Sedition In Nova Scotia: R. v. Howe and the “Contested Legality” of Seditious Libel

Joseph Howe’s trial for sedition in 1835 marked a pivotal moment in Canadian history, likened to John Wilkes and Charles James Fox in significance. Howe’s defense, a masterful application of legal principles, challenged the government’s use of sedition law to silence political opposition. His arguments, rooted in fundamental freedoms and legal rights, led to his acquittal and established a precedent against repressive prosecutions. The trial showcased the interplay between law and politics, highlighting the role of sedition as a tool for stifling dissent and the importance of legal resistance in defending constitutional liberties.

Howe’s victory dismantled sedition as a crime in Nova Scotia, discouraging future prosecutions and emphasizing the power of the jury to uphold civil liberties. While Howe’s success was a blow to government repression, lasting reform required political action in the legislature, where the battle for constitutional change ultimately unfolded. Overall, Howe’s trial exemplified the complex relationship between law, politics, and individual rights in the struggle for freedom of expression and governmental accountability.

“Nova Scotia had found [in Joseph Howe] not only its John Wilkes but also its Charles James Fox.” — W.S. MacNutt, 1965

“In a seminal article published in 1974, Kenneth McNaught described Howe as one of Canada’s “two most significant cases involving political freedom of the press” — the other being Dixon for seditious libel arising from the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. McNaught failed to mention an important early New Brunswick case (Hooper, 1830), where the proprietor-editor of the British Colonist (Saint John) was prosecuted for seditious libel after publishing, under the author’s suggestive Puritan nom-de-plume (“Hampden”), a letter castigating the legal profession and the administration of justice. Hooper, like Howe and Fred Dixon after him, defended himself — but was discharged rather than acquitted, due to a hung jury and the trial judge’s advice to the attorney-general to stay the proceedings. Whether Hooper’s discharge or Howe’s acquittal established, preserved or strengthened the freedom of the press is a moot point which, regardless of how it is decided, does not provide the key to understanding either the legal or historical context of Howe’s trial for sedition. Yet traditional scholarship fails to offer a properly contextualized legal or political analysis of Howe, which was by any definition a state trial.

Another question which requires attention is whether the prosecution of Joseph Howe for sedition would have taken place at all had Howe’s newspaper not been the voice of radical political opposition to Halifax’s corrupt, inefficient and unreformed government. This self-perpetuating gerontocracy of justices of the peace, based on the old English model, had ruled Halifax since its founding in 1749. It had been resisting any and all attempts at civic incorporation since 1785, when Saint John, Canada’s first city, was incorporated. Published criticism of the magistrateship tended to be construed as criticism of the executive branch — the lieutenant-governor and council — who “were equally supreme in the control of town affairs as those of the province at large.

The grand jury for the year 1835 was impaneled on the opening day of Hilary Term and formally charged by the chief justice. The date was later than usual, but in good time for the spring sitting of the Quarter Sessions on 3 March. Both Howe’s half-brother Joseph Austen and the two magistrates, James Noble Shannon and John Leander Starr, sought and received permission to withdraw when, on 17 February, the attorney-general came to the grand jury room and presented to the foreman an indictment against Joseph Howe for libel. Howe afterwards read into the record a passage from the now lost indictment which makes crystal clear that the charge was seditious libel:

“The jurors of our Lord the King upon their oath present, that Joseph Howe, late of Halifax, in the County of Halifax, printer, being a wicked, seditious and ill-disposed person, and being a person of a most wicked and malicious temper and disposition … [and] greatly disaffected to the administration of His Majesty’s Government in this Province, and wickedly, maliciously, and seditiously contriving, devising, and intending to stir up and excite discontent and sedition among His Majesty’s subjects….”

“Though the grand jury had ample opportunity to quash the indictment, they chose instead not to run the risk of antagonizing the government by forcing the attorney-general either to discontinue the prosecution or to lay an ex officio criminal information. Returning true bill suggests timidity on the part of the grand jury in the exercise of their investigative function — at least where political trials were concerned — and their action was not even remotely comparable to the independence and assertiveness of earlier, reformist grand juries. If the neo-conservative grand jury of 1835 had been of the same political stripe as that of 1834, then the bill would certainly have been rejected. Everything turned on the composition of the new grand juiy: whether to prosecute; whom to prosecute; by what means to prosecute.”

