WILKIE, WILLIAM, pamphleteer and reformer; fl. 1820.
Dislocation caused by the transition from war to peace after 1815 prompted an eruption of agitation across British North America. Robert Gourlay* of Upper Canada is the best-known radical of this era, but Nova Scotia had a parallel to Gourlay in the person of William Wilkie.
Little is known about Wilkie, either prior to or after his attaining political notoriety. He was the son of Walter Coltheart Wilkie, a Halifax sea captain, who was descended from the pioneer settlers of 1749. By the beginning of the 19th century the Wilkie family had acquired modest status in Halifax society. Walter gained a seat on the grand jury in 1817 and, in 1825, one of his sons, James Charles William, became clerk to the Halifax Banking Company. Although no confirmation can be obtained from Anglican church records, it appears that William Wilkie was born in the mid to late 1790s. He received what was, for the times, an above-average education and probably went to work as clerk in a merchant counting-house. His name appears in no public or private document until April 1820, when the crown charged him with criminal libel for having issued, anonymously, a pamphlet entitled A letter to the people of Halifax, containing strictures on the conduct of the magistrates. . . .
Wilkie’s venture into print took place against a background of business failures, unemployment, crime, poor crops, and large-scale emigration to the United States. The sudden disappearance of wartime prosperity left Nova Scotians confused and ready to listen to self-proclaimed experts professing to know what had gone wrong. John Young*, Thomas McCulloch*, and others ventured into the weekly press with remedies for hard times. Most critics offered comment that was either neutral or conservative in political tone. Occasionally, however, a radical note crept in. This was particularly true of the pamphlet written by William Wilkie.
His 21-page epistle, apparently printed by Anthony Henry Holland*, proprietor of the Acadian Recorder, focused on the alleged deficiencies of Halifax’s appointed civic authorities. Their prime failing, in Wilkie’s eyes, lay in allowing municipal taxes to rise by 85 per cent between 1817 and 1819. This large increase, caused mainly by escalating welfare costs, was attributed by Wilkie to extravagance and corruption. Civic officials, he maintained, received excessive incomes, charged exorbitant fees, allowed the sheriff to extort money from imprisoned debtors, exploited inmates of the workhouse for private benefit, exempted friends from taxes, and refused to render proper accounts for public expenditures. The indictment, at least some of which appears justified, climaxed with the impassioned observation: “We are governed by a set of drivellers, from whom we can expect no remedy, but in poison, no relief but in death.”
After dealing with the magistrates, Wilkie proceeded to denounce virtually every other component of constituted authority. The courts received criticism because their high fees denied justice to small businessmen seeking to collect debts. As well, the laws against theft were enforced in so lax a manner as to undermine the security of property. The Council, a body dominated by Halifax’s wealthy élite, was condemned for having vetoed a bank bill, thereby perpetuating a scarcity of credit in the province. The assembly also was attacked for its failure to carry out a redistribution of seats, as well as for the members’ decision to raise their sessional indemnity. The nature of these grievances, with their emphasis on the plight of those with small property, suggests that Wilkie belonged to and identified with the shopkeeper stratum of Halifax society.
Wilkie’s pamphlet might have been overlooked had his language been less hysterical or his social status more elevated. As it was, he aroused both the ire and the paranoia of leading members of the establishment, They struck back with criminal prosecution, bringing Wilkie to trial in the Supreme Court in April 1820. He sought and was granted the right to conduct his own defence; the prosecuting attorney was Samuel George William Archibald*, king’s counsel and member of the House of Assembly. Far from being evasive or deferential, Wilkie “acknowledged himself the author of the libel, and undertook to repeat and comment upon it, in terms so much more offensive than the language of the libel itself, as to remove from any candid mind the smallest doubt of his guilt.” After a mere five minutes’ deliberation the jury returned a guilty verdict. The court then sentenced Wilkie to two years at hard labour in the local workhouse. As a gesture of leniency, Chief Justice Sampson Salter Blowers* ruled that the duration of the sentence would be halved if Wilkie maintained good behaviour.
The case had attracted wide public interest, and a contemporary later observed that “the sympathy in his [Wilkie’s] favour was very general throughout the town.” Anonymous threatening letters were sent to the press, but no one dared come to his defence openly. The Halifax press, including Holland’s Acadian Recorder, denounced Wilkie as a “misguided and foolish young man” who deserved what he got. No one, it appeared, had a desire to be publicly associated with expressions of “licentious spirit.”
As far as is known, Wilkie served a term in the workhouse and then disappeared, probably migrating to the United States. He appears to have been forgotten by Halifax society. Reformers of the 1830s, such as Joseph Howe*, never brought up his name when building their critique of Nova Scotia’s oligarchy. Nevertheless, Wilkie’s abortive political career heralded much of what would follow in the campaign for responsible government; it also suggested that protest, when it arose on a large scale, would be concentrated not among the very poor but rather within the petite bourgeoisie of urban society.
William Wilkie is the author of A letter to the people of Halifax, containing strictures on the conduct of the magistrates with regard to the police office, Court of Quarter Session, work house, poor house, jail, &c; also, strictures on the court of commissioners, Supreme Court, &c.; also, strictures on his majesty’s Council and House of Assembly, bank bill, militia, issuing tickets for [seats], Digby election, raising the pay, &c. &c, by a Nova Scotian ([Halifax], 1820).
PANS, RG 34-312, P, 8–9. [George Ramsay, Earl of Dalhousie], The Dalhousie journals, ed. Marjorie Whitelaw ([Toronto], 1978). Acadian Recorder, 2 March 1816; 18 Sept., 30 Oct., 6 Nov. 1819; 22 April 1820. Free Press (Halifax), 21 Sept., 14 Dec. 1819. Nova Scotia Royal Gazette, 19 April 1820. Weekly Chronicle (Halifax), 21 April 1820. Akins, Hist. of Halifax City. W. M. Brown, “Recollections of old Halifax,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 13 (1908): 79. G. V. V. Nicholls, “A forerunner of Joseph Howe,” CHR, 8 (1927): 224–32.