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McVICAR, KATE – Volume XI (1881-1890)

d. 18 June 1886 at Hamilton, Canada West


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

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The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

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Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

YOUNG, GEORGE RENNY, lawyer, newspaperman, author, and politician; b. 4 July 1802 in Falkirk, Scotland, son of John Young* and Agnes Renny; d. 30 June 1853 in Halifax.

Like his brother William*, George Renny Young was completely moulded in his formative years by his father, the well-known Agricola, who came to Halifax in April 1814 determined to accumulate “a fortune as quickly as possible, under any flag” and convinced he could be both a merchant and a literary man at the same time. Though only 12, George went to Castine, Maine, after British troops under Sir John Coape Sherbrooke* occupied it in September 1814, and for seven months helped his father conduct a thriving trade with a large stock of dry goods the Youngs had brought from Britain. Performing well, he won the plaudits of his father, who wrote that his faculties were “beginning to open & he will turn out a smarter fellow than I believed . . . should he persevere in his present very laudable conduct I shall give him a share of the profits.” In time George, more than his brothers, would aspire, like his father, to combine a literary career with his vocation, and become his father’s greatest champion, “lamenting the ingratitude of Nova Scotians who ‘having slain a patriot refused to erect a monument to his memory.’”

For the next five or six years George continued working in his father’s mercantile and agricultural concerns. In 1815 he took a small vessel to Fox Island in Chedabucto Bay and exchanged goods for fish. He found the islands the worst place he had ever seen for vice; when the fishermen were not at work, “they must be either fighting, frolicing, drinking or smoaking.” In 1821 he started his studies at Pictou Academy, despite the objections of his brother William, who thought it no place for him to attend. George enrolled in principal Thomas McCulloch*’s class in moral philosophy and found him despite “all his peculiarities of character . . . a man of profound & accurate knowledge,” who made his points so clearly and fully that no one could fail to understand them.

Late in 1824 Young started a weekly newspaper, the Novascotian, or Colonial Herald, eschewing at the outset anything that savoured of radicalism and declaring his attachment to the British constitution and the “enlightened character” of Britain’s colonial policy. Rather than embroil the colony in political disputes, he did what he could to further material improvement. As a result, the Novascotian contained an amount of original material on provincial agriculture, industry, and commerce that made it unique among the province’s newspapers. Young’s few ventures into politics were to lecture the House of Assembly for its failure to promote provincial development. In 1826, when only 20 of the 41 former assemblymen were returned, he suggested that the rejected had paid the penalty for their negativism in this matter. As a newspaper publisher, he had many things going for him: his family saw that he had adequate capital, his father and brother William were frequent contributors, and his father’s connections in eastern Nova Scotia and Britain assured him of correspondents outside Halifax. Not surprisingly, therefore, he quickly established the Novascotian as the best all-round paper in the province and Joseph Howe*, who lacked similar assistance, was somewhat fearful when he took it over in December 1827.

While publishing the Novascotian, Young had begun the study of law even though a Scottish acquaintance had warned him that, as a lawyer, he would be “constantly employed to confound right & wrong,” that “the line of demarcation” between the two would become completely obscured, and that his sole objective in the end would be to win his cases no matter “what harm or injustice is done.” At the end of 1827 he sold the Novascotian in order to pursue his legal studies full time, largely in Britain, and on 22 Jan. 1833 he was admitted as attorney, on 22 July 1834 as barrister. Thereafter he practised law in association with his brother William in Halifax. As a lawyer, he may have been outclassed, as a later biographer put it, in “the external graces of forensic eloquence,” but easily held his own “in legal acumen, and profound research,” especially in “ransacking legal authorities and precedents.”

Just before entering upon his practice, Young had received publicity in two other matters, some of it wanted and some not. As part of a closely knit family, he worked vigorously to have William elected for Cape Breton County in 1832 and helped to make the campaign one of the best known of all provincial election contests when a committee of the assembly declared him to be a leader of the mob which, “armed with Sticks,” expelled the friends of the opposing candidate from the hustings and inflicted physical injury “and the greatest insult and ill treatment” upon them. While in Britain in 1833, Young had been appalled by the ignorance of colonial resources and progress on the part of leaders of opinion. The outcome was the publication in 1834 of The British North American colonies, which, much as Howe would do later, showed the importance to Britain of the colonies and colonial trade, and emphasized particularly that the Royal Navy needed the support of a commercial marine plying between Britain and the colonies. In addition, he argued that the colonial fisheries were the best nursery of sailors for the navy, and that the colonies provided the most fitting station to maintain a navy against the United States.

