TONGE, WILLIAM COTTNAM, office holder, jp, judge, militia officer, and politician; b. 29 April 1764 in Windsor, N.S., eldest son of Winckworth Tonge* and Martha Grace Cottnam; m. 18 Feb. 1793 Elizabeth Bonnell in Digby, N.S., and they had two sons and three daughters; d. 6 Aug. 1832 in Georgetown (Guyana).
Although little known today, William Cottnam Tonge was a dominant figure in the struggle between the House of Assembly and the lieutenant governor in early 19th-century Nova Scotia and was remembered for decades as the “tribune of the people.” Tonge was descended from a prominent and long-established Nova Scotia family. His father had come to the province as a British army officer in 1746 and had become a major landowner, imperial office holder, and influential member of the assembly. His mother was a granddaughter of Edward How*, a prosperous merchant and member of the council at Annapolis Royal that governed the province before the founding of Halifax. Tonge himself, naval officer for Nova Scotia, justice of the peace, and judge of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas for Hants County, was indisputably part of colonial officialdom. His social standing ensured that even during his quarrel with Lieutenant Governor Sir John Wentworth* he remained on good terms with civil and mercantile leaders throughout the province.
Little is known of Tonge’s early life, probably spent on his father’s large estate near Windsor. Antiquarians of the late 19th century claimed that he had been educated in Dublin, but there is no corroboration for this assertion. Later references suggest that he was trained as an attorney, although he was not a member of the bar in Nova Scotia. Tonge began his public career as deputy to his father, the provincial naval officer, and in 1790 he appeared before the assembly to answer complaints against the older man’s management of the office. On his father’s death two years later, Tonge was appointed to the post by Richard Bulkeley*, the provincial administrator. Wentworth, the newly appointed lieutenant governor, still in London, proposed instead a fellow loyalist, perhaps with the hope of settling the problems of the naval office with a new broom. Tonge was able to call on support within the British establishment, however, most probably from his distant relative the Earl of Macclesfield, who in 1772 had pushed for Winckworth Tonge’s appointment in Nova Scotia. Wentworth’s first attempt to use patronage as he had in New Hampshire to create an administration of supporters failed. Moreover, Tonge’s English patrons gave him an independence from Wentworth’s control that the new lieutenant governor distrusted.
By the late 1790s, Tonge was in serious financial difficulty. His extensive estate had been heavily indebted before his father’s death and the younger man’s attempts to develop it in the English manner with tenant farmers proved as unsuccessful as his father’s earlier efforts had been. Much of the family land near Windsor was for sale by 1795. In 1799 Tonge moved his household to Halifax, where he had obtained a contract for military supplies, probably through the support of his friend the Duke of Kent [Edward* Augustus], commander-in-chief of the forces in British North America.
The quarrel between Tonge and Wentworth that was to dominate public life for nearly a decade appears to have had its roots in events of the late 1790s. Wentworth successfully blocked several attempts by Tonge to recoup his finances by participation in government projects, and the lieutenant governor’s refusal to support his claims for patronage seems to have earned him Tonge’s enmity. One source of conflict was the proposed settlement of the maroons, Jamaican rebels deported to Nova Scotia in 1796. Wentworth identified Tonge as one of the anonymous correspondents who criticized the lieutenant governor’s attempt to establish the Jamaicans on farms near Halifax, and he claimed that Tonge had encouraged them in their demands to be sent to a warmer climate. Tonge, however, volunteered to employ some of the maroons on his estates where they could be provisioned by his tenants and friends. The proposal would have served the two-fold purpose of relieving Tonge’s financial distress while embarrassing Wentworth, who had been ordered to limit government expenditure for the maroons. Wentworth was determined to pursue his plans for their settlement at Preston and refused to approve Tonge’s scheme, arguing that it was aimed solely at alleviating his near-bankruptcy, which itself made the proposal impracticable. Disappointed in this bid to relieve his debts, Tonge tried to obtain an additional government post, apparently as a revenue collector. His opposition to Wentworth’s handling of the maroons probably cost him the appointment. By refusing him the post, the lieutenant governor exacerbated the ill feeling between them.
