Joseph Howe was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on December 13, 1804. He received only a limited amount of formal schooling. At the age of 13, he began an apprenticeship in the printing trade in his father's shop, working with his eldest brother, John Howe, on the Royal Gazette, the periodical of the King's Printer, a job that he held from 1818 to 1828. For a part of this time, Howe lived above the print shop.

In 1824 or 1825, Joseph Howe had an affair with an unknown woman that led to the birth of his first child, Edward Howe, in about 1825.

On February 2, 1828, he married Catherine Susan Ann McNab. Howe's second child, Mary Howe, was born on May 9, 1829, but she died shortly after. His third child, and my direct ancestor, Ellen Howe, was born December 3, 1830.

In 1828, Howe went into the printing business himself with the purchase of the Novascotian, a Halifax newspaper. Howe acted as its editor until 1841, turning the paper into the most influential in the province. In running the paper Howe and his wife did everything. He reported the debates in the House of Assembly and the important trials at court. Whenever he was away, Susan Ann ran the paper for him. In addition to editorials, Howe reported the local news and penned digests of world news. He also published provincial literature and his own travel writings, using the paper as a means for educating the people of Nova Scotia and himself.

The trial

In his early years, Howe was opposed to colonial reform and professed his belief in the constitution. It was not until the early 1830's that Howe began to change his mind, when he began a campaign against the corruption of Halifax's magistrates.

Howe's fourth child, also named Mary Howe (as his second child had been), was born on November 29, 1832, and his fifth child, Joseph Howe, was born on July 7, 1834.

In the 1830s, local government in Nova Scotia was in the hands of twelve magistrates, who were appointed by the Governor and Council of the colony. The magistrates directly or indirectly supervised the operation of the police department, the poor asylum, and other public institutions. Below the magistrates were the grand jurors, property owners chosen by lot and serving for a short period to keep tabs on the magistrates. When Howe became a member of the Grand Jury in 1832, many of the magistrates had been taking advantage of their positions to enrich themselves for years and the grand jury was beginning to take the magistrates to task for the increasingly sorry state of many government services.

Joseph Howe's press

In late 1834, Howe's Novascotian began a campaign against the corruption of the magistrates. On New Year's day, 1835, Howe published a letter, signed with the pseudonym "The People." The letter alleged that the appointed magistrates were abusing their offices and pocketing public funds at the rate of 1,000 pounds stirling per year. The letter further charged that this abuse had been going on for 30 years, totalling 30,000 pounds of embezzled funds.

The magistrates pressed the attorney-general of Nova Scotia to prosecute Howe, the publisher. Although the letter had been written by Howe's friend, George Thompson, Howe, as editor, was legally responsible for the contents of his paper. Howe was indicted for criminal libel, charged with "wickedly, maliciously and seditiously desiring and intending to stir up and excite discontent among His Majesty's subjects." If convicted, he faced a heavy fine or possibly imprisonment.

After the attorney-general gave notice he would be proceeding with a libel charge in early February, Howe consulted several lawyers about the case. They were unanimously of the opinion that he had no defence, and none would take his case. The libel law of the time was clear: publication of anything that was intended to disturb the public peace or degrade individuals was libellous. The truth of the published allegations was not a defence available to the accused. The sole issue for the jury to decide was whether the libel amounted to a breach of the public peace. Here lay Howe's only hope.

Nova Scotia's old Supreme Court
chamber, where Howe's trial was held
(now the Legislative Library)

The trial opened on March 2, 1835, in the Supreme Court chamber in Province House, a surprisingly small room now used as the legislative library. According to Howe's description, it was "crammed to overflowing" with spectators and "as hot as a furnace." Before him were a bench of judges and a 12-man jury who would hear the case. From the judges, Howe expected little. But five members of the jury were former colleagues from his stint on the Grand Jury a few years before, men who would be receptive to the sentiments expressed by "The People."

The Crown's case was in the hands of Attorney-General S.G.W. Archibald. An assistant, lawyer James F. Gray, gave the opening address. "It is impossible for the jury to say there is not sufficient defamatory malicious matter in this letter to constitute libel," he said bluntly. A fellow newspaperman was called to the witness stand to establish the alleged libel had been published, but Howe readily admitted publication. After the letter from "The People" was read into the court record, the Crown rested its case.

Now it was Howe's turn. He had pored over books on libel law for a week to prepare his defence and spent another week working on an address to the jury. In some respects Howe benefited from the lack of professional legal help. As Dalhousie University political scientist Murray Beck points out in his biography of Howe, a lawyer would have been restricted to arguing the law. Howe "might come up with an unorthodox defence and, as a layman, be given wide leeway to use it."

Howe did just that. For slightly more than six hours, Howe argued his case, using examples of the corruption of the magistrates to show his motives in publishing the letter had not been to disrupt the peace. Howe noted that the magistrate at the city prison was using the institution as his private preserve, using cells to store his vegetables and inmates to make shoes and buckets for his family. The poor asylum was furnished with inferior, overpriced supplies by its director, another magistrate. At the request of the presiding judge, Nova Scotia Chief Justice Brenton Haliburton, the receptive audience kept applause to a minimum.

