Joseph Howe (December 13, 1804 - June 1, 1873)

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Photograph: Joseph Howe

Joseph Howe

Joseph Howe gained early prominence as a newspaperman, and defender of freedom of the press, before beginning a career in politics. Strongly opposed to the Québec Resolutions as being bad for Nova Scotia, he led that province's anti-Confederation movement.

Joseph Howe was born at Halifax, Nova Scotia, the son of John Howe and Mary Edes. He received only a limited amount of formal schooling before beginning an apprenticeship in the printing trade in his father's shop at the age of 13. He married Catherine Ann Susan McNab on February 2, 1828. That same year he 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. Not only did he personally report the legislative assembly debates in its columns, 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.

It was his involvement with the Novascotian that propelled Howe into the political arena. His harsh editorial commentary, and his accusations of government corruption, resulted in a libel charge in 1835. In a celebrated trial, Howe defended himself against the charges and was acquitted. Afterwards, his editorial writing became increasingly concerned with political issues. Eventually, he decided to run for office in order to effect the changes he wanted. He was first elected in 1836, campaigning on a platform of support for responsible government.

Howe initially proposed only an elected legislative council, but he was quick to agree with the concept of a fully representative government. He was suspicious of formal political parties, feeling that they were too restrictive. However, it was largely his doing that members favouring Liberal principles were able to dominate the 1836 and 1840 assemblies. He formed a coalition with Conservative leader James William Johnston in 1840, hoping to further the cause of responsible government. He 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. In order to promote his desire for responsible government, he assumed the editorships of both the Novascotian and the Morning Chronicle from 1844 to 1846, making them a rallying point 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 Canada in January 1848. While James Uniacke was the official premier, many regarded it as Howe's ministry.

Howe assumed the post of provincial secretary, adapting existing institutions to the new system of government. He also began a campaign of railway construction. In 1854, he resigned as the provincial secretary in order to head a bi-partisan railway commission. He eventually succeeded in completing lines from Halifax to Windsor and Truro. In addition, Howe was involved with recruiting American troops for the Crimean War. These activities left him with little time to campaign in the 1855 general election, and he lost to Charles Tupper in Cumberland.

This election also led to conflict with Catholic members of the Liberal party when Howe ridiculed their doctrine, resulting in a Liberal defeat in 1856. The Liberals would not return to power until 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. He served as premier until 1862, when he accepted the position of imperial fisheries commissioner.

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 of 1864, the Québec Conference had taken place, and the Québec Resolutions widely disseminated. He had no chance to influence their content. Still linked with the imperial fishery, Howe at first expressed his opposition anonymously throught he Botheration Letters, a series of twelve editorials that appeared in the Morning Chronicle between January and March of 1865.

This was the extent of his 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 in 1867. However, Nova Scotians did elect 18 out of 19 anti-Confederation candidates to the first Dominion Parliament. Howe led his fellow anti-Confederates into the House of Commons that fall, where he made a speech about his opinion of Confederation.

After failing to secure a repeal of Confederation in 1868, Howe recognized the futility of further protests. He refused to contemplate secession or annexation because of his loyalty to Britain. Instead, he joined the Canadian Cabinet in 1869 as president of the council, after receiving a promise of "better terms" for Nova Scotia. In November of 1869, he became secretary of state for the provinces, playing a role in Manitoba's entry into Confederation. He resigned his Cabinet post to become lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia in 1873, but he would serve only a few weeks before his death.


  • Beck, J. Murray. "Howe, Joseph". Canadian encyclopedia : year 2000 edition. Ed. James H. Marsh. 3rd print ed. Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, 1999. P. 1109-1110.

  • Beck, J. Murray. "Howe, Joseph". Dictionary of Canadian biography. Ed. Francess G. Halpenny. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1972. Vol. 10, p. 362-370.

  • "Howe, Joseph". Macmillan dictionary of Canadian biography. 4th ed. Ed. W. Stewart Wallace. Toronto : Macmillan of Canada, 1978. P. 368-369.

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