Nova Scotia and her People (The Family Compact)

Perhaps this is the root of so many of the Canadian inversions of today. Previous to the introduction of “Responsible Government” in Nova Scotia it was a concept that, to the British Whigs of the day (who were themselves an inversion of the radical Whigs of the American revolution) meant something almost entirely opposite to what it meant to the Nova Scotians — responsible to the crown, checks and balances against the people, not responsible to the people with checks and balances in counterpoise in service of the people.

Another interesting parallel to today is the private bank instituted in Nova Scotia by those who in part made up its Senate (Legislative Council), without any charter to legitimize it under color of law, whose paper flooded the province and caused a “financial maladjustment” — reminiscent, at least to me, of the role Bitcoin has played as of late and the predictable dangers of a completely unregulated financial space. That the family compact serves as the centerpiece to both parts in this play is no doubt instructive to our current state of affairs.


“The government of Nova Scotia in 1830, like that of the other British provinces having representative institutions, was, as far as conditions would permit, a replica of the government of the mother country. Pitt had spoken of the Constitutional Act of 1791 for Canada as the “very transcript of the English constitution” and the constitution of Nova Scotia was very nearly the same. But according to the British constitutional system as it was understood and interpreted by the British statesmen in the closing years of the eighteenth century, representative institutions in a colony as well as at home did not mean that the government was in any way democratic or responsible to the people of the state. Indeed it was understood by many that the great advantage of the English system was that it was so checked and balanced that any direct control by the people would be virtually impossible. In Nova Scotia the balanced mixture of Monarchy, aristocracy, and representation was characterized by one observer as “John Bull, a farce in three acts.”

The Lieutenant-Governor and the Council acted as sufficient checks upon any pretensions to power which might find expression in the popular branch… The wealthy merchant class, the members of the Established Church, the officials and employees of the government, with their relatives and friends constituted a party, known here as it was known in the Canadas, as the “Family Compact.” In no province was this group so completely entrenched in power as in Nova Scotia, but it must be said also in their favor that the members of this party were able and efficient in the administration of the local government.

The third part of the “farce in three acts” was a House of Assembly elected by the freeholders of the several counties. Supposedly this was a miniature House of Commons, but according to the Whig theory of responsibility, it was the mistake in the whole system. In England the House of Commons was in no sense a democratic assembly, nor was it representative, directly, of the great mass of the English people.

In this body, as in similar bodies in Massachusetts and Virginia a half century earlier, the popular will found expression and the spirit of reform made itself manifest. To be sure the power of this Assembly was sufficiently checked and properly balanced by the Governor and the Council, but even so, it made a breeding place for the germs of reform and discontent which developed out of their local problems, or were brought in either from the United States or the mother Country. It was indeed hardly necessary to introduce this spirit from the outside, for it had been planted by the early settlers, and there were many good reasons for its growth and development. The dissenting pioneers from Scotland and Ireland, and those from early New England, would never be content with a government patterned upon the unreformed oligarchy of eighteenth-century England and administered by a secret Council supported by a “Family Compact” and an Established Church.

The Baptist churches, having come from the Congregationalists of New England, understood the principles of popular representative government, and the Presbyterians not only practiced self-government in their church organizations, but taught it openly for the government of the state. (It is said that Joseph Howe learned first of the principles of responsible government from a Scottish minister by the name of MacCulloch, who founded Pictou Academy as a liberal educational institution in 1820). The Roman Catholics also opposed a government in which they had no voice and which proscribed for them as severely in the colony as it did in the mother country. Indeed, class government by the Halifax aristocracy was almost as much out of place in the growing life of Nova Scotia as had been John Locke’s Grand Model in the wilderness of old Carolina. (The Fundamental Constitution, 1669, see H.R. Fox Bourne, The Life of John Locke (2 vols., New York, 1876), Vol. I, pp. 339 et seq.)

On several occasions prior to 1835 the spirit of reform and opposition showed itself in the local assembly. One of the first of these outbreaks came in an attempt to regulate the financial and banking facilities of the province. In 1825 a group of merchants in Halifax organized a private banking concern, the Halifax Banking Company. It had no charter from the government and proceeded to issue notes without the legal requirement that they should be redeemed in specie. The members of this company were also members of the provincial council, which meant that for a number of years the company possessed a monopoly of the banking business of the province.

