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Chapter IX - The Victory is Won

THE session of 1848 was destined to be a memorable one in the history of responsible government in New Brunswick. It was evident that with the House as then constituted no progress could be made unless a change were brought about in the views of some of its members by outside pressure. In this instance the pressure came from the imperial government, which desired to bring the political condition of New Brunswick into line with that of Canada and Nova Scotia. In March, 1847, Earl Grey, the colonial secretary, addressed a despatch to Sir John Harvey, the governor of Nova Scotia, in which he laid down the principles which he thought should control colonial administration. The most important feature of this despatch was its declaration with reference to the composition of the executive council. With regard to office-holders in general, Earl Grey thought that they ought not to be disturbed in consequence of any change of government, but he was of opinion that a different rule should apply to such officials as were members of the executive council. On this point he adopted the language of Mr. Poulett Thomson (Lord Sydenham), who, in a despatch to Lord John Russell, written at Halifax, in the year 1840, said:—

“The functions of the executive council, on the other hand, are, it is perfectly clear, of a totally different character; they are a body upon whom the governor must be able to call at any or at all times for advice, with whom he can consult upon the measures to be submitted to the legislature, and in whom he may find instruments within its walls to introduce such amendments in the laws as he may think necessary, or to defend his acts and his policy. It is obvious, therefore, that those who compose this body must be persons whose constant attendance on the governor can be secured; principally, therefore, officers of the government, but, when it may be expedient to introduce others, men holding seats in one or other House, taking a leading part in political life, and above all, exercising influence over the assembly.

“The last, and in my opinion by far the most serious, defect in the government is the utter absence of power in the executive, and its total want of energy to attempt to occupy the attention of the country upon real improvements, or to lead the legislature in the preparation and adoption of measures for the benefit of the colony. It does not appear to have occurred to any one that it is one of the first duties of the government to suggest improvements where they are wanted; that, the constitution having placed the power of legislation in the hands of an assembly and a council, it is only by acting through these bodies that the duty can be performed; and that, if these proper and legitimate functions of government are neglected, the necessary result must be not only that the improvements which the people have a right to expect will be neglected, and the prosperity of the country checked, but that each branch of legislature will misuse its power, and the popular mind be easily led into excitement upon mere abstract theories of government to which their attention is directed as the remedy for the uneasiness they feel.”

He concluded by expressing the opinion that the peculiar circumstances of Nova Scotia presented no insuperable obstacle to the immediate adoption of that system of parliamentary government which had long prevailed in the mother country.

A copy of this despatch was sent to the lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick and it was laid before the House in pursuance of an address which had been passed a few days before. It was understood that the principles laid down in this despatch would be equally applicable to the province of New Brunswick, and Mr. Fisher moved that the House should approve of them and of their application to New Brunswick. This resolution was carried by a vote of twenty-four to eleven, which was a complete reversal of the vote of the previous session. Among those who voted for the resolution were the three members of the government who had seats in the House of Assembly and who had been previously opposed to any such change in the political system of the country. Thus the victory for responsible government was practically won, and it only remained to perfect the details.

Immediately after the prorogation of the legislature, a reorganization of the government took place, Messrs. Baillie, Shore and Johnston retired and their places were taken by Messrs. Wilmot, Partelow, Fisher and Kinnear. Mr. Wilmot became attorney-general in the place of Mr. Peters, recently deceased, who had filled that office for twenty years. Mr. Partelow became provincial secretary in place of John Simcoe Saunders. Mr. Kinnear, who had been made solicitor-general in 1846, now became a member of the government under the new system, while Mr. Fisher took his seat as a member of the government without office. Thus were the principles of responsible government vindicated and established in New Brunswick. The provincial secretary, the attorney-general and the solicitor-general became political officers subject to change with every change of government. The surveyor-general, Mr. Baillie, by resigning from the government escaped this condition for the time being, but it was not long before that office also became political, Mr. Baillie himself retiring with a pension in 1851.

