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NUGENT, RICHARD, printer and newspaperman; b. May 1815 in Halifax, son of Patrick Nugent and Mary Hurley; m. 9 May 1837, in New York City, Elizabeth McFarlane of Halifax; d. 15 or 16 March 1858 in Flatbush (New York City).

Learning his trade with Joseph Howe* at the Novascotian, or Colonial Herald in the early 1830s, Richard Nugent was one of many apprentices whom Howe helped to educate at his home on Sunday evenings. Returning to the Novascotian after four years in the United States, Nugent took on increasing responsibilities as Howe became more heavily involved in politics: in 1840, manager of the office on a salaried basis; in 1841, printer and publisher on a rental basis; and, at the beginning of 1842, owner of the entire establishment. Until June 1842 he employed John Sparrow Thompson* as editor, but for the next year, although making “no pretensions to the experience and ability of the late editor,” he wrote all but a handful of the Novascotian’s editorials and articles. In the spring of 1843 he began sharing editorial duties with Angus Morrison Gidney*, and this arrangement lasted until Nugent’s tenure as proprietor came to an end that autumn.

In the case both of the Novascotian and of the newspapers he was to publish later in his career, Nugent emphasized that he intended them to be independent journals, wide-sweeping in character, covering politics, literature, humour, commerce, and general intelligence, always advocating “rational liberty, social order, and constitutional government.” As issues arose, he almost invariably adopted a highly liberal stance, never averse, as a Catholic, to opposing the bishops and priests of his own church. Above all, he advocated a leading role for government in the promotion of public education, especially on the ground that ordinary people would cherish political rights more highly if they understood them better.

Freely admitting the difficulties of one who had few personal friends and no wealthy family connections, and having inherited “a host of bitter and powerful enemies” from Howe, Nugent, none the less, gave no quarter and experienced stormier times than any other Nova Scotia newspaperman. He began, between June and August 1842, by publishing anonymously the celebrated “Letters of a Constitutionalist.” In these letters Howe demolished in barbarous fashion those extreme tories who were taking pot-shots at the tory-reform coalition government of which he was a member. Although the experienced Howe avoided anything that could be attacked as libellous in court, Nugent paid a penalty for printing the letters. Twice he had to defend himself in the streets, once from an attack by John Henry Crosskill. The second time he had James Colquhoun Cogswell convicted of assault.

Much more consequential was Nugent’s part in intensifying Howe’s difficulties with the Baptists, first for their failure to pay him for printing their newspaper, the Christian Messenger, and later for differences on the support of denominational colleges. In 1842 Nugent charged the Messenger’s editors, John Ferguson and James Walton Nutting*, with attempting to ruin Howe financially as “the only mode of getting rid of him left to his political enemies.” Because both had tory connections, he accused them all the more readily of engaging in a conspiracy to embroil Howe with the Baptists for political reasons. In 1843 Nugent took on the Reverend Edmund Albern Crawley* of Acadia College, who had not only charged Howe and his friends with seeking to destroy the denominational colleges but who had manifested his tory leanings by entering into the general political debate as well. Delightedly, Nugent replied with editorials headed “Professor Crawley turned politician” and “Parson Crawley’s politics.” Howe was horrified but powerless to restrain his enfant terrible. Eventually, however, he accepted Nugent’s view of a planned tory-Baptist alliance and entered vigorously into a religious and political struggle which resulted in the loss of eight liberal seats in the province’s Baptist belt in the elections of late 1843. It is at least arguable that Nugent played the leading role in these reverses and in the long-term alienation of the Baptists from the Liberal party.

At the same time, Nugent, at least nominally a Roman Catholic, was having troubles with Bishop William Walsh for opposing his decision to remove the control of the Total Abstinence Society from Father John Loughnan, the vicar general of the diocese of Nova Scotia and the rector of St Mary’s Cathedral in Halifax. Even after 1,700 Catholics met to oppose the “calumnies” published in the Novascotian against their bishop, Nugent stated he would “disregard the threats of any faction” and print what he pleased on public matters. Because the tories tried to make political capital out of the episode by identifying the Novascotian as Howe’s paper, the liberals sought Catholic good will by offering to nominate a Catholic for one of the Halifax seats in the election of 1843. But when none of the liberals’ sitting members would withdraw, the Catholics showed their annoyance by staying away from the polls and thus permitted the tory Andrew Mitchell Uniacke to win one of the Halifax Township seats. The outcome, province-wide, was that the tories won one more seat than the liberals, and this result, in turn, led Lieutenant Governor Lord Falkland [Cary*] to appoint another tory to the Executive Council, an action which brought down the coalition in December 1843. For this train of events Nugent was at least indirectly responsible.

Meanwhile a crisis had developed in Nugent’s personal fortunes. Because he had thought it his “duty to lay it before the public,” on 10 Aug. 1842 he had published a letter by Joseph Fenwick Taylor, master of a British barque caught in the toils of the Vice-Admiralty Court. The letter described the Halifax city recorder and proctor of the court, William Q. Sawers, as “a rapacious attorney, doing a small business,” who had pursued “a tortuous, pettifogging and vexatious course” to gratify “a spiteful malignity.” On 9 Nov. 1842 Nugent printed another letter signed “Self Defence,” which dealt harshly with a clique specializing in the wholesale slander of “private character” and singled out especially “Councellor Skunkfeet,” whom Silas Livingston Morse of Annapolis County, because of specific allusions, identified as himself. Both Sawers and Morse proceeded against Nugent for civil libel.

