HALIBURTON, THOMAS CHANDLER, politician, judge, and author; b. 17 Dec. 1796 at Windsor, N.S., the son of William Hersey Otis Haliburton and Lucy Chandler Grant; d. 27 Aug. 1865 at Isleworth, Middlesex, England.
The ancestry and upbringing of Thomas Chandler Haliburton were the deepest and most enduring influences upon his political views and career. The first North American Haliburton had been an obscure wig-maker, but Thomas Chandler’s grandfather, William Haliburton, who had migrated to Nova Scotia in 1761, and his father were both successful lawyers who in later life became judges. Their achievement within an essentially tory system reinforced the political faith of three generations of Haliburtons. This faith was further strengthened by a consciousness of lineage. Haliburton’s grandfather believed that he was descended from the Haliburtons of Newmains and Mertoun on the Scottish border – maternal ancestors of Sir Walter Scott – and although he could not prove it legally, the Nova Scotian Haliburtons nevertheless considered themselves to be gentry because they were of that stock. Haliburton’s inherent toryism was given a strong anti-republican bias through the sufferings of his mother’s people, the Grants, during the American War of Independence, and by their tragic death at sea while en route to Saint John, N.B., to settle loyalist claims.
Haliburton was educated at King’s Collegiate School in Windsor, N.S., and later at King’s College, Windsor, from which he graduated in 1815. There an indoctrination into the correct principles upon which the tory Anglican establishment was based was confirmed by his association with the sons of leading professional men in the Atlantic colonies who were being prepared to take their fathers’ places. To this ethos was added the study of Greek and Roman literature; while imparting useful lessons in the form and beauty of language that were later to stand Haliburton in good stead, it provided examples of a society which believed that history was essentially the sum of wars and politics directed by great men drawn mainly from aristocratic families.
The period in which Haliburton grew up was also an important influence. Great Britain’s struggle with France and with the republican United States gave the added stimulus of patriotism to tory attitudes and the stigma of traitor to democratic ones. The advent of peace in 1815, however, left Nova Scotia with an inflated economy and brought an end to the protective colonial policy of the British government which had occasioned upwards of two decades of prosperity. The security – and the spoils – of office then became something precious to be fought for, and it took at least 15 years from the end of the Napoleonic wars before this struggle for control of government offices became crystallized into anything like an ideological combat between “privilege” and “democracy” and nearly a decade longer before it became apparent that toryism in its Burkean sense was not only seriously threatened but doomed.
Haliburton’s political life fits into these circumstances with a remarkable inevitability. In 1820 he was admitted to the bar and began a lucrative law practice at Annapolis Royal. Six years later he became the mha for Annapolis Royal in the Nova Scotian assembly. From 1826 to 1829 he conducted himself in that house as befitted a tory who had as much regard for the responsibilities as for the rights of privilege, and who was sufficiently free from dependence upon patronage to exercise his personal independence. Thus he took sides with the governor and the Council in supporting the right of Britain to regulate such matters as commerce and crown lands. At the same time he backed measures for the internal development of Nova Scotia, notably the subsidization by the assembly of a public school system and support for the permanent endowment of Pictou Academy. He also urged the removal of the declaration against popery from the assembly oath, which was passed unanimously by the assembly in 1827. Since few members of the legislature could afford such a consistent position, Haliburton soon found his enemies on one question to be his friends on another and was accused of inconsistency. His considerable powers of oratory and ridicule, often marred by prolixity, were the delight and exasperation of the house; on one occasion, when the Council disallowed a common schools bill which he had supported, Haliburton denounced the councillors as “twelve dignified, deep read, pensioned old ladies, but filled with prejudices and whims like all other antiquated spinsters,” and subsequently received a motion of censure from the assembly. His presence in the assembly became a nuisance to both the governing Tories and the reform elements. When in 1829 Haliburton applied for the position in the Inferior Court of Common Pleas which his father’s death had left vacant, he was quickly elevated to the bench.
Haliburton’s subsequent political career in Nova Scotia was confined almost entirely to his large body of writing. From 1827 to 1837, although a tory, he maintained with decreasing conviction in his celebrated humorous Clockmaker series the point of view that political ideologies are superficial and that they were no cure for the ills of Nova Scotia. All they accomplished was to mask a naked struggle of individuals for power and money. While maintaining this position, Haliburton remained, despite his toryism, on terms of deep personal friendship with Joseph Howe*, the leading Nova Scotian Reformer. With the arrival in Canada in 1838 of Lord Durham [Lambton*], a renowned British liberal, Haliburton realized a vital threat to everything he felt he stood for, and from this point onward the political aspects of his writings reveal a committed tory partisan who felt that combatting radicalism justified any means that could be used for the purpose. As the cause of toryism became more hopeless, Haliburton became more extreme in its advocacy, and in his old age opposed many measures which as a young man he had supported in the Nova Scotian legislature.
