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Joseph Howe
Chapter I - Birth and Youth


JOSEPH HOWE was born at Halifax, Nova Scotia, December 13th, 1804. Those who are familiar with the topography of Halifax have seen the beautiful sheet of water called the North West Arm, which lies on the western side of the city and forms the peninsula on which the city is situated. The scenery, though rugged, is delightful, and. the cottage in which Mr. Howe was born was built on this Arm, two miles from the heart of the city, then containing scarcely more than ten or twelve thousand people.

His father was John Howe, who was descended from one of four brothers who came from the southern part of England to the New England States in the 17th century. John Howe was the only one of the family in New England who remained loyal to Great Britain at the time of the revolution, and he came to Nova Scotia after the evacuation of Boston. Mr. Howe was a Loyalist, devoted to England and British institutions, and he infused into his son a deep-seated regard and attachment for the empire. In a great speech delivered at Southampton, England, in 1851, Joseph Howe, referring to his father, uttered the following tribute, which gives a striking indication of his British tendencies:

"His bones rest in the Halifax churchyard. I am his only surviving son, and whatever the future may have in store, I want when I stand beside his grave to feel that I have done my best to preserve the connection he valued, that the British flag may wave above the soil in which he sleeps."

Mr. John Howe was first married in Boston to a Miss Minns, by whom he had three sons, John, David and William, and three daughters. On the death of his first wife, Mr. Howe married Mary Austin, nee Edes, a daughter of Captain Edes, who with his wife and child had come out from England and by chance remained in Halifax. This second wife bore him two children, a son and a daughter. The daughter lived to be married, but died soon after at sea. The son was Joseph, whose achievements and career it is the purpose of this work to chronicle.

The task imposes unusual responsiblity. To say that Joseph Howe ranks foremost amongst the statesmen produced in British North America and occupies a front position among the makers of Canada does not convey all that a full and just biography of the man would entail. Many men in British North America have been distinguished by successful public careers, and have earned a lasting place in the history of their country by their talents, achievements and devotion, but Howe, while unsurpassed as a statesman, possessed qualities not usually associated with public life. He was a man of vivid imagination, unfailing wit, a poet and litterateur, whose unique personality places him in marked contrast with most of the political leaders of British North America with whose names his must be historically associated. The brush that paints his character aright should have delicate touches and command of various hues and shades of colour.

Young Joseph Howe had few opportunities of obtaining an education. His father's house was two miles from the nearest city school and he was able to attend only in the summer months, when these two miles were traversed on foot each morning and afternoon. In winter he was kept at home. His father, however, was a man of culture. Shortly after his arrival in Halifax he became king's printer, and after that he held the important position of postmaster-general for the Maritime Provinces, including in his duties the care of the post-office at Halifax. He devoted himself to the cultivation of the mind of his youngest son, who spent his winter evenings in reading, and study. During all his life Joseph was a voracious reader, and the librarian of the legislative library was heard to declare that Mr. Howe had read nearly all the books in the library.

Joseph, throughout his life, in his public utterances referred to his father with veneration. On one occasion, speaking of him, he used these words:

"For thirteen years he was my instructor, my playfellow, almost my daily companion. To him I owe my fondness for reading, my familiarity with the Bible, my knowledge of old colonial and American incidents and characteristics. He left me nothing but his example and the memory of his many virtues, for all that he ever earned was given to the poor. He was too good for this world; but the remembrance of his high principles, his cheerfulness, his child-like simplicity, and truly Christian character, is never absent from my mind."

Joseph had a splendid physique, and, as he grew to manhood, was finely proportioned, and of a robust constitution. He was fond of sports and of rambling in the woods, and very early gave indications of possessing a poetic temperament.

Although Mr. John Howe held offices to which slight emoluments were attached, he possessed no tendency to accumulate, and, as a consequence, at the age of thirteen, it was felt necessary that Joseph should obtain employment. His father was king's printer, so Joseph was employed in the office of the Gazette, and taught the trade of a printer, varying this occupation by occasionally assisting in the post-office at Halifax.

Thus it will be seen that Howe started his career without the advantages of a university education or even of a complete common school course, and he is not the only conspicuous instance of a man who has achieved, not only a distinguished position, but an admirable command of English composition, without a study of the ancient classics.

During the ten years of apprenticeship Howe composed many fugitive poems, which appeared anonymously in the newspapers in Halifax. One poem entitled "Melville Island," attracted more than usual attention. Near the head of the North West Arm stands a little island, most picturesquely situated in a small cove, surrounded by verdure-covered hills. Upon this island was erected a military prison, very soon after the settlement of Halifax, and prisoners were confined there during the French war, and the war of 1812-15. At the time of the publication of the poem the Earl of Dalhousie was lieutenant-governor of the province, and he was so far impressed with the merits and beauty of the verses that he invited the young author to government house, loaded him with praise, and entered his name upon the invitation lists, which, considering the exclusive character of the government house coterie in those days, was an honour somewhat unusual, but, as events will show, not producing any marked results in the birth of aristocratic tendencies on the part of the recipient.

In 1827, when Howe was twenty-three years of age, having, as he conceived, sufficiently served his apprenticeship, he embarked, in connection with Mr. James Spike, on a journalistic career by purchasing the Weekly Chronicle, a newspaper which was then being published by Mr. William Minns. The name of the paper was changed to the Acadian, and Mr. Howe, at this early age assumed the duties of editor. It was not a political paper, and its columns give no indication of that wonderful mastery of political topics which its editor afterwards developed. It furnished news, and its editorial columns were devoted to sketches of scenery and local affairs. It was somewhat literary in its scope and published a considerable amount of poetry, much of it the composition of the editor.