Patronage was also the issue in 1797 when Tonge was passed over for promotion as major in the Hants County militia. Ignoring his precedence as senior captain, Wentworth appointed John McMonagle, an influential Windsor assemblyman. Tonge, who had earlier been recommended as a battalion commander by Edward Augustus, urged his fellow officers to resign their commissions over this breach of military custom and indeed over the way in which Wentworth had embodied the militia for work on the Halifax defences. When no support was forthcoming, Tonge resigned from the militia in February 1798. His actions were especially disquieting to Wentworth, with his memories of the disloyalty of the colonial militia during the American revolution. The lieutenant governor’s reports on the incident emphasized what was to become a dominant theme in his denunciations of Tonge: the dangers to the peace and security of Nova Scotia posed by the naval officer’s conduct. In time of war, Wentworth concluded, firm measures were required to deal with such agitators, “otherwise what is now the violence of one may in these times become the error & misfortune of many.”
The personal dislike between Tonge and Wentworth found expression in a broader constitutional struggle in the Nova Scotian legislature. The legislative sessions of the 1790s had been generally harmonious as executive and assembly cooperated to eliminate the heavy provincial debt. By 1796 their economy measures had achieved success. Provincial revenues increased, swelled by the prosperous wartime economy, and assemblymen began to urge greater expenditure on public works, especially roads. Road construction not only benefited the rural areas by improving access to markets and opening land for settlement, but it also represented a reliable source of cash for country residents. On the other hand, revenue came primarily from customs duties which fell most heavily on the Halifax merchant community, whose members dominated the Council. As provincial revenues increased, the Council began to urge reductions in customs duties, and conflict between the two branches of the legislature became inevitable. The assembly tried to gain greater expenditure on road-works by delaying passage of the revenue bills, while the Council in turn delayed or amended the appropriations. The solution was usually a compromise but the assembly gradually strengthened its claim to financial supremacy. Wentworth was closely allied with the Council, many of whose members he had appointed and which, in its executive capacity, served as his adviser. Tonge had entered the assembly in 1792 for Newport Township and took a leading role in the campaign for greater financial control. In 1799 he incurred the lieutenant governor’s wrath by directing the opposition to appropriations for construction of Wentworth’s long-sought Government House, and he continued his attacks on the lieutenant governor’s projects in subsequent years.
Wentworth’s distrust of Tonge was greatly enhanced during the 1799 election campaign. Sure of return in his home constituency in Hants County, Tonge challenged the lieutenant governor directly by also contesting one of the Halifax County seats, all four of which had been held by Wentworth’s supporters. In a mocking allusion to the latter’s joint election card, Tonge noted that he himself ran “singly . . . without family connections, particular interest, or any influence but that arising from public opinion.” In fact, Tonge formed his own coalition by persuading two prominent country residents, James Fulton of Londonderry Township and Edward Mortimer* of Pictou, to join him as candidates for the county. Tonge promised the backing of his friends in the Halifax merchant community in exchange for Mortimer’s and Fulton’s help in the rural districts. The three candidates were aided by well-organized committees which held meetings throughout the riding in their support. The election was hard fought, with turbulent campaign meetings and copious amounts of rum for all. When the last poll closed, Tonge stood first, followed by Mortimer and Fulton. Only Charles Morris of the former members was re-elected. The affront to the lieutenant governor and his coterie was reflected in the vehemence of Wentworth’s denunciations of Tonge’s campaign to “disturb the Peace and Harmony of the Country, by the tricks, falsehoods and follys used in popular elections.” Wentworth may well have exaggerated Tonge’s influence, however, since Mortimer’s organizer in Pictou concluded that he had failed to deliver the promised support from Halifax.
Tonge possessed no property qualification in Halifax County and at the first session of the new assembly Michael Wallace, who had stood fifth in the poll, petitioned against his election. Wallace won the subsequent by-election overwhelmingly. Still, Tonge’s “country party” had succeeded in its deliberate challenge to the lieutenant governor and his supporters, whom Fulton, using the language of English political history, termed the “court party.” Although their success brought to the eighth assembly more of an organized opposition to the executive than was to be seen for decades, this opposition was by no means that of disciplined political parties. These were still far in the future. Instead, loose combinations of assemblymen came together to oppose specific issues, and allies on one day could easily find themselves voting on opposite sides on the next.
