Speech on Elective Councils (Senate)

On moving the eleventh resolution, on the 3rd of March (1837), Mr. Howe made a speech that is worth preserving, for various reasons. Those who defended the old system of government assumed, first, that the institutions of the United States had failed to secure liberty and happiness, and that by yielding responsible government, republican institutions would be at once introduced. Mr. Howe combated both these arguments. While he did justice to our neighbours, and ascribed to the practical working of their purely elective institutions the great prosperity and freedom which they enjoyed, he showed that responsible government was not republicanism, but a purely British mode of conducting public affairs, which British Americans might claim without any impeachment of their loyalty:

“In rising to move the last resolution, while I congratulate the House on having got so nearly through the series, I must also thank them for the patient attention with which I have been favoured, and which, as a very young member, I had no right to expect I feel myself relieved from a weight of responsibility by the sanction that has been given, after grave deliberation, to so many of my opinions. Where gentlemen have differed with me I feel they have exercised an undoubted right; and the address, whenever it may be framed, will speak not the language of any individual, but of a large majority of the representatives of the people. In bringing under review the last, but by no means the least important, of these resolutions, I must beg of the members to discharge from their minds all needless horror of innovation, all undue prejudice in favour of the mere framework, rather than the spirit, of established institutions. I trust that gentlemen will be disposed to examine the change which it demands, with reference to its probable utility, not by its inapplicability to the parent state. In pressing it on the attention of the House, I should have felt much less disposed to occupy time, had it not been for the eloquent and ingenious speech delivered on a former day by the learned member from Cumberland, and which was so well calculated to arouse prejudices in many minds against the elective principle. That gentleman drew a vivid contrast between the institutions of America and those of the mother country ; and while he did but justice to the latter, the former were held up to ridicule, as being based upon unsubstantial theory, and incapable of securing life, liberty, and property when reduced to practice. He is opposed to this resolution, because, judging from the elective principle in the United States, he believes that if an elective Council were created here, it would be followed by annual Parliaments, and the election by the people of our judges and governors. That one violent change would be followed by another, produced by an insatiable spirit of excitement and innovation, until this Province was brought to the same deplorable condition to which our neighbours are reduced in the dis- tempered imagination of my honourable and learned friend.

Sir, I trust that those who hear me will be disposed to ask themselves, not what exists in England, under circumstances very different from ours not what exists in republican America, created out of a state of things which is not likely to be forced on us but what is required by the Province of Nova Scotia, under the circumstances in which we are placed; what form should her institutions assume, in order, by preserving the responsibility of all branches of the government to the Commons, to secure her prosperity and advancement. But, sir, when I hear it asserted in this Assembly that there is nothing practical in the institutions of our neighbours that they are based on mere speculation that beneath their shade neither life, liberty, nor property are secure a sense of justice of what is due to the absent would compel me to say something even in an enemy’s defence. Sir, when the learned gentleman thus asperses the institutions of our neighbours, when he tells us that there is nothing practical in republican America, I point to that great nation, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Bay of Fundy, and I ask him, excepting the British Isles, to show me where, upon the wide surface of the globe, within the same extent of territory, an equal amount of freedom, prosperity and happiness are enjoyed? Nothing practical! When I see a people who numbered but three millions and a half at the time of the Revolution who owed then seventy-five million dollars and who, though they purchased Florida with five millions, and Louisiana with fifteen, and owed one hundred and twenty-three million dollars at the close of the last war, are now not only free of debt, but have an over-flowing treasury, the fertilizing streams from which, rolling through every state in that vast Union, give life and energy to every species of internal improvement I ask my learned friend, is there nothing practical in all this ? When I see fifteen millions of people governed by the aid of six thousand troops less by nine thousand than are necessary to keep the peace in Ireland, scarcely one-third more than are stationed in the colonies shall I be told that there is nothing practical in the government under which they live? When I survey their industry, their enterprise, their resources, their commerce whitening every sea, their factories, propelled by a thousand streams, their agriculture, with its cattle on ten thousand hills, their forty noble rivers flowing to the ocean, covered with steamboats crowded with human beings again, I ask, shall it be said that even the republican institutions of America have produced no practical result? When I behold, upon the great lakes scarcely rivaled by the Caspian and the Baltic animated scenes of inland traffic, when I look to her five hundred banks, with their two hundred millions of capital, her extended lines of railroad and canal, her splendid packets, glancing like birds athwart the Atlantic, her noble penitentiaries, her excellent hotels, her fifty colleges, her admirable common schools, I cannot but feel that even if such dreadful evils as these were to come upon us from making our Council elective, we ought not to be deterred from asking for a change. And when I think of her acute diplomacy, her able Presidents, from Washington to Jackson, her orators, from Henry and Quincy to Wirt and Everett and Webster, her philosophers, from Franklin to Fulton, her patriots, from Warren to Clinton, her poets (and sweet ones they are), her Bryants, and Percivals, and Sigourneys, I am bound to assert that the great nation which the learned gentleman maligned presents an aspect of political prosperity and grandeur, of moral sublimity and high intellectual and social cultivation, that ought to have made him ashamed of the unseemly picture which he drew and I tell him boldly, that these are practical results that should challenge his admiration rather than excite his contempt.

