MORRISON, THOMAS FLETCHER, master mariner, farmer, and politician; b. 22 Feb. 1808 at Londonderry, Colchester County, N.S., son of Joseph A. Morrison, farmer, and Isabella Fletcher; m. first in 1838, Hannah Faulkner; m. secondly in 1844, Margaret Brown Fletcher; d. 23 July 1886 at Folly Village, Colchester County, N.S.
Thomas Fletcher Morrison’s family had immigrated to New England from Ireland about 1720, and in 1760 his grandfather, Captain John Morrison, moved from New Hampshire to the district of Cobequid (Colchester) where he farmed and served as a member of the assembly. Thomas himself received little formal education, but by private study he learned navigation and for more than 25 years engaged in the coasting trade as a master mariner. When he left the sea he took up farming as his principal vocation, although he also assumed minor offices such as immigration agent and surveyor of shipping, and busied himself in community work, especially in the local Presbyterian church.
Elected to the provincial assembly as a Liberal for Londonderry Township in 1855, and re-elected for the North Division of Colchester in May 1859, Morrison served until 1863. According to one observer, his first speech “threw the Commons all aghast”; many members thought that the English actor, David Garrick, “had risen from the dead and taken up his abode in Londonderry.” The stentorian sounds, comic reminiscences, excited tone, and magnificent peroration set him apart. One listener thought he owed his style to the “eccentric pulpit oratory of ‘Father Taylor,’” which he had heard in Boston, or perhaps to the “ranting and roaring, and oratory run mad” of the temperance quacks. Another attributed his quality of voice to its “long and constant use amid the roaring of the winds and the swelling of the waves.” In any case, he quickly won the sobriquet of “Rolling Billows.” A plain-spoken man, he would not let himself be humbugged by anyone. As a junior member he told the Conservative premier, James William Johnston*, that he would “as soon . . . expect to find the ferocious tiger converted into the gentleness of the lamb, by the moral suasion of an alligator . . . as to find [him] standing for the liberties . . . of the people.”
Morrison did not run in 1863 and was not in the assembly when confederation was mooted, but he vigorously supported the anti-confederates in the press before being elected again to the assembly in September 1867. Because he held that the British North America Act was unconstitutional, he incurred in the assembly the gibes of Hiram Blanchard*, the leader of the pro-confederates, who invited the English law lords to attend Morrison’s school and partake of his vast knowledge of constitutional law. But though he remained adamantly opposed to confederation, Morrison refused, good party man that he was, to join extreme anti-confederates such as Dr George Murray and William Kidston in accusing the provincial government of “accepting the situation.” Sometimes Morrison suggested that confederation would collapse by itself because it was an unnatural creation; more often he urged that Joseph Howe*’s “better terms of 1869” be treated as a first instalment from the federal government due Nova Scotia, and that, after further instalments, the people be consulted. If they did not accept the situation, delegates should be sent to Britain to shout “repeal, repeal, repeal” forcefully enough to awaken even “the stupid, slumbering ministry . . . in Downing Street.” Before the provincial election of 1871 Morrison pictured “poor old Nova Scotia, lying in the cold, icy, despotic embrace of Canada, lacerated, torn and bleeding at every pore,” and vowed that not a single pro-confederate would be elected.
Though he was known primarily as a critic, Morrison sponsored the bill which in 1870 introduced the secret ballot in elections. Originally hostile to the measure, he now hoped the ballot would reduce the influence of the dominion confederates in provincial elections. He was disappointed, however, that the Legislative Council eliminated the coloured cards which permitted illiterates to vote without assistance. The first use of the ballot in an 1870 by-election not being to the anti-confederates’ satisfaction, they voted in the assembly in 1871 and 1873, over Morrison’s opposition, to abolish it, but the Legislative Council rejected the assembly’s resolutions on both occasions. Morrison, however, defended an assembly prerogative when he bitterly denounced a Conservative proposal to transfer the trial of controverted elections from committees of the assembly to the courts, primarily because it gave discretionary power to proconfederate judges. This debate produced the most celebrated of Morrison’s perorations, in which he invoked the spirits of Reason, Liberty, and Patriotism to keep control of the provincial parliament out of the hands of irresponsible judges: “Spirit of Reason, where art thou? Hast thou fled from these benches, and allowed despotism and lunacy to reign in thy stead? Genius of Liberty, whither hast thou fled? Fleest thou to the dark recesses of the mountain’s brow, there to hide thy head until this storm of despotism passes over . . . Spirit of Patriotism . . . come back to your post. . . .”
Re-elected in 1871, Morrison stood at the bottom of the poll in Colchester County in 1874. But the Liberal government of Philip Carteret Hill* in January 1876 appointed him a legislative councillor, and, according to one observer, “the record of his closing years is the record of the legislative council.” This was especially true between 1879 and 1882, for although Arthur McNutt Cochran nominally led the Liberals in the upper house, Morrison provided the major criticism of the Conservative administrations of Simon Hugh Holmes* and John Sparrow David Thompson*, successfully assaulting government measures such as the debt-funding bill of 1879 and the bridge bills of 1881 and 1882. But not even he could get his fellow Liberals to defeat the government’s chief proposal of 1882, the railway consolidation bill. Morrison interpreted the council’s role of “calm, sober second thought” to go as far as exploring the government’s innermost motives and supervising its financial policies and procedure in detail. He thus helped stamp upon the council a partisan image it never lost.
When the Liberals again took office in August 1883 Morrison became an executive councillor, and, on the death of Cochran a year later, government leader in the upper house as well. As leader he vigorously defended the administration’s demands on Ottawa for better financial terms to a hard-pressed province, sometimes developing an argument, original with him, that the federal government owed Nova Scotia more than $800,000 on its debt allowance account. His exchanges on this matter with a second councillor from Colchester, Conservative Samuel Creelman*, enlivened the council’s proceedings in his last years.
A self-made, self-educated man, Morrison became highly knowledgeable, if not expert, in many facets of public business. Although regarded as an “original,” he was too much of a partisan to be genuinely innovative. But his style of oration undoubtedly made him unique in the annals of the Nova Scotia legislature.
N.S., House of Assembly, Debates and proc., 1856–63; 1868–74; Legislative Council, Journal of proc., 1876–86. Acadian Recorder, 26 July 1856. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 24 July 1886. Canadian biog. dict., II: 495–96. [Benjamin] Russell, “Reminiscences of a legislature,” Dalhousie Rev., 3 (1923–24): 5–16.
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Cite This Article
J. Murray Beck, “MORRISON, THOMAS FLETCHER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 6, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/morrison_thomas_fletcher_11E.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:
|Author of Article:||J. Murray Beck|
|Title of Article:||MORRISON, THOMAS FLETCHER|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1982|
|Year of revision:||1982|
|Access Date:||June 6, 2023|