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COGSWELL, HENRY HEZEKIAH, lawyer, financier, office holder, politician, and philanthropist; b. 12 April 1776 in Cornwallis Township, N.S., son of Mason Cogswell and Lydia Huntington; m. June 1805 Isabella Ellis in Windsor, N.S., and they had ten children; d. 9 Nov. 1854 in Halifax.
Henry Hezekiah Cogswell emerged from rural Nova Scotia to become a leading Halifax entrepreneur, ranking with Enos Collins* and Samuel Cunard* in material wealth. The Cogswell family had come to Cornwallis Township from Connecticut in 1761, occupying land formerly held by Acadian settlers. Henry’s father developed the farm to the point where it ranked within the top five per cent of township holdings. Three of Mason Cogswell’s sons stayed on the land but Henry, the second eldest, was selected for a professional career. Sent to King’s College in Windsor in 1789, shortly after its establishment, young Cogswell received the rudiments of a higher education. Equally important, he made connections, both with fellow students and with faculty, which probably contributed decisively to his gaining admission to the Halifax oligarchy.
After graduation Cogswell moved to Halifax, where he underwent legal training as a clerk in the office of Richard John Uniacke*, solicitor general of Nova Scotia. Admitted to the bar in 1798, Cogswell appears to have quickly built up a flourishing law practice, benefiting from a scarcity of professional competition as well as from the bustle of business created by litigation concerning prizes of war which occupied the Halifax courts during the Napoleonic Wars. In June 1805 he married Isabella Ellis, daughter of an Anglican clergyman, and the first of their ten children was born five months later. As he progressed in society, Cogswell gradually abandoned Presbyterianism in favour of the more socially desirable membership in the Church of England. Conformity to oligarchic norms was important, since very early Cogswell displayed a desire for an official position. Frustrated in efforts to obtain the position of clerk to the House of Assembly, he studiously cultivated connections within the legal fraternity until, in 1812, the intervention of Chief Justice Sampson Salter Blowers* resulted in his appointment as deputy provincial secretary. This position, which Cogswell held for the next six years, carried an annual income, including fees, of over £1,000. More important, it gave the incumbent daily access to the lieutenant governor, the key source of government patronage.
It would appear that after 1812 Cogswell never returned to personal law practice, being able to draw an ample income from a combination of his official positions and private investments. In 1818 his tenure as deputy provincial secretary ended but as compensation he was named registrar of the Court of Chancery, a position which he apparently had held on an acting basis since 1814. A contemporary later observed that the post yielded an annual income of from £500 to £600; moreover, it allowed Cogswell to retain regular contact with the lieutenant governor. By now Cogswell was also well on his way towards building up a substantial investment portfolio, mainly in the form of freehold and mortgages. He had also engaged in entrepreneurial speculation, which included playing a leading role in founding two of Halifax’s earliest corporate ventures, the Halifax Fire Insurance Company (1809) and the Halifax Steam Boat Company (1815). After the Napoleonic Wars he complemented his other activities with a brief venture into politics, winning election to the House of Assembly from Halifax Township in 1818. As a member of the assembly he displayed an enthusiasm for money matters, advocating an increase in the supply of provincial paper money, seeking to expand the credit available to farmers, and urging incorporation of a bank in Halifax. These measures, designed to alleviate the post-war economic depression in Nova Scotia, all failed to pass the assembly. Cogswell’s position on banking may have contributed to his electoral defeat in 1820, since key members of the Halifax merchant community feared that such an institution would compete with their activities as private bankers.
His interest in banking persisted, however, and in 1825, after repeated failures to secure a charter from the legislature for a joint-stock public bank, he joined with Enos Collins, Samuel Cunard, William Pryor, and four other prominent Halifax merchants to form the Halifax Banking Company, an unincorporated partnership capitalized at £50,000. This was Nova Scotia’s first true bank, an institution organized to receive deposits, issue bank notes, and extend short-term credit to local businessmen. Without a charter, the partners remained fully liable for the bank’s debts and lacked the security of a legal monopoly within the province. Nevertheless, sustained by a long-term growth in Nova Scotian trade, the bank prospered. Within a decade, the partners were earning a return of 20 per cent on their investment. Cogswell, who had subscribed one-fifth of the original capital, was elected the first president of the bank, a post which he retained until his death. As officer presiding over the weekly meetings of directors, before long he was known as “Lord Hezekiah,” who, according to Joseph Howe*, ruled the community with a “rod of paper,” exploiting the “labour and sweat of the people.”
Antagonism towards Cogswell and his associates grew as they achieved even greater integration of economic and political power within the province. In 1831, for example, Cogswell secured appointment to the Council, which meant that five of its twelve seats were held by members of the Halifax Banking Company. At the same time, the bank, which as yet had no formal competition, held more than one-third of the provincial debt, Cogswell alone holding over ten per cent. It was a situation ready-made to foster suspicions of conflicts of interest, especially in light of Enos Collins’s questionable behaviour during the so-called “Brandy Dispute” of 1830. Suspicion turned into accusation in 1832 when the Council imposed obstacles in the way of efforts to establish a second bank in Halifax through incorporation by public charter. The new Bank of Nova Scotia did obtain its charter in 1832 but the conflict had further compromised the reputation of Cogswell and his partners. Public dissatisfaction mounted to new heights over the next four years as competition between the two banks threw credit into disarray and contributed to a wave of bankruptcies among small businessmen. Under such circumstances “old Coggy” was subjected to vehement denunciation. Joseph Howe complained that “every species of property was raised or depressed in value at the nod of the wily President. Whatever the Bankers wanted to buy suddenly fell, and whatever they wanted to sell, as suddenly rose.”