Elected in Hants County, Tonge was nominated as speaker when the assembly met in February 1800. Although defeated by the previous speaker, Richard John Uniacke Sr, his influence remained dominant throughout the sessions. The issue of financial control preoccupied the eighth assembly. Control of appropriations and appointments of road commissioners represented a basic issue of patronage for both assembly and executive. For Wentworth, this control was an opportunity of extending his influence throughout the province. For the assemblymen, it was equally a matter of political survival, providing means to reward friends with ready cash. In 1804 the conflict reached a peak when Wentworth took the unprecedented steps of specifying road expenditure and of proposing road commissioners accountable only to him. Convinced of its right to control road monies, the assembly ignored Wentworth’s specifications and drew up its own appropriations, which were in turn rejected by the Council. Wentworth then prorogued the session with the supply vote unpassed.
Faced with this stalemate, the lieutenant governor delayed calling the legislature until late November 1805, shortly before the annual revenue bills were due to expire. The new session opened with Tonge elected as speaker, replacing Uniacke, who had resigned. Tonge acknowledged that he had long sought the office, which made its holder the effective leader of the assembly in the days before firm party discipline, and he promised to uphold the assembly’s established rights. Such sentiments may have rung hollowly in Wentworth’s ears, but the session proved peaceful, with the assembly passing the previous year’s appropriations with little discussion and accepting the lieutenant governor’s suggestions for road expenditures without change. Controversy arose only at the end of the session over a delay in passage of the revenue bill. In the two weeks between expiry of the old law and passage of the new in January 1806, eight ships were unloaded and their cargoes sold duty free, a major loss to the province’s annual revenue. Tonge appears to have deliberately withheld the revenue bill for an extra day so that Wentworth could not sign it before one of the speaker’s friends could dispose of a cargo. This obvious violation of parliamentary procedure prompted the assembly to send Tonge, accompanied by three assemblymen, to explain the lapse to Wentworth.
Tonge’s questionable conduct and his apparent loss of support led Wentworth to dissolve the assembly in May, one year before the end of its normal term. Tonge was returned for Hants County, and when the new assembly met in November he was re-elected speaker. Wentworth had now embarked on a more aggressive course and rejected Tonge as speaker because of his record of obstruction and his narrow win by a margin of only one vote. Obsolete in England, this aspect of royal prerogative had never been employed in Nova Scotia. In colonial American politics, however, from which Wentworth drew his precedents, the governor’s refusal of a speaker was less exceptionable. Assembly members argued the issue for two days and went so far as to draft a report on the parliamentary precedents against Wentworth’s action. Tonge could not muster enough supporters to pursue the constitutional point, however, and on 20 November the assembly presented a new speaker, Lewis Morris Wilkins*, for Wentworth’s approval.
The events of the 1806 session suggest that Tonge’s influence had indeed declined. Not only did the assembly accept Wentworth’s rejection of its choice as speaker but a majority of members appears to have made concerted efforts to avoid conflict with lieutenant governor and Council. Only some of Tonge’s steadfast supporters such as Mortimer, William Lawson*, and William Hersey Otis Haliburton voted with him on proposals for increasing the amount of road money and for presenting supply votes as one bill, measures which in past sessions had been the touchstones of the assembly’s campaign for financial control. Tonge continued to serve on numerous committees but the session concluded without major controversy.
Wentworth’s letters to officials in London had long been filled with accusations against Tonge. He exploited the rhetoric of the conservative response to the French revolution to emphasize aspects of Tonge’s activities that would have the greatest impact on British authorities. In the 1790s Wentworth had styled him the “miniature of Abbe Sieyes” and the “United Nova Scotian” (implying his affinity with the Society of United Irishmen). He insinuated that Tonge’s opposition to the executive might foment widespread disaffection, even among members of the army and navy, many of whom were friendly with Tonge and frequented assembly debates. Tonge’s opposition was especially reprehensible, Wentworth contended, since as an office holder he ought instead to support the actions of government, particularly during the crisis of war. Wentworth concluded that such conduct was detrimental to the maintenance of British authority in Nova Scotia.
The lieutenant governor’s remedy for the problem was simple: Tonge must be publicly chastised by dismissal from his naval office. Wentworth first hinted at this course of action in 1799 and frequently returned to it in his fulminations against Tonge. The silence of officials in London for many years suggests that they interpreted the struggle as one of local politics and personalities, an attitude Tonge was later to encourage. By 1806, however, the vehemence of Wentworth’s arguments and the evident disruption in public affairs in the province seem to have had some effect, and in May British officials acknowledged Wentworth’s authority to dismiss Tonge. Late in February 1807, shortly after the legislature rose for the year, the naval officer returned from a trip to eastern Nova Scotia to read of his expulsion from office in the newspapers.
