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UNIACKE, JAMES BOYLE, lawyer, politician, office holder, and sportsman; b. probably 1799 and baptized 19 Jan. 1800 in Halifax, son of Attorney General Richard John Uniacke* and Martha Maria Delesdernier; m. there 18 Dec. 1832 Rosina Jane Black, and they had several children; d. there 26 March 1858.
By 1810 James Boyle Uniacke’s father had established his position in the forefront of Halifax society. Although he was a stern man who expected from his sons accomplishments similar to his own, he used all of his influence to further their interests and no one could have been more helpful in their hours of need. James, after graduating from King’s College, Windsor, in 1818, articled in his father’s law office and was admitted attorney and barrister on 5 April 1823. Later that year he was off to London, by way of Boston and New York, to complete his legal studies at the Inner Temple. In London he was kept busy securing all sorts of things for a demanding father – livestock, spinning-wheels, engravings, books – but the senior Uniacke wanted most of all for his son to “return uncontaminated with the corruptions of a world new to you.” Perhaps he had reason to fear since, in contrast with the industry of his father, James returned to Halifax to live a comfortable, somewhat carefree existence.
One contemporary said that he “looked the aristocrat . . . tall, graceful, and a ‘prince among men’ . . . always attired in the latest London fashion.” Another account suggests that “in a heavy-eating, hard-drinking age, [he] made no bones about his intimate friendship with John Berleycorn as he raced his stable of fast horses on the Halifax Commons. He had a great thirst for companionship and conviviality.” As a supporter of the turf, Uniacke maintained a racing stud, one of two in the province. Once, in the legislature, he sarcastically compared his horses with John Young*’s truck horses, but got better than he gave. Alluding to Rosina Jane Black, the unattractive daughter of wealthy merchant John Black* whom Uniacke had married in 1832, Young simply replied that Scotsmen like himself selected their horses “upon the same principle that some gentlemen select their, wives – not for their beauty but for their sterling worth.” It was the inheritances of both his wife and himself which permitted Uniacke the indulgent type of existence during the 1830s that some observers found objectionable. A poet of the day, Andrew Shiels*, called him “a pompous piece of perishable clay!” Apparently Uniacke’s outward conduct and traits hid from Shiels the talents of the ablest of Richard John Uniacke’s sons.
Little is known of Uniacke’s practice of law, although his foreclosure of a mortgage led, in 1848, to a celebrated case, Uniacke v. Dickson, in which his lawyers won a victory by successfully contending that none of the statute law of England was in force in Nova Scotia, “except such portions as are obviously applicable and necessary.” In the 1830s and 1840s he participated in the establishment of some new business ventures in Halifax. In 1832 he became an incorporator and one of the first directors of the Bank of Nova Scotia. Seven or eight years later he helped to set up the Halifax Gas Light and Water Company and before long became its president.
Uniacke entered politics in 1830 by being elected to the House of Assembly for Cape Breton County, but was unseated because he lacked the necessary property qualification. Re-elected, he took his seat in January 1832 and remained in the assembly until 1854. Since the election of 1836 polarized assemblymen into tories and reformers, Uniacke had a chance to display his tory attitudes to the full in the session of 1837. Having taken a strong stand against Joseph Howe*’s 12 Resolutions, especially the tenth, which denounced the disposition of the councillors to “protect their own interests and emoluments at the expense of the public,” he naturally gloated when, for tactical reasons, Howe withdrew the resolutions.
Before the assembly opened in 1838, Uniacke had become a member of the newly created Executive Council, although refusing to admit that it operated under any meaningful degree of responsibility. On a wide variety of matters the battle was again joined between him and Howe. Uniacke did not oppose the incorporation of Halifax in principle, but decried a bill which, unlike the London charter, “put the respectability of the town under the controul of others, who should not possess that power.” Since the intent of the bill was to enfranchise only those freeholders who voted in provincial elections, Howe concluded that Uniacke and the Nova Scotia tories “believe, or affect to believe, that there is a danger in the very sound of British liberty.” When Uniacke sought the assembly’s approval of an address of the Constitutional Association of Montreal, Howe objected to any recognition of the ultra loyalists of the Canadas who, by seeking to continue a system rife with abuses, had helped to promote rebellion.