But, forsooth, all these are to go for nothing, because there are mobs in America; because the people of Charlestown burnt a convent, and some of the rioters were permitted to escape. Did my learned friend never hear of Lord George Gordon’s mob, that took lawless possession of the very capital of that mighty empire to which he is so proud to belong? Does he not know that an infuriated multitude rioted for days uncontrolled in the city of Bristol? Would he like to have these instances of temporary misrule, of the unbridled sway of human passion, brought forward to prove that there is nothing practical in British institutions ; that there is no security for life and property in England? They would prove as little in the one case as in the other. Mobs will spring up occasionally in towns; but, if they sometimes disgrace those of America, who ever hears of them in her agricultural districts? Yet, in Britain, not only do we hear of combinations to destroy machinery in the cities, but the burning of stacks in the country; and therefore it is, that when I am cautioned against preferring unjust imputations against the body in the other end of the building, who have their defenders here, I advise them to look at home, and not to send abroad unfounded charges against a neighbouring nation, on the presumption that no one will have the manliness to say a word in its defence. I might turn gentlemen’s attention to scenes which have occurred at home, under the shadow of that constitution and those laws which they consider perfect, ten thousand times more disgraceful than any that have occurred in America. I might point to “red Rathcormac,” and the other scenes of tithe butchery in Ireland; and while you sickened at the blood flowing from the wounds inflicted by a brutal soldiery, I might show you the avaricious priests and the besotted Tories those who drink from the pure stream of political wisdom, described on a former day by the learned gentleman from Windsor busily goading them on. But as these would prove nothing against the general working of British institutions, the vast amount of protection and happiness they secure, neither should those of our neighbours be assailed upon equally untenable grounds.

But I am told that slavery exists in the United States. It does; and I will admit that if there is a stain upon their escutcheon, a blot upon their fair fame, it is that slavery has been suffered to exist in any part of the Union so long. But, did not slavery exist in the British dominions until within two or three years? And when I am told of the violent proceedings of the Southern planters to protect their own system, I remind my learned friend of the butcheries, and burnings of chapels, in the West India Islands. Slavery is a great curse; and wherever it exists, it will be marked by great evils, arising out of the fears of the oppressor and the struggles of the oppressed. But let us never forget, that while slavery was forced upon the old colonies by the operation of British laws, nine out of the thirteen States that originally formed the federation have wiped away the stain, have emancipated their bondsmen, have broken the shackles of the slave. If, then, I wished to justify this resolution by the practical effects which the elective institutions of America have produced, I feel that, notwithstanding the eloquence of my learned friend, I should be entitled to your support. Upon the facts to which I have referred, and hundreds of others like them, I might confidently ask for a solemn adjudication.

