from the minister of the Crown, did not permit him to take that course, and, therefore, he could not agree with the Executive Council to carry into effect the wish of the Assembly. That is allowed. Does not, then, its very exception destroy the analogy you wish to draw, when, upon so important a point as that of foreign affairs, it cannot be sustained?” Your Lordship, in delivering this passage, of course, was not aware that, without the alteration of a single syllable, you answered the very objection that yourself had raised. If the Executive Council of New Brunswick advised Sir John Harvey to declare war upon the State of Maine, “he must have said that his duty to the Crown and his instructions did not permit him to take that course.” Most certainly lie would, if a measure so ridiculous had been attempted in New Brunswick, which nobody, who knows anything of that Province, could for a moment imagine. I do not believe that there are ten men in it, certainly there are not fifty in all the lower Provinces put together, who do not know that the Sovereign alone lias the right to declare war upon foreign powers; and who are not willing that, upon all the relations of the Colonies with these, and with each other, the Imperial Government shall decide. A few of the New Brunswickers blamed Sir John Harvey for not acting upon Her Majesty’s instructions to maintain exclusive jurisdiction over the disputed territory, notwithstanding the advice received from the Minister at Washington; but, if those instructions had not existed, and had not been positive, no one would have been idiot enough to suppose that Sir John Harvey would have been bound to make war, on a point of honour or policy newly discovered by his Executive Council, and upon which ler Majesty’s government had had no opportunity to decide. Suppose, when Parliament was granting a charter to Hull, it was objected that the Mayor might be advised to make war upon Sweden (and, in the case of an elective officer, Lhe danger would be greater than if lie were appointed by the Crown,) would not the same louse of Commons that thought it unsafe to let a Colony manage its internal affairs for fear it would engage in foreign wars, laugh at the possibility of such an absurdity being committed by any body of Englishmen out of Bedlam? Why then should it be taken for granted that we are not English in our habits and opinions, our education and training, our capacity to discern the boundaries of authority; and that therefore it would be unsafe to depend upon our wisely exercising powers, which, in the British Islands, millions exercise for their own security and without danger to the state? In the case of Hull, if the objection were gravely urged, the ready answer would be, “No greater powers can be exercised than are granted in the bill; and if there is the least danger of the city authorities doing anything so ridiculous, put in a clause that shall restrain them.” And I say-after soberly protesting that the very suspicion of such an attempt is an insult to the understanding, and an imputation upon the character of our population, which they do not deserve-that if you wish “to make assurance doubly sure,” put a clause into the bill which concedes the principle of responsibility so far as relates to domestic affairs, and by which all such belligerent Councillors shall be expressly restrained. Whether this point were or were not thus defined, that any Executive Council, merely because they were responsible to the people, would, after receiving such an answer as your Lordship admits a British Governor must give, proceed in defiance of his authority, to levy war upon a friendly state, I cannot for a moment believe. If they did, they would certainly so completely fail, and render thenselves so supremely ridiculous, that the attempt would not be likely to be repeated, at least for a century to come. Let us suppose the case to have occurred in New Brunswick: that the Executive Council being responsible, had advised Sir John Harvey to proceed hostilely; and that, on his declining, they had levied war. In the first place, as all the regular troops were at Sir John’s disposal, as Commander-in-Chief within the Province, and not merely as civil Governor, they not only could not have moved a soldier, but would have had the whole military force of that and the adjoining Provinces against them. As the Gover- nor’s order to the colonels and officers commanding the militia is indispensable before a single step can be taken, under the laws by which that force is embodied, of course no hostile order would have been given, nor could those laws have been inodified or changed without Sir John’s assent. And if it be urged, that volunteers would have flocked to the aid of the Executive Council, may I not inquire where tiey would have obtained arms and ammunition, when all the military munitions and stores were deposited in military warehouses, under the care of commissaries and officers of ordnance responsible only to the Crown ? Oh! no, my Lord, whatever effect such imaginary cases as these may have on men at a distance, unacquainted with the state of society in British America and the general intelligence which prevails; here they are laughed at, as the creations of a fertile imagination taxed to combat political improvements that were feared without being understood. If, even under the federative government of the United States, in which each state is much more independent of the central authority than any Colony would be under the system I contemplate, this right of private war has only been once asserted, by a single State, in more than half a century, and then was scouted all over the Continent, is it to be supposed that British subjects will pay less respect to the authority of their Queen than do republican Americans to that of their President? There is one bare possibility, which your Lordship bas not suggested, in opposition to the new system, and yet it is scarcely more ridiculous than some that have been urged; that the Colonial Councillors might claim the control of the squadron upon the North American coast, as well as of the land forces, in their anxiety to engage in foreign wars. The danger in this case would be nearly as great as in the other; for, in modern warfare, a fleet is nearly as necessary as an army; and yet, it is certain that the admiral upon the station would know how to treat such a claim, should it be preferred by a Council, who, in the wanton exercise of authority, were disposed to transgress all bounds. The next objection which i am bound to notice, is given in the