Despite the years of conflict, Tonge seems never to have considered that Wentworth might dismiss him, and over the coming months he mounted a spirited campaign for reinstatement. A group of prominent Halifax shipowners submitted a petition to London in his favour, affirming him a “loyal subject and man of Integrity.” In Annapolis and Hants counties, where his family had close ties with leading citizens, public meetings were called to prepare petitions to the king against Wentworth’s actions. The lieutenant governor promptly quashed the meetings, declaring them illegal and provocative. Tonge employed all the techniques of 18th-century patronage and influence to present his case to the highest British authorities. He turned to personal acquaintances in England, including the Duke of Kent, asking for assistance in securing an official investigation of the charges against him. Another prominent London ally was the last royal governor of New Jersey, William Franklin, a close friend of Tonge’s loyalist father-in-law. Franklin forwarded Tonge’s petition to the colonial secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, for submission to the king, recommending him as an influential public figure. Such prestigious supporters proved ineffectual. Although no specific charges were made against Tonge, he was not reinstated. The need to uphold the authority of the executive branch militated against any intervention by the British government.
Tonge continued nevertheless to be a prominent figure in Halifax public life. By October 1807 he had become an acknowledged adviser to the new commander-in-chief, Major-General John Skerrett*, providing a detailed analysis of the defensive state of Nova Scotia which included accusations that Wentworth had neglected the militia. Skerrett’s own doubts about the efficiency of the militia moved him to forward Tonge’s memorandum to Castlereagh while praising his public-spirited action in preparing it. Tonge as well was probably the author of an anonymous letter to Castlereagh which vehemently condemned Wentworth’s administration as marked by nepotism and financial speculation. Tonge was also friendly with Vice-Admiral George Cranfield Berkeley* and it was likely he who instigated the assembly resolution for a complimentary address and a presentation of silver plate to the admiral on his departure from Nova Scotia in 1807. Certainly Wentworth, who distrusted Berkeley’s bellicose attitudes towards the United States, blamed Tonge for the resolution and refused to authorize expenditure for the plate.
The continuing conflict between Wentworth and the assembly and increasing tensions between Britain and the United States led the imperial government to replace the ageing Wentworth with a new lieutenant governor, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost*. Prevost landed at Halifax early in April 1808 before official notice of his appointment had reached Wentworth. Tradition states that Tonge was among the first to learn of Prevost’s arrival and immediately rode out to Wentworth’s country home to inform his old adversary that he “had the pleasure of announcing the arrival of a new governor”.The last dispute involving Wentworth and Tonge occurred during the 1808 legislative session when Tonge conducted a day-long filibuster to strike complimentary references to Wentworth’s administration from the assembly’s address to the retiring lieutenant governor.
Tonge’s affinity with military men stood him in good stead with Prevost. He advised him on the defence of the province and Prevost interested himself in Tonge’s struggle for reinstatement. Tonge claimed that the lieutenant governor planned to send him on a secret mission to the United States, but the only recorded Nova Scotian commissioned by Prevost to observe conditions there was John Howe. Late in 1808 Prevost appointed Tonge deputy commissary general for his military expedition to the West Indies. Tonge never returned to Nova Scotia.
His career in the West Indies spanned nearly two decades and echoed many of his Nova Scotian activities. He served as a searcher in the custom-house in Martinique for several years but was dismissed after he quarrelled with Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Forrester Inglis Cochrane. By late 1815 he was established at Georgetown, under the patronage of Lieutenant Governor John Murray, an old military friend. Murray appointed Tonge assistant government secretary, superintendent of pilots, and drossard (a type of sheriff). In 1821, despite Murray’s support, Tonge lost these posts when he led a campaign against an unpopular judge accused of charging excessive fees.
Little is known of Tonge’s last years. Following his departure from Nova Scotia, his children had been brought up by his mother: his wife had died, probably in childbirth, in May 1805. The eldest, Bonnell, apprenticed with Tonge’s brother, a prominent Jamaican lawyer, and by 1820 was settled with his father. In 1825 Tonge’s daughter Grizelda Elizabeth Cottnam, the “songstress of Acadia,” died while visiting her Georgetown connections. The account of her death provides the last reference to Tonge in Nova Scotian records.