Cogswell made an obvious target for any emerging reform movement, since he possessed a prominence in community affairs that went beyond his role as banker and councillor. By the mid 1830s he held a multiplicity of public offices: head of the Halifax Street Commission, and thereby responsible for expenditures on major public works; commissioner of the Vice-Admiralty Court and of the Halifax Commons; president of the Halifax Board of Health; and member of the Revenue Commission, a body charged with supervision of the public treasury. In addition, Cogswell was a pervasive personality in the business world, functioning as president of both the Albion Fire and Life Insurance Company and the Annapolis Iron Mining Company and as director of the Nova Scotia Marine Insurance Company, the Nova Scotia Whaling Company, and the Halifax Hotel Company. Ironically, Joseph Howe was personally indebted to Cogswell for £1,200 at the time he launched his campaign for responsible government in the general election of 1836.
Reform agitation steadily gathered strength from 1836 and gradually brought about Cogswell’s withdrawal from public affairs. In 1838 he was obliged to step down from the newly separated Legislative Council and two years later he found himself excluded from the Executive Council. Incorporation of Halifax as a city in 1841 deprived him of his municipal offices. The process climaxed in 1843 when Lieutenant Governor Lord Falkland [Cary*] dismissed him from the Revenue Commission after he had attempted to prevent Howe from being appointed collector of excise. In the course of demanding a hearing from the colonial secretary, an infuriated Cogswell complained that reform had so wrecked “constitutional principles” that the local constitution bore “a strong resemblance to that of Turkey where to satisfy clamorous agitators or to gratify the caprices of a Bashaw, heads are thrown over the wall.” Neither rhetoric nor copious amounts of money, allegedly channelled into the pockets of such conservative politicians as James William Johnston*, enabled Cogswell to prevent the coming of responsible government. The defeat, however, was one which proved more damaging to his ego than to his vital interests.
Other than a short-lived refusal to entrust public funds to the Halifax Banking Company, the ascendant reformers carried out no vendetta against Cogswell. Their moderation stemmed in part from respect for his activities as a public benefactor, for Cogswell ranked as Halifax’s leading philanthropist. He was a member of the local Poor Man’s Friend Society; vice-president of the Nova Scotia Bible Society and the Diocesan Church Society of the Church of England; president of the Royal Acadian Society, the Association for the Aid of the Colonial Church Society, and the Halifax Library Committee; and director of the Halifax Agricultural Society. He also supported the Halifax Mechanics’ Institute by making donations and by providing its meeting place with a fire-escape. In addition, he helped organize the King’s College Alumni Association, and gave donations to the college on a scale which secured him an honorary dcl in 1847. All of this activity, which may have derived from an evangelical element in Cogswell’s character, helped to alter his image as the rapacious head of Halifax’s monied interests. Perhaps more decisive in prompting the victorious reformers to seek an accommodation with Cogswell, however, was their need of his support in the pursuit of economic development.
The one major topic on which Howe and Cogswell were in approximate agreement concerned the introduction of railways into Nova Scotia. In the mid 1840s both men became caught up in the enthusiasm for a rail link between Halifax and Quebec. Cogswell served as chairman of a Halifax-based business lobby, organized to convince the assembly that public funds should be allocated for railway construction. The effort produced few immediate results but Cogswell remained convinced of the importance of the new technology as a stimulus to economic growth. In 1852 he issued a pamphlet, Views: relative to the construction of a railway from Halifax to Quebec, which called on the imperial government to provide more generous financial support for the intercolonial line. Cogswell argued that the project was beyond the capacity of private enterprise, but rather than entrust the work to local colonial governments he favoured establishment of a British North American federation wherein leadership would presumably be entrusted to men guided by something more than parochial considerations of patronage. He also stated that construction of the railway could be carried out by a mass of immigrants supervised by British army officers and subject to “military order and control.”
The railway pamphlet, an expression of tory élitism and entrepreneurial ambition, was Cogswell’s last public gesture. He died two years later; despite his business acumen, he left no will. An appraisal of his estate revealed assets of £116,905. More than £40,000 consisted of mortgage holdings, freehold real estate accounted for another £30,000, and the remainder was made up of cash, stocks, and bonds. Although an advocate of local industrial development, Cogswell had confined his investments largely to real estate and commercial ventures. Moreover, almost 20 per cent of his savings had gone into American bank securities. All of this wealth went to a half-dozen children and grandchildren. Two of his children, Isabella Binney Cogswell* and James Colquhoun Cogswell, achieved prominence in 19th-century Halifax, the one as a philanthropist and the other as a merchant-banker who eventually succeeded to the presidency of the Halifax Banking Company.
Three men can be said to have dominated the business community of early Victorian Nova Scotia – Enos Collins, Samuel Cunard, and Henry Hezekiah Cogswell. Despite the difficulty of penetrating his mask of humourless probity, Cogswell probably had a more complex personality than either of his two peers. A blend of rigid toryism, business vision, and community stewardship made him a memorable expression of his times.
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