Haliburton remained a judge in the Inferior Court of Common Pleas from 1829, holding twice-yearly sessions at four county towns at an annual salary of £405 plus travelling expenses, until the office was abolished in 1841. Then, through the direct personal influence of Lord Falkland [Cary*], the lieutenant governor, Haliburton was appointed to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia at an annual salary of £560 plus travelling fees. In 1854 he offered to retire from this office, provided the pension of £300 per annum that had been granted to judges of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas at the time their office had been abolished were given to him. This offer was not accepted by the legislature, and in 1856 Haliburton retired from the bench on grounds of ill health. He immediately took up residence in England, a country he had been visiting frequently since 1816. After lengthy and deplorable litigation and political manœuvring, which culminated in an appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, Haliburton succeeded in 1862 in obtaining his pension quite against the will of the Nova Scotian legislature and the wishes of the Nova Scotian people.
As a judge, Haliburton was conscientious, upright, intelligent, adhering to the spirit rather than to the letter of the law; he was, however, in no sense a great judge, and his propensity for punning and his strong sense of the ludicrous, although often enlivening an otherwise dull courtroom session, did not add to his reputation or that of the judiciary in Nova Scotia.
Despite judicial duties, the demands of his writing, and a busy social and family life, Haliburton found time for some business activity in Nova Scotia. He was president of the agricultural society in Windsor, the owner of six stores and a considerable length of wharfage in that town, the proprietor of a gypsum quarry, and president of a joint stock company which owned the bridge across the Avon at Windsor. After he moved to Britain his business ventures continued to be largely colonial, maintained as much for the advancement of the colony as for his personal profit. He was the first chairman of the Canadian Land and Emigration Company, which in 1861 purchased an extensive area of unoccupied country in Haliburton and Victoria counties in Canada West for purposes of settlement (a village there now bears his name). Moreover, in a startling reversal of his earlier opposition to the recommendations of Lord Durham on federalism, Haliburton became in 1862 a member of the first board of the British North American Association of London to promote provincial union and spread information about the colonies.
In England he settled at Isleworth, near Richmond, and in 1859 became the Tory member for Launceston in a British House of Commons dominated by the “Little Englander” majority of Lord Palmerston and William Gladstone. Haliburton soon found himself handicapped by a party in opposition which had, he believed, made too many compromises to suit his convictions, and by ideas which most Englishmen felt belonged to the last century. He was also impaired by gout and a throat complaint that made him difficult to hear and understand, and by a reputation for wit which had been established on paper only. Haliburton, therefore, found his career as an mp not only ineffectual and frustrating to himself but boring to other members less interested in colonial affairs than he was. He did not offer himself for re-election at the conclusion of his term in 1865.
Haliburton’s public career as summarized above is a tribute to a twofold persistence – a sufficient sense of the value of public office to wish to serve his fellow human beings in a political and judicial capacity, and a sufficient sense of the value of public life in terms of privilege and money to wish to extract the greatest possible fee for his services. It shows also Haliburton’s ability to carry out his duties with diligence and competence. Of the higher political and juridical gifts – the ability to work with others and to evolve new principles to meet changing situations – his career shows hardly a glimmer. Haliburton could make a good living out of public employment and provide routine service in exchange. His contemporary, Joseph Howe, could do much more. Haliburton’s reputation today comes from the literary strings on his bow.
In 1816 Haliburton had married Louisa Neville, and the couple had 11 children, three of whom died in infancy. One son, Robert Grant*, became a distinguished anthropologist and antiquarian, and another, Arthur Lawrence, enjoyed an outstanding career in the British army and civil service. In 1856 Haliburton married Sarah Harriet Owen, widow of Edward Hosier Williams, of Eaton Mascott, Shrewsbury.
As a man, Haliburton’s most distinguishing characteristic was a thoroughgoing, if somewhat coarse-fibred, appetite for life. He was the uxorious husband of two wives, a connoisseur of good food, good drink, good horses, and good conversation. He availed himself of all the privileges and emoluments of his rank and sought to augment these privileges on every possible occasion. Although he could be a convivial companion to anyone in a bar or tavern while on circuit, he was nevertheless extremely conscious of formal social proprieties, and at his own home, whether in Annapolis Royal, Windsor, or in England, he condescended to associate only with his equals or betters, even though he knew that such a course of conduct in Nova Scotia could not make him popular.
Although a practising Anglican and, in his youth, a friend of the celebrated Abbé Jean-Mandé Sigogne*, Haliburton was most at home drinking and exchanging stories with robust men whose interests were earthy rather than spiritual. In Halifax he was associated with a group of amateur literati known as “The Club,” who contributed articles to Joseph Howe’s newspaper, the Novascotian, between 1828 and 1831, and among whose members were Howe and Laurence O’Connor Doyle. Haliburton’s principal literary companions were Howe in Nova Scotia and Richard Harris Barham and Theodore Hook in England. Like the 18th-century squires whom he resembled, he saw only absurdity in a religion that went beyond the social and moral functions of the church to any excess of feeling; and he was singularly blind to the emotional glories and sectarian disputes which characterized the religious life of contemporary Nova Scotia.
