ROBIE, SIMON BRADSTREET, lawyer, politician, and judge; b. 1770 in Marblehead, Mass., son of Thomas Robie and Mary Bradstreet; m. 6 Oct. 1806 Elizabeth Creighton in Halifax; d. there 3 Jan. 1858.
Simon Bradstreet Robie was directly descended from Simon Bradstreet, an early governor of Massachusetts, described by some as “the Nestor of New England.” He arrived in Halifax with his loyalist parents early in the American Revolutionary War. A law student in the office of his brother-in-law Jonathan Sterns, he was admitted to the bar in the early 1790s. After first being elected to the House of Assembly in 1799, he remained a member of the Nova Scotia legislature until 1848. Yet, because the assembly debates were infrequently reported before the 1820s, and because, later, he had few opportunities for public speech-making as speaker of the assembly, member of the Council, which met behind closed doors, and president of the Legislative Council, even fragments of his speeches are few and far between.
As the member for Truro Township until 1806, he grew to like the locality so much that he once expressed a desire to retire there; in turn, it named one of its streets after him. After 1806 he sat for Halifax County and, in response, the city of Halifax attached his name to one of its leading thoroughfares. While an assemblyman, he was sometimes described as a reformer, even a populist, and certainly was included in the “country party” of William Cottnam Tonge* – the first semblance of a political party in Nova Scotia. Above all, Robie was a zealous defender of the assembly’s constitutional rights, and until the 1830s was at least a moderate liberal, although by no means a democrat.
Initially he appeared much more radical than he actually was because his first eight years in the assembly pitted him against Sir John Wentworth*, the most authoritarian of Nova Scotia’s lieutenant governors. Although Wentworth described Tonge as a sower of “discord and hatred both in and out of the House,” Robie generally supported him. Thus, in 1803, when the Council in its legislative capacity declared improper the assembly’s request to examine its proceedings, Robie headed the assembly committee which, after studying British precedents, reported that the lower house was “guilty of no impropriety” and that it had an undoubted right to inspect the Council’s Journal.
The most momentous confrontation with Wentworth occurred in 1804, when the lieutenant governor sought to eliminate a “mode of granting monies and [a] controul upon Expenditures” that had “gradually deviated into a manner totally opposite to the practice of Parliament.” For some years the assembly had been permitted to perform functions normally regarded as the prerogative of the executive, including the initiation of the road estimates and the nomination and, for all practical purposes, appointment of road commissioners. “These Powers being Prerogative Rights,” Wentworth argued, they might be “constitutionally resumed by His Majesty’s Representative, whenever he thinks the general Interest requires it.” The Council having also tried to turn the clock back, an assembly committee chaired by Robie asserted that road monies would continue to be granted, “expended and accounted for in the mode heretofore adopted.” The outcome was that no appropriation act was passed in 1804 and, although the assembly was a little more cautious during the 1805–6 session, the following year it was back at its old tricks. Thereafter Wentworth and his successors acknowledged the futility of executive interference. The probability is that a reform movement developed slowly in Nova Scotia because the assembly had already secured a wide measure of control over the voting of funds for a service which its country members regarded almost as their raison d’être. In successfully upholding these assembly “prerogatives,” Tonge and Robie played a major role.
Robie was not in the assembly when Wentworth rejected Tonge as speaker in 1806, but he again confronted the lieutenant governor in 1807–8 when the latter unwisely questioned the assembly’s unseating of Thomas Walker of Annapolis Township. As a leading member of the committee of privileges, Robie forcefully defended the assembly’s right, maintained successfully “since its first formation . . . of judging and deciding . . . on all questions relating to the elections,” and eventually the law officers of the crown in England upheld its competency to “decide exclusively and without appeal on the validity of the Election of one of the Members.” But Robie would not go along with Tonge in his more extreme measures, especially his attempt in 1808 to limit Wentworth’s retiring allowance to a period of one year. In this case his action did him no harm in the eyes of the new lieutenant governor, Sir George Prevost*, who had recommended more generous treatment for Wentworth.