The Halifax Banking Company was organized on July 1, 1825, as follows:

Hon. Enos Collins  £10,000
Henry H. Cogswell £10,000
Andrew Belcher £10,000
James Tobin £5,000
Samuel Cunard £5,000
John Clark £5,000
William Prior £5,000
Joseph Allison £5,000
Martin Gay Black £5,000

From 1832 to 1837 five members of the Halifax Banking Company were members of the Council of twelve:

Enos Collins appointed in 1822
Samuel Cunard appointed in 1831
H.H. Cogswell appointed in 1832
Joseph Allison appointed in 1832
James Tobin appointed in 1832

Enjoying the protection and cooperation of the local government, the enterprise was profitable for its stockholders. The province was soon flooded by their paper notes, which led naturally to a serious economic and financial maladjustment. The result was a movement for the incorporation of a regularly chartered banking institution. The liberal reforming elements in the Assembly supported the move, while the Council and Family Compact, as might be expected, opposed it. The agitation resulted in a temporary victory for the reformers and the incorporation in 1832 of the Bank of Nova Scotia, destined in time to be one of the great banking institutions of the new world. The old private company continued, however, and the consequent rivalry of the two banks became a factor in the movement for a reform in the local constitution. (Short accounts of this early episode are give in A.M. Saunders, Three Premiers of Nova Scotia (Toronto, 1909), p.61, and in W.S. Grant, The Tribune of Nova Scotia (Toronto, 1915), pp. 26-27).

From Three Premiers of Nova Scotia: “After the miscarriage of the resolution initiated and supported by the Reformers before Mr. Howe had a seat in the Legislative branch, and which were intended to effect a change in the constitution of the Council, Mr. Howe took a bolder stand in his paper. His editorials attracted much attention, and he was denounced by the old school. In his newspaper work he evidently resorted to the device of writing anonymous articles, purporting to come from different parts of the Province. This awakened much interest in the places where, they were supposed to have been written; and men in these localities not wishing to be outdone by their neighbors, tried their hand at writing for the press. By this stratagem the people were aroused, and latent talent developed. By this and various other schemes Mr. Howe rapidly gained influence with the people. As his opponents became bolder, his friends and popularity increased.
About this time the currency question was a burning subject in the minds of the people. Neither the bank then established in Halifax nor the Government was by law bound to meet their paper by specie payment. This principle soon produced its legitimate fruits. Gold and silver were withdrawn from circulation, and paper money was depreciated. Mr. Howe denounced both the bank and the Government as enemies of the people. In this he was not alone. Among prominent men, Bliss, Huntington, Fairbanks and others stood with him. This abuse, after a short struggle, was removed.”

From The Tribune of Nova Scotia: “Early in the nineteenth century, when there was no bank in the province, the government had issued notes, for the redemption of which the revenues of the province were pledged. In 1825 some of the more important merchants founded a bank, and issued notes payable in gold, silver, or provincial paper. The Halifax Banking Company, as this institution was called, was simply a private company, with no charter from the province, and that it was allowed to issue notes is an instance of the easy-going ways of those early days. No less than five of its partners were members of the Council. Thus the state of affairs for some years was that there was but one bank in the province, that its notes were redeemable in provincial paper, and that the Council was largely composed of its directors, who could order the province to print as much paper as they wished. The Halifax Banking Company was of great benefit to the provincial merchants, and, though its partners made large profits, there is no proof that they abused their position on the Council to aid them in business. But the general feeling in the province was one of suspicion, and the combination of financial and legislative monopoly was certainly dangerous. Soon some other citizens endeavored to found another bank and to have it regularly incorporated by provincial charter, with the proviso that all paper money issued by it should be redeemable in coin. The directors of the Halifax Banking Company fought this proposal fiercely, both in business circles and in the Council, arguing that as the balance of trade was against Nova Scotia, there would rarely be enough ‘ hard money ‘ in the province to redeem the notes outstanding. In 1832, however, popular clamor forced the legislature to grant its charter to the second bank, the Bank of Nova Scotia. The Halifax Banking Company also continued to do a flourishing business, and during the struggle of Howe and his fellow-reformers against the Council, the influence of its partners was one of the chief causes of complaint. In 1873 it obtained a charter from the Dominion, but in 1903 was absorbed by the Canadian Bank of Commerce (CIBC).”