But the differences stemming from their backgrounds came out most strongly in the debate on the judiciary. In 1837 Howe had not protested against Uniacke’s sallies, but in 1838 he let it be known that if “jest, and anecdote and raillery” were to take the place of argument, he would show he was blessed with “a little imagination” too. That time came when Uniacke suggested that Howe’s proposals to cut costs meant that he was putting the judiciary up for sale to get the cheapest administration of justice: “What! £450 a year for a judge to travel the circuit? Why, Tim O’Shaughnessy! Tim Shea! or Con Lahy! would do the labour for half that sum.” Tired of Uniacke’s witticisms, Howe replied that he would like to have £450, the salary of a single judge, to distribute to the struggling residents of eastern Halifax County whom he had recently visited. Uniacke would always be an honoured guest in the homes of judges and leading officials where he would be dined at the public expense, “but give me a seat beneath the poor man’s roof – a portion of his humble fare – let me . . . feel that I am welcomed as a friend, and I seek no higher distinction.” The reformers, who had writhed under Uniacke’s scorn and ridicule for two sessions, enjoyed every moment of it.
Again, in 1839, the real jousting took place between Howe and Uniacke, and their exchanges rank high among the oratorical spectaculars of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly. Uniacke compared Howe to the Babylonian king who set up a golden image and cast into a fiery furnace everyone who refused to worship it. “He may heat the furnace seven times hotter, and cast me in, and I trust to come out as unscathed as Shadrach, Mesheck, and Abendnego.” When Howe labelled all his opponents as anti-reform, Uniacke replied, “I also am a reformer, we are all reformers,” only to meet Howe’s scornful comment that the tories were trying to cure Nova Scotia by using the new system of medicine known as homoeopathic: “They would administer the millionth part of a grain of reform every session, and that should satisfy all!” But however ferocious their exchanges, they always had a grudging admiration for each other; would that Uniacke were a reformer, said Howe, and “I would be proud to follow him.” As a result, the reformer William Young* wrote disconsolately to his brother George Renny: “Uniacke & I had a set-to & are on terms of open hostility – Howe & [Laurence O’Connor Doyle*] cultivate his good graces rather than mine.”
Essentially Uniacke and Howe differed on the very nature of colonial government. The latter had come to believe that, if Nova Scotians were to remain part of the British empire, they needed to be British subjects to “the fullest extent of British constitutional freedom,” while Uniacke held that the reformers’ proposals would reduce the governor to a cipher and lead to colonial separation: a colonial governor simply could not be responsible at the same time both to a colonial executive and to a colonial secretary pledged to sustain the unity of the empire.
Then almost like a bolt from the blue, Uniacke – always accepting without question what he thought were the intentions of the British government – changed his stance following a dispatch of 16 Oct. 1839, in which the colonial secretary, Lord John Russell, stated that colonial officers might have to retire “as often as any sufficient motives of public policy” required. Although the lieutenant governor of New Brunswick, Sir John Harvey, held that the dispatch conferred “a new . . . and improved constitution upon these Colonies,” Sir Colin Campbell*, his Nova Scotian counterpart, denied it. It turned out that Campbell was right and Harvey and Uniacke wrong since Russell intended only the occasional displacement of a single leading public officer to meet an obvious need and not the removal of all the governor’s advisers. Nevertheless, when Howe carried a vote of non-confidence in the Executive Council by a majority of three to one in February 1840, Uniacke resigned from it. He did so partly because he “owed it to the House” not to remain in a body “condemned by such an overwhelming majority.” But mostly it was because he believed Russell’s dispatch had granted new constitutions to the colonies and, as one whose first political principle was never to “withdraw [his] humble support from the Parent State,” he could not oppose the colonial secretary’s view. Although he still feared that the new system would transfer power from the government to a few popular leaders, he was “willing to try the experiment” because the British government had ordered it; in his view, however, it would have had a better chance of working in a united British North America, in which the executive council was converted into a genuine ministry. To the extent that Uniacke had become a reformer it was not because of personal conviction, but because of his interpretation of a dispatch, which was quite different from the colonial secretary’s intention. Strangely, he escaped for the most part the angry criticism of his former associates, the usual experience of turncoats in those years.
