WALLACE, MICHAEL, merchant, politician, jp, judge, office holder, and colonial administrator; b. c. 1744 in Lanarkshire, Scotland; d. 8 Oct. 1831 in Halifax.
Michael Wallace, the central figure in the oligarchy of early 19th-century Nova Scotia, came from obscure origins in the rural environs of Glasgow. His possession of an education and his early entry into trade suggest that, although not prominent, his family had at least lower middle class social status and affluence. Michael and several of his brothers became minor merchants in Glasgow, which was then emerging as a major commercial metropolis. Attracted to the profits to be made from dealing in such staples as tobacco, the brothers set up branch operations in the southern American colonies. Michael located at Norfolk, Va, in 1771. As a recent arrival and one with continuing family and business connections in Britain, he naturally opposed the revolution. Driven out of Norfolk after suffering considerable loss of property, he moved about 1779 to Halifax, a garrison port where war had generated commercial bustle. He resumed business as a retailer and wholesaler, dealing primarily in British manufactures, along with fish and lumber received in barter exchanges. A portion of his imports came from Glasgow but Wallace also received shipments from other British ports, a pattern which suggests that he no longer functioned as agent for a Glasgow-based family enterprise. He appears to have operated on a relatively small-scale basis and did not rank as a leading figure within the Halifax merchant community. On 4 Jan. 1781 Wallace married Mary Kerby, the daughter of a recently deceased local trader with only marginal status and wealth.
The triumph of the American revolution had a decisive impact on Wallace’s career. The British decision to enforce mercantilist trade regulations against the new United States created the prospect that Halifax might emerge in the post-war period as an entrepôt commanding a large share of the British Caribbean carrying trade. Thus Wallace had cause, as a trader, to remain in Nova Scotia. His persistence was also associated with the large-scale influx of loyalists into the colony during the early 1780s. Their presence and their rapid penetration of the local oligarchy gave him valuable connections, which soon brought him place and preferment.
Wallace’s rise to prominence began in 1785 with his election to the House of Assembly as a representative for Halifax County. During the next decade and a half he secured a number of complementary honours such as a magisterial appointment, a place on the bench of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas, and membership on the commissions responsible for Halifax’s streets and Sable Island’s life-saving station [see James Rainstorpe Morris*]. Wallace also began to acquire lucrative government patronage. In 1791, for example, Lieutenant Governor John Parr* selected him as agent responsible for providing the shipping required to transport black loyalists to Sierra Leone [see Thomas Peters*; David George*]. “My motive,” Parr explained, “was to give you a little employment, and put a little cash [£1,000] in your Pocket.” The following year Wallace was chosen to purchase and distribute supplies to needy settlers in the Pictou district. In addition, military contracts began to come his way once war erupted with revolutionary France in 1793.
Wallace’s good fortune appears ‘to have derived primarily from his ability to ingratiate himself with loyalists prominent in the local administration. Bishop Charles Inglis*, for example, was writing to London in the 1780s to praise Wallace as “a very worthy, honest man.” Wallace’s enthusiasm for both tory politics and commercial expansion made him a natural ally of John Wentworth*, who became lieutenant governor in 1792. Wentworth’s official correspondence soon began to carry references to Wallace as “my worthy friend,” a man with “long experience in business, of unimpeachable integrity, and indefatigable diligence.” Wallace received his major reward from this association in 1797, when he was appointed provincial treasurer. The office carried an income of £450 and the influence associated with supervision of the numerous excise officers stationed in outport communities. Equally decisive for Wallace’s prospects was his appointment in 1802 to the Nova Scotia Council. No income was attached to the position, but it placed Wallace at the centre of decision-making within the colonial oligarchy. Not surprisingly, other rewards followed. In 1808 he became commissioner of escheats; in 1810 he was appointed deputy to Wentworth, no longer lieutenant governor but still surveyor general of the king’s woods, succeeding Wentworth on his death in 1820. Wallace also served briefly after the War of 1812 as judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court. The chief value of these appointments was to provide Wallace with an ever-expanding degree of influence in the distribution of government patronage. His correspondence suggests that people applied to him for everything from land grants to relief supplies. For perhaps a decade after being named treasurer, Wallace continued in trade, but on a shrinking scale as the duties of office increasingly made him a full-time public servant. By 1811 he was appealing to the assembly for an increase in salary, on the grounds that he had become completely dependent on the public purse. Wallace’s total income, including miscellaneous fees and emoluments, cannot be determined: suffice it to say that he died leaving an estate in excess of £6,000. Critics alleged that much of his wealth had been obtained through speculation with public funds, behaviour made possible by lax accounting procedures.
