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HALIBURTON, WILLIAM HERSEY OTIS, lawyer, office holder, militia officer, politician, and judge; b. 3 Sept. 1767 in Windsor, N.S., son of William Haliburton and Susanna (Lusanna) Otis; m. first 1794 Lucy Chandler Grant in Westmorland County, N.B., and they had one child, Thomas Chandler*; m. secondly 1803 Susanna Davis, née Francklin, daughter of Michael Francklin*, in Windsor; they had no children; d. there 7 July 1829, “after a most painful illness.”

William and Susanna Haliburton, first cousins, were pre-loyalists who emigrated from Boston to Newport Township, N.S., in 1761 and settled on part of the 58,000 acres granted to a group including Edward Ellis, husband of William’s stepmother. In comfortable circumstances, the Haliburtons brought with them two black servants and 18 months’ provisions, but two years of pioneer farm life were hardship enough for them and in 1763 they moved to Windsor. There William studied and later practised law. Legend has it that the third of their ten children, William Hersey Otis, and his only child, Thomas Chandler, were born in the same house 20 miles apart, one of several explanations being that the original Haliburton house, built above the village of Avondale, was floated 20 miles down the Avon River to Windsor. But the story is evidently apocryphal since William Hersey Otis was not born until four years after the move to Windsor.

Of his early life little is known until he studied law in Halifax, apparently in the office of Jonathan Sterns. Returning to Windsor, he built up a comfortable law practice, acquired substantial holdings of land, and held such offices as clerk of the peace for Hants County in 1786, and second lieutenant, first lieutenant, and captain of militia in 1793, 1804, and 1820 respectively. From 1806 to 1824 he was a member of the House of Assembly, until 1811 for Windsor Township and afterwards for Hants County. If attendance at divisions is the criterion, he was the most faithful of all assemblymen over those 18 years.

Beamish Murdoch* was to single out Haliburton, Thomas Ritchie*, Simon Bradstreet Robie*, and Samuel George William Archibald* as natives of the province “working their way to distinction” by “dint of their own exertions” and exhibiting “statesmanlike ideas, a power of subtle reasoning and much eloquence” in the assembly. A more questionable judgement is that of Victor Lovitt Oakes Chittick who, in his biography of Thomas Chandler Haliburton, concludes that there can be “no doubt of W. H. O. Haliburton’s complete acceptance of Tory principles, or of his undeviating adherence to them. They are proclaimed in his every act and utterance of which we have record.” Seeming to support this opinion was the action of Lieutenant Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*] in appointing Haliburton and Archibald as the province’s pioneer king’s counsel in 1817 and passing over the more prestigious Robie – a move which, although described by Israel Longworth as “one of the unexplained mysteries” of the administration, was clearly attributable to Dalhousie’s dislike of Robie’s seeming radicalism. Yet, if Chittick’s picture serves his purpose in explaining the toryism of the son, it is nevertheless an outrageous caricature of the father drawn from a misinterpretation of scanty references in the assembly Journal and Murdoch’s History of Nova Scotia. These materials, together with limited reports of the debates in the Acadian Recorder (Halifax) and the Halifax Journal, actually demonstrate that the father displayed the usual attitudes of the “country” assemblyman, though clearly better educated and more articulate, and that he was a highly pragmatic, common-sense person who, cautious and conservative in some respects, was highly enlightened and liberal in many others.

For Haliburton, a promoter of provincial development, the extension of common schools was “a favorite object,” although in 1823 he rightly opposed their support by compulsory assessment as impracticable. He presented numerous bills to encourage the growing of bread-corn and the clearing of new lands; yet his intent was to assist not older farmers, who were “rich enough,” but more recent settlers, as in 1818 when he proposed a bounty on bread-corn grown by them. He also advocated large outlays on roads and bridges, £50,000 in 1818, even if it meant that Government House, still in the course of construction, “stood still for a year or two – the making and repairing of roads and bridges were of much more consequence. “More than once he showed his concern for the difficulties of ordinary Nova Scotians. He opposed the reform of the militia laws through consolidation of the regiments because it would “throw the burthen upon the poorer class of persons” by making it difficult for there to fulfil their obligations to drill. When property was being sacrificed at sheriffs’ sales for want of money and complaints deluged the assembly, he proposed an issue of paper money by way of loan with adequate security.

