Sectarianism, Patronage, and the Age of Harmony, 1815-1848


Melvin Baker


Although Newfoundland had had a small resident population since the early 16th century, it was not until the 1790s that the Island experienced any significant migration of immigrants. During the period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in Europe from 1793 to 1815, the Island's population increased from 11,382 persons in 1797 to a total of 40,568 in 1815. From approximately 43% of all shipping trade to Newfoundland in 1790, in 1805 St. John's share of shipping had increased to 63% and to 78% in 1811. For St. John's, the largest town and the colony's political, military, and commercial centre, the number