In the coalition government instituted by the new lieutenant governor, Lord Falkland [Cary*], in October 1840 Uniacke was again an executive councillor, and solicitor general as well after April 1841; also in the government were Howe, James McNab, and the tory leader, James William Johnston*. In 1841 Uniacke contested the speakership of the new assembly with Howe, but lost by 26 to 22, even though supported by all the tories. In December 1843, after Falkland allegedly broke faith with the reformers by appointing the tory Mather Byles Almon* to the council, Uniacke, along with Howe and McNab, withdrew. Falkland invited Uniacke to return in July 1844, but he refused because he believed “the sense of the Assembly is that the Queen’s Representative should be surrounded by Executive advisers sustained by a Representative majority.”
Uniacke’s position in the reform party was fully recognized when in February 1845 Falkland caused to be made public his dispatch of 2 Aug. 1844 in which he intimated a disposition by the reform party to exclude Howe from the council. Uniacke, with others, made an unequivocal denial. He, who had never before spoken with anything but veneration for the crown and its representative, heaped scorn on a governor who could “so far forget his high position as the Representative of Royalty” as to proscribe a single individual. If he could “proscribe one man, because he dislikes his politics, he may exclude another because he is not pleased with the contour of his features, or [because] he has not mixed in fashionable circles. . . . in a few years the country will teem with proscribed Councillors. . . . the cut of a coat, the curl of a whisker, scrofulous legs, or atheistical principles, may, at a whim of him in power, be sufficient grounds for proscription.” Falkland’s dispatch had also sought to denigrate the reformers generally by pointing out that they had “no acknowledged leader.” Hardly had it been made public when Howe stated: “Let there be no mistake about that point hereafter, for the Opposition ‘acknowledge’ . . . [Uniacke] as their leader.” Howe was, of course, accepting the fact that he had forfeited his own claims by his ridicule and otherwise harsh treatment of the lieutenant governor.
In the latter part of 1846 Falkland’s successor, Sir John Harvey, who also disliked the idea of party government, sought to restore the coalition, but Howe and the leading reformers turned him down. Luckily for them, Uniacke was in England and learning of events in Nova Scotia only through Howe’s letters. In a reply which throws a great deal of light upon a man who had been drawn almost unwillingly into the reform party, Uniacke wondered, since Harvey did not want a government of one party, if he “ought . . . to be pressed too closely on [a] point which will require a long time to work so as to be acceptable to the people.” Would it not be enough to humiliate Johnston by requiring him to sit at the same board with Howe, the man he had forced out in 1843? Obviously Uniacke still had misgivings about the workability of party government in a small colony like Nova Scotia. Yet, almost in the same breath, he admitted he had no strong feelings on this point, promised to “keep these sentiments to himself,” and wanted only a triumph over the party which had “planned and endeavored to work out the dirty intrigue of 1843.” Clearly he appreciated that he led the party largely in name and that the decision was not his to make.
More than once between 1845 and 1847 Howe expressed annoyance in private that he was getting little assistance in planning the party’s strategy and in perfecting its organization for the next election. When the election came in August 1847, Howe campaigned in the key areas, while Uniacke did little more than get himself elected. Even with the reform victory, there were apparently some doubts about Uniacke. So, when the Halifax Times seemed to be inviting Uniacke to turn traitor and dismember the party he led, Howe thought the matter serious enough to have his friend William Grigor sound him out. Grigor reported that Uniacke was still loyal to the reform cause; he also noted Uniacke’s insistence that “the first stroke of liberal policy” must be to “get hold of the government and then dictate terms . . . to stop at nothing but to clean out all.”