But although as conscious as a man could be of the rights and privileges owing to noblesse, Haliburton was equally conscious of the responsibilities. His name is high on the list of charitable donations in his parish, and his writing, his agricultural activities at Windsor, and his parliamentary and judicial offices are strong testimonials to his desire by instruction, precept, and example to point the way to Nova Scotians in particular and English speaking people everywhere to what he considered more desirable ways of social and moral thought and action. He may have indulged his appetites to the detriment of his constitution, but there is an equal case that the breakdown in his health came about quite as much as a result of his labours in the general service of humanity. The fact that he was an intelligent man who cared greatly for causes and objects outside himself by identifying them with himself is the principal source of both his success and his failure.
Haliburton’s literary work was varied and abundant. Considering the demands of his more important creative works, and his other public responsibilities, Haliburton managed to put an amazing amount of time into the compilation and composition of histories, pamphlets, and anthologies, which alone would have given him a considerable reputation among 19th-century colonial writers. Although like so many of his contemporaries, amateur and professional, he tended to see history as the struggles of individuals against a background of politics and war, and his sources of information were often meagre and secondary, he could be, when he wished, more effective than most in his arrangement of material and his strong, muscular prose was superior to most.
Haliburton’s A general description of Nova Scotia, long thought to have been the work of Walter Bromley*, published in 1823 and reprinted in a pirated form in 1825, is a remarkable production for a young lawyer. But it did not suit its composer and was superseded in 1829 by An historical and statistical account of Nova-Scotia. This work won its author a vote of thanks from the legislature of his province. The first volume contained a history of the province. Dealing mainly with Nova Scotia before the British occupation, part of its narrative described in graphic terms the expulsion of the Acadians; through Nathaniel Hawthorne, it gave Henry Wadsworth Longfellow the germ of his popular poem Evangeline and furnished the Acadian people with a version of the “expulsion” which has tended to transform myth into history proper. The second volume was packed with information on the geography of the province.
These initial attempts to write history combined practical and academic motives. Much of the material in both works is information designed for the use of prospective settlers from Britain and the United States. In the second of them Haliburton set out to provide Nova Scotia with a past, and this he compiled out of sources ranging from Tobias George Smollett’s well-known history of England to obscure and inaccessible documents and reference books. Probably the difficulty in getting many of the sources of these histories and the relatively limited time at his disposal led Haliburton to paraphrase consciously or unconsciously much of the material. As an historian his curiosity and stylistic vigour were aroused more by the “human interest drama” of history than by the more prosaic analysis of causes and processes. Although at this early stage in his intellectual development as an historian he tended to accept the past uncritically as he read it in the works of other men, he did independently argue a position on the expulsion of the Acadians that transcends national prejudice.
Haliburton made another attempt at the writing of formal history, The English in America, which appeared in two volumes in London in 1851 and in New York as Rule and misrule of the English in America in the same year. It is a thesis history attempting to prove that the earliest settlers of New England possessed an independent democracy, which they exercised by default of the British colonial authority, and that therefore the American republic had come about not by revolution but by enlargement and improvement on the part of colonists who had a unique training in self-direction. The corollary, of course, was that the French colonies and the rest of British North America, having come into being under truly colonial circumstances, ought therefore to remain colonies. The work is well written and the thesis well argued, but the book’s reputation has been largely destroyed by its plagiarism from Richard Hildreth’s History of the United States of America . . . (6v., New York, 1848–52). The plagiarism was so blatant as to be beyond excuse, and in fact Haliburton never offered one. Why he should have borrowed from Hildreth is incomprehensible unless he was pressed for time and had to meet a publisher’s deadline. A paucity of original sources might have forced him to rely upon Hildreth for information, but he had at his disposal a superior style in which to recast Hildreth’s material.
The least considerable of Haliburton’s longer writings are two political tracts published in 1839, The bubbles of Canada and A reply to the report of the Earl of Durham, which reflect Haliburton’s concern with Lord Durham’s appointment as governor general and commissioner to the colonies of British North America. Seeing this appointment, quite rightly, as threatening the tory position as never before, he realized, too, that if the threat were to be countered, action would have to be taken to influence public opinion without delay. Accordingly, Haliburton determined to use his reputation as a humorist to obtain a hearing, and he worked quickly and under pressure rather than taking time to shape his work carefully. But in the case of The bubbles of Canada, the British reading public resented the fact that a book advertised as being by a celebrated humorist and bearing a title strikingly similar to that of a current bestseller by Sir Francis Bond Head* turned out to be a pedestrian exercise in partisan political invective. And in both pamphlets, Haliburton’s haste overpowered his sense of form and accuracy, while the intensity of his partisan feelings led him to unmeasured statements that undermined the credibility of his position. He seems to have written each paragraph in the heat of the moment, seizing on any pretext afforded by Lord Durham’s actions and statements, and never to have examined his completed work to see whether his points contradicted one another. Only an exercise of sustained irony could have redeemed these pamphlets and made them effective, and it is conspicuously absent.
