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Chapter III - The Prohibitory Liquor Law

THE House which had been elected in 1850 was dissolved after the prorogation in 1854, and the election came on in the month of July. It was a memorable occasion, because it was certain that the topics discussed by the House then to be elected would be of the very highest importance. One of these subjects was the reciprocity treaty, which at that time had been arranged with the United States through the British government. This treaty provided for the free interchange of certain natural products between the great republic and the several provinces which later formed the Dominion of Canada, and it had been brought about through the efforts of Lord Elgin, who at that time was governor-general of Canada. The treaty was agreed to on June 5th, and was subject to ratification by the imperial parliament and the legislatures of the British North American colonies which were affected by it. In the St. John constituencies there was at that time a strong feeling in favour of a protection policy, but this did not interfere with the desire to effect the interchange of raw material with the United States on advantageous terms. Tilley had been originally nominated as a protectionist, and still held views favourable to the encouragement and protection of native industries by means of the tariff, but he was also favourable to reciprocity with the United States if it could be obtained in such a manner as to be beneficial to the province. At the general election he led the poll in the city of St. John, his colleague being James A. Harding, who had been elected at a bye-election to the previous House. For the county, Mr. William J. Ritchie was one of the successful candidates, and the only Liberal returned for that constituency. The other members for the county were the Hon. John R. Partelow, Robert D. Wilmot and John H. Gray.

The new House was called together on October 19th for the purpose of ratifying the reciprocity treaty, and the Hon. D. L. Hanington was elected speaker by a vote of twenty-three to thirteen. This gave the opposition an earlier opportunity of defeating the Street-Partelow administration than would, under ordinary circumstances, have been possible. An amendment to the address was moved by the Hon. Charles Fisher, which was an indictment of the government for their various shortcomings and offences. The amendment was to expunge the whole of the fifth paragraph and substitute for it the following:—

“It is with feelings of loyalty and attachment to Her Majesty’s person and government that we recognize, in that provision of the treaty which requires the concurrence of this legislature, a distinct avowal by the imperial government of their determination to preserve inviolate the principles of self-government, and to regard the constitution of the province as sacred as that of the parent state. We regret that the conduct of the administration during the last few years has not been in accordance with these principles, and we feel constrained thus early to state to your Excellency that your constitutional advisers have not conducted the government of the province in the true spirit of our colonial constitution.” This amendment was debated for six days, and was carried by a vote of twenty-seven to twelve.

The general ground of accusation against the government, and the one most strongly insisted upon, was that it had yielded to the influence of the colonial office in the appointment of Judge Wilmot. It was well known that the government at that time, or at least a majority of them, did not consider it necessary to appoint another judge; at all events, they took no steps to bring about another appointment; but they yielded to the colonial office, and the pressure put upon them by Sir Edmund Head, the lieutenant-governor, so far as to acquiesce in the appointment of Judge Carter as chief-justice, and the elevation of Mr. Wilmot to the bench. This was a fair ground of attack, because it was clear that if the executive council of New Brunswick was under the orders of the home government, representative institutions and responsible government did not exist.

Thus the Street-Partelow government fell, and with it disappeared, at once and forever, the old Conservative regime which had existed in the province from its foundation, and which, unavoidably no doubt, had presided over the early political life of the colony, but the undue continuance of which was wholly incompatible with the full development of representative institutions and responsible government. It was a great triumph for the cause of Liberalism that the Conservatives of that period were not only defeated, but swept altogether out of existence. After that a government of men who called themselves Conservatives might go into power, but the old state of affairs, under which the lieutenant-governor could exercise almost despotic powers, had departed forever, and could no more be revived than the heptarchy. All that a Conservative government could do after that was to fall into line with the policy of the men they had displaced, and proceed, less rapidly perhaps, but none the less surely, along the path of political progress.

The new government which was formed as the result of this vote had for its premier the Hon. Charles Fisher, who took the office of attorney-general; Mr. Tilley became provincial secretary; Mr. James Brown, a few weeks later, received the office of surveyor-general; J. M. Johnson, one of the members for Northumberland, became solicitor-general; and William J. Ritchie, Albert J. Smith and William H. Steeves were members of the government without office.

The bill to give effect to the reciprocity treaty passed its third reading on November 2d, only five members voting against it. On motion of the Hon. Mr. Ritchie, one of the members of the new government, it was resolved that it was desirable and expedient that the surveyor-general, who was a political officer, should hold a seat in the House of Assembly, and that the government should carry out the wishes of the House in this respect. Before the House again met the wishes of the House had been complied with, and Mr. Brown, of Charlotte, became surveyor-general.

The House met again on February 1st, 1855, and then the real work of legislative and administrative reform began. In the speech from the throne it was stated that the Customs Act would expire in the course of a year, and that it was necessary that a new Act should be passed. A better system of auditing the public accounts was also recommended, and a better system of electing members to the legislature. On March 5th, correspondence was brought down, dated the previous 15th of August, announcing, on the part of the imperial government, the withdrawal of the imperial customs establishment, which was considered to be no longer necessary, and stating that as the duties of these offices were now mainly in connection with the registration of vessels in the colonies, and the granting of certificates of the origin of colonial products, this work would hereafter be performed by the colonial officers. A letter addressed to the comptrollers and other customs officers had informed them that their services would be discontinued after January 5th, 1855. So disappeared the last remnant of the old imperial custom-house system, which had been the cause of so many difficulties in all the colonies and which had done more than anything else to bring about the revolution which separated the thirteen colonies from the mother country.