“This was not mere criminal libel – defamation; this was sedition. “That is not the law as respects public bodies,” stated Archibald. “It does not allow the defendant to escape in this way.” The attorney-general then sketched the common-law crime of sedition, omitting Fox’s Libel Act, which had already been covered by lead counsel. Archibald’s contention that the defendant’s rebuttal of the crown’s inference of malice was “unknown to the law” differed from Howe’s constructive application of the Act, according to which the jury was not required to convict solely on the basis of the sense ascribed to the alleged libel in the indictment. In other words, the effect of construing the Act as Howe did was to undermine the common-law rule that the intention of the writer is to be gathered from the words written. The accused had argued forcefully that if the crown had the right to infer malice from the content of the alleged libel, then the jury had the right to reject that inference, and to determine on other grounds the presence or absence of seditious intention.
Recognizing the weak self-interestedness of the crown’s case, Archibald focused more on its procedural than on its substantive aspects. Indeed, he came dangerously close to suggesting that the government had prosecuted for sedition in order to forestall the magistrates impoliticly initiating an action for defamation:
If the nature of the charge [against the magistrates] would have allowed of a private prosecution, the defendant would then have been obliged to put his justification upon the record, and to prove the truth of it by witnesses placed in the box and examined on oath, not by hearsay, nor even by the report of a committee of His Majesty’s Council.”

“Howe’s defence was built on the bedrock of law, not the sand of fact; and it was as ingenious as it was brilliant in its simplicity. The proceeding must have induced in Chief Justice Halliburton a sense of déjà vu; he had been on the bench in 1820, when Chief Justice Sampson Salter Blowers delivered his charge to the jury in Wilkie. Fifteen years later, Halliburton, having succeeded Blowers in 1833, now found himself presiding over only the second seditious libel trial to have occurred in the province. The charge was a congeries of evasion, irrelevancy and prejudication, which strikingly illustrated Halliburton’s too limited experience at the bar; as a lawyer, the chief justice was much the inferior of his contemporary, the attorney-general. Indeed, the only constructive parts of his charge were those which regurgitated the attorney-general’s reply. Like Archibald before him, Halliburton was at pains to explain the nature of the prosecution in order to justify, if not cloak, its purpose. As the trial proceeded, it became clear that it was the crown, not the accused, that was on the defensive.”

Howe was the first, and would be the only, acquittal of an accused seditionist in Nova Scotia. “Your verdict will be the most important in its consequences ever delivered before this tribunal,” Howe admonished the jury in his defence, implying that the liberty of the press might be in jeopardy if it were to find against him. A defence which persuaded a trial jury, applying Fox’s Libel Act, to return a verdict of not guilty cannot reasonably be described as “from the point of view of the law…magnificently irrelevant.” Such an interpretation ignores the truism that the jury was ultimately the judge of both law and fact. The trial judge could only advise and warn, direct and instruct — and then consent to the verdict, regardless of what it was. The jury’s responsibility in sedition cases was greater still because there was no clear, positive law defining seditious libel; that was for the courts to determine by reference to case law. As part of received English criminal procedure — consistent with Nova Scotia’s common-law reception protocol — Fox’s Libel Act was deemed automatically to be in force. It was declaratory, affirmative and ameliorative of the common law of libel, and tended to enhance the liberty of the subject. To be sure, both Attorney-General Archibald and Chief Justice Halliburton passed over in deafening silence an Act which they knew to be the strongest weapon in Howe’s tiny legal arsenal. However, Gray had already elucidated it in presenting the crown’s case; and the accused made much of it in his defence. The attorney- general and the chief justice may therefore have concluded that the less said about it the better. They could hardly have taken exception to Howe’s account of it, which was correct and compelling in every way.

The suggestion that the law was disregarded by the jury is likewise mistaken. The opposite is true; the law was scrupulously regarded by a jury exercising their prerogative under Fox’s Libel Act to give a general verdict on the evidence. They found that there was no seditious libel, not because the statements in “The People” were true or because their publication by the accused had been for the public benefit, but because there was no seditious intention. Howe’s forensic enabled the jury to infer absence of malice from truth and public benefit, these being the two elements which would afterwards combine in the Libel Act, 1843 (“Lord Campbell’s Act”) to form the justification defence to criminal defamation. That the crown inferred malice from the publication, without attempting to prove seditious intention, was an attempt to presume the accused guilty, as it were, until he could prove himself innocent.”