report: “Let us suppose that an officer of the militia in Upper Canada, after an action, was to order that the persons taken in that action should be put to death on the field. I can conceive it possible, in a state of exasperation and conflict with the people of the neighbouring States, that the Assembly might applaud that conduct, and might require that it should be the rule and not the exception,-that all invaders of their territory should be treated in that manner, and that the parties should be put to death without trial. Supposing that to be the case; could the Government of this country adopt such a rule? Could the Secretary of State for the Colonies sanction such a rule, and not decide, as my honourable friend the under-secretary has done, that the practice should meet with his decided reprehension?” Now, my Lord, admitting that such a case might occur once in half a century, under the new system, let me remind your Lordship that it has already occurred under the old. If it is to have any weight, the fact of its occurrence in a Province in which the Executive Council is irresponsible and the Colonial Secretary is in the exercise of his full powers, makes in favour of my argument; while I have a right to deny, until proof is furnished, that it could occur, if matters were more wisely ordered, and a more rational system established, by which all temptations to foreigners to make inroads into British Provinces, speculating upon the disaffection of the people, would be removed. But, my Lord, life bas been taken under your system-” death” has been inflicted “without trial,” illegally, as you infer-and has any punishment followed? Have the laws been vindicated? No! Then why not? Simply, I presume, because your beautiful mode of government has produced such a state of things in a British Province, that the ministers of the Queen dare not bring the man charged with this high offence to trial. Under a system of responsibility, by which the population were left to manage their domestic affairs, I hold that no such violation of law would be likely to occur, and that, if it did, investigation would be as safe, and punishment as certain, as though a crime had been committed in Middlesex, or Surrey. I have thus disposed, my Lord, of the military questions; and, as I have left Her Majesty and her representatives in full control of the army and navy and of the militia force of British America, and have asserted no claim of the Colonists to interfere with foreign treaties and diplomatic arrangements affecting the empire at large; I think, if peace be not maintained with foreign states, the punishment for offences strictly military be not awarded, the blame will not rest with the Executive Councillors, who are to exercise no jurisdiction over these matters, and cannot be responsible if others fail in their duty. Let me now turn to another class of objections, arising out of our Colonial and foreign trade. “Again,” says your Lordship, “neither could this analogy be maintained with regard to trade between Canada and the mother country, or Canada and any other country. How then can you adopt a principle from which such large exceptions are to be made? If you were to do so, you would be continually on the borders of dispute and conflict; the Assembly and the Executive, on the one hand, requiring a certain course to be pursued, while the Governor, on the other hand, would be as constantly declaring that it was a course he could not adopt; so that, instead of furnishing matter of content and harmony in these Provinces, you would be affording new matter for dispute and discontent if you were to act upon this supposed analogy.” Now, my Lord, i feel it my duty to state, that you may take from any part you please to select, of England, Ireland, or Scotland, two hundred thousand persons, and among them you will not find a larger number than are to be found in Nova Scotia, well informed as to the degree of authority in matters of trade, which, for the good of the whole empire and the preservation of the advantages in which all are to participate, it is necessary to confide to the care of the Sovereign and the wisdom of the Imperial Parliament. The great corporations of London, of Bristol, and of Liverpool, do not presume to interfere with these, except by petition and remonstrance, neither do we. Each of these cities bas the right to levy small duties within their own limits, for matters of internal regulation, or to aid public improvements; and these rights they exercise, in common with us, when they do not contravene any British statutes necessary for the protection of the trade of the empire. But, if it can be shown that a law bears unequally upon London or Halifax, and that a flagrant case of hardship exists; or if the industry of any portion of the people, either in England or the Colonies is taxed, while no corresponding advantage is reaped by any other portion; or that, if reaped, it is an unfair and illegitimate advantage,-an appeal is made to Parliament. We have hitherto been contented, although not directly represented in that Assembly, to abide the result of that appeal; or to pass bills, taking our chance of their being assented to in England. The same thing would occur, even if the Executive Council was responsible; for, upon this point, there is no part of our population prepared to set up absurd or irrational claims. If Parliament should undertake to legislate directly against our interests; to cut up our commerce, and prevent the growth of domestic industry; and, after fair notice and ample proof of injury, were to persist in such a course; why then a state of things would arise, which similar policy produced elsewhere, in other times, and upon the results of which either responsible or irresponsible Councils would exercise but little influence. But, as political economists at home are every day becoming convinced that the more liberty they afford to the Colonist to conduct his commercial operations the greater will be his demand for British manufactures; and as, under the guidance of this enlightened policy, the laws of trade and navigation are annually becoming less restrictive, it is not probable that difficulties, which were never insuperable, will all of a sudden admit of no rational remedy; or that the boundaries of Colonial and Imperial authority, now so well understood, and the recognition of which is so easily enforced, will often be called in question on either side. If the Colonists assert rights which do not belong to them, and persist in their contumacy, disturbing solemn treaties and setting acts of