In 1830; the attempt of the Council to prevent an increase of the duty; on brandy by the Assembly brought the two bodies into violent conflict. The Assembly under the leadership of S. G. W. Archibald held that the regulation of taxes, under British precedent, belonged solely to the representatives of the people. The Council on the other hand catered to the wealthy brandy merchants of Halifax who were evidently trying to escape the tax barrier. The controversy was one of considerable warmth and led to a general election in which the party of the Assembly won a signal victory, electing all of their candidates with one exception. For the moment it seemed that the Reform party would be able to control the whole government. Their leader, however, Archibald, was elected to the speakership which removed him from active participation in party politics, and the Family Compact group continued in power. (Parts of the debate on the brandy tax are quoted in Nova Scotia, in its historical, mercantile and industrial relations, Duncan Campbell (Montreal, 1873), pp. 268-276).

From Nova Scotia, in its historical, mercantile and industrial relations: “Since the revolution of 1688 the Lords had ceased to claim a privilege which the Commons had resisted so frequently, and at the time of the collision between the Assembly of Nova Scotia and His Majesty’s Council, it was a settled principle of the constitution, that all charges or burthens on the people must begin with the Commons, and cannot be altered by the Lords.
Much dissatisfaction was expressed in all sections of the country with the Council for the rejection of the revenue bill, and the general feeling was so forcibly evinced in various ways that no doubt could be entertained as to the result of the coming election, which was that all the leaders of the opposition to the action of the Council were re-elected, with the exception of Mr. Beamish Murdoch.
Mr. S. G. W. Archibald was again elected Speaker, and in returning thanks stated his determination to preserve inviolate the privileges of the House.”

In 1829 Howe began to write definitely on political questions. He studied the English papers and pamphlets, and became familiar with the reform movement in the mother country. In 1830, during the brandy dispute, he championed the cause of the Assembly against the Council and the Family Compact. The election of that year was a victory for the Reform party, but the triumph was wasted through want of proper leadership. Howe saw the need of educating the people, particularly those in the rural sections, along political lines, and to that end gave his attention to the publication of what he termed his “Legislative Review,” a series of articles on the political issues of the day. Laboring under a burden of debt, with the success of his paper yet to be won, with no friends among those of the inner circle of Halifax, the young editor attacked the problems of the province with courage and ability. When the new Assembly, elected in 1830, failed to accomplish the reforms for which it had been chosen, he informed his readers and urged them to continue the fight for their just rights and privileges in the control of the local government.

The masses of the plain people caught the inspiration of his zealous appeals and a new party feeling and a new party solidarity began to gather around his leadership. His zeal also brought down upon his head the wrath of the powerful Family compact.


On January 1, 1835, an important date in the history of reform in Nova Scotia, a letter appeared in Joseph Howe’s paper, The Nova Scotian, accusing the magistrates of the city of Halifax of corruption in the management of municipal affairs. (Halifax had not been incorporated as a city but was still under the old system of municipal control, i.e. under a body of magistrates appointed by the Crown).

As might be expected the city government was entirely in the hands of the members of the Family Compact party who had already felt the sting of the opposition of the young editor. In fact the letter had been written and contributed by a friend, but as publisher, Howe was obliged to take the legal responsibility for its appearance and suffer the wrath of the city fathers. This was their opportunity; they could now crush him completely; a heavy fine would mean financial ruin; a jail sentence would cool his zeal, and both would shatter forever his influence as a reformer. At a meeting of the Grand Inquest of the County, therefore, a true bill was lodged again Joseph Howe for criminal libel. (At that time in criminal libel the truth of the libel could not be introduced as evidence. This was changed in England in 1843 by Lord Campbell’s Act).