But, thank God, there is no need to look to republican America for examples. Throughout these discussions I have turned, and I seek again to turn, your minds to that great country from which we have all sprung, to which we owe allegiance, and to whose institutions it is my pride to look for models for 1837 imitation. Though, in replying to my learned friend’s misrepresentations, I have but done an act of justice, I ask you to throw aside every argument that can be drawn from republican America, to cast a veil over her institutions and her prosperity, and, looking across the Atlantic, to gather support to the resolution before you from the example of England. I should not have proposed it, I should not stand here today to press it upon your attention, did I not feel that it could commend itself to your minds by the practical working of her institutions. Were you to tell an Englishman that you, the Commons of the country, had no effectual control over the other branches of your government, that here there exists no check which ensures responsibility to the people, what opinion would he form of the degree of freedom you enjoy? Were you to propose that half the House of Lords should be chosen from two family connections, and the other half should be made up of public officers and directors of the Bank of England, he would laugh you to scorn; he would tell you he would not tolerate such an upper branch for a single hour. Sir, it is because I feel that the institutions we have are not English, that they are such as would never be suffered to exist at home, and ought never to be sanctioned by the descendants of Britons in the colonies, that I desire a change; and, because it proposes a remedy, because it holds out a prospect of reformation, that I ask the House, not rashly to adopt, but gravely and calmly to consider, the resolution before them.

I have already said, and I repeat again, that the excellence of the British Constitution is to be found, not in the mere structure of the various branches of the Government, but in that all-pervading responsibility to the people which gives life and vigour to the whole. That Constitution is not a thing held sacred from change, not susceptible of improvement, but a form of government subject to continual revision and renovation, whenever it is found that the great principle of responsibility is in danger. To preserve this principle the prerogatives of the Crown were curtailed ; to preserve this principle the House of Commons was reformed; and even now, a struggle is going on to reduce the power of the Lords. Shall we, then, be blamed for seeking to preserve it, by remodelling our provincial institutions? When gentlemen raise the cry of innovation, I ask if the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts was not an innovation if the destruction of the rotten boroughs was not a great constitutional change? And while the Government at home is subjected to constant modifications, required by the increasing intelligence of the people, is it to be said that ours should remain unimproved that the reforming ministers of England will deny to the colonists the right to imitate their own examples f Sir, I have often felt, and now in my heart believe, that if the people of England really understood the questions which often agitate the colonies, if the Government was accurately informed, instead of being, as it constantly is, misled by interested parties on this side the Atlantic, we should rarely have any very irreconcilable differences of opinion. What earthly interest has John Bull in denying his brethren justice?

The argument urged about the denial of an elective Council was partially answered on a former day ; but gentlemen may not be aware that the last motion made by Mr. Roebuck on the subject was withdrawn, under an implied pledge that Government would fairly consider the question. Let gentlemen review the ‘present system of creating the second branch. Can anything be more intolerable? I referred, on a former day, to the old Council of Maine, composed of a single family. The same evil has prevailed to a great extent in every one of which we have any knowledge; they have either been com- posed of such connections, or have been ruled by little combinations, always distasteful and often injurious to the people. How can it be otherwise, while the whole branch is created on the recommendation of one or two individuals in the colonies, more intent on preserving their own influence than fairly distributing the royal favour.” It is a fatal error,” says Sir James Mackintosh, “in the rulers of a country to despise the people; its safety, honour, and strength are best preserved by consulting their wishes and feelings. The Government of Quebec, despising these considerations, has been long engaged in a scuffle with the people, and has thought hard words and hard blows not inconsistent with its dignity. I observe that twenty-one bills were passed by the Lower House of Assembly in 1827, most of them reformatory. Of those twenty-one bills, not one was approved of by the Upper House. Is the Governor responsible for this? I answer he is. The Council is nothing better than the tool of Government. It is not a fair and constitutional check between the popular Assembly and the Governor.” I did not think it necessary to accumulate evidence on this point, or I might have had abundance: indeed I feel that it is painful to intrude even what has been said upon the House, after the long discussions in which we have been engaged. It has been said that elective Councils are a new invention ; but let it be remembered that they existed in some of the old colonies until their charters were withdrawn, and were found to work well. And if the Government would but take an enlarged view of the subject, it would, notwithstanding the national and religious divisions which certainly do present some difficulties, grant an elective Council to Lower Canada, for these plain reasons; a vast majority of the people, and nearly the whole of their representatives, require it. To refuse, is to perpetuate agitation; to grant it, is to try a great experiment for the restoration of peace; and if it be necessary to resort to force, to reconquer the country again, it can be done as well after as before the upper branch is rendered elective.