Parliament at naught; why then they have broken the social compact: it is a case of rebellion and they must be put down. Let us reduce the difficulty to practice, for the purpose of illustration. Suppose that both branches of the Legislature pass a law by -which a heavy duty is laid on British broadcloths, and those from the United States are admitted duty free; and that the Executive Council, being responsible, advise the Lieutenant Governor to assent to it. Such an absurd piece of bad faith as this could never be attempted in the lower Provinces; for public opinion would never sanction any interference with the general laws not intended to remedy abuses, or that struck at Colonial without promoting British prosperity; nor would any changes be popular which violated the fraternal comity by which British subjects everywhere are bound to encourage and protect each other. But I have supposed the law passed and presented. The Governor would say in this case, as he now invariably says-as your Lordship admits he must say, if urged to provoke a foreign war: “Gentlemen, you are exceeding your powers. To legislate for your own advantage is one thing; to legislate directly against your brethren at home, for the advantage of foreigners, is another. This bill must be either modified or rejected, or reserved for Her Majesty’s assent, before it can go into operation.” If the parties urging it persisted, a dissolution might be tried; and an appeal to British subjects, in a case where the Governor was clearly right and his advisers wrong, would never be made in vain; particularly when aided by the Constitutional opposition, which, under a system of responsibility and manly competition, would exist in every Colony. But if it failed; and such an almost impossible thing were upon the cards, as that a majority could be found in Nova Scotia to sustain such an act, or anything bearing a resemblance to it, then a case would have occurred for the interference of the Imperial authorities, who should say to us frankly: If you will come into unnatural and hostile collision, the weakest has the most to fear. Had your Lordship been as familiar with the mode of dealing with such subjects as most Colonists are who have watched the proceedings of Colonial Assemblies, you would have been satisfied that no danger was to be apprehended from violent collisions about matters of trade. When a new duty is proposed in Nova Scotia or a reduction suggested, the first question asked on all sides is, Will the proposition violate the letter or does it even run counter to the spirit of the Imperial Acts? If it does, in eight cases out of ten, the person bringing the measure forward drops it, on being assured of the fact. In the ninth case, where a doubt exists as to the policy and wisdom of Imperial legislation is found, on inquiry, that the clause which seemed to press upon us, originated in a wide view over the whole field of commerce, which British statesmen, often better than others whose positions afford fewer advantages, are enabled to take and that its repeal would inflict an injury and not confer a benefit. The tenth case is perhaps one in which the Imperial Parliament, either from haste, or prejudice, or insuflicient information, has committed an error in political economy, or inflicted a wound upon Colonial without benefiting British industry. In this case (and they only occur once in a great while) no one ever dreams, that, as your Lordship expresses it, the Imperial Legislature is to be “overruled” by that of the colony. We never doubt but that an appeal to the good sense and the justice of our brethren over the water will be successful. A bill is passed, perhaps, to meet the difliculty; and an explanation of the facts and reasoning in which it originated, is sent with it, in the form of an address to the throne, and in most cases is found to be successful. This is the mode at present. What reason is there to suppose that it would be much changed, if we had an Executive Council, whose powers and responsibilities did not extend to matters of general commerce, already provided for by Imperial legislation? If we are so fond of violent conflicts and factious opposition, what hinders us from indulging our propensities now? Shall we be less considerate the more kindly we are treated? Shall we have less respect for Imperial legislation, when we see that it leaves us the entire management of our domestic affairs and only deals with those great interests which transcend our authority and are beyond our control? Suppose twelve Nova Scotians, who are not responsible to any authority under Heaven, are made accountable to the rest of their countrymen, shall we have a man the more for forcible resistance than we have now or a gun, a pike, a bomb, or a barrel of powder? I have thus, my Lord, gone over the arguments urged by your Lordship in the speech of the 3rd of June. I have omitted none that appear to me to have the slightest bearing upon the great question at issue, and I trust I have given to each a fair and satisfactory answer. I have written not only under a solemn sense of duty, but with a full assurance that sophistry, woven around this question, either on one side of the Atlantic or the other, would be torn to shreds in the conflict of acute and vigorous minds now engaged in its discussion. Had your Lordship, in announcing the decision of the Cabinet, forborne to state the reasons upon which that decision was founded, 1 might, like counsel at the bar under similar circumstances, have felt myself compelled to acquiesce in a judgment, neither the justice nor the policy of which I could fathom. But when the arguments were stated, and when I saw a question involving the peace and security of six extensive Provinces, and the freedom and happiness of a million and a half of British subjects, disposed of by a mode of reasoning which I knew to be deceptive and unsound,-when I saw, in fact, that the parties claiming their rights were to be turned out of court, with all the arguments and ail the evidence on their side, I felt that to remain silent would be to deserve the social and political degradation which this unjust decision was to entail on my countrymen and myself; to earn the Helot mark of exclusion from the blessings of that Constitutional freedom, which our forefathers struggled to bequeathe; and which we should never cease to demand, as a patrimony that runs with our blood, and cannot be rightfully severed from our name…. JOSEPH HOWE.

Kennedy, William P. Statutes, Treaties and Documents of the Canadian Constitution: 1713-1929. Oxford Univ. Pr., 1930.