Haliburton accused Lord Durham of misrepresenting the efforts of past colonial administrators to govern Britain’s North American colonies. He disagreed particularly with Durham about the past and future treatment of the French. As a conquered people they had been given too many concessions, and their rebellion was, in his opinion, an indication of the danger of giving freedom to the colonies. He opposed Durham’s suggestion of a federal union on the ground that it would only give a greater field for demagogues and would expedite the move of the British North American colonies toward further independence from Britain. He opposed Durham’s advocacy of the union of Upper and Lower Canada and his recommendations for responsible government.
Haliburton’s international and enduring reputation as a writer, however, is based on The clockmaker; or, the sayings and doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville, of which 22 instalments had appeared in the Novascotian newspaper before a book of that title was issued by Joseph Howe at Halifax in 1836. The clockmaker, second series, was published in London by Richard Bentley in 1838, and the third series in 1840. These series were frequently reprinted in Britain and the United States. For a time at least in the mid 19th century Haliburton and his work had a vogue on both sides of the Atlantic which rivalled that enjoyed by Charles Dickens.
The clockmaker can be regarded as a series of moral essays pointed by satire or as a picaresque novel whose plot is more episodic than that of most. The Squire, narrator and persona of the author, and Sam Slick, a Yankee clockmaker, travel through contemporary Nova Scotia. On their wanderings somehow or other every incident they encounter becomes an apt illustration of a political or social trait which can often be summed up by a maxim. Interest throughout the book, therefore, is not dependent on suspense but rather on the inherent liveliness of each incident, the appropriateness of the meaning which it illustrates, and the author’s brilliant use of characterization, language, anecdote, and point of view.
Sam Slick is the only character in The clockmaker who really matters – the Squire and Mr Hopewell serve merely as foils or exponents of tory views. In chapter after chapter attention is sustained by the vanity, the ingenuity, and the linguistic skill of that Yankee of Yankees, Sam Slick. It has been argued that the character of Slick lacks consistency not only throughout the books in which he appears but even within the pages of a single book, that his speech reflects the dialect of many different areas of America rather than that of a single one, and that he is a theatrical person rather than a flesh-and-blood human being. It is true that the Sam Slick of The clockmaker is most unlike that of The attaché; or, Sam Slick in England, published in two series in 1843 and 1844 and slanted toward a different audience. In the latter book, the peaceful Yankee pedlar has become a swaggering bully. Those who criticize this change perhaps do not notice that the American at home is not the same animal as the American abroad in unfamiliar surroundings. Against these strictures it may be pointed out too that The clockmaker and The attaché are organized on the principle of the chapter unit and that therefore Sam Slick is only required to dominate each chapter. It may be further argued that Slick himself is something of a folk-hero combining the diverse and sometimes conflicting ingredients that make up a national character.
Like the Greeks, the Yankees were great gatherers during their wanderings of tales and linguistic peculiarities; a knowledge of these could by “soft-sawder” and “human natur” be converted into dollars and cents, and Slick’s eclectic argot was in his own day merely an exaggeration of the norms of speech of a group of men whose like have now largely disappeared. Be that as it may, if Slick is today merely a stage character, he is one at least in the same sense as the personages of Dickens and Molière.
By his use in The clockmaker of Sam Slick, Haliburton was able to deliver a balanced judgement with respect to the Americans, the British, and the Nova Scotians. His judgements were two-edged. He admired the English for their traditions and institutions, of which he felt himself to be a part. He criticized them because they refused to alter their traditions when faced with new conditions, and because they patronized the colonies. He disliked the Americans for their braggadocio, their opportunism, and for having defeated Great Britain in war. At the same time, he admired their industry, efficiency, and adaptability. Haliburton saw the Nova Scotians as a people who possessed fundamental British virtues, but who were ruining themselves by maintaining an unrealistic standard of living in the face of depressed circumstances more than 15 years after the close of the Napoleonic wars. Instead of following the Yankees’ example and improving their lot by practical means, they were squandering fast-vanishing opportunities in futile religious and political battles. Sam Slick, in Haliburton’s hands, becomes in his industry and practicality an example for Nova Scotians to follow and in his uncouth manners and vanity the epitome of those qualities his creator despised. Out of his deeds and observations emerges Haliburton’s vision of a possible Nova Scotian life combining the conservative principles of Edmund Burke with the practice of frontier practicality and industry.