As a major office holder and man of property, Wallace embraced the manners and style of the colonial urban gentry. His residence on Hollis Street, assessed at £2,000, made him a neighbour to the lieutenant governor, leading merchants, and other chief officials of government. Emulating his peers, he maintained a summer estate at Preston, east of Halifax. Wallace employed several servants, including a footman and a coachman, and ran up annual domestic accounts of at least £300. While maintaining a link with the Church of Scotland, he owned pews in the Anglican churches in Halifax and Dartmouth. His sons were sent to the exclusive and Anglican dominated King’s College at Windsor. Following the fashion set by Lieutenant Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*], Wallace served as a director of the provincial agricultural society. He was also twice president of the prestigious North British Society and helped found the select Halifax Library. Philanthropy directed towards the urban poor and immigrants did not, however, attract his interest.
Family affairs occupied much of Wallace’s time. His correspondence reveals a chronic concern for the welfare of brothers, sons, and daughters. Acquisition of public offices and advantageous marriages were his favoured methods of obtaining security. The post of British consul in Savannah, Ga, came to be regarded as a family sinecure. Son John, admitted by his father to have “no turn, or application to business,” was provided with a custom-house position paying a salary of £500. John also had the good fortune to marry the daughter of Christopher Billopp, a member of the New Brunswick Council. Sons Edward and William were set up in business on the Halifax waterfront, while their brother Charles Wentworth secured a medical training in Edinburgh and returned to serve as port medical officer in Halifax. Among the six daughters, Eleanor proved the most successful, marrying Charles Porter*, president of King’s College.
Wallace stood out among his fellows, largely by virtue of the vehemence he employed in espousing a loyalist, counter-revolutionary design for Nova Scotia’s economic and political development. He always claimed that British North America could be transformed into the commercial successor to New England, provided that Americans were excluded from the northern colonial fisheries and the ports of the British Caribbean. The British drift away from mercantilist orthodoxy after 1815 roused Wallace’s ire, and in 1819 he played a leading role in drafting the Nova Scotian protest against British concessions on the fisheries in the Convention of 1818. Moreover, in his private correspondence Wallace persistently urged confrontation with the United States in economic affairs. Arguing that trade with the republic always worked to the disadvantage of Nova Scotia, he advocated closer commercial relations with the St Lawrence colonies. At the end of his life, he was still railing about the “disastrous consequences” of giving in to the “Rebels” with respect to trade. Here Wallace’s attitude reflected not so much lingering memories of the revolution as the expansionist ambitions of Halifax’s early 19th-century business community [see William Sabatier].
That Wallace shared the opinions of the merchants was natural since he cooperated with them in various investment ventures. He had stock in such enterprises as the Halifax-Dartmouth Steamboat Company, the Annapolis Iron Mining Company, and the Shubenacadie Canal Company. As an entrepreneur, he is best remembered as president of the canal company, although this is something of a false honour since he appears to have been essentially a corporate figurehead. In one important area Wallace clashed with many local investors. In 1819 he was largely responsible for the legislature’s refusal to incorporate a public bank. Wallace claimed that the proposal, put forward by “a few designing monied Characters, supported by the ignorant & unwary,” would introduce irresponsible American banking practices into Nova Scotia. His opponents replied that the treasurer wanted to protect his monopoly over the issuance of paper currency, bills popularly referred to as “Michael Wallaces.” When an unincorporated bank was established in 1825, Wallace allegedly placed its president, Henry Hezekiah Cogswell*, among his leading enemies.
The bank dispute, which Wallace admitted had made him “extremely unpopular,” was not an isolated episode. Wallace’s temperament, described by a contemporary as being “impetuous and irritable,” made him prone to controversy. While serving as a judge, he frequently erupted in outbursts of profanity. The agent for the Sierra Leone Company, John Clarkson, reported that on one occasion, when crossed, Wallace had flown into a temper, which “caused him to make use of language, highly unbecoming, but too contemptible . . . to take any notice of.” The Pictou Colonial Patriot summed up Wallace’s volatility by saying that he had “a mind perpetually boiling with effervescence of irritation.” As a rule, Wallace reserved his spleen for those he viewed as posing a threat to the political order.
