DICKSON, THOMAS, lawyer, politician, and office holder; b. 8 July 1791 in Onslow, N.S., fifth son and tenth child of Charles Dickson and Amelia Bishop, both emigrants from Connecticut; m. 24 Jan. 1818 Sarah Ann Patterson, and they had nine children, most of whom, including their only son, predeceased him; d. 13 Feb. 1855 in Pictou, N.S.
Thomas Dickson studied law under his brother-in-law Samuel George William Archibald* and about 1816 began a practice in Pictou, where such notables as Jotham Blanchard* would article under him. He maintained some connection with the region around Onslow, however, since in 1820 he owned a mill in Truro reputed to have been the first to grind oatmeal in Nova Scotia.
Family tradition and connections brought him to politics. His father had been a member of the House of Assembly. Two of his brothers (Robert and William), a relative of his wife (Edward Mortimer*), and a brother-in-law (Archibald) all sat in the assembly with him. He represented Sydney County (now Guysborough and Antigonish counties) from 1818 to 1836. He did not enter the 1836 election, won a by-election in Pictou County two years later, lost that seat in 1840, and won a Colchester County by-election in 1841. In 1843 he retired to Pictou after being appointed registrar of probate on 8 Nov. 1842. He had served as collector of impost and excise for the district of Pictou since 6 May 1833; on 21 March 1843 he petitioned the assembly to grant him a further extension on paying duties he had owed since 1844.
Dickson’s electoral battles were seldom dull. He won his first victory in 1818 over John George Marshall*, who complained of outside interference; Mortimer’s comment, “I started the boys that fixed it,” might explain the massive backing Dickson received in Antigonish. In 1820 Dickson’s opponent, John Ross, charged that the sheriff closed the poll and fled the village when informed that electors were rowing up Country Harbour to vote. Despite reports that he would be beaten, Dickson won re-election in 1826 and again in 1830 in spite of some violence at the poll in Antigonish. That he did not contest the 1836 election might in part be a result of the criticism which John Young*, his fellow representative for Sydney County, had directed his way. His 1838 by-election victory in Pictou, over the Reverend Kenneth John McKenzie, a staunch foe of Pictou Academy [see Thomas McCulloch*], was a typical political-religious confrontation, and Dickson’s defeat in 1840 was engineered by the dividing and sub-dividing of farms to obtain freeholder privileges for his opponent’s supporters. The Colchester by-election of 1841 was described in a letter to the Pictou Observer as a scene of “drunkeness, perjury, bribery and corruption,” and only the active participation of Alexander Campbell at the Tatamagouche poll enabled Dickson to carry the day.
Dickson was a reformer in politics and the first native-born Nova Scotian to represent Pictou in the assembly. Tall, good looking, he was, in his quiet manner, a power in the assembly. He frankly admitted he was better known for his deeds that his words. When McCulloch became president of Dalhousie College in 1838, he was warned by Dickson, “It is our duty, if we can’t forget, at least to forgive.” Dickson supported Joseph Howe* on most of the major issues from 1838 to 1843, but he candidly admitted, “As for reform in our House, it is only from the teeth out.”
Dickson emerges as a quiet, almost stoic, figure, drawn to the political scene more by connection than conviction. Inherent in the determined spirit and gentle dignity of Dickson, and others of like political persuasion, were the seeds which bore fruit in 1848 when Nova Scotia became the first overseas colony in the British empire to obtain responsible government.
PANS, RG 1, 174: 391; RG 5, E, 3; P, 1; 124, no.69. Mechanic and Farmer (Pictou, N.S.), 18 Nov. 1840. Observer (Pictou), 1842. Dickson, Scotch-Irish: Connecticut, 1719; Nova Scotia, 1761; California, 1865; descendants of Charles and Amelia Bishop Dickson of Onslow, Nova Scotia, [comp. E. M. Dewey] ([Boston], 1953). A. C. Jost, Guysborough sketches and essays (Guysborough, N.S., 1950). J. S. Martell, “Origins of self-government in Nova Scotia, 1815–1836” (phd thesis, Univ. of London, 1935). F. H. Patterson, The days of the ships, Tatamagouche, N.S. (Truro, N.S., 1970).