Much research has gone into the sources of The clockmaker. It is valid, but to a great degree irrelevant. Certainly Haliburton was familiar with Thomas McCulloch*’s “Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure” which had appeared in the Halifax Acadian Recorder in 1821–22. In all likelihood he was also familiar with Seba Smith’s Life and writings of Major Jack Downing, of Downingville, away down east in the state of Maine (Boston, 1833), and with the rip-roaring frontier type of American humour displayed by the anonymous author of the Sketches and eccentricities of Col. David Crockett of west Tennessee (London, 1833). Haliburton no doubt adapted material from these and from other similar sources to suit his purpose, but the fact that he did so in no way explains why his work rose to prominence (more than 70 editions of The clockmaker have been published since 1836) while the other works cited above remain to this day in obscurity.
What was needed for a North American work to become popular in Great Britain, and by that popularity to shine with reflected glory in the still colonial literary circles of the United States, was for it to be deeply rooted in tradition but at the same time to present that tradition in a sufficiently striking way as to seem more original than in fact it was. In The clockmaker Haliburton united two traditions, both popular in England for over a century. The first was the moral essay illustrated by the pointed anecdote so much a feature of the Spectator and the Tatler of London; the second was the popular tradition on the English stage of exploiting the dialect and character eccentricities of foreigners. By combining both, Haliburton assured himself of the minor success which such popular entertaining writers as Charles James Lever and Theodore Hook were enjoying, but by adding a moral earnestness intelligently rooted in an environment that was genuine and believable but sufficiently remote from British readers to have a romantic charm, he was able to achieve a much greater success of a more lasting nature.
Haliburton unites two very different stylistic elements in The clockmaker. The narrative parts are written in the typical literary prose of the 18th century. The conversational parts – notably Sam Slick’s – are stage pieces in which Haliburton becomes a prose poet, bold in metaphor, piling adjectival climax upon climax without fear of barbarism. In fact, he did for the dialect of his time what Robert Burns did for Lowland Scots. The purist would say that both wrote a bastard language, but to most others their writing is a successful tour de force.
Of the three series of The clockmaker, the first was undoubtedly the best. Not only does a writer tell his best stories first but he usually tells them best if he tells them in his own good time. In the first series Haliburton worked at his own pace as the book ripened naturally out of the milieu in which he found himself. His principal biographer, V. L. O. Chittick, is probably correct when he suggests that the main purpose of each of the three series was slightly different: the first was to stimulate the Nova Scotians to self-help in order to solve their immediate financial difficulties; the second was to put down the Reform movement, which Haliburton dismissed as a sham whereby self-seeking politicians sought by creating a new ideology of “democracy” to supplant administrators who were in all respects their superiors; and the third was directed more to an English audience than to Nova Scotians, to persuade the Colonial Office not to grant responsible government to Nova Scotia. These were tasks of increasing difficulty which Haliburton failed to surmount completely in the second and third series of The clockmaker. A crisis in his personal relations with Joseph Howe in the 1840s is a further confirmation that Haliburton was rapidly losing the balance with respect to the political and economic realities in Nova Scotia that was one of the strengths of The clockmaker, first series.
In The attaché Haliburton presents his hero as a member of the American legation “to the Court of Saint Jimses.” This is undoubtedly Haliburton’s most ambitious work. In it he tried to improve on his reputation as a satirist by turning his examination of human foibles from their peripheral manifestations in Nova Scotia to their centre in Britain. He was unsuccessful for several reasons. In the first place, he knew Nova Scotia and Nova Scotians well, whereas his relatively facile impressions of Britain blurred the ambiguities that result when actual experience encounters idealized preconception. Secondly, when writing The clockmaker, Haliburton had a more secure position in Nova Scotia, and in the current political struggle the chances of the Tories obtaining the upper hand seemed considerable; in consequence, he was able to express himself without fear or favour and with relative objectivity and freedom from bitterness. When he wrote The attaché, however, circumstances had altered considerably. In England he was a small frog in a large puddle, and, in consequence, often undercut his own harshest criticisms of British society in order not to offend powerful acquaintances. Thirdly, the plot of The attaché vitiated against the book having as great a success as The clockmaker. In the latter work Sam Slick, as a travelling entrepreneur, could display positive as well as negative qualities and remain both the centre of interest and the moral centre of the book. In The attaché Slick as an American diplomat out of his depth is mainly relegated to a negative role as the butt of satire while the book’s more serious views are aired by such dull characters as the Reverend Mr Hopewell and Squire Poker. Fourthly, English toryism, which from the perspective of Nova Scotia in the earlier book had appeared to be a consistent application of the principles of Burke, now to Haliburton at first hand seemed to be the compromised conservatism of such politicians as Sir Robert Peel. Haliburton’s hatred for radicals and liberals, therefore, deepened and the tone of his political writing became more extreme, masking by its violence and bitterness his innate despair. Last, but scarcely least, Haliburton’s British audience found itself less willing to laugh at its own errors and shortcomings than it had been to laugh at those of the Nova Scotians in his earlier books.
Given these factors, it is surprising that The attaché became as respectable a popular and literary success as it did. Even the most condemnatory critics in Britain found much to praise in the books, and the sales, though smaller than those of The clockmaker, were quite substantial. Haliburton still remained the seemingly inexhaustible raconteur and master of racy frontier diction and the excellence of this quality was by itself sufficient to obscure the fact that much more often in this work than in The clockmaker the gap in probability between the anecdote and the meaning which the author applied to it had become too great for ready acceptance.