Neither lieutenant governor nor Council nor the moneyed interests daunted him. When Lord Dalhousie’s proposals for the militia seemed to be impolitic, he insisted that the representatives of the people not “flinch . . . from speaking their sentiments freely to his excellency.” When Dalhousie wanted to put the main roads under the Council and the by-roads under the sessions and grand juries, he objected to the assembly giving up any of its hard-won prerogatives. When his fellow assemblymen suggested that the Council was certain to reject some proposal, he refused to anticipate what the other house might do and demanded that the assembly treat the matter as it thought proper. And when Halifax merchants sought to incorporate a bank, he frowned at their proposal to put a great deal of paper money into circulation and demanded that the bank be as useful to the public as to its stockholders.

Even Chittick admits that Haliburton’s attitude towards marriage licences displayed nothing of toryism: in essence, his position was that dissenting ministers should have the power to solemnize marriage by licence, a monopoly then confined to ministers of the Church of England. Actually, Chittick measures Haliburton’s “Tory devotion to the rights of property, the Church, and the King” by his resistance to debtor relief legislation, to support of a Presbyterian academy, and to the admission of a Catholic to the house without oath. Yet in 1823 Haliburton voted for the admission, first, of Catholic Laurence Kavanagh and, later, of any Catholic without their taking the oaths against popery and transubstantiation. On Pictou Academy, he took the position that “we had not the means at present, of keeping up two Colleges in this country,” but he was prepared to put the academy on the same footing as other academies, and he wanted elimination of the requirement that degree students at King’s College subscribe to Anglican tenets [see William Cochran]. Admittedly, on the relief of insolvent debtors, he favoured the retention of a process “which took away body and goods” and, in view of the experience with relaxed legislation in Massachusetts, came out strongly for the creditor over the debtor. But even here he was reflecting prevailing attitudes rather than pronounced toryism.

Chittick also pictures Haliburton as growing more and more unpopular in an era in which a party of reform was increasingly challenging the Council’s abuse of privilege. But he predates the appearance of such a party by more than a decade, and there is no evidence that Haliburton became unpopular until 1824. In that year all the lawyers in the assembly incurred popular disfavour by pressing successfully a measure which, though purportedly designed to improve the efficiency of the lower courts by introducing professional men to head them, had the effect of conferring “three easy chairs” on the “hungry profession.” Haliburton denied that the lawyers were “capable of being biased in favor of their own interests,” but he convinced no one, the more so as he was shortly made chief justice of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas and president or first justice of the Court of Quarter Sessions for the Middle Division (Lunenburg, Queens, Kings, and Hants counties), an office he held until his death five years later. Although he is not remembered for any particular case or decision, he enjoyed an excellent reputation both as lawyer and as judge.

For most of his legislative career Haliburton stood out, with three or four other members, as a leading participant in every significant debate. He differed markedly from his son, Thomas Chandler, who started out with much the same political stance as his father and became a thoroughgoing tory. In contrast, W. H. O. Haliburton, a conservative in some matters, served for 18 successive years as a not illiberal, highly enlightened assemblyman.

J. Murray Beck

N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1806–24. Acadian Recorder, especially 1818–19. Halifax Journal, especially 1823–24. Novascotian, or Colonial Herald, 16 July 1829. “Descendants of William Haliburton and Lusanna (Otis) Haliburton,” comp. R. L. Weis (mimeograph, Providence, R.I., 1962; copy at PANS). V. L. O. Chittick, Thomas Chandler Haliburton (“Sam Slick”): a study in provincial toryism (New York, 1924). [R. G. Haliburton], “A sketch of the life and times of Judge Haliburton,” Haliburton: a centenary chaplet . . . (Toronto, 1897), 13–40. Murdoch, Hist. of N.S., vol.3.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

J. Murray Beck, “HALIBURTON, WILLIAM HERSEY OTIS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 21, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/haliburton_william_hersey_otis_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/haliburton_william_hersey_otis_6E.html
Author of Article: J. Murray Beck
Title of Article: HALIBURTON, WILLIAM HERSEY OTIS
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: October 21, 2014