In July 1843 a jury found for Sawers in the amount of £40 and costs; in October another found for Morse in the amount of £110 and costs. Although Nugent admitted to “imprudence, or impetuosity,” his libels appear mild when compared with the steady diet of vilification served up by the newspapers in these years. He laboured, of course, under the difficulty that the special juries in libel cases were chosen from the grand jury panels, whose members, because of large property qualifications, were likely to be heavily tory in complexion. Moreover, Nugent appeared the victim of political enemies who, unable to contend effectively with the chief reform organ, sought to get rid of its impecunious editor by pursuing him mercilessly. Both trials were, in fact, political trials. At Annapolis the tory leader and attorney general, James William Johnston*, acted for Morse and spoke for more than three hours: “passionate – and [with] something very like vindictiveness towards us,” wrote Nugent. In Halifax a second tory executive councillor, Alexander Stewart*, joined Johnston in acting for Sawers, while two leading liberal lawyers, William* and George Renny Young, defended Nugent.

Despite the two court defeats, Nugent vowed he would continue to hold up “public villainy to public execration.” Laughingly he declared that Sawers’s reputation was worth “the enormous sum of forty pounds,” one twenty-fifth of what he claimed and “a sum too small to seriously injure us.” But by November he was having second thoughts. Unable to make ends meet, he had earlier discussed the sale of the Novascotian to William Annand*. His editorial comments on Sawers’s action had led to two further libel suits and the possibility that he might be mulcted in heavy damages and prevented from paying his creditors. Late in November came the news that he had made an assignment for his creditors’ benefit and sold his establishment to Annand, who said with some truth that Nugent had been a victim of those seeking to “stifle free discussion, and suppress all wholesome censure of the conduct of public men.” Though forced to languish in jail until he had met the £93 in damages and costs owing Sawers, Nugent was unrepentant: “I know of nothing with which to upbraid myself, – nor can I call to mind with regret a paragraph I have written.” Vigorous in the Howe mould, Nugent in the years 1842–43 had been engaged in smaller publishing ventures – the Colonial Farmer, the temperance journal Saturday Evening Visitor (succeeded by the Monthly Visitor and the Family Visitor), and the literary Gridiron – but it was the heavy court fines and legal costs, not over-extended business ventures, that brought about his financial collapse.

After giving up the Novascotian, Nugent did editorial work with other Halifax newspapers for more than a year before he joined Alexander J. Ritchie, a friend since boyhood, to start the Sun on 17 March 1845. As its editor, Nugent suggested that “time and experience . . . may have subdued the almost boyish ardour of our earlier career” and hoped that no one would have “reason to complain of us that he was ‘Sun-struck.’” But, although more careful to avoid libels, he had lost none of his zeal for liberal principles and continued to fight vigorously for responsible government. Still a favourite of Howe, he accompanied him on his trips to Lunenburg and the eastern counties in 1846, adding to his store of political knowledge and regaling his readers with stories of rising liberal fortunes.

Ritchie boasted, when he retired from the Sun in 1848, that “our little bark” had become “a good property.” So much so that when Morse attached Nugent’s household furniture in 1849 for the damages awarded him six years earlier, he did not endanger the existence of the Sun. In 1852 Nugent added the Daily Sun to the previous tri-weekly edition, and for a few years he also published a weekly edition, which he somewhat immodestly described as “the largest, cheapest and best weekly Family Journal in the Lower Provinces.” At the beginning of 1857 ill health compelled him to retire from the management of his papers. On his death the next year in New York, where he had been taken for medical treatment, it was reported that “for several years past, his mind, much too heavily taxed, became gradually impaired.”

Nugent’s role in the contest for responsible government and his influence on the future course of Nova Scotian politics have never received proper recognition. Undoubtedly, he was too independent, both for the leaders of his church and for his fellow reformers, whom he sometimes taxed with equivocation and backsliding, but, as an unswerving advocate of liberal principles, he had no superior, not even Howe himself.

J. Murray Beck

The Halifax newspaper begun by Richard Nugent and Alexander J. Ritchie in 1845 as the tri-weekly Sun continued under various other names: in 1850 the title was changed to Halifax Sun; during 1852 Nugent began publication of the Daily Sun and the Weekly Sun; and by the time of his retirement in 1857 it was being issued as the Morning Sun.

Harvard College Library, Houghton Library, Harvard Univ. (Cambridge, Mass.), ms Can. 58 (Joseph Howe papers) (mfm. at PANS). St Mary’s Basilica (Halifax), St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Halifax, reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials. Acadian Recorder, 184243. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 184458. Novascotian, 184058, especially 184143. Times (Halifax), 184243. An historical directory of Nova Scotia newspapers and journals before confederation, comp. T. B. Vincent (Kingston, Ont., 1977). G. E. N. Tratt, A survey and listing of Nova Scotia newspapers, 1752–1957, with particular reference to the period before 1867 (Halifax, 1979). Beck, Joseph Howe.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

J. Murray Beck, “NUGENT, RICHARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 30, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/nugent_richard_8E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/nugent_richard_8E.html
Author of Article: J. Murray Beck
Title of Article: NUGENT, RICHARD
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1985
Year of revision: 1985
Access Date: August 30, 2014