Howe's connection with the Acadian was brief. Before the end of the year he sold his share in this paper to his partner and purchased the Nova Scotian. This ambitious and widely circulated paper was then owned by Mr. George R. Young, a son of Mr. John Young, the author of the Letters of Agricola, which had aroused the people of Nova Scotia to interest in agriculture, and a brother of William Young, who for many years occupied a commanding position in the political field in Nova Scotia, and afterwards became chief justice of the province, and was honoured with knighthood. Mr. Howe paid 1,050 for the Nova Scotian, and in January, 1828, he became sole editor and proprietor. It is probable that he was able to pay but a very small portion of this price at the beginning, and since in a small community the task of making a weekly newspaper profitable was far from being an easy one, many of Howe's friends had serious misgivings as to his ability to make the venture successful.

Howe himself was duly sensible of the difficulties surrounding it, but he had a lion's heart and a cheerful disposition, and addressed himself to the work before him with unflinching courage and dauntless zeal.

At that time the English mails were fully two months on their passage, being carried by sailing packets, and the collecting of English and foreign news was therefore difficult and uncertain. Howe toiled day and night to give tone and character to the paper, and at the same time to secure for it a wide constituency throughout the province. He wrote its editorials and collected its news, and he introduced in the course of time a new feature in publishing reports of debates in the House, and of trials and arguments in the courts of law. Howe did the reporting himself, and Mr. Fennerty describes him as seated in the gallery of the House day after day, taking notes upon the crown of his hat, and then, after the adjournment of the House, working until late at night making transcripts of his notes, with little time reserved for sleep.

In order to extend his paper's circulation and establish connections with the rest of the province, Howe was accustomed, when time permitted, to make tours of different parts of the province on horseback or on foot, for in those days railways and other easy and quick modes of communication were unknown. In this way he acquired a very intimate knowledge of all parts of the province, and of the views and feelings of the people, and he utilized such information as he was able to collect during these various tours for furnishing material for a series of charming letters entitled, "Rambles." These letters were written in an easy, conversational style, and set forth the splendid agricultural resources, the opportunities of developing industries, the need of commercial facilities, and, added to all, the scenic charms and beauties of the province. They awakened people to a sense of the value and importance of their country and aroused emulation, which has made itself felt, if not in active industrial development, at all events in a tendency to intellectual progress, which has placed Nova Scotia first in the number of ambitious and able men which it has contributed to the public life of British North America.

Shortly after assuming control of the Nova Scotian, in January, 1828, Mr. Howe was married to Catharine Susan Ann McNab, the daughter of Captain John McNab of the Royal Nova Scotia Fencibles. Mrs. Howe was a woman admirably adapted for the position of helpmeet and companion to a busy public man. She was endowed with excellent mental gifts, and above all, possessed of sound judgment and unerring common sense. Howe himself was inclined to be indifferent in financial matters, and somewhat impulsive, occasionally rash, in political movements, and Mrs. Howe usually exercised a wholesome restraining influence upon the impetuous tendencies of her distinguished husband. She believed in him, had faith in him, and was ever ready to cheer him with her encouragement as well as restrain him by her counsel. As will be seen in the unfolding of Howe's character, he was a man of exceedingly social and convivial temperament, and, as he was from the earliest times quick in making friendships, unfailingly genial and fond of boon companionship, his house was always open to his friends. It sometimes happens that the most amiable wives are indisposed to have their domestic repose continually invaded by hosts of friends at all times and seasons. Mrs. Howe gracefully acceded to her husband's tendencies in this direction, and thus contributed not only to his enjoyment, but also to his power.

For seven years Howe devoted himself to his work of making the Nova Scotian the first and chief newspaper in Nova Scotia. In respect of politics his editorial career may be characterized as an evolution. During the first year the paper was devoted to his "Rambles," and to a series of clever papers entitled, "The Club." They were the joint offspring of several bright men, of whom Howe was the chief, and were framed somewhat on the model of the "Noctes Ambrosiante." The chief contributors were Thomas C. Haliburton (Sam Slick), Lawrence O'Connor Doyle, Dr. Grigor and Captain Kincaid. These men, most of whom afterwards became distinguished, held their meetings and planned their sketches in Mr. Howe's house. Associated with them as Howe's friends were S. G. W. Archibald, Beamish Murdoch, Thomas B. Aiken, Jotham Blanchard, Andrew Shields and George Thompson. "The Club" dealt with the various questions of the day, including pointed references to prominent officials and public affairs.

In 1829, Howe published a history of Nova Scotia written by Haliburton, but antedating the publication of those inimitable sketches, beginning with "Sam Slick," which have since made his name favourably known to the English-speaking world. This book was a valuable contribution to the historical research of the province, but it proved to be an unsuccessful financial operation and Howe lost heavily on the publication. Howe and Haliburton, however, continued to be friends until the latter's death, although political differences inevitably arose at a later period, which, perhaps, somewhat diminished their intimacy for a time.

In 1829, Howe began to write upon political topics, and to deal with great independence, courage and dexterity with the questions which began in a more conspicuous manner to engage the attention of the legislature. It was in 1830, however, that he commenced the publication of his legislative reviews, which were afterwards continued from year to year. A seat in the press gallery and a careful reporting of the proceedings of a legislative body is, perhaps, the best possible training for a political career, and in this way Howe obtained a grip and mastery of the political situation in Nova Scotia difficult, if not impossible, of attainment by any other means. The press often affords better facilities for obtaining a political education than a seat in parliament. The member is in his place for three or four months in the year; the remainder of the time he is at his home attending to his duties. A political editor is in the field throughout the year, and follows with accuracy the movements on the political chessboard at all times and at all seasons.


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