Even more momentous was his lengthy trip to Britain in 1837–38 during which he received news of his father’s death – a traumatic shock for the entire family – and letters from his mother beseeching him to marry “some amiable woman at home” who might help her manage the farming operation at Willow Park. George, she emphasized, could never be happy with anyone who “was careless of your feelings . . . indifferent to your person . . . possessed of the love of fashion.” But on 12 April 1838, even before she wrote, he had married a fashionable Londoner, Jane Brooking, daughter of Thomas Holdsworth Brooking, a man of substance, élitist and authoritarian in outlook. The second personal object of his visit was to feather his own nest at a time when the separation of the Nova Scotia Council into executive and legislative branches was imminent. Unsuccessful in his first efforts to be appointed to the Legislative Council, George got his father-in-law to intervene on his behalf with Colonial Secretary Lord Glenelg only to be told that the matter rested between the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, Sir Colin Campbell*, and George Young himself. Not used to being spurned, Brooking was convinced that “foul play somewhere” would be discovered “when we come to sift the affair to the bottom.” But for anyone to have expected that the young and inexperienced George would receive preferment of this kind seems nothing short of preposterous.

Professionalloung acted during the trip for two absentee land proprietors in Prince Edward Island, David and Robert Bruce Stewart, who faced threats of non-payment of rents by their tenants and of hostile legislative action by the provincial legislature. He received assurances from the colonial secretary that he would take no action to escheat the lands of absentee proprietors, and in his turn proposed a plan, later elaborated in a pamphlet, which, it was hoped, would remove every ground of complaint and end the agitation upon escheats. Later in 1838, acting for his client-proprietors, Young worked with Samuel Cunard*, one of the Island’s largest landowners, to draw up plans for the Prince Edward Island Land Company, in which the proprietors involved were to unite their holdings in a large-scale emigration scheme. George’s mother was fearful because Cunard’s power was “immense & . . . people fear him so much that they keep quite & submit. He never was friendly to our family & will give you a blow where he can.” The scheme fell through when Cunard insisted on breaking some of the original arrangements, including the appointment of George’s brother Charles as company solicitor. Brooking was so indignant at Cunard’s treatment of his son-in-law that he hoped for “an opportunity of telling him so in person.”

As a publicist and educator, Young could not be faulted for inactivity. His trip to England in 1837–38 produced a pamphlet on banking and currency in which he recommended sterling as the money of account. He helped Abraham Gesner*, later to be the discoverer of kerosene, to establish a correspondence with natural historians in Britain. A past president and frequent lecturer of the Halifax Mechanics’ Institute, he arranged communications between it and sister organizations in Britain, and in 1842 the Central Board of Agriculture thanked him for helping it make similar contacts. While mourning the loss of his wife, who died suddenly in December 1841, he devoted his time to carrying out an earlier idea of producing a volume of essays, in the manner of David Hume and Sir William Blackstone, on colonial education. The outcome was the publication in 1842 of On colonial literature, science and education, a collection of 12 lectures on general literature and science, national systems of education, colonial education, and eloquence, ancient and modern. The projected second and third volumes did not appear; the first evoked little interest and is today only a curio.

Young also turned his hand to writing a romantic tale, “The prince and his protégé,” published anonymously in an eight-part serial in the Halifax Morning Post & Parliamentary Reporter early in 1844, and a little later under his own name in the New York Albion. Highly moralistic, it may perhaps be judged from its last two sentences: “Had Darnley not been a Christian, Edith Conway would never have been his. Religion was to him as it ever is here, the source of all our exquisite blessings.” Young’s papers indicate that he also tried to write poetry, apparently without much success.

Like his father and brother, George had attached himself to the reform cause, and like them he did not receive the recognition he hoped for because his political course seemed to be determined by self-interest. Certainly the Youngs’ liberalism was strongly Whiggish and anti-democratic; from England, George’s father-in-law warned them to have as little contact as possible with that windy demagogue Howe, a conclusion he could have reached only on information supplied by the Youngs themselves. Shortly after Howe addressed his celebrated letters on responsible government to Lord John Russell in 1839, George Young forwarded his own letters on the same subject. But though competent in substance, they were highly legalistic and lacking in the arresting analogies and the illustrative material that only a Howe could provide.

