- Responsible Government
- Reform Politics in the Colonial Period
- The Idea of Responsible Government in Lower and Upper Canada before 1839
- Lord Durham, His Report, and the Union (1839—42)
- Robert Baldwin and Sir Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine
- The Baldwin—La Fontaine Ministry (1842—43)
- Continuing Debates in the Province of Canada (1843—48)
- The La Fontaine—Baldwin Ministry: The First Responsible Government of the Province of Canada (1848—51)
- Achieving Responsible Government Elsewhere in British North America
Reform Politics in the Colonial Period
By 1832 each of the six British North American colonies had a representative body in its government. Myriad groups with different interests – French speakers in Lower Canada, tenant farmers in Prince Edward Island, outport residents in Newfoundland – all gradually understood that the assembly, its powers and its prerogatives (and their enlargement) were crucial to the defence or expansion of their interests within colonial society. Reformers in every colony, supported by similarly minded newspapers, established the varying traditions that gave rise to responsible government across British North America.
After the American revolution, most loyalist exiles went to Nova Scotia. They favoured a form of government modelled on their experience in the American colonies [see Provincial Justice: Upper Canadian Legal Portraits]. Thomas Henry BARCLAY, a lawyer and loyalist officer elected to the sixth assembly in 1785, championed its rights against those of the executive:
“Thomas Barclay played a significant part in the political development of Nova Scotia during the turbulent sessions of the sixth assembly. Educated in the political ferment of the old colonies in the years before the American revolution, many loyalists retained assumptions about the role of the assembly which underlay later constitutional struggles in the province. Barclay’s speech urging impeachment of the Council gave forceful utterance to a concept steadfastly espoused in subsequent years: that the assembly was the colonial counterpart of the House of Commons. Similarly, the assembly’s firm assertion of its inherent right to primacy in financial measures, set forth by Barclay during the 1790 session, was no less tenaciously upheld than it was to be by succeeding assemblies. For Barclay, as for many loyalist leaders, entry into the colonial establishment was to blunt his opposition to executive authority. Yet the stimulus they gave Nova Scotian political life helped give rise to later reform movements.”
Opponents of responsible government often accused its supporters of cloaking personal grievances in the language of political principle. For example, the conflict between William Cottnam TONGE and Lieutenant Governor Sir John WENTWORTH over moneys, appropriations, and appointments was intensified by personal animosity, as Tonge’s biographer points out:
“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.”
For more information on reform politics in Nova Scotia, consult the following biographies.