But, it is said, the Councils would in that case be filled with persons of low estate; with farmers, and mechanics, who know nothing of legislation. Let me upon this point quote the answer which an intelligent American gives to Captain Hall. He says: “From Canada, Captain Hall passes into New York. Delighted with a Governor robbing the public chest (and pleading an otherwise unavoidable subversion of the government as an excuse), and with a Council, composed of the ‘Governor’s creatures,’ negativing every bill from the other House, Captain Hall is of course disgusted with the Legislature of New York, as composed of men ‘who had come to the Legislature straight from the plough, from behind the counter, from chopping down trees, or from the bar,’ wholly unacquainted with public business or the duty of the legislator. But we dislike this eternal drawing of inferences, instead of citing facts. We wish Captain Hall would point out the great practical evils perpetrated by this Legislature, or that he would name a deliberative body in the world that can show more work, better done, than may be shown by this very Legislature of New York. Look at the institutions of that State; her various endowed charities; her penitentiaries, which our traveller describes with great but not exaggerated praise; the rapid colonization of her own wide domain, with a population greater than that which Parliament, at a profuse expense of public money, has been able to rear up in all the British North American dominions; her munificent endowment of her colleges; her princely school fund; her more than imperial works of internal communication. These are the doings of Captain Hall’s wood-choppers and plough-joggers, but not all of them. If there be a government, popular or arbitrary, which, in nearly the same space of time, and with the same command of means, has done more for the advancement of civilization, the arts, and the public welfare and prosperity, we have yet to learn in what part of the world it is to be found.” I give the same kind of answer to my learned friends on the other side. Suppose that a new Council is to be created tomorrow; how is it to be done? Two or three persons furnish lists to the Governor, who sends them to England. Now, this is the power that I would not entrust to any two or three men, however wise or patriotic they may be; yet, if they are the reverse, how incalculable is the mischief produced. But, suppose a member of Council is required for Cape Breton, and by the aid of the elective principle the five gentlemen who now represent the Island are returned; if the Governor is compelled to select one of these, though he may not take the best, he must, at all events, choose one whom the people themselves have pressed upon his notice; one in whom they have confidence, and one who is more likely to be of service than a person whom they never saw. Perhaps he may now find one among them that would be selected; but I know that there are other counties whose representatives would go a begging for a seat in the Council before it was obtained. In nine cases out of ten it will be found that the men most loved and trusted by the people are the last to obtain the confidence of the local government Why should this be? In England, the King himself cannot exclude from his Cabinet commanding talent, backed by the support and confidence of the nation. How often have we seen the British monarchs compelled by the country to place the reins of government in the hands of those from whom they would gladly have been withheld. Can such an instance be quoted in colonial history? No, sir; and therefore it is that I seek for change; that I desire a more responsible system. I acquit the maternal Government; I acquit the people of England of any wish to deny to us the advantage of principles of which they have proved the value. There is something too fair and noble in the structure of the Briton’s mind, to permit him to deny to others the blessings and the forms of freedom: and particularly to those who speak his language, and have sprung directly from his loins. Why should Britons on this side of the Atlantic be denied those checks and guards which are considered so essential at home? There they have indeed a Constitution practically useful. I can participate in the glowing picture which the learned member from Cumberland drew; I can survey with delight the spectacle which England presents to the world. That great country is free; but here, the blessings she enjoys do not exist. I trust, therefore, that this proposition for an elective Council will not be considered so rash and heedless a one as some gentlemen are disposed to imagine. The measure is one that I believe will be satisfactory to the people; and can there be any danger in its adoption? Shall we be more closely united to the mother country if these twelve men are selected by the Colonial Secretary, or somebody for him, than if they are chosen by ourselves?