Messrs. Wilmot and Fisher were much censured by their friends for becoming members of a government that was essentially Conservative and in which they were in a minority. But as the principles for which they had contended had been admitted and were now in a measure established, there seemed to be no reason why they should not assist in working them out. Wilmot as attorney-general certainly had greater opportunities of advancing the cause of Reform than as a private member, and he and Fisher working together were able to exercise a strong influence on the administration. In the following year, as has already been seen, a measure was carried voiding the seats of members of the assembly who became heads of departments in the government, or enjoyed any office of profit or emolument under the Crown, and this was all that was necessary to establish responsible government on a firm basis. There was indeed one other difficulty, the interference of the colonial office and the influence of the governor, who had been accustomed to govern the province largely by means of despatches. This influence was one which could only be got rid of by degrees, for the wise men of Downing Street always thought they knew much better what colonists required than did the colonists themselves. The colonial secretary undertook to dictate to the province as to the kind of tariff-it should pass, and to refuse assent to the passage of bills by the legislature giving a preference to any particular county or granting bounties to fishermen or others engaged in any special calling. It was felt to be a hardship that the province was not permitted to give encouragement to any industry which it desired to assist, and so strong was this feeling that at the session of 1850, immediately after the receipt of a dispatch from Earl Grey disallowing the bill of the previous session granting bounties for the cultivation of hemp, a bill was introduced and carried by an overwhelming majority in the assembly appropriating three thousand pounds for bounties to fishermen. This bill was rejected by the council, so that the colonial secretary was spared the difficulty which would have been involved in being defied by the New Brunswick legislature. It was also felt to be a great hardship that, at a time when the colonies were being deprived of the preferential tariff they had so long enjoyed in the English markets, they should be debarred from entering into commercial arrangements with foreign nations. A series of strongly worded resolutions on this subject was moved by Mr. David Wark, and was well supported, although not carried. The language used by many of the speakers during the debate showed that the loyal feelings which had always distinguished the people of the province were being subjected to a severe strain by the policy of the British government. These interferences with provincial rights continued for many years after Wilmot had retired from public life, and therefore it is unnecessary to refer to them further.

Wilmot had but few opportunities during his active career as a public man of displaying his abilities outside of his native province. His fame as an orator was therefore mainly a local one, and the Portland Railway Convention of 1850 was the first occasion on which he was recognized as one of the best speakers on the continent. That great gathering of the railway and business men of the United States and Canada was assembled for the purpose of taking measures to secure a shorter ocean route to Europe than was afforded by steamships sailing from New York. It was thought that a better plan would be to run steamships from some port on the west coast of Ireland to a port on the east coast of Nova Scotia, a distance of about two thousand miles, and to connect the latter with New York by a line of railway. No one doubted at that time that this was a plan that was likely to succeed, and probably it would have done so if there had been no improvement in the construction of steamships. No one dreamed in those days that boats with a speed of twenty-five knots an hour and of twenty thousand tons displacement would be running to New York before the century was ended, and that the voyage to Liverpool would be reduced to less than six days.

The Portland Convention included many eminent men from the United States and Canada and not a few that could justly be described as orators, but it was universally admitted that in eloquence Attorney-General Wilmot, of New Brunswick, exceeded them all. The reporter of -the proceedings of the convention stated, in the pamphlet afterwards published, that it was due to the speaker and to himself to say that “he had been entirely unable to give anything like a report of the remarks of Mr. Wilmot.” The reporter also quotes the statement of another that “Mr. Wilmot delivered one of the most spicy, eloquent and enlivening speeches which he ever heard, which, while it kept the audience in the best spirits, was replete with noble sentiments commending themselves to the hearts of all present. His remarks were generally upon the moral, social and intellectual influences which would result from the contemplated work. No sketch would do justice to its power and beauty, its flashes of wit and humour.”

The following report of Wilmot’s great convention speech, although admittedly very imperfect, is given as almost the only example that survives of his eloquence:—

“I find myself in a new position in addressing a convention in a city, in a state, and under a government that is foreign to me, as far as citizenship is concerned. But I feel myself at home, for I am among those who derive their inheritance from the same common ancestry. I am, Mr. President, not a son of New England, but a grandson, and I can find the old gravestone which indicates the graves of my ancestors, in a pleasant village of Connecticut [cheers].

“We in the provinces came to this convention at your call. We have responded to your invitation and you have given us a brother’s welcome. Physiologists affirm that the exercise of the muscles tends to their enlargement and fuller development; and phrenologists affirm that the exercise of the different faculties develops in a corresponding degree the bumps upon the cranium. I would beg to add something to this category,—the exercise of benevolence and kindness enlarges the heart, and since I have been among you I have felt my heart growing big within me [cheers].

“I am delighted to see this day, and could I give expression to the emotions which swell up within me I would do so, but my power fails in the attempt, and I cannot presume to make a speech. We do not, however, meet to consult about California, where one hundred and twelve hour speeches are necessary, or about the admission of New Mexico into the Union. Our object is to effect an admission into the great railroad union, and on this question we admit of no ‘compromises.’ We go straight ahead in our purpose and the union will be effected [cheers].