By comparison, Sam Slick’s wise saws and modern instances; or, what he said, did, and invented, published in 1853, and Nature and human nature, published in 1855, are light-weight works. In these books, Haliburton presents Sam Slick almost entirely for the purpose of entertaining his audience, and to an intelligent reader few things are quite so dreary as a set of funny stories told merely for the sake of being funny. If any reader doubts the role of moral earnestness in elevating Haliburton’s humour to universal interest, let him first read The clockmaker and then read either of these books. Conversation, however dull, with a purpose is never quite devoid of interest; conversation, however witty, maintained solely for the sake of conversation inevitably becomes garrulity. What is missing in both Wise saws and modern instances and Nature and human nature is the author’s heart.
Aside from Sam Slick, the book which gained Haliburton the greatest notoriety was The letter-bag of the Great Western; or, life in a steamer, published in 1840. Much of this book was composed for the diversion of the other passengers on Haliburton’s steamship voyage from Bristol to New York in 1839. The form and tone derive from Haliburton’s memory of The expedition of Humphry Clinker by T. G. Smollett, a writer who in his fondness for indecorous humour and exaggeration of the eccentricities of character was a kindred spirit. The book’s ostensible function was the advertisement of the advantages of travel by steamship, but few, after reading the passengers’ accounts of their voyage, would, if they took them seriously, ever venture off shore. The book’s principal sources of amusement – infirmities of the human body (seasickness), the peculiarities of spelling and grammar that arise from faulty or defective education, the cultural mores of other races and lower classes, and the outrageous punning – all these are the very subjects which the 18th century critics condemned as sources of satire. The letter-bag of the Great Western played to the gallery with cheap humour and deserved the opprobrium with which commentators almost universally greeted it. Even a modern assumption that Haliburton the punster was an unconscious metaphysician reducing the world to a universal harmony of absurdity does not help. Such a game just is not worth the candle.
Traits of American humour, by native authors and The Americans at home; or, byeways, backwoods, and prairies are compilations by Haliburton from well-known works of American humour and from obscure American periodicals and newspapers of the first half of the 19th century. Despite undue reliance upon other authorities in compiling his preface, and despite almost negligible editing, these two works remain in the words of Haliburton’s biographer, Chittick, “Two unrivalled collections of a distinctively literary type now no longer written, and two rich storehouses of the dialect curiosities, odd customs, and hard living conditions which once prevailed in an America that has all but vanished.”
The old judge; or, life in a colony, published in 1849, is Haliburton’s farewell to the Nova Scotia that he never succeeded in refashioning to his heart’s desire; it is filled with love and nostalgic regret. Sombre, realistic, and more varied in its nature than Haliburton’s other works, it is the most satisfying of all his books, although it never attains the surface brilliance of The clockmaker. It is constructed upon the same plan as The clockmaker. Nova Scotia is seen through the eyes of an English tourist who is visiting his friend, the old judge, and who is accompanied on his tour of the province by another friend, Lawyer Barclay. To the observations and adventures of the tourist are added the memories and observations of his friends and the other personages whom they encounter during their wanderings. Most notable among these is Stephen Richardson, the Nova Scotian eccentric, a kind of colonial Sam Slick and one of Haliburton’s few other character creations who could compete with Sam in interest and credibility. Through his sketches of men and women, through his recounting of melodramatic events on an isolated frontier, through his description of social life in the past, Haliburton reveals in The old judge a vein of romantic sentiment little indulged in in his other work and narrative talents which had he cultivated them might have made him the first considerable novelist to have emerged in what is now Canada. Not excepting Roughing it in the bush; or, life in Canada by Susanna [Strickland*] Moodie, it remains the most graphic picture of colonial society in British North America that we have.
The season ticket, published in 1860, is made up of a series of articles previously contributed during 1859 and 1860 to the Dublin University Magazine. Its plan is like that of The letter-bag of the Great Western except that a train takes the place of a steamboat and conversations take the place of letters. It is also reminiscent of the Clockmaker series. Squire Shegog acts as recorder and interlocutor and Mr Ephraim Peabody and the Honourable Lyman Boodle, senator from Michigan, replace Sam Slick and the Reverend Mr Hopewell. There is the usual mixture of partisan politics combined with acute observation, garrulity tempered with original and apt statement, but the general effect is dull. Chittick, however, maintains that its quality of interest lies in its major purpose: the programme of a thorough going British imperialist who advocates “a three-fold policy for developing intercommunication between the motherland and the colonies.” In this work, Haliburton proposed that Great Britain subsidize transatlantic steamers between its ports and the colonies, complete the Intercolonial Railway and continue it to Lake Superior, and provide a “safe, easy, and expeditious route to Fraser’s River on the Pacific.” Like Joseph Howe, Haliburton was arguing for the development of a colonial empire with an improved communication system, but he felt that such remote colonies as Australia and New Zealand could not be sufficiently linked by communication to prevent them from going their own ways. They ought, therefore, to be given their independence as soon as feasible and allowed to fend for themselves. Haliburton further argues for the substitution of a permanent colonial council of appointees from the colonies in place of the Colonial Office, and he raises the possibility of colonial representation in the British parliament. He would, a generation later, surely have recognized a kindred spirit in Joseph Chamberlain.