If it be said that this is too important a change to adopt on the recommendation of an individual, I will read to you the deliberate opinions of the present Master of the Rolls, whose sentiments on this subject, from his talents and high standing, are entitled to respect. In a debate which arose in a former Assembly, Mr. Fairbanks observed, “That on all hands the composition of the Council was acknowledged to be defective; rejecting the principle of election, it would, perhaps, be easy to make additions, but would it be easy to make such as would please the people? A new Governor would, perhaps, come here, and before he has had time to acquaint himself with the situation and the leading men of the country, two or three persons who chanced to get into his confidence would make all the new appointments; was it to be supposed the people would not make better selections themselves? If they could trace the secret history of all the appointments that had been made for years, they would not hesitate to change the mode. The learned Solicitor-General went on to explain how he thought, if the principle of election was not introduced, some advantage might be gained by having a member of the Council to act as member of each county, whether chosen from it or not. If so designated, and if it were understood that they were expected to watch over the interests of particular districts, as members of the Assembly now do, there would be a bond of union between them and the people they were chosen to represent, and much of the narrow and metropolitan character of the present Council would be removed. He differed entirely from the learned member from Cumberland about the propriety of allowing either the Chief-Justice or the Master of the Rolls to remain in either Council. His studies had taught him that the exercise either of legislative or executive powers was incompatible with the due administration of justice. The energies and the intellect of this country had grown beyond the feelings and interests and prejudices of the present Council. He was afraid, however, that merely asking for an addition of six, to be chosen as they were at present, would be nothing at all. He wished that, while they were about it, they should really effect a reform, and not merely an unimportant alteration; and on a subsequent day he remarked, “That to tell him the principle of election was at variance with the Constitution was to tell him what reading and reflection and experience disproved. The Constitution was founded upon this grand principle, that everything must conduce to the good of the people.” These are the opinions of a man who held a Crown office at the time.

In conclusion, I beg you, gentlemen, to look around all the colonies, and ask yourselves, have these selected Councils conduced to the public good? Turn to the resolutions you have passed to-day for proof of their operation here. I regret that upon this question I shall have to encounter the opposition of some that I would fain have carried with me in this measure. As we have stood together on other questions, I shall be sorry if we part on this. They will bear in mind that I am not contending for an ultra and uncontrolled exercise of the elective principle; I seek only such a fair infusion of it as will preserve a constitutional balance of power. Insinuations have been thrown out about a delegation to England. As I said on a former day, I say again, that this is an extreme step which I do not contemplate one only to be taken as a last resort. Those who know me but imperfectly may assert and insinuate that I am anxious to stir up strife, that I have ulterior views that do not now appear. I hope to live down such aspersions. Sir, when I go to England, when I realise that dream of my youth, if I can help it, it shall not be with a budget of grievances in my hand. I shall go to survey the home of my fathers with the veneration it is calculated to inspire; to tread on those spots which the study of her history has made classic ground to me; where Hampden and Sydney struggled for the freedom she enjoys; where her orators and statesmen have thundered in defence of the liberties of mankind. And I trust in God that when that day comes I shall not be compelled to look back with sorrow and degradation to the country I have left behind; that I shall not be forced to confess that though here the British name exists, and her language is preserved, we have but a mockery of British institutions; that when I clasp the hand of an Englishman on the shores of my fatherland, he shall not thrill with the conviction that his descendant is little better than a slave.”

With some modifications, Mr. Howe’s twelve resolutions were passed, the most of them by handsome majorities, and on the 4th of March he moved for a committee to throw them into the form of an Address to the Crown.

Howe, Joseph, 1804-1873, William Annand, and Joseph Andrew Chisholm. “The Speeches And Public Letters of Joseph Howe: (Based Upon Mr. Annand’s Edition of 1858)” New and complete ed., revised and edited by Joseph Andrew Chisholm. Halifax, Canada: The Chronicle publishing company, 1909. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t87h1hh71