The great measure of the session of 1855 was the law to prevent the importation, manufacture or selling of liquor. This bill was brought in by Mr. Tilley as a private member, and not on behalf of the government. It was introduced on March 3d. Considering its importance and the fact that it led to a crisis in the affairs of the government and the temporary defeat of the Liberal party, it went through the House with comparatively little difficulty. It was first considered on March 19th, and a motion to postpone its further consideration for three months was lost by a vote of seventeen to twenty-one. The final division on the third reading was taken on March 27th, and the vote was twenty-one to eighteen, so that every member of the House, with one exception, voted yea or nay. The closeness of this last division should have warned the advocate of the measure that it was likely to produce difficulty, for it is clear that all laws which are intended to regulate the personal habits of men must be ineffectual unless they have the support of a large majority of the people affected by them. That this was not the case with the prohibitory liquor law was shown by the vote in the legislature, and it was still more clearly shown after the law came into operation on January 1st, 1856.

The passage of the prohibitory law was a bold experiment, and, as the sequel showed, more bold than wise. The temperance movement in New Brunswick, at that time, was hardly more than twenty years old, and New Brunswick had always been a province in which the consumption of liquor was large in proportion to its population. When it was first settled by the Loyalists, and for many years afterwards, the use of liquor was considered necessary to happiness, if not to actual existence. Every person consumed spirits, which generally came to the province in the form of Jamaica rum, from the West Indies, and as this rum was supposed to be an infallible cure for nearly every ill that flesh is heir to, nothing could be done at, that time without its use. Large quantities of rum were taken into the woods for the lumbermen, to give them sufficient strength to perform the laborious work in which they were engaged, and if it had been suggested that a time would come when the same work would be done without any more powerful stimulant than tea, the person who ventured to make such a suggestion would have been regarded as foolish. Experience has shown that more and better work can be done, not only in the woods, but everywhere else, without the use of stimulants than with them; but no one could be persuaded to believe this sixty years ago. Every kind of work connected with the farm then had to be performed by the aid of liquor. Every house-raising, every ploughing match, every meeting at which farmers congregated, had unlimited quantities of rum as one of its leading features. It was also used by almost every man as a part of his regular diet; the old stagers had their eleven-o’clock dram and their nip before dinner; their regular series of drinks in the afternoon and evening; and they actually believed that without them life would not be worth living. Some idea of the extent of the spirit-drinking of the province may be gathered from the fact that, in 1838, when the population did not exceed 120,000, 312,298 gallons of rum, gin and whiskey, and 64,579 gallons of brandy were consumed in New Brunswick. Spirits, especially rum, were very cheap, and, the duty being only thirty cents a gallon, every one could afford to drink it if disposed to do so.

It was at midnight on December 31st, 1855, when the bells rang out a merry peal to announce the advent of the New Year, that this law went into force. This meant little less than a revolution in the views, feelings and ideas of the people of the province, and, to a large extent, in their business relations. The liquor trade, both wholesale and retail, employed large numbers of men, and occupied many buildings which brought in large rents to their owners. The number of taverns in St. John and its suburb, Portland, was not less than two hundred, and every one of these establishments had to be closed. There were probably at least twenty men who sold liquor at wholesale, and who extended their business to every section of the province, as well as to parts of Nova Scotia, and their operations also had to come to an end. It was not to be supposed that these people would consent to be deprived suddenly of their means of living, especially in view of the fact that it was by no means certain that the sentiment in favour of prohibition was as strong in the country as it appeared to be in the legislature. It has always been understood that many men voted for prohibition in the House of Assembly who themselves were not total abstainers, but who thought they might make political capital by taking that course, and who relied on the legislative council to throw out the bill. No men were more disgusted and disappointed than they when the council passed the bill.

The result of the attempt to enforce prohibition was what might have been expected. The law was resisted, liquor continued to be sold, and when attempts were made to prevent the violation of the law, and the violators of the law were brought before the courts, able lawyers were employed to defend them, while the sale of liquor by the same parties was continued, thus setting the law at defiance. This state of confusion lasted for several months, but it is unnecessary to go into details. In the city of St. John, especially, the conflict became bitter to the last degree, and it was evident that, however admirable prohibition might be of itself, the people of that city were not then prepared to accept it. At this juncture came the astounding news that the lieutenant-governor, the Hon. H. T. Manners-Sutton, had dissolved the House of Assembly against the advice of his council. This governor, who had been appointed the year previous, was a member of an old Conservative family, one of whom was speaker of the British House of Commons for a great many years. The traditions of this family were all opposed to such a radical measure as the prohibitory law, and, therefore, it was not to be expected that Manners-Sutton, who drank wine at his own table, and who considered that its use was proper and necessary, would be favourable to the law. But even if he had been disposed to favour it originally, or to regard it without prejudice, the confusion which it caused in the province when the attempt was made to enforce it, would naturally incline him to look upon it as an evil. At all events, he came to the conclusion that the people should have another opportunity of pronouncing upon it, and, as the result of this view of the situation, resolved to dissolve the legislature, which had been elected only a little more than a year, and had still three years to run.

The election which followed in July, 1856, was perhaps the most hotly contested that has ever taken place in the province. In St. John, especially, the conflict was fierce and bitter, because it was in this city that the liquor interest was strongest and most influential. All over the province, however, the people became interested in the struggle, as they had not been in any previous campaign.

By the Liberals and friends of the government, the action of Governor Sutton was denounced as tyrannical, unjust and entirely contrary to the principles of responsible government. On the other hand, the friends of the governor and of the liquor interest declared that his action was right, and the cry of “Support the governor,” was raised in every county. At this day it is easy enough to discern that there was a good deal of unnecessary violence injected into the campaign, and that neither party was inclined to do full justice to the other.

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