Robie expressed himself strongly in 1809 against the highly reactionary Alexander Croke*, senior councillor and the judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court, who administered the province in Prevost’s absence. Croke had refused his assent to the appropriation bill without reason, and the committee of privileges, which included Robie, told him that he had weakened confidence in government at a time when relations with the United States were critical. Generally a supporter of economical government, Robie also protested in 1811 against the ills of Croke’s court. Why, he asked, did custom-house officers always lay their prosecutions in the Vice-Admiralty Court where there was no jury and the fees were excessive instead of in the common law courts where neither disadvantage existed?
Robie’s legal and legislative experience began to secure recognition in 1815 when he became solicitor general. Defeated for the speakership in 1812 by Lewis Morris Wilkins*, he secured it in 1817 and was re-elected by the new assembly a year later. As speaker, he incurred the displeasure of Lieutenant Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*], a person of great likes and dislikes, who described him as “an ill-tempered crab, deeply tinctured in Yankee principles,” and a man who “‘neither fears God nor honours the King.’” Because of the assembly’s failure to accept his proposals in 1820, an action which he blamed partly on the speaker, Dalhousie refused as a farewell gift, after initially accepting it, “a Star and a Sword” for which the lower house had voted £1,000. He complained bitterly of the assembly’s “disposition to disregard the Prerogative rights, and the respect due to [the] first branch of the Constitutional Legislature,” singling out its failure to provide money for the inspection of the militia as he had requested and to answer his special messages. Robie sorrowfully accepted responsibility for the second failing and blamed it on special circumstances: the confusion resulting from King George III’s death and the belief that the business of the assembly must come automatically to an end. After consulting other assemblymen, Robie felt better; one of them wondered what “evil genie has been at work” to produce Dalhousie’s “inconsistent and absurd” action. The “evil genie” was the loss of dignity which Dalhousie believed he had suffered and which led him for the moment to abandon reason and accuracy for emotion and petulance. Later, while governor-in-chief, he would have a higher opinion of Robie; indeed, by 1826–27 he was even describing his old antagonist as one of his chief Nova Scotian allies.
Because “the Business of the House occupied so much of [his] time” and worries such as the Dalhousie contretemps were “so injurious” to his health, Robie decided not to contest the election of 1820 and, although his friends eventually persuaded him to run, his “opinion and wishes were unchanged.” It was his last election, for in April 1824, during the lieutenant governorship of Sir James Kempt, he was elevated to the Council; less than two years later he relinquished the solicitor generalship to become the province’s first master of the rolls and as such presided over the Court of Chancery, a function hitherto performed reluctantly by the lieutenant governor. Normally a homogeneous body, the Council was divided on matters touching the relations between church and state. Although a zealous adherent of the established Church of England, Robie held that at least a moderate accommodation ought to be made with dissenters, who comprised a large proportion of the population. In 1818, in committee of the whole, he had supported their petition to have the power of issuing marriage licences granted to their own clergymen, calling it a grievance that dissenters were forced to apply for them to a church to which they did not belong. Two years earlier he had supported the establishment of the non-sectarian Pictou Academy and regretted the restrictions placed upon it by the extreme churchmen in the Council. When its trustees sought help to erect a building in 1818, Robie argued that a province which was “building a palace” like Province House [see John Merrick*] could easily provide for the propagation of knowledge. Ridiculing assemblyman John George Marshall*’s notion that an age of learning was generally not known for its virtue, he pointed to the great benefits that education had conferred upon Scotland and New England.
In assisting the academy, Robie developed a close friendship with its Presbyterian principal, Thomas McCulloch*, who wrote to him in 1822: “The essential service which you have rendered to our Church gives you a claim upon the affection of the whole of us.” But, though the assembly supported Robie in his efforts to provide the academy with the permanent grant that Anglican King’s College had long enjoyed, the extreme church party in the Council led by Attorney General Richard John Uniacke* always defeated it. “Why do you not show [Uniacke] in his true character to the public?” McCulloch once asked Robie. But he was suggesting a course that was altogether contrary to the basic style of Robie’s political life.
