Joseph Howe (1804-1873) was a Canadian journalist, reformer, and politician who led the fight for "responsible government" in Nova Scotia, opposed confederation with Canada, and eventually came to terms with the federal union of British North America.

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Dec. 13, 1804, Joseph Howe was of a loyalist family connected with printing. Howe himself went into journalism at an early age, becoming the editor of the Novascotian in 1828. His extensive knowledge of his native province gained from continuous traveling, his engaging personality, his argumentative powers, and his clear and lively prose made him a political commentator of great force.

Howe soon took up the reform cause against the group of merchants and officials who dominated the governing circle of the colony. A celebrated libel trial, in which he conducted his own defense and won acquittal, led him to intervene directly in politics. In 1836 he was elected to the House of Assembly and thereafter began, in the legislature and through his newspaper, a determined agitation for "responsible government." This campaign reached a peak of intensity after 1843, when Howe resigned from a coalition ministry to carry out a savage attack on the lieutenant governor, Lord Falkland.

In the elections of 1847 the liberal forces won a majority in the legislature, and a new governor, Sir John Harvey, on Feb. 2, 1848, installed a ministry committed to responsible government. Howe did not head this ministry but filled the position of provincial secretary from 1848 to 1854. The ministry was the first to operate under the principle of cabinet government in any colony of the British Empire, preceding the Baldwin-Lafontaine government in Canada by 5 weeks.

Howe's period in office was an active one of railroad building in Nova Scotia, which he aided when he became chairman of the government railway board in 1854. The period was also one of denominational bitterness in Nova Scotian politics, and Howe lost some support when he criticized the loyalty of Irish Roman Catholics in the province. In 1856 Howe was reelected after a short period out of the Assembly and served in opposition from 1857 to 1860. In 1860, Howe again became provincial secretary, then premier after August 1861, and remained in office until his government was defeated in 1863.

Toward Confederation

During the negotiations with Canada over confederation Howe was on imperial service as commissioner to ensure that the fisheries clauses of the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 were being observed. He entered the lists against the confederation project in 1865, criticizing the terms, although not the principle, of federation with Canada. He led the anticonfederate forces in an unsuccessful mission to Great Britain in 1867 to forestall the project and won a sweeping victory in the 1867 elections, when 36 anticonfederates were returned in the 38 seats allotted to Nova Scotia in the Dominion Parliament.

Later, realizing that further opposition was useless, Howe bent his efforts to secure "better terms" for Nova Scotia in the federation agreement. In 1869 negotiations with the Ottawa government produced a higher annual subsidy for Nova Scotia, and Howe entered the Cabinet of John Alexander Macdonald, first as president of the council, then as secretary of state. Howe's service in Ottawa was not satisfying to him, and in 1873 he returned to his native province as lieutenant governor. He died on June 1, three weeks after taking office.

Howe was the best-loved Nova Scotian of his day and is still a legend in the Atlantic province. He was a consummate writer and speaker, and his advocacy of popular rights won him the affectionate title of "tribune of the people" among his countrymen.

Further Reading on Joseph Howe

Selections from Howe's writings, with an introductory essay, are in Joseph Howe: Voice of Nova Scotia, edited by J. Murray Beck (1964). Also important is The Speeches and Public Letters of Joseph Howe, edited by Joseph Andrew Chisholm (2 vols., 1909). A short biography is William Lawson Grant, The Tribune of Nova Scotia: A Chronicle of Joseph Howe (1915). A modern life is James A. Roy, Joseph Howe: A Study in Achievement and Frustration (1935). See also J. W. Longley, Joseph Howe (1904; rev. ed. 1926).

Additional Biography Sources

Beck, J. Murray (James Murray), Joseph Howe, Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1982-c1983.

Hill, Kay, Joe Howe: the man who was Nova Scotia, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1980.

Percy, H. R., Joseph Howe, Don Mills, Ont.: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1976.