“Though the bar was, for Howe, the career path not taken, he had conducted an intensive study of both the state-trials case law and the treatises. By no means “magnificently irrelevant” from the point of view of law, Howe’s defence exploited to the full the resources of criminal procedure. Though the accused undoubtedly “stated a great variety of things which could not be evidence,” he had also stated more law than either the attorney-general in his summation or the chief justice in his charge to the jury. To the extent to which doubts respecting the function of juries in libel cases were removed by Fox’s Libel Act, Howe construed the remedial statute liberally. Hence the correctness of the jury’s decision “to take its view of libel, not from Archibald, not from Halliburton, but from Howe, and bring in a verdict of ‘not guilty.’” Despite the brilliance of his forensic oratory, Howe’s triumph was more forensic than oratorical in character. To paraphrase Beck, the accused had in effect convinced the jury that the procedural law applicable to their function in a seditious libel case empowered them honourably to acquit him.”

Howe’s crash-course mastery of sedition law à la Thomas Erskine figured prominently in his defence to the charge. Unlike Wilkie, he argued not for truth as a defence to seditious libel but for a narrower definition of it that excluded fair comment. Yet there was no criticism of the administration of justice — as in Hooper, and also to some extent in Wilkie — and no allegations that the magistrates were guilty of misfeasance. This is what distinguishes Howe from both Wilkie and Hooper, where the crown’s case was stronger and the verdicts guilty. While the resort to sedition law bore the legitimacy of precedent, it was a double-edged sword, as Attorney-General Archibald realized. Despite the chief justice’s rather unsubtle attempt to direct a verdict of conviction, the government could not depend on a trial jury to toe the line; and, because of Archibald’s unwillingness to allow either of the law officers lead for the prosecution, Howe was able to exploit with spectacular success the very public forum of a trial at bar in the Supreme Court. As Howe’s triumph demonstrates, the government’s prosecutorial monopoly and control of the judiciary did not mean that a struggle such as Howe’s was a purely self-defensive reaction to an undefendable charge arising from the repressive use of the criminal law. The fact that truth could not be pleaded as a defence to seditious libel did not mean that there was no defence.

The Howe case is a uniquely rich exemplification of contested legality. An analysis of Howe’s great speech in his own defence reveals not only the legal sophistication of the accused, but also highlights the importance of law-finding in the verdicts of libel juries. Howe’s arguments from fundamental freedoms and legal and equality rights thoroughly discredited the charge against him. They derived from his belief in the jury’s obligation to safeguard hard-won constitutional liberties, such as freedom of the press (only recently achieved in England), and to oppose by their verdict repressive use of the criminal law by government. The very nature of sedition law and the deep interpenetration of government and the judiciary under the ancien régime placed in high relief concerns about crown prosecutorial responsibility, the independence of the grand jury, and the impartiality of the bench.

The fact that the Nova Scotia government controlled the inauguration of state- criminal proceedings was hardly a controversial departure from English practice, as it was in Upper Canada in the 1820s and New Brunswick in 1830-1. The attorney-general’s monopoly over crown prosecutions (which by no means precluded private prosecutions) was benign — except when the government ordered the prosecution of a suspected political criminal. Despite the fact that the ex officio criminal information formed no part of received English criminal procedure in Nova Scotia, Attorney-General Archibald could easily have proceeded by that mode – simply because the offence charged was sedition (a public libel) rather than defamation (a private libel). That he did not to do so, and explained why in his summation, is a most telling illustration of the triumph of constitutionalism over legal repression.”

“The trial jury’s freedom to render a general verdict was based on the recognition that Fox’s Libel Act was of full force and effect in Nova Scotia and that it applied to all forms of libel, public (seditious, obscene, blasphemous) as well as private (defamatory). Trial by jury and verdict according to conscience — central to civil-libertarian opposition to the development of sedition law in eighteenth-century England, and virtually suspended in Upper Canada under the Seditious Aliens Act (1804-1829) — were taken for granted in Nova Scotia. As is clear from Howe, Erskine’s famous arguments on the trial jury’s right to deliver a general verdict were recapitulated, and Nova Scotia’s instantaneous reception of the common-law declaratory Libel Act was reconfirmed. Upper Canada, where the need was greater because of a punitive sedition statute, did not have the benefit of Fox’s Libel Act. Ultimately, it fell to the jury in Howe to become the voice of popular protest against oppressive prosecutions and Sessional misgovemment, as that role had been abdicated by the new neo-conservative grand jury. Though the accused in his defence suggested no such thing, the trial jury by their verdict sent a clear message to the Council and the magistrates that the local government was inefficient and corrupt and required reform or replacement.”