This meant that the law officers of the Crown would prosecute him as a dangerous character in the community in which he had grown to manhood and where he was respected and loved by a large majority of the population. It was in some respects a cowardly proceeding on the part of the magistrates of the city. Because of the legal circumstances Howe was thus caught in a dangerous and difficult situation. First he went to his friends of the legal profession, but no one of them would take the case of his defense. They were ambitious and did not wish to endanger their future by opposing openly the powers of the inner circle. Their advice to Howe was to admit the guilt of the charge and trust to the mercy of the court for leniency.

Howe was made of finer and stronger stuff and refused positively to entertain the idea of guilt. He would prepare and handle his own defense. It was a brave stand for the odds were heavy against him. He had no legal training, nor even the advantage of a higher education, and his experience in court had been only that of a newspaper reporter. Moreover, the very judges before whom he was to be tried, while men of character, were all friends of the same group that sought his destruction. Undaunted, he borrowed the law books of his friends, and, by the time his case was called, had mastered the law; of libel and was ready for the ordeal of his own defense.

Joseph Howe had many friends among the more democratic elements of the community, and to them the issue of the trial was an important political matter. The government was bent upon destroying the champion of popular interests, one who had lifted up his voice in criticism of maladministration. On the day of the trial crowds of people came to the court to hear the arguments in the case. Howe had written and memorized two paragraphs of his address to the court and jury. With the skill of a trained and experienced lawyer, he convinced his hearers of his innocence and of the injustice of the charges placed against him. For six hours his eloquence and wit held the unbroken attention of the jury and the onlookers. He lifted the case out of the narrow grooves of legal technicalities and placed it beside the great issues over which had been fought the battles for British liberty. The freedom of the press was at stake; one of the fundamental rights of all Britishers had been questioned; and his speech was a plea for its vindication.

He claimed for himself the “impenetrable shield of the British law,” and “those invaluable principles” which “our forefathers fixed and have bequeathed.” When he had finished Howe returned to his humble home where the great emotion, which had filled his soul poured itself out in a flood of tears. He had not known before or even suspected that he possessed such power.

The next morning the Crown’s attorney closed the case with a strong argument in support of the law against public slander and for the conviction of the young editor. But in spite of his efforts and the stern and straightforward instructions of the Chief Justice5 the jury returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty. The joy of the community was unbounded and the feelings of the people could no longer be held in check. Howe was carried to his home on the shoulders of his friends and admirers and the victory was celebrated by a two days’ holiday. Politically Joseph Howe had been born. The leadership had at last been found which the reforming forces of Nova Scotia were to follow gladly for a generation. In this simple triumph a movement was started which was to produce ultimately a method of government under the Crown more freely democratic than that sought and established by the patriots of 1776 under republican institutions. But no man who celebrated the vindication of young Howe, realized the ultimate importance of the occasion.


Howe was already a statesman of the Empire and his vision embraced a world wide organization, based upon “a right understanding” of the ancient Constitution of England. He was seeking not only to adapt the English system to the growing life of Nova Scotia, but also to every other colony under the British Crown. The life of Nova Scotia was fundamentally democratic, and in this quest his great object was self-government without independence; he was seeking all that Dickinson and Jefferson had sought before the fateful hour of 1776, and he knew it could be accomplished without resorting to secession or to republicanism. In short, Joseph Howe, in seeking to adapt the English system to the conditions of life in the new colonies was in reality propounding the question of colonial responsible government, which was the first step in the transformation of the constitution of the Empire. The cornerstone of the Commonwealth was in the making.

The Resolutions were opposed by the Family Compact with all its strength. Some of the best leadership, and some of the most thoughtful people in the province were of that group. The program of the Reform party, they argued, would lead to independence and republicanism. Their liberties were preserved by monarchial institutions, and they pointed to the sad state of the government of the United States as an example of a self-governing democracy which they did not care to follow. The proposal to make the Council elective would “substitute for the high minded independence of Englishmen, the low and groveling subservancy of democracy.” The elective principle should ever be discouraged in order to preserve to Nova Scotia and to posterity the constitution of the mother country.”

Livingston, Walter Ross. Responsible Government In Nova Scotia: a Study of the Constitutional Beginnings of the British Commonwealth. Iowa City: The University, 1930. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/wu.89080043730https://archive.org/details/responsiblegover0000livi