In addition to the works cited above, Haliburton privately printed and distributed two pamphlets, An address on the present condition, resources and prospects of British North America, and Speech of the Hon. Mr. Justice Haliburton, M.P., in the House of Commons . . . the 21st of April 1860, on the repeal of the differential duties on foreign and colonial wood. Haliburton was, at the time of the publication of the latter pamphlet, either too ill to see it through the press properly or so lacking in concern with respect to it that he must never have seriously proof-read it.
Much has been made by Chittick and others of Haliburton’s inability to alter his views in relation to changing circumstances as Joseph Howe and other notable contemporaries had been able, albeit slowly and painfully, to do. In Haliburton’s defence, it may be stated that these others did not have the same weight of ingrained doctrination to overcome. Moreover, Edmund Burke’s political theories are still as intellectually defensible as any others, and it must have seemed to the class-conscious Haliburton that the men who upheld them were with respect to education and ability infinitely preferable to those who opposed them. Chittick was right, however, in his main assumption. In so far as there was a crippling factor in Haliburton’s life and writing, it was the fact that, say, do, or write what he would, Haliburton knew himself to be a colonial and that on this account all his achievement would be patronized in the very places that he considered to be his own true spiritual home. Yet the will to dominate against odds persisted and, in his writing at least, he by turns flattered, wheedled, bullied, and threatened the British in an almost successful attempt to enter the shrine of their hearts that Dickens and Tennyson enjoyed; it is to his credit that he came close to succeeding.
Although happy in his social activities, Haliburton in his later work developed an inclination toward melancholy which cannot be entirely explained by his failing health. It flowed from his frustrated idealism. Believing passionately in the toryism of Edmund Burke, he had the misfortune to live during the period of that ideology’s decline on both sides of the Atlantic – a decline as evident among the Tories themselves as among the uncommitted. Haliburton had no confidence in the British Conservative leader, Peel. He felt that the word “Conservative” was only another way of writing the word “Liberal,” and cumulative events only served to deepen this conviction.
There are many reasons why Haliburton’s greatest success was achieved as a writer. He early discovered that words were more amenable to government than events and that writing could give him the quick success that his imperious and hasty nature demanded. One factor in his abandoning an active political career for a judicial one was that it gave him more leisure in which to write. To the sense of proportion which he had acquired through his classical studies and his reading of 18th-century prose was added an ear sensitive to the rhythms and nuances of colloquial speech at the very time on the North American frontier when the laxity of education was enabling that speech to run riot in a picturesque and racy manner not known in the English language since Elizabethan times.
Haliburton’s use of language added American to Lowland Scots on the list of English variants which a writer could use with a fair chance of winning appreciation and acclaim. In this regard, he paved the way for that great democratic prose epic of America, The adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Furthermore, his gregarious and sociable nature enabled him to study at first hand the many individual and unusual types which were fostered by the isolation and social freedom of a frontier. At the same time, his knowledge, derived from both reading and experience, of traditional propriety and genteel British behaviour gave him a frame of reference within which to place these excesses.
It is ironic that Haliburton, the arch-tory, should have become the “father of American humour” in the most democratic sense. The success and popularity of Sam Slick established at the same time the vogue of the folk hero, the man whose ability and humanity do not depend upon education, position, and ancestry but upon his own intrinsic ability to cope with circumstance. Sam Slick, in his vices and virtues, is the epitome of Jacksonian democracy.
Recent thesis histories of Canadian literature – particularly those that see fear and awe of nature as the mark of an archetypal Canadian writer – have had little to say about Haliburton. With him human nature is everywhere and physical nature is nowhere. In his work, Europeans who “gush” about such physical wonders as Niagara Falls are satirized whereas native Americans are seen as either speculating as to their possible commercial use or are too busy with their own concerns to notice the backdrops against which those concerns take place.
There are essentially two types of humour: one which is fixed and eternal; another whose appeal is transitory. This last must be rewritten with every passing generation. Eternal humour, of which Swift is the great example, in its purest form seizes upon some dichotomy in a fundamental area of human concern between the ideal and the actual and presents it stripped of accidental or temporary circumstances. Transitory humour applies accidental or temporary circumstances of either language or place to certain stock human situations, and by an exploitation of novelty – which soon exhausts itself through over popularity – brings these situations to momentary life. A classic example of this genre is vaudeville humour. Although the proportions are mixed, there is more vaudeville humour than true humour in the work of Haliburton, and as a result many readers today find the once admired dialect dated and the anecdotes not only told in a pace and form that are strange to them but dependent upon circumstances with which they are no longer concerned. There is reason, therefore, to suppose that in time more and more of Haliburton’s work will pass out of the domain of “popular” reading into the domain of literary history. It is not inconceivable that The old judge, which is interesting for other factors besides its humour, will ultimately become the most widely read of all Haliburton’s writings.