“I know, Mr. President, it is a great work in which we are engaged. I know that it looks vast, if not impossible of achievement to those who have not studied its relations and its details, but those who look at it through the enlarged medium which its contemplation presents will find that difficulties diminish as its importance grows upon their vision. '

“Look at the progress of similar enterprises among yourselves in the state of Maine, and other parts of New England, and then say whether anything is required of us but union of effort and faith in the result of our exertions. In prosecuting our work in this matter, we must have faith; but as faith without works is dead, let us put forth our exertions and go steadily forward to a speedy and glorious completion of our great enterprise [cheers].

“If the timid falter and the doubting hold back, there are others who will take their places and keep our ranks full. We have only to hold our position, and drive back the army of doubters, or opposers, who may resist our march. We must give them the same reception that General Taylor gave to the army of Santa Anna at Buena Vista. If opposed by superior numbers, or if on any part of the field there are those who hesitate, or hold back when a stronghold of the enemy is to be carried, I would repeat the order of General Taylor: ‘A little more grape, Captain Poor’1 [tremendous cheers]. “It is written in the decrees of eternal Providence, Mr. President, that we shall learn war no more; we may then go on side by side with glorious emulation for the cause of virtue and philanthropy throughout the world, striving who shall out-vie the other. How changed in every respect, now, is the condition of our race! How glorious the sight of two great peoples uniting as one, ‘to draw more closely the bands of brotherhood, that yet shall make of all mankind but one great brotherhood of nations.’ The sentiment of that resolution which embodies this idea is worthy of its author and of the American character; but it is also a sentiment to which the people of the British empire will respond [cheers].

“Sir, I found in the circular which invited us here this sentiment expressed, in terms which aroused to the fullest enthusiasm the mind of every man in the British provinces: ‘ The spirit of peace has at last prevailed—national animosities, sectional and political hostility have disappeared between the English races since the establishment of the boundaries of Maine and Oregon, and the contests of war have been succeeded by a noble and generous rivalry for the promotion of the arts of peace. The introduction of the steamship and the railway has made former enemies friends. National hostility has given way to commercial and social intercourse, and under whatever form of government they may hereafter exist, they can never again become hostile or unfriendly’ [cheers].

“To this sentiment I respond with all my heart. It is this sentiment that has brought us together. I know not who was the author of this circular, but whoever he may be, in the name of every Englishman—in the name of every American, sir, in the name of humanity, I tender him thanks [cheers].

“An enterprise aiming to accomplish such results, and which is in and of itself calculated to produce such results, cannot fail of success. The whole civilized world is interested in its accomplishment. There are some good old-fashioned people who think we are going too fast and too far in our railroad enterprises. We have, they say, lived and got along well enough without railroads, and now you seem to think that your temporal salvation depends upon it! Blot out your telegraphs, lay up your steamboats,—what darkness would come upon the world! We must form ourselves into a council of war for the purpose of combating these old prejudices, and, instead of being turned away from our objects, we will take stronger grounds than ever occupied before.

“Mr. President, we of the provinces have made up our minds no longer to remain quiet in our present condition. With all the fine natural advantages our country possesses, we make comparatively slow progress, and our province itself is scarcely known to the world. I shall be pardoned here for relating an anecdote to illustrate the truth of this remark.

“In a recent visit to Washington upon official business, I had occasion to tarry a few days in the city of New York, and among the places that I visited with a friend was one of the colleges in the city. My friend introduced me to a learned professor as his friend, the ‘Attorney-general of New Brunswick.’ We entered into conversation on a variety of subjects, and he inquired when I came over to the city, and as to various matters going on in the neighbouring state. Seeing the mistake of the learned professor, I thought it hardly kind to mortify him by correcting it, and I answered in the best way I could, and took my leave; and to this hour, I suppose, the learned professor thinks he was talking with the attorney-general of the fine old state of New Jersey [tremendous cheers].

“Seeing that my own country itself was hardly known beyond its bounds, I felt a little concern that she should not always remain in this condition. I felt, as many of my friends and neighbours have long felt, that we must look at home for the means of making our province honoured and respected abroad. And we intend to open this line of railway entirely across the breadth of our province and bring ourselves into connection with the world [cheers].

“Mr. President, I cannot omit, in this connection, the expression of my profound regard for the American Union. It is the union of these states that has given you greatness and strength at home and the respect and admiration of the civilized world [long-continued cheers].

“The great interests of Christianity, of philanthropy and of liberty, throughout the world, depend upon the union of these states. We of New Brunswick, of Nova Scotia, and of Canada are deeply interested in its existence. If there is any question of the day that interests us more than all others, it is this very question of the perpetuity of the union. For myself, I think there should be passed a law providing that the man who would even conceive the idea of a dissolution of the union should be guilty of treason. In the sincerity of my heart, I say, perish the man who should dare to think of it [tremendous cheers]!” .

