Nova Scotian “Sparks of Liberty”

In 1790, the Halifax House of Representatives engaged in spirited debates, particularly concerning the impeachment of Supreme Court judges and the rejection of the Council’s power to amend money bills. These actions, viewed as demonstrations of liberty by some, sparked controversy locally and garnered attention in Boston. Despite Nova Scotia’s loyalist majority, Bostonians interpreted these events through their own republican lens, seeing them as a continuation of revolutionary ideals.

The impeachment proceedings, although significant, were secondary to debates over the Assembly’s rights regarding financial matters. These debates foreshadowed political divisions that would persist over the next two decades. The pro-Council faction, supportive of royal prerogative, clashed with those advocating for colonial rights, highlighting the inadequacy of existing instructions from the British government for governing colonies like Nova Scotia.

The spirited Conduct and Debates of the Halifax House of Representatives in opposing Measures of His Majesty’s Council we offer to our Readers, as we are persuaded that the Spirit of Liberty wherever breathed, is agreeable to the Citizens of these States.

On the thirteenth of May, 1790, the above quotation appeared in a Boston newspaper. There followed an extract from the Journal of the Nova Scotia Assembly for the twenty-seventh of March of the same year. It was the representative branch of the sixth Nova Scotia Assembly that was credited with this “Spirit of Liberty”. This House, the first Nova Scotian legislature in which the United Empire Loyalists were represented, had been elected in 1785 and was now in its fifth session. The previous four had witnessed a gradually increasing hostility between House and Council, which reached a climax in 1790. The debates that called forth the Boston editor’s comment were those on impeaching the puisne judges of the Supreme Court and on rejecting the Council’s claims of power to amend money bills. Fearful of the republican tendencies which the Boston commentator saw in the Assembly’s conduct, a reactionary Haligonian published the quotation in a Halifax newspaper as a warning. In doing so, under the name of Observer, he expressed the hope “that in our future Deliberations, what now appears to the Boston Printer as the Sparks of Liberty may be extinguished by a Coalition of Interest, in promoting Peace and Concord thro’ the Province, by which, under the fostering Hand of the Mother Country, we can only be a happy People.”

It seems not to have struck the Bostonian as anomalous that he should be discerning sparks of liberty in a province whose population had lately become more than half loyalist. Perhaps, in his eagerness to find palatable food for his republican readers, he forgot the incompatibility between “liberty” and loyalism. During the early days of the revolution Bostonians had needed only the slightest pretext to find liberty brethren. Thus they had hailed Smith and Fillis, two Halifax merchants who had favoured refusing a cargo of tea in 1774, as “heroes of the revolution”. In 1790, too, the wish may have been father to the thought. It is clear that a controversy over constitutional rights was being waged in the province both in and out of the legislature, but it is doubtful whether there were republican implications. Apart from that question, it is interesting, in view of the province’s twenty thousand loyalist inhabitants, that the House was disputing the acts and claims of the upholders of the royal prerogative; the fact may, indeed, be completely at variance with the ideas of people who think “loyalist” and “conservative” are synonyms.”

“In the impeachment proceedings of 1790 most of the arguments of the previous session, sharpened by time and repetition, were again brought forward. With a majority for prosecution, Parr wrote, the matter of the judges was “thrown into the shape of a formal impeachment by the Commons of Nova Scotia as they stile themselves. The House went through the enquiry with all the form of a Court of Judicature … a Serjeant-at-arms was appointed and witnesses summoned and sworn in the House to give evidence, then examined and cross-examined with all the formality of Trial, in the Presence of almost half the town who were admitted by tickets.” Major Barclay was the prosecuting attorney. Having found evidence to sustain 10 of the thirteen charges, the House impeached the judges for “High Crimes and Misdemeanours”, and addressed the King, asking that they be given a regular trial. When they asked the Lt.-Governor to suspend the judges until after the trial, Parr took the Council’s advice and refused. The proceedings, like those of the Council in 1788, were transmitted to the Home Government.”

“It has already been indicated that the impeachment proceedings account only in part for the “sparks of liberty” credited to the 1790 session of the Assembly. Although maintained by those concerned in it, as the rock upon which the power of the Assembly would stand or fall, the impeachment was less interesting and less important to the majority of the House than their rights relative to money bills. There had been difficulties between House and Council in 1789 over the appropriation bill: the Council had objected to including in it clauses providing for the funding of the public debt, on the grounds that the plan covered more than a year. Eliciting from the House nothing more satisfactory than a declaration “that it is the inherent right of the House to Originate all Money Bills and that they cannot admit of amendments to be made therein by the Council,” the upper House capitulated and the Assembly’s bill passed.”

In the two parties which fought the battle of 1790 the political rivals of the ensuing twenty years were foreshadowed. On the one side was the pro-Council party, who supported the government and believed they were protecting the prerogative. Observer, who conjured up “sparks of liberty” to warn the unwary of the dangers of the Assembly’s course, belonged to this party. Their conception of the powers of a colonial government is concisely expressed in the following paragraph by Observer:

A Provincial Government is, in Fact, nothing more than a Corporation, instituted thro’ the Courtesy of the King, for the Convenience of His Subjects, settling in remote parts of the Empire, and to whom, thro’ the paternal and benignant exercise of His Prerogatives, he extends, by Charter, or otherwise, such essential Rights as are applicable to Colonial Establishments.

Their ultimate authority was the Royal Instructions. How inelastic and inadequate these were for guidance in carrying on government, may be gathered from an extract of a letter by Lord George Germain to the Governor of Barbados:

I … heartily wish more attention was given to review and amend the Instructions, upon every new Appointment. … It too often happens …. that the same Instruction which was given half a Century ago is carelessly copied over without variation to the present time, notwithstanding changes which have taken place in the Government.

In a royal province like Nova Scotia, the whole of the Governor’s directions were contained in the royal commission and instructions and whatever was received in correspondence with the Home Department. To commission and instructions, however obsolete, he and the Council continued to revert, as the source of their power, for the definition of their rights and for authority for their acts.”

Margaret Ells, “Nova Scotian Sparks of liberty” Dalhousie Rev., 16 (1936–37): 475–92

See also:

The Impeachment of the Judges of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, 1787-1793: Colonial Judges, Loyalist Lawyers, and the Colonial Assembly