Lack of personal papers hinders detailed analysis of Tonge’s motivation and character. The most complete portrayal of his activities occurs in Wentworth’s correspondence, clearly a biased source. A campaign letter written in 1799 provides a rare glimpse of Tonge’s political philosophy and might have served as the platform for the “country party” with which he was associated. “On my first Outset in Life,” he declared, “I was firmly impressed with the Belief that the welfare of the Province would be best promoted by those who were most interested in it (Though perhaps of inferior abilities), & that the most suitable & trusty Representatives for the people were those who being resident among them were connected with them in Interests, & were acquainted with their Situations, their Difficulties, their objects & Sentiments.” Tonge’s debating skills and bitter feud with Wentworth made him the natural focus for the varied elements that composed the “country party,” whose chief common interest was distrust of Halifax and its domination of Nova Scotia’s economic and political life. Both loyalist and non-loyalist supported him when issues of concern to them and their constituents were at stake. As in the other North American colonies in these early years, however, opposition to executive government continued to be motivated more by self-interest and personality than by coherent political philosophy.
Despite Wentworth’s accusations, there is little evidence to suggest that Tonge sought essential changes in the Nova Scotian constitution. Indeed, the lieutenant governor’s claim that Tonge advocated an elective legislative council represents the sole mention of genuine political innovation and the proposal, natural during conflict between elected and appointed bodies, never became a major issue. The political strife in Nova Scotia was a manifestation of the not uncommon dissension between an elected assembly seeking to assert its role in government and a conservative supporter of the colonial status quo. The antipathy between Tonge and Wentworth intensified this discord and the waning of acrimony after their departure from Nova Scotian politics confirms that much of the constitutional struggle had been rooted in their mutual dislike. None the less, Tonge’s adroit use of parliamentary tactics to pursue his feud and his tenacious support of the rights of the assembly earned him an enduring place in the legislative history of the province.
Tonge’s personality remains an enigma. His consistent electoral successes indicate an effective and popular campaigner: only twice during his career did he face an opponent. Although by all accounts a charming, congenial man, he abandoned his young children, and for years they heard of him only through chance reports from the West Indies. Later generations remembered his brilliant oratory, his improvidence, and his indiscretions. Joseph Howe*’s conclusion to his account of Tonge’s career serves as a final summation: “I have often wished I could have seen Tonge and all those whoever attempted to describe him to me concurred in the opinion that he was well worth seeing.”
[I am indebted to Dr Brian C. Cuthbertson for his assistance in unravelling the sequence of events in the militia conflict and for his comments on the relationship between Tonge and Wentworth, and to Seepersaud Singh of Georgetown, Guyana, for locating Tonge’s death record. j.t.]
Harvard College Library, Houghton Library, Harvard Univ. (Cambridge, Mass.), ms Can. 58 (Joseph Howe papers) (mfm. at PANS). PAC, MG 24, F1, 4. PANS, MG 1, 472–74A, 731A, 950; MG 20, 675, no.11; RG 1, 33, 50–54, 58, 60–63, 137–41, 171–72, 224–27, 287–88, 302–5, 525; RG 5, A, 13; RG 22, 27, pt.2. PRO, CO 111/29–39; CO 217/35–37; 217/62–98. Royal Arch., Windsor Castle (Windsor, Eng.), Add 7/356: 372 (copy at Can., Parks Canada, Halifax Defence Complex, Halifax). UCC-M, James MacGregor papers. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1790–1809. Weekly Chronicle, 23 Oct. 1799. Directory of N.S. MLAs. J. M. Beck, The government of Nova Scotia (Toronto, 1957). J. G. Marshall, A brief history of public proceedings and events, legal, – parliamentary, – and miscellaneous, in the province of Nova Scotia, during the earliest years of the present century (Halifax, [1878?]). Murdoch, Hist. of N.S., vol.3. [A. G.] Archibald, “Life of Sir John Wentworth, governor of Nova Scotia, 1792–1808,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 20 (1921): 43–109. Margaret Ells, “Governor Wentworth’s patronage,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 25 (1942): 49–73. Israel Longworth, “Hon. Simon Bradstreet Robie: a biography,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 20: 1–15.W. L. Morton, “The local executive in the British Empire, 1763–1828,” English Hist. Rev. (London), 78 (1963): 436–57.
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Cite This Article
Judith Tulloch, “TONGE, WILLIAM COTTNAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/tonge_william_cottnam_6E.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:||Judith Tulloch|
|Title of Article:||TONGE, WILLIAM COTTNAM|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||April 1, 2023|