Then Howe took his arguments to a higher plane. He asked that the Nova Scotia press receive "the same rational protection" afforded the British press. "Your verdict will be the most important in its consequences ever delivered before this tribunal," he predicted. He challenged the jurors "to leave an unshackled press as a legacy to your children." Howe's defence was a masterful performance, conducted as one admirer later put it, "with consummate skill and persuasiveness."

Howe celebrates his court victory

The length of Howe's speech delayed the conclusion of the trial until the following day, March 3. In his closing remarks, the attorney-general argued for the Crown, warning the jurors that much of Howe's speech was irrelevant hearsay and not evidence. The presiding judge concluded his instructions to the jury by leaving the outcome in their hands. "In my opinion that paper charged is a libel, and your duty is to state by your verdict that it is libellous," Chief Justice Haliburton said, but then, "You are not bound by my opinion. You are not to be influenced by my feelings but to pronounce upon the case before you according to the sober convictions of your own minds."

The jury needed just 10 minutes to reject the judge's opinion and find Howe not guilty. Cheers from the gallery filled the courtroom, and celebrations of Howe's victory lasted until the following day. In the aftermath of the trial, several magistrates resigned. The position had been so discredited, that the government had difficulty finding prominent men willing to take their place. Howe had earned a reputation as a champion of the common man and he instantly gained the popular support he would need in the battle for responsible government that lay ahead.

Later generations would come to regard Howe's victory as a watershed, establishing the principle of freedom of the press in Canada. Howe himself proclaimed in the Novascotian that "The press of Nova Scotia is free." However, the case never served as a legal precedent in the development of libel law. Law is not changed by the verdicts of juries. Significantly, a 1984 report of the Law Reform Commission of Canada outlining the history of defamatory libel law makes no reference to Howe's trial. The law remained unchanged until 1843, when the British Parliament passed a bill allowing publishers to claim the truth of a statement as a defence to libel, provided the statement was published for the public benefit. It would be another 30 years before Canadian legislators followed the lead of the British and adopted similar provisions in the year of Joseph Howe's death.

Howe's political career

Howe's father and mentor died on December 29, 1835, a little over nine months after he won his court case. His sixth child, Sophia Howe, was born on August 13, 1836. His mother then died on February 14, 1837, some months after the launching of his political career with his first election to the Nova Scotia Assembly, and on September 13, 1837, just eleven months after her birth, Howe's sixth child, Sophia Howe died. The three years from the publishing of the letter on New Year's day, 1835, which instigated the libel case against Howe, to the end of 1837 must have been a very emotionally tumultuous period.

After the end of his trial on March 3, 1835, Howe's editorial writing became increasingly concerned with political issues. Eventually, he decided to run for office in order to effect the changes about which he was becoming passionate. In 1836, Howe ran for, and was first elected to office on December 13. Howe sat almost continuously in the Assembly from 1836 to 1863. He represented Halifax in the colonial Assembly from 1837 to 1851.

Howe campaigned on a platform of support for responsible government (government that is in some way answerable to the people, such as through elections). He initially proposed only an elected legislative council, but he was quick to agree with the concept of a fully representative government. He presented twelve resolutions calling for an elected legislative council in 1837. Although Howe was suspicious of formal political parties, believing that they only operated in self-interest, he formed a coalition with the conservative Tory leader James William Johnston, hoping to further the cause of responsible government, which led to a coalition victory in 1840. In the resulting government Howe held the offices of Speaker of the Assembly in 1841 and Collector of Excise for Halifax in 1842. The coalition collapsed under various political conflicts, leading to Howe's resignation from the Council in 1843.

Howe's seventh child, James Howe, was born on July 24, 1838, but he died on October 14 of the same year. His eighth child, Frederick Howe, was born on October 5, 1840; his ninth child, Syndenham Howe, was born on March 3, 1843; his tenth child, John Howe, was born on May 16, 1844; and his eleventh and last child, William Howe, was born on July 27, 1848. Edward Howe, his first child, married in 1850. Ellen Howe, his third child, married in 1851. Mary Howe, his fourth child, died of fever on November 31, 1853 at 21 years of age, and John Howe, his tenth child died on June 20, 1856 at ten years of age.

In order to promote his desire for responsible government, Howe assumed the editorships of both the Novascotian and the Halifax Morning Chronicle from 1844 to 1846, making them rallying points for Liberal principles. His efforts were rewarded with a seven-seat Liberal majority in the 1847 election, leading to the formation of the first responsible government in the British Empire outside the United Kingdom in January 1848. When the oath of office was taken and James B. Uniacke became the first colonial premier, with Howe as the Provincial Secretary (although many regarded it as Howe's ministry), theirs became the first responsible government in the empire outside the United Kingdom. Howe wrote:

"It will be our pride to make Nova Scotia a 'Normal School' for the rest of the Colonies, showing them how representative Institutions may be worked, so as to insure internal tranquility and advancement in subordination to the paramount interest and authority of the Empire."