From his earliest days in Nova Scotia, Wallace had espoused an uncompromising toryism. As an assemblyman, he refused to join the loyalist-led attempt in the 1780s to purge the administration of allegedly incompetent office holders [see Thomas Henry Barclay]. During the 1790s Wallace championed the interests of the Halifax-based oligarchy of merchants and officials on such issues as tariffs, public works, and education. Popular resentment of Wallace’s role expressed itself in the 1799 election, in which he lost his seat to William Cottnam Tonge. Although successful in regaining it on a technicality, Wallace bore a chronic grudge against those who had crossed him, especially the secessionist Presbyterians of the Pictou area. Over the next three decades, Wallace and his allies within the Church of Scotland persistently sought to destroy the attempts of Thomas McCulloch* and liberal Presbyterians such as Edward Mortimer* to promote Pictou Academy as a rival to King’s College.
Wallace’s relations with the assembly remained antagonistic. In 1802 the house censured him for “highly reprehensible” behaviour as a commissioner in charge of construction of a new official residence for Lieutenant Governor Wentworth. Costs had been allowed to run ahead of estimates in the erection of a building “on a scale far beyond the wants or circumstances” of Nova Scotia. Subsequently, the assembly conducted inquisitorial investigations of the treasury accounts and refused to increase Wallace’s salary. In return, on being appointed to the Council in 1802, Wallace sought to minimize assembly control over the public purse, taking the extreme view that expenditures could continue even if the legislature had failed to pass the annual appropriations bill. When the assembly sought to assert itself in 1809, Wallace, as acting president of the Council, ordered the members away after haranguing them “in a turbulent and violent manner.” Old age did not mellow Wallace. A year before his death he was complaining about the assembly “faction” which disrupted public order by resisting the Council’s claim to amend money bills.
The extent of Wallace’s influence within government is difficult to assess, but after 1800, during the last half of Wentworth’s administration, Wallace undoubtedly emerged as a dominant personality. Noting the age of the lieutenant governor and the “imbecility” of certain other officials, Wallace told his brother in 1807 that “almost the whole weight of this Government has rested upon my shoulders for years.” Hostile critics agreed with this observation. Wallace’s ascendancy probably persisted through the war years, when military affairs distracted the various successors to Wentworth. By the 1820s, however, Wallace may have become less influential as younger men emerged within the administration. Contemporaries began to observe that the treasurer was “very old and very unwieldy. Neither his mind nor his body will last much longer.” Adherence to 18th-century modes of dress, including the wearing of his hair in a queue, enhanced the impression that Wallace had become an anachronism. Nevertheless, he retained considerable power, in part because as senior councillor he became administrator during the absence of the lieutenant governor. On five occasions between 1818 and 1830 Wallace assumed this position, one which allowed him to dispense considerable patronage on a unilateral basis. Commenting on Wallace’s last term as administrator in 1829–30, a contemporary observed, “The Treasurer is again our King and Chest, and the province, and the people, he seems to consider as his own.”
Attention to public business, which began at the treasurer’s office every morning before breakfast, became integral to Wallace’s existence. Thus he ignored initial hints that retirement would be appropriate. Finally, in 1830, he yielded to pressure on condition that the legislature petition the crown for the appointment of his son Charles Wentworth as his successor. Surprisingly, the assembly agreed, thanks to Wallace’s friendship with such influential members as John Young*. Charles eventually got the post, although he was dismissed 16 years later amidst accusations of fraud and incompetence.
Michael Wallace continued as a member of the Council until his death in 1831. He died intestate, perhaps because he believed his boast that he would “live forever.” The funeral became a public ceremony, attended by the Council, magistrates, garrison staff, naval officers, and “a long train of inhabitants.” Their presence reflected not Wallace’s personal popularity so much as his success in becoming the embodiment of oligarchy in Nova Scotia. A figure parallel in many ways to John Strachan* of Upper Canada, Wallace emerged from a Lowland Presbyterian, middle-class background and rose to prominence within the British North American gentry by virtue of an aggressive personality and a convert’s zeal in advocating tory and Anglican social ideals.
Some of Michael Wallace’s correspondence has been published under the title “Halifax to Savannah; letters of Michael Wallace,” ed. W. C. Hartridge, Ga. Hist. Quarterly (Savannah), 45 (1961): 73–91, 171–86.
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