PARSONS, ROBERT JOHN, journalist and politician; b. c. 1802 at Harbour Grace, Nfld; m. 5 Nov. 1835 Eliza Flood of St John’s, Nfld, and they had at least one child, Robert John Parsons Jr; d. 20 June 1883 at St John’s.
The early years of Robert John Parsons’ life are obscure. He served an apprenticeship with the Royal Gazette in St John’s and for six years was the foreman in charge of the printing office of Henry David Winton*, owner and editor of the Public Ledger (St John’s). This association came to an end, however, in April 1833 when the two became embroiled in a fist-fight over a broken matrix. Parsons subsequently sued Winton and on 9 May 1833 was awarded £10 in damages for assault and battery. During the early 1830s Parsons’ name had appeared as a member of the liberal group that was agitating for representative government, including such reformers as Dr William Carson, Patrick Morris*, and John Kent*. After leaving the Ledger he became prominent in his own right as an associate of the Reform journalist John Valentine Nugent* and as managing editor of the Newfoundland Patriot, a weekly newspaper conceived by a group of the men who had “secured for the Colony a Parliamentary Government” and intended as the organ of the liberals in Newfoundland. Parsons became sole proprietor and editor of the Patriot in 1840.
In the columns of the paper, and later from his seat in the House of Assembly, Parsons was to display consummate skill in the art of political rhetoric. Fearless in his verbal assaults upon the bastions of privilege, untiring in his pursuit of legal and constitutional reform, and willing, on occasion, to castigate the excesses of his own party, Parsons was a power to be feared by all “despots who shall dare to subvert the charters of the land, and plant in their stead the unalloyed principles of arbitrary sway!” Chief Justice Henry John Boulton* was, in Parsons’ view, one such despot, but the editor paid a price for the manner in which he made that opinion public. After a derisive editorial, commenting upon a charge by Boulton to a grand jury in May 1835, Parsons was cited for contempt of court by the chief justice. Assuming the roles of prosecutor, judge, and jury, Boulton convicted Parsons, fining him £50 and sentencing him to three months’ imprisonment. The garrison was called out when Parsons’ supporters threatened to tear down the court-house, a constitutional society was formed with the purpose of freeing the imprisoned journalist, and a petition with 5,000 signatures was dispatched to the Colonial Office. On instructions from London the sentence was remitted. Parsons was freed and his fine repaid. In the end his sufferings were, perhaps, well rewarded, for martyrdom is no bad foundation upon which to build a loyal following.
The acerbity of the editorials in the Patriot did not decrease. When in 1838, for example, the campaign to remove Boulton from office was successfully concluded, Parsons gleefully exhorted the “victims” of the chief justice to rejoice at the downfall of the tyrant. And when in 1839 Governor Henry Prescott* was resisting the authority of the assembly to appoint its own officers, Parsons referred to the governor as “a panderer and a partisan . . . one of the most unpopular governors that ever misruled our ill-used Country.”
Parsons was bitterly opposed to the concept of the Amalgamated Legislature established in 1842, largely because it did not embody the principle of responsible government. As time passed he found other reasons to dislike the system, not the least in that through it the administration succeeded in transforming erstwhile “fiery democrats into staid admirers of fusty forms and ceremonies.” The pointed reference in this particular case was to Kent and Morris, who had accepted appointments to the amalgamated house in 1842 and 1845 respectively and who supported Sir John Harvey*’s Militia Bill of 1846 which, in Parsons’ opinion, “threatened a loss of constitutional liberty and an approach to despotic military government.” It was the campaign led by the Patriot that ensured the defeat of the proposed legislation.