Joseph Howe as Provincial Secretary, from a painting by T. Debaussy, London, 1851

Following the adoption of responsible government Howe began adapting existing institutions to the new system of government. He also began a campaign of railway construction. In 1851 Howe had ran for a seat in Cumberland County and won, representing that county until 1855. In 1854, he resigned as the provincial secretary to head a bi-partisan railway commission. He eventually succeeded in completing much needed railway lines from Halifax to Windsor and Truro.

In 1855 Howe recruited soldiers for the Crimean War, while doing so he alienated many of the Catholic members of the Liberal party when he ridiculed their doctrine. In the 1856 election both Howe's distraction from campaigning to work on the recruiting effort and his loss of support from Catholic voters contributed to the defeat of Nova Scotia's Liberal government and to Howe's personal defeat by Charles Tupper.

Joseph Howe as Premier

The Liberals returned to power in 1860. Howe became Provincial Secretary under William Young. When Young was appointed as a judge later that year, Howe assumed the leadership of the party and the province. In 1861, Howe stood up in the Nova Scotia Legislature and made a motion that Britain and the other Canadian provinces be approached "on the subject of a union of the North American provinces, or of the Maritime provinces". The resolution passed but was not acted upon. Howe served as Premier until 1863, when he and his government lost the election. Howe then accepted the position of Imperial Fisheries Commissioner.

Howe's opposition to confederation

In 1860, Howe's first child, Edward Howe, died. During this period the US Civil War was being fought. It was believed at the time that about 50,000 men from the British North American colonies joined the conflict, almost entirely on the Union side. The actual figure is debated to this day. Howe’s son Frederick was among those who answered the call. Frederick Howe served in the 23rd Ohio Regiment under Sheridan. He survived the war. On April 26, 1870, Syndenham Howe, Joseph's ninth child, married Fanny McNab in Halifax.

In the 1860s Howe became active in the anti- confederation movement in Nova Scotia. He felt that in a confederation, Nova Scotia as a smaller union member would be ignored. Howe also believed that Upper Canada was too absorbed in its own affairs to concern themselves with Nova Scotia. In Howe's opinion confederation would ultimately lead to the ruin of Nova Scotia's economy and a loss of independence.

Howe's fisheries duties prevented him from attending the Charlottetown Conference, although he did participate in the earlier Canadian tour of the provinces. By the time he returned to Nova Scotia in November, 1864, the Québec Conference had taken place, and the Québec Resolutions had been widely disseminated. He had no chance to influence their content.

Still linked with the Imperial Fishery, Howe at first expressed his opposition anonymously through the Botheration Letters, a series of twelve editorials that appeared in the Halifax Morning Chronicle between January and March of 1865. You can read the full text of one of those letters: "The Botheration Scheme," January 11, 1865.

Joseph Howe, the elder statesman, from a photograph by Notmans, c. 1871

The Botheration Letters were the extent of Howe's participation in the union debate until March, 1866, when he learned of Charles Tupper's plan to force the matter through the legislature. Failing to forestall the passage of the union resolution, Howe began a vigorous campaign for repeal through delegations to London, and a variety of anti-Confederation papers and pamphlets. His strategy failed to prevent Confederation's passage on July 1st, 1867. Howe then led a delegation to England seeking support to repeal the act, but they found none. After failing to secure a repeal of Confederation in 1868, Howe refused to contemplate secession or annexation because of his loyalty to Britain. However, Nova Scotians did elect 18 out of 19 anti-Confederation candidates to the first Dominion Parliament, including Joseph Howe. Howe led his fellow anti-Confederates into the House of Commons that fall, where he made a speech about his opinion of Confederation.

Howe in the Government of Canada

Howe recognized the futility of further protests. In March, 1869, Howe was re-elected as the Member of Parliament for Hants, Nova Scotia, but as a member of Sir John A. Macdonald's Liberal Conservative party which he had joined after receiving a promise of "better terms" for Nova Scotia. After the election Howe was appointed to the Cabinet as President of the Privy Council, a post that he held from January 30 to November 15, 1869. In November of 1869, he became Secretary of State for the Provinces, playing a role in Manitoba's entry into Confederation. Howe also served as the second Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs from December 8, 1869. Howe held both portfolios until he resigned from federal politics to accept the position of Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia on May 6, 1873.

Howe died on June 1, 1873, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, only three weeks after his appointment as Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia.

Joseph Howe was survived by his wife, Catherine Susan Ann McNab, who died in 1890 at about 84 years old. He was also survived by four or five of his eleven children:
  • Ellen Howe, his third child, lived until 1910, living for 79 years.
  • Joseph Howe, his fifth child, lived until August 24, 1888, attaining 54 years of age.
  • Frederick Howe, his eighth child, may have survived him, but I do not have the date of his death. Joseph Howe did hear from him in 1872.
  • Syndenham Howe, his ninth child, lived until April 13, 1929, living for 86 years.
  • William Howe, his eleventh and last child, married Helen Ross on September 23, 1873, less than three months after Joseph Howe's death, and William lived until April 28, 1890, attaining 42 years of age.

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