“As an episode in Canadian law and Canadian history, Howe clearly demonstrates the very broad applications of a judicially-legislated offence like seditious libel. As J.M. Bumsted has written in another context, “Seditious libel was the classic Anglo-Canadian charge used by those seeking to muzzle public criticism.” Seditious libel had more of sedition than of libel about it. The long-term politico-legal effect of Howe was to extinguish sedition as a crime in Nova Scotia; there would not be another prosecution for nearly ninety years. Before Howe, seditious libel prosecutions were an assured conviction; after Howe, they were deemed risky, counter-productive and not worth pursuing.

Sociolegal history is essential to understanding the interrelationship of law and politics and government’s use of the former to regulate and control the latter. Certainly the Nova Scotian sedition cases – Hoffman (1753), Wilkie (1820), Howe (1835) and McLachlan (1923) – document the overwhelming importance of political crime both to the colonial state and to the experience of “conservative” reformers such as Joseph Howe, not to mention radical ones such as William Wilkie and J.B. McLachlan. Sedition law was an extreme and usually effective means of censoring extra-legislative political discourse. Prosecutions were designed to intimidate influential public opinion-makers and neutralize potential leaders of a popular opposition, by stigmatizing pro bono publico criticism as untrue and unfair and imputing a spirit of disloyalty to it. Yet while serving to justify and excuse its repressive use by government, the law was multi-purpose. Victims of the prosecution could use the machinery of the criminal law to contest legal repression by government. Sedition as an instance and instrument of the repressive use of criminal law reveals tensions between rule of law and rule of government, state and people, authority and discretion — articulated in concerns about government control of public prosecutions, the grand jury and the judiciary. Howe’s great hopes and expectations for British justice had everything to do with constitutionalism and nothing with legalism. Howe’s optimistic sentiments bespoke his fundamental belief in the system, his belief that the rule of law was the guarantee of the liberty of the subject and of equality before and under the law. The source of Howe’s immense popular appeal as a victim who refused to lie down was not that the government had deprived him of his constitutional rights, but that they had falsely and maliciously accused him of, and prosecuted him for a crime which he had not committed. He used the law decisively to remedy its misuse by government, a strategy which highlighted the political inexpediency of legal repression. What had worked before would not work again because it was wrong.

The positive effect of Howe’s success, however, should not be exaggerated. The fact that public prosecutions were always initiated by government meant that trials in the Supreme Court were risky self-defensive exercises, which, while not precluding the possibility of unanticipated acquittals, made their occurrence improbable. And it is evident that claims of contestability, which defied precedent and the collective wisdom of the legal profession, were weak on their face — given government control of the prosecution process in state trials. Nevertheless, the effect of Howe’s acquittal was to checkmate legal repression by holding the magistrates accountable, and embarrassing the government in such a manner as to kick-start reform in the legislative sphere. The reform leadership-in-waiting— in other words, the lawyers who would not defend Howe in that most public of all public forums, the Supreme Court — declined to do so in part because they realized that the more important struggles ultimately had to take place in the political arena, in the House of Assembly, and not in extra-parliamentary forums such as the grand jury and the liberal press. Repressive prosecutions, the political use of the criminal law and ancillary crimes against the state could only be effectively resisted if “high-profile” acquittals were procured. Legal successes, especially surprising ones, caused massive loss of face and credibility on the part of government, and unquestionably discouraged resort to sedition law after 1835. However, constitutional reform could only be secured by political action in the legislature. From 1836, when the final battle was joined, until 1848, when final victory was won, the legislature – not the courts – would be the arena of political struggle in Nova Scotia”

Cahill, J Barry. ‘Sedition in Nova Scotia: R. v. Howe (1835) and the ‘Contested Legality’ of Seditious Libel’ University of New Brunswick Law Journal, Vol 51, 2002, pp. 95 – 140.