Uniacke was almost up to his old oratorical form when, in January 1848, he moved non-confidence in Johnston’s tory administration. On 2 February he was back in the Executive Council and leader (the title “premier” was, as yet, little used in Nova Scotia) of the first fully “responsible” government in Britain’s overseas empire; a week later he became attorney general. Uniacke did not stand out during his six years as leader of the government. At this time, of course, collegiality was the operative principle of the Executive Council and the leader was, at most, no more than primus inter pares; also, Uniacke, who performed at the optimum only when the spirit moved him, could not have been fully comfortable in a ministry dominated by Howe’s ideas and energy. Still, he participated actively in all the major political questions between 1848 and 1851, especially in the adaptation of the provincial institutions to the requirements of responsible government and the preparation of the province’s first revised statutes. His last decisive actions occurred in 1851 when Howe was absent in England seeking a guarantee for the intercolonial railway. With the proponents of the European and North American Railway from Halifax to Portland, Maine, threatening action which might stymie Howe’s efforts, Uniacke turned some of his old eloquence upon them: “Was it fair to stab him [Howe] in the back? You may try it . . . but if you do, the poinard will drop from your hand before you can strike.” Later, when Howe secured the guarantee and Uniacke failed to have it approved because George Young called it “niggardly,” he insisted that Young or himself must leave the cabinet.
Uniacke remained, but his activities in the legislature steadily diminished after 1851 because of failing health. According to his nephew, “the last 7 years of his life he was more or less paralyzed,” and during the session of 1854 a reform member reported him as “fairly used up and wholly unfit for public business.” He had lingered on only because of financial necessity, since he had apparently lost most of his own and his wife’s capital in bad investments in British railways. Finally, in April 1854, his colleagues eased him out of the Executive Council and appointed him commissioner of crown lands in place of John Spry Morris, on leave of absence in Britain. Though incompetent to perform the duties of the office, he survived as long as the liberals retained office, but the conservatives were unwilling to show the same compassion after they took over the government in February 1857 and they terminated his services at the end of the year. Early in 1858 he petitioned the assembly for a pension or retiring allowance and a liberal member introduced a bill to that end, but Uniacke died before it passed beyond first reading.
Uniacke was a study in contrasts, if not contradictions. Aristocratic in traits and temperament, he formed firm and lasting friendships with Howe and Doyle, both of whom possessed the common touch. Almost unequalled in his oratorical talents, he only occasionally disturbed a comfortable existence to display them to full advantage. An equivocal reformer, he found himself thrust into the leadership of a party which wanted a thorough transformation of the province’s political institutions. A free spender in earlier years, he ended up as a rather pitiful suppliant for government assistance. But whatever the contradictions he cannot be denied lasting recognition as leader of the first truly responsible government in the colonies.
An oil portrait of James Boyle Uniacke hangs in Uniacke House (Mount Uniacke, N.S.).
Harvard College Library, Houghton Library, Harvard Univ. (Cambridge, Mass.), ms Can. 58 (Joseph Howe papers) (mfm. at PANS). PAC, MG 24, B29, 1, 10 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 1, 926; 1490; 1769; MG 2, 732–33; MG 9, no.225; RG 1, 255; RG 5, P, 48. Joseph Howe, The speeches and public letters of Joseph Howe . . . , ed. J. A. Chisholm (2v., Halifax, 1909), 1. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1841. Uniacke v. Dickson (1848), 2 N.S.R. 287. Acadian Recorder, 22 Dec. 1832; 1838. Novascotian, 1838–58. Yarmouth Herald (Yarmouth, N.S.), 1847. Directory of N.S. MLAs. Albyn [Andrew Shiels], The preface; a poem of the period (Halifax, 1876). Beck, Government of N.S.; Joseph Howe. Duncan Campbell, Nova Scotia, in its historical, mercantile and industrial relations (Montreal, 1873). B. [C. U.] Cuthbertson, The old attorney general: a biography of Richard John Uniacke (Halifax, ). John Doull, Sketches of attorney generals of Nova Scotia (Halifax, 1964). E. M. Saunders, Three premiers of Nova Scotia: the Hon. J. W. Johnstone, the Hon. Joseph Howe, the Hon. Charles Tupper, M.D., C.B. (Toronto, 1909). George Mullane, “A sketch of Lawrence O’Connor Doyle, a member of the House of Assembly in the thirties and forties,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 17 (1913): 151–95. “The two Uniackes,” Journal of Education (Halifax), 8 (1937): 614–17.
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Cite This Article
J. Murray Beck, “UNIACKE, JAMES BOYLE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/uniacke_james_boyle_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:
|Author of Article:||J. Murray Beck|
|Title of Article:||UNIACKE, JAMES BOYLE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||April 2, 2023|