WILCOX, CHARLES SMITH, merchant and politician; b. 21 Dec. 1852 in Windsor, N.S., son of James Wilcox and Ellen Smith; m. Emma Gertrude Thorn, and they had four children; d. 11 Oct. 1909 in Windsor.
Descended from New Jersey pre-loyalist stock, Charles Smith Wilcox was educated at King’s College School in Windsor. From 1876, with his brother George H. and later his son Percy, he conducted a hardware business in the town, and he was a director of the Windsor Foundry and Machine Company. He participated actively in the work of Christ Church (Anglican), especially its involvement in the Laymen’s Missionary Movement. Highly interested in King’s College, he was a member of its board of governors. He also served as mayor of Windsor in 1894–95.
When first elected to the House of Assembly for Hants County in 1894, Wilcox neither sought nor played a prominent role. Like the other 12 Conservatives he advocated economy, opposing capital expenditures “except in cases of absolute and urgent necessity.” For his party the election of 1897 was a disaster ensuring the continuance of a long period of Liberal hegemony. Premier George Henry Murray* won the first of his six victories, and defeated were Conservative leader John Fitzwilliam Stairs, house leader Dr William MacKay*, and the party’s most articulate spokesman, Charles Elliott Tanner. Wilcox unexpectedly found himself leading only two other Conservatives, neither particularly effective in debate, until Tanner won a by-election in 1900.
During these years Wilcox berated the government for taking “a leaf out of the illustrious book of Captain Jinks, who . . . always lived beyond his means.” He opposed additions to the bureaucracy at a time when the lobbies were already “filled with messengers and servants whiling away time and almost ashamed of being seen around there.” Once, in 1899, when he was especially harsh, the attorney general and commissioner of crown lands, James Wilberforce Longley*, called attention to the departure of the “usually extremely fair and temperate” Wilcox from his normal impartiality.
In 1898 Wilcox had started the campaign which would make him the most persistent critic of crown lands policy in the history of the Nova Scotia legislature, by denouncing the granting away of these lands in the previous two decades until only about 1,500,000 of an original 2,500,000 acres remained. The next year, apparently in response, the government announced a policy of leasing rather than granting the lands, a step favoured by Wilcox. But he reminded the house that in New Brunswick, which exacted a stumpage fee, the annual forestry revenue was $150,000 contrasted with $14,000 in Nova Scotia, and he kept condemning a policy which in 18 years had granted 701,268 acres for 22 cents an acre. “Here we have a kingdom in extent and value given for little more than the price of a horse.”
In this period he also lamented the lack of development in the province and the continuing trek of Nova Scotians to the “Boston states.” He found a serious flaw in the administration of justice in the pardoning of “a good grit,” bootlegger Michael McLean of Baddeck. In 1901, with Tanner, he proposed universal male suffrage, but Premier Murray upheld the restricted franchise, contending that an income of $250, although a low qualification, genuinely differentiated between individuals. Undoubtedly Wilcox believed that a restricted franchise enabled the governing party to manipulate the electoral lists to its advantage.
Both Wilcox and Tanner were defeated in 1901, but they and three other Conservatives were successful in 1906. Experience had added to Wilcox’s confidence and assertiveness. Provincial finances were still a major preoccupation for him. In 1907, after much delving, he showed that the Strathcona Coal Company had short-changed the province of royalty payments. He continued to deplore the loss of Nova Scotians, 66,000 of whom were in Massachusetts alone, and to demand policies that “could keep our people at home.” Yearly he spoke strongly on crown lands, conceding that if he was a crank on any subject, it was this one. In 1908 he got sympathy for his resolution requesting an inventory of the lands before the proposed adoption of plans for their use and preservation. To his exasperation he discovered the next year that another 25,000 acres had been granted away. He also argued for “legislation . . . providing a system of cropping the forests instead of destroying them.” But the commissioner of crown lands, William Thomas Pipes, contended that opposition from the grantees would prevent it.
Both Wilcox and Tanner assailed the “vicious patronage list” in 1908, pointing out, despite denials, that Liberals received preference in filling government contracts even when their goods were not equal in price or quality to those of their competitors. The next year the commissioner of public works, Christopher P. Chisholm, told Wilcox that a patronage list would exist on his desk as long as he held office. But Wilcox had success, none the less, since Premier Murray indicated that enlarged lists of potential contractors had been adopted by two major government institutions and would be used elsewhere as far as possible.
Enthusiastic for temperance, in 1907 Wilcox strongly supported a bill to establish a provincial temperance law. The next year, when the premier argued that only changes to the Canada Temperance Act would permit the temperance question to be dealt with effectively, Wilcox wanted the province to enact “legislation up to the limit of its authority” and then “ask the Federal Parliament to assist us.” In 1909, again leading the opposition after Tanner had left to contest a federal seat, he engaged in long exchanges with the premier on temperance. Until Ottawa acted on the issue, Murray considered it wise to retain local option; to him it was better to keep the question “between the people and the saloon than to place it in the hands of the politician.” An indignant Wilcox thought it outrageous for the executive power to let the people fight alone for a great moral cause.
Wilcox died in October 1909, lamented by political friend and foe alike. The Conservative Halifax Herald praised him for “a delicacy of taste, and nobility of ideals, a sweetness of disposition, and gentleness of manners” which made him “a worthy example of a refined christian gentleman.” To the Liberals he stood in sharp contrast to Tanner, whom they regarded as bitter, vindictive, and altogether unpleasant; indeed, the Halifax Morning Chronicle declared that Wilcox, though a “staunch party man,” was “courteous in debate, considerate of the opinions of others and moderate in the presentation of his views.” All would have agreed that, although not a great orator, he stood out for his perseverance, integrity, reasonableness, and good will.
[A basic outline of Charles Smith Wilcox’s life and career is available in Legislative Assembly of N.S. (Elliott). Genealogical details are found in Christ Church (Anglican) (Windsor, N.S.), RBMB, and in the Wilcox family papers, PANS, MG 1, 1176, no.19. Some information on his connections with the Church of England and King’s College appears in the newspaper obituaries listed below.
The highlights of Wilcox’s political career are covered in volume 2 of my Politics of N.S. The main primary source is the Debates and proc. of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly for 1895–1901 and 1907–9; the assembly’s Journal and proc. for the same period was useful for determining the outcome of legislative proceedings in which he was engaged. For accounts of the elections in which Wilcox participated and comments on his party’s performance in the legislature, I examined relevant issues of the Halifax Herald and the Halifax Morning Chronicle. Of particular value were the issues of 12 and 14 Oct. 1909, which contain stories on Wilcox’s death, editorials on his career and character, and accounts of his funeral. j.m.b.]
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Cite This Article
J. Murray Beck, “WILCOX, CHARLES SMITH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wilcox_charles_smith_13E.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:||WILCOX, CHARLES SMITH|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1994|
|Year of revision:||1994|
|Access Date:||March 27, 2023|