With respect to railway legislation Wilmot was not in advance of many others in the province whose general political views were less liberal than his own. There was always a good deal of local feeling injected into the discussion of railway matters and Wilmot, who was a resident of Fredericton, incurred a good deal of censure for the ridicule which he threw on the proposal to build a railway from St. John to Shediac, which is now a part of the Intercolonial. As this railway brought the counties bordering on the Straits of Northumberland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence into easy communication with St. John, nothing is more clear than that of all the railways then projected in the province it was the one most likely to be useful and profitable, but Wilmot apparently could not forget the fact that it did not touch his own county. His speech on this subject was made in the legislature before the meeting of the Portland Convention, and it is worthy of note that five-sixths of the Shediac Railway was to be used as part of the magnificent European and North American Railway scheme which was so much lauded by him in his Portland speech.

There is not much to be said in regard to the political life of Wilmot after he became attorney-general. His principal legislative achievement while he filled that office was an Act for the consolidation of the criminal law with regard to the definition of certain indictable offences and the punishment thereof. This was a useful but not a brilliant work, which many another man might have performed equally well. In the session of 1850, Wilmot carried a bill through the House of Assembly for the reduction of the .salaries of the judges of the supreme court and some other officials, but this measure did not pass the legislative council. He had always been in favour of a low scale of salaries as best suited to the conditions which prevailed in the province. The scale had been fixed in 1836, when the casual and territorial revenues were placed under the control of the province, but an agitation soon afterwards commenced for further reductions. The imperial government would not consent to the reduction of any salary while the holder of the office lived, except in the case of the surveyor-general, whose duties had been decreased, but it agreed to a lower scale for future occupants of the offices. In this way the salary of the provincial secretary had been reduced from £1,599 11s. to £600; that of the surveyor-general from £2,019 4s. 4d. to £1,209 12s. 4d., and that of the auditor-general from £500 to £346 3s. The salaries of the judges, however, remained the same in 1850 as they had been in 1836, viz., £l,096 3s. for the chief-justice and £750 for each of the puisne judges. Wilmot’s bill reduced these salaries to £700 for the chief-justice and £600 to each of the other judges. He also voted for a resolution in favour of making the legislative council elective, and that an address should be presented to Her Majesty asking her to consent to the passage of such a bill. A favourable answer was received from Her Majesty, but the scheme to make the legislative council elective was never carried into effect, in consequence of the opposition which it encountered in that body.

There is no doubt that the popularity of Wilmot seriously declined after he entered the government. This was very plainly seen at the general election which took place in June, 1850, when he narrowly escaped defeat, being the lowest on the poll of the members elected, while his colleague in the government, Mr. Fisher, was defeated, polling less than one-half the number of votes given to the candidate who was highest on the poll. But, on the whole, the result throughout the province was favourable to the cause of Reform, and among those elected in York who stood higher on the poll than Wilmot were two new members who held advanced views with respect to the amendment of the constitution.

Although responsible government had been conceded to New Brunswick, and it was admitted that public offices should be bestowed in accordance with the wishes of the people, the close of Wilmot’s legislative career was marked by an event which showed that the old order of things had not entirely passed away. Chief-Justice Chipman, owing to failing health, resigned his seat on the bench in the autumn of 1850, and it became necessary to provide for a successor. A meeting of the executive council was called for the purpose of filling the vacancy, and six members of the council out of the eight who were present signed a memorandum to the effect that it was not advisable to appoint any person to the vacant office, but that such a division of the work of the judiciary should be made by the legislature as would secure the efficient discharge of the judicial duties by three judges, together with the Master of the Rolls. Wilmot was one of the persons who signed this memorandum, but on the following day he called on the governor and asked that his name might be withdrawn from it, he having in the meantime apparently changed his mind. The governor, Sir Edmund Head, asked the judges whether, in their opinion, three of them would be able to do all the judicial business of the country, and received from them a strongly worded protest against any such alteration in the number of judges. Mr. Fisher, who was one of the members of the executive present at the meeting, submitted to the governor a paper in which he took strong grounds against the proposal to reduce the number of judges. Sir Edmund Head referred the matter to the home authorities, and they decided that the proposed change in the number of judges was not advisable. Moreover, they decided as to who should fill the vacant offices, and asked the governor to appoint Mr. Justice Carter to the position of chief-justice and to offer a puisne judgeship to the attorney-general, Mr. Wilmot, and if he refused it to the solicitor-general, Mr. Kinnear. Mr. Wilmot accepted, and thus brought his political career to an end.

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