The modern reader will not lose a sense of Haliburton’s imaginative energy – the almost unrivalled power of sustained comic invention which he displays in both use of language and choice of incident through thousands of pages of the Sam Slick series, with a minimum of repetition and a remarkable evenness of quality. It is true that he risks – and ultimately achieves – over-exposure, but a fraction of the invention and ingenuity displayed in these books would have made the reputation of many another writer.
During his own lifetime, Haliburton was not valued in Nova Scotia. His books received there the most unfavourable reviews and were not apparently popular or appreciated. This does not mean that Nova Scotians were more sensitive to satire than were Americans and British. They knew him for his social exclusiveness and overbearing ways and for his desire for the privileges of office. Satire, however well intentioned and executed, is not appreciated from objectionable sources. With the appearance, however, of a new generation of Nova Scotians and with the development after confederation of a growing cultural nationalism, something approaching a Haliburton cult began to appear in Nova Scotia. A Haliburton Club was established in Windsor in 1884 to promote the knowledge of Canadian literature in general and of the works of Haliburton in particular.
Like all colonists the Nova Scotians were slower than the inhabitants of the metropolis to honour one of their own. In 1858 Oxford University awarded Haliburton the honorary degree of dcl for services to literature. He was the first colonial to receive that degree. In fact, he was more than that. He was the only colonial in the 19th century to achieve an international reputation in literature, and it is doubtful whether any writings from British North America, with the possible exception of the works of Stephen Leacock*, have since been able to make the impact upon the English speaking world which Haliburton’s works have. These factors help us to understand Haliburton’s success, but, as in all work that captures the human imagination on a large scale, much credit must be given to that indefinable yet magnetic individuality which for want of a better term we call genius.
[Most of T. C. Haliburton’s works were republished many times. The following list indicates their first date of publication: A general description of Nova Scotia, illustrated by a new and correct map (Halifax, 1823); An historical and statistical account of Nova-Scotia (2v., Halifax, 1829); The clockmaker; or, the sayings and doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville (1st ser., Halifax, 1836; 2nd ser., London, 1838; 3rd ser., London, 1840); The bubbles of Canada (London, 1839); A reply to the report of the Earl of Durham (London, 1839); The letter-bag of the Great Western; or, life in a steamer (Halifax, 1840); The attaché; or, Sam Slick in England (1st ser., 2v., London, 1843; 2nd ser., 2v., London, 1844); The old judge; or, life in a colony (2v., London, 1849); The English in America (2v., London, 1851), republished as Rule and misrule of the English in America . . . (2v., New York, 1851); Traits of American humour, by native authors, ed. [T. C. Haliburton] (3v., London, 1852); Sam Slick’s wise saws and modern instances; or, what he said, did, and invented (2v., London, 1853); The Americans at home; or, byeways, backwoods, and prairies, ed. [T. C. Haliburton] (3v., London, 1854); Nature and human nature (2v., London, 1855); An address on the present condition, resources and prospects of British North America . . . (London and Montreal, 1857); The season ticket (London, 1860); Speech of the Hon. Mr. Justice Haliburton, M.P., in the House of Commons . . . the 21st of April 1860, on the repeal of the differential duties on foreign and colonial wood (London, 1860).
Watters and Bell, On Canadian literature, 101–4, contains a partial listing of secondary literature on Haliburton, but there is a great need for a complete, up-to-date bibliography. Many editions and articles have appeared since the last full bibliography, A. H. O’Brien, Haliburton (“Sam Slick”): a sketch and bibliography (Ottawa, 1910). In fact, the best single bibliography is that appended to V. L. O. Chittick, Thomas Chandler Haliburton: a study in provincial toryism (New York, 1924).
The periodical literature on Haliburton tends to cover the same ground again and again. Some of the best critical work appears in the introductions to various modern editions. Among the more notable of these are [T. C. Haliburton], Sam Slick, ed. R. P. Baker (New York, 1923); The clockmaker . . . (first series), ed. R. L. McDougall (Toronto, 1958); The old judge . . . , ed. R. E. Watters (Toronto and Vancouver, ); and The Sam Slick anthology, ed. R. E. Watters (Toronto, ). f.c.]
© 1976–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Fred Cogswell, “HALIBURTON, THOMAS CHANDLER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 8, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/haliburton_thomas_chandler_9E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Fred Cogswell|
|Title of Article:||HALIBURTON, THOMAS CHANDLER|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1976|
|Year of revision:||1976|
|Access Date:||June 8, 2023|