Young entered active politics in 1843 by being elected to the assembly for Pictou County and quickly became a potent spokesman for the reformers. In 1845 a reporter, hearing Young’s speech condemning Lieutenant Governor Lord Falkland [Cary*] for making public certain dispatches unfavourable to Howe, wrote: “We have heard a good many speeches in our time, but one possessing more vigour and hard home thrusts we never heard.” In 1846 the Halifax and Quebec Railway became Young’s chief concern and it was to have a major effect upon the rest of his life. When the project was first proposed to him in Britain in 1845, he had thought it “in advance of the age,” but a subsequent visit to the Province of Canada and New Brunswick as well as an examination of the statistical information convinced him of its feasibility, and apparently he became the first prominent British North American to press for it energetically. In 1846 he got the assembly to promise its support as soon as the undertaking could be “entered upon . . . with prudence and propriety.” During the same session Falkland, who had lost all sense of political objectivity, ordered tabled in the legislature a dispatch to Colonial Secretary Lord Grey in which he accused William and George Young of associating with English speculators of dubious reputation and of putting the names of respectable Nova Scotians on railway prospectuses without their consent. Outraged, Howe blurted out that such conduct would lead some colonist to “hire a black man, to horsewhip a Lieutenant Governor in the Streets.” The Youngs, who had become colonial solicitors for the railway, showed that the prospectuses were tentative and intended to be kept secret, and it appears that any impropriety on their part was, at worst, grossly exaggerated. In 1847, as part of lengthy efforts by the Youngs, George got the assembly to adopt an address protesting the monopoly possessed by the General Mining Association over the mines and minerals of Nova Scotia.

Re-elected for Pictou County in the reform victory of 1847, on 2 Feb. 1848 Young became minister without office in the ministry of James Boyle Uniacke, the first fully “responsible” government in the colonies. He was the government’s most articulate spokesman while the ministers with office were seeking re-election. In 1849 he was one of three commissioners who supervised the efficient and economical construction of the electric telegraph between Halifax and the New Brunswick border. But the craving of the Youngs to be foremost in the public eye was already creating difficulties in the ministry. Even in 1848 Howe lectured George for wanting to transfer the responsibility for looking after the crossroads from the county members to the Executive Council, thus introducing the centralized control over roads that was in effect in the Province of Canada. As a penalty, he should be made to drive through the Canadas where, said Howe, he himself “once nearly had his neck broken by travelling by coach over rough roads.” The next year the British Colonist was wondering whether the Youngs were intending to lead a party against Uniacke and Howe.

Again, in 1850, when Howe was pressing for the building of a railway from Halifax to Windsor – a project first proposed by William Scarth Moorsom* – the Youngs indicated lack of confidence in the survey and fears about its cost, perhaps because they did not want the line to supplant ones in which they were interested. Indignantly, Howe pointed out that they had attached their names to a much more speculative venture in 1845 and expressed his dislike of “this half friendship for a measure – which cuts its throat.” When the assembly refused to proceed unless half the funds were privately subscribed, Richard Nugent’s Sun blamed its action on the “over-officious intermeddling of the Messrs. Youngs” and their “love and admiration of self.” The break between George Young and the reform ministry came in 1851 after word arrived from England that Howe had secured an imperial guarantee for the intercolonial railway. When Uniacke sought the assembly’s approval, Young called the British government’s offer “niggardly” and argued that it should pay half the cost of the road to Quebec. He would later defend himself by saying that an opposition was developing to the Nova Scotia government’s course and that he had attempted a ruse de guerre which, by occupying his opponents’ position, would disarm them, but there was deep suspicion that he could not accept a project initiated by himself being taken over by someone else. In any case Howe returned from Britain to find suggestions in the press that “a foul disease” existed in the Executive Council that “nought but the surgeon’s knife can cure.” He also found that Uniacke had offered his resignation and refused to serve further with Young. While reluctant to interfere in a matter that had occurred in his absence, in his capacity as provincial secretary Howe secured Young’s resignation at the request of Lieutenant Governor Sir John Harvey. In his letter to Harveoung stated that truth was “the safest guide in the end” and that, although he had no differences with his other colleagues, he could no longer act usefully with Uniacke.

In July 1851 Young told his constituents that he would not offer himself in the general election to be held the following month. Partly, it was because he could not “give general satisfaction . . . among so divided a constituency” – his papers indicate great differences among Pictonians about such matters as the division of the county – but mostly it was because he was unwilling to pledge the provincial revenues for one-third the cost of the railway to Quebec and ill disposed to “get into any angry opposition with my former political friends” about it.

In a letter to Lord Grey, Howe attributed Young’s aberrant conduct to a fall from his horse, “on his head on a very hard road, coming in from a Country dinner Party some years ago. I do not believe that he has been quite right since, he is now a confirmed monomaniac.” Young was at his worst in a series of more than 20 letters, published in the British North American between July and October 1852, in which he fancied he could discredit the press and leaders of both parties and “sit astride on a new world created out of chaos.” Bearing the brunt of his attacks were Howe, William Annand*, and Nugent, who were told to “lay aside their blackguardism and masks . . . if we are to have the responsible system.” In reply, Nugent told him that he was “notorious for companionship with characters which shall be nameless” and guilty of “bestialities, a knowledge of which broke the heart of a high-spirited lady, whose ample ‘dowry’ supported the means of his libertarian indulgences.” Why, Nugent wondered, did not some friend of his bear the cost of “shipping him off where madmen are cared for and re-trained?” Whatever the accuracy of Nugent’s comments, Young’s mental condition in his last few years was such that no action on his part would have been surprising. Accompanying his “gloomy fits” were severe physical disabilities – failure of his digestive system, loss of strength, and intense pain – which made his last months a nightmare.

Talented in many ways, the most literary of the Youngs, more disposed to devote time to research and the collection of statistical information than any of his contemporaries, George Young died a tragic figure. Like his father and brother William, he pursued self-interest too obviously; unlike William, he lacked prudence, sagacity, and above all, the luck of being in the right place at the right time. His abilities made him deserving of a better fate.

J. Murray Beck

George Renny Young is the author of The British North American colonies . . . (London, 1834); History, principles, and prospects of the Bank of British North America, and of the Colonial Bank, with an enquiry into colonial exchanges, and the expediency of introducing “British sterling and British coin” in preference to the “dollar” (London, 1838); A statement of the “Escheat question,” in the island of Prince Edward; together with the causes of the late agitation, and the remedies proposed (London, 1838); Upon the history, principles, and prospects of the Bank of British North America, and of the Colonial Bank; with an enquiry into colonial exchanges, and the expediency of introducing “British sterling and British coin” in preference to the “dollar,” as the money of account and currency, of the North American colonies (London, 1838); Letters on “Responsible government,” and an union of the colonies of British North America to Lord John Russell (Halifax, 1840); Letters to the Right Hon. . . . Lord Stanley . . . (Halifax, 1842); On colonial literature, science and education . . . (Halifax, 1842); and Articles on the great colonial project of connecting Halifax and Quebec by a railroad: and ultimately the Atlantic and the waters of Lake Huron . . . (Halifax, 1847). His romantic tale, “The prince and his protégé; or tis fifty years since: a provincial tale, founded on fact,” was published anonymously in eight instalments in the Halifax Morning Post & Parliamentary Reporter, 4–23 Jan. 1844; it was also issued as an anonymous pamphlet under the title The prince and his protégé; a tale of the early history of Nova-Scotia (Halifax, 1844), and, under Young’s name, as “The prince and his protégé: a tale of Nova Scotia,” in the Albion (New York), 20, 27 April 1844.

PAC, MG 24, B29, especially vol.36 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 1, 550–58, especially 554; MG 2, 719–25, 731–32. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., especially 1833, 1846–47. Acadian Recorder, especially 1821, 1851. British Colonist (Halifax), especially 1849, 1851. British North American (Halifax), 1852. Daily Sun (Halifax), especially 1852. Halifax Morning Post & Parliamentary Reporter, especially 1844. Halifax Sun, especially 1850. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), especially 1851. Novascotian, especially 1826–27, 1845–46. Times (Halifax), especially 1844, 1848. Belcher’s farmer’s almanack, 1836. Directory of N.S. MLAs. Beck, Government of N.S.; Joseph Howe. Robert Grant, Life and times of George R. Young (New Glasgow, N.S., 1886). D. C. Harvey, “Pre-Agricola John Young, or a compact family in search of fortune,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 32 (1959): 125–59.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

J. Murray Beck, “YOUNG, GEORGE RENNY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 18, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/young_george_renny_8E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/young_george_renny_8E.html
Author of Article:   J. Murray Beck
Title of Article:   YOUNG, GEORGE RENNY
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   June 18, 2024