Parsons, a Presbyterian by birth and upbringing, though he eventually became an Anglican, had not found any significant conflict between his faith and his politics until 1840. In that year Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming* had used his personal influence and the full power of the Roman Catholic Church to secure the election of his candidate, Laurence O’Brien*, in a St John’s by-election and to defeat the official Liberal candidate James Douglas*, a Protestant. After the election, the Patriot announced a new, “independent” brand of liberalism. Admitting that he had, heretofore, called upon religious prejudice to separate Roman Catholics from the Protestant merchants and thus to defeat “despotic Toryism,” Parsons suggested that the results had been tragic and that Liberals should now set their faces against a resurrection of religious clamour and seek alliance with merchants who would support the “grand radical principle” of a “Responsible System of Government.” Parsons’ change of course was not entirely the result of his objections to clerical interference in politics. He was also becoming increasingly embittered by the continuing dominance of political, religious, and business leaders who were not natives of the colony. Thus within a month of the election of 1840 he had become a charter member of the Natives’ Society with such men as Dr Edward Kielley*, Richard Barnes*, Philip Duggan, and John Ryan*. The society’s aim was to strive to end the “usurpation of aliens” and to redress the “unpardonable error” of having counted “the unostentatious open-handed merchant as an enemy of popular rights or public improvements.”
There is no implication here that Parsons had become a Conservative or that he had lost his popularity with the predominantly Roman Catholic population of St John’s. In 1843, when a by-election was called for that riding after the death of Carson, he was elected to the Amalgamated Legislature, and in every successive election from that date until and including that of 1874 he was returned as a Liberal to represent the same constituency.
Throughout those years Parsons’ trenchant pen and powerful voice were employed with great effect in promoting constitutional reform and natives’ rights and in opposing confederation. During the struggle in the 1850s for responsible government, Parsons, allied with Kent, played a dominant role, and his personal campaigns conducted through the Patriot and from his seat in the legislature, epitomize the effective use of rhetoric. As a member of the committee including Hugh William Hoyles, Philip Francis Little*, Kent, Robert Prowse, and William Henry Ellis which was appointed by the house in 1857 to draft resolutions and addresses against the Fishery Convention of that year, Parsons played an important, although not preponderant, role; the exercise ultimately wrung from Great Britain the concession “that the consent of the community of Newfoundland is regarded by Her Majesty’s Government as the essential preliminary to any modification of their territorial or maritime rights.”
Parsons mellowed with time and was sufficiently removed from controversy in 1860 to be elected acting speaker of the House of Assembly in the absence of Speaker Ambrose Shea*. But until the year of his death he maintained unalloyed his commitment to his concept of patriotic duty. A controversialist, a violent partisan, and at times a political opportunist, Parsons stood out in the most turbulent years of Newfoundland’s political history. From his entry into politics, he devoted all his talents to the goal of securing for Newfoundlanders the right to administer their own affairs freely. The “grand radical principle” of responsible government was his guiding star and the special status of the native Newfoundlander his secondary beacon. These alone determined his course. In so far as the Roman Catholic clergy supported the principle of responsible government, he supported them; in so far as they threatened the native Newfoundlanders, he opposed them. When the merchant class opposed responsible government, he opposed them; when they represented the native Newfoundlanders, he supported them.
Furthermore, and this was his great contribution, he produced an exciting newspaper that reflected the character of its editor. Parsons indeed lived up to the statement of the principles governing the policies of the paper that appeared beneath the masthead: “Here shall the press the people’s rights maintain, unawed by influence and unbribed by gain, Here Patriot truth her glorious precepts draw, pledged to religion, liberty, and law.”
PANL, GN 5/2/A/1: 88–90. PRO, CO 194/85–206. Nfld., House of Assembly, Journal, 1833–83. R. v. Parsons (1829–45), 2 Nfld. R. 58. Patriot (St John’s), 1833–83. Public Ledger, 1833–82. Gunn, Political hist. of Nfld. Leslie Harris, “The first nine years of representative government in Newfoundland” (ma thesis, Memorial Univ. of Newfoundland, St John’s, 1959). Prowse, Hist. of Nfld. (1895). Wells, “Struggle for responsible government in Nfld.”