In 1826 Robie joined the three other moderate councillors in again pressing for a permanent grant, but they were outvoted by five to four. The minority then entered a long dissentient opinion on the Council’s Journal, pointing out that the lieutenant governor’s participation in the naming of trustees would prevent the employment of teachers whose “principles might be inimical to our political Institutions,” that more than four-fifths of Nova Scotians were dissenters, and that the bill’s defeat would increase hostility to the established church. The academy got its usual annual grant in 1826, but not in subsequent years: three of the four moderate councillors (James Stewart, Brenton Halliburton, and Charles Morris*) deserted it after the Church of Scotland came out in opposition to the academy and to McCulloch, a Secessionist minister, and after the latter engaged in open wrangling with Bishop John Inglis* of the Church of England. Only Robie continued to give the academy his full support in 1827 and 1828, and by then it had become clear that the attempt to establish a non-sectarian college in Pictou had failed.
In the early 1830s, with political reform under way in England and the first glimmerings of a political awakening visible in Nova Scotia, Robie became much more conservative. For him, Britain and its colonies had all the maladies of sinking states. “I am glad there is such a fellow as Nicholas of Russia.” Convinced that reform, once set in motion in England, could not be halted, he was particularly anxious about the future awaiting Nova Scotia. Demands to set up a separate legislative council would be followed by demands for an elective council, and the outcome would be to reduce the executive power to “a mere nothing” and “leave us a Pure Democracy if the word ‘pure’ can be applied with Truth to a Thing in its nature so the reverse of Purity.”
In letter after letter, Robie bewailed “our paltry Politicks” and longed to be rid of them. Scornfully he watched the assemblymen discussing means to restore confidence in a seriously depreciated currency, a question “of which they know about as much as the Man in the Moon, perhaps less.” He himself did not escape the political ferment that was brewing in Nova Scotia. As master of the rolls, he had presided over the Court of Chancery without ever attempting to alter the rules which had developed haphazardly over many years. Joseph Howe* commenced the assault on him in 1832. If, said Howe, Robie had pointed out what could be discarded in chancery proceedings in the manner of Lord Brougham, he could not have been faulted. Instead, he had “year after year pocketed the public money, for keeping up a body of costly and dangerous absurdities, that he ought long ago to have denounced.” Likewise the Acadian Recorder complained of “the abominable, heart-breaking, pocket-picking system” of the Court of Chancery, and in 1833 the assembly added its voice to the clamour for reform. Finally, in December 1833, 22 new rules initiated by Robie went into effect, but they did little to remove the major grievances. Later a retired chief justice, Sir Charles James Townshend*, would say that except for these changes, “nothing of special note” occurred during Robie’s term on the Court of Chancery. Apparently he performed his duties competently within a framework he was reluctant to alter.
Outwardly, at least, Robie did not let the storm revolving about his head perturb him: “You know how they have been abusing the Court and me; fortunately the labours of many years have made me independent of Office.” A lucrative law practice had, indeed, enabled him to accumulate about £60,000, far in excess of his needs. But, as a remarkable series of letters to retired judge Peleg Wiswall indicates, his malaise went far beyond the state of politics. He was tired, too, of the eternal broils of the bar: “The vices and follies of men have been too long the objects of my investigation.” He had never liked the land of “my father’s adoption for me,” nor the climate and fashions of Halifax; even as he wrote, the fog was so thick “you could cut it, and this I do not think I am bound to endure, merely to add a few hundred pounds to what I may have,” especially since he had no son to inherit it.
Most of all, Robie longed to be free to speculate about the only subject of any importance: “that distant and . . . more happy land where I hope we may . . . see more of each other than has been our lot in this.” The more he thought about the world, the more mysterious it seemed; yet he yearned for the truth however difficult the search, and hoped to discern “the path by which it may be found.” After the Black Death had desolated Asia and Europe, mothers began more often to bear twins and even triplets. “Now why did this desolation take place?” And “if by the appointment of Providence, why was the ruin repaired in the way that I have described?” Also, if Providence permitted poor people to exist in order to allow “a few others . . . an opportunity of shewing their benevolent Feelings,” why should there be so many of them? In this manner Robie explored in his correspondence with Wiswall a wide variety of subjects ranging from the meaning of comets to the possibility of humans communicating with disembodied spirits.
Robie did retire as master of the rolls in 1834, but did not leave Nova Scotia or the Council. Indeed, on the separation of the Council in early 1838, he became a member of the Executive Council and president of the Legislative Council. For the next ten years he remained the confidant of lieutenant governors in their less liberal stances. Thus, in 1840, he told Lieutenant Governor Sir Colin Campbell* that the Legislative Council could not possibly agree to the assembly’s proposals for commuting the casual revenues without violating vested rights or its own sense of justice. For a similar reason Robie joined in a dissentient opinion in 1844 on a bill that removed Sir Rupert D. George as registrar of the province and transferred his duties to county registrars. When asked by Lieutenant Governor Lord Falkland [Cary*] for his views on a modified legislative council, he insisted that the crown retain an unfettered power of appointment, “for I do think that unless we are to have a Democracy unchastened by any Mixture of Monarchical Principles Concessions more than enough have already been made to the Advocates of such a Democracy.”
Ever the reluctant politician, Robie had earlier been persuaded by Campbell and Falkland not to give up his offices, but the mood of the country was running against him. Following the reform victory of August 1847, he and his fellow tory executive councillors resigned on 28 Jan. 1848 to make way for the administration of James Boyle Uniacke. As the session of 1848 progressed, Robie became increasingly uncomfortable as president of the Legislative Council. Although he did manage to dilute the government’s bill permitting judges to be removed by an address of the legislature, the Legislative Council did not, in the end, adhere to the amendments. Equally obnoxious to him was the departmental bill, which eliminated the provincial treasurer and in his place introduced two political officers, a receiver general and a financial secretary with membership in the Executive Council; in Robie’s view, this bill destroyed the public faith of the crown with its servants. Taking the dubious position that he could not support measures “violating those principles which I have endeavoured through life to preserve,” and feeling that as president of the council he ought not to oppose the government’s major legislative proposals, he resigned on 3 April 1848. Lieutenant Governor Sir John Harvey wondered if his action was intended to embarrass the government, but actually it did little more than bring his political career to a close.
Competent in the law, possessed of a wide circle of friends, Robie was also widely known for his philanthropy; indeed, one account states that the poor would “lament his loss; for his charities were almost without limit.” His career illustrates how, in altered circumstances, the liberal of one era may become a conservative in the next. Perhaps his speculations on the mysteries of life and the afterworld provided a welcome respite from his experiences in the real world which, after 1830, he had increasingly failed to relish or understand.
A selection of Simon Bradstreet Robie’s papers in PANS, MG 1, 793, has been printed in PANS, Report of the Board of Trustees (Halifax), 1961: 19–42.
PANS, MG 1, 550–58; 980; RG 1, 53; 113 1/2; 120; 191, especially 1808; 218SS–218DDD. Univ. of King’s College Library (Halifax), Israel Longworth, “A history of the county of Colchester” (2 pts., Truro, N.S., 1866–78; typescript at PANS), 1, especially 221–40. N.S., Acts, especially 1825, 1833, 1848; House of Assembly, Journals and proc., 1800–24; Legislative Council, Journal and proc., 1836–48. Ramsay, Dalhousie journals (Whitelaw). Acadian Recorder, especially 1818, 1832. Novascotian, or Colonial Herald, especially 1832. Nova-Scotia Royal Gazette, 14 Oct. 1806. Directory of N.S. MLAs. J. H. Stark, The loyalists of Massachusetts and the other side of the American revolution (Boston, ), 457–59. Beck, Government of N.S.; Joseph Howe. W. B. Hamilton, “Education, politics and reform in Nova Scotia, 1800–1848” (phd thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., London, 1970). Beamish Murdoch, A history of Nova-Scotia, or Acadie (3v., Halifax, 1865–67), 3. Israel Longworth, “Hon. Simon Bradstreet Robie: a biography,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 20 (1921): 1–15. Norah Story, “The church and state ‘party’ in Nova Scotia, 1749–1851,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 27 (1947): 33–57. C. J. Townshend, “History of the Court of Chancery in Nova Scotia,” Canadian Law Times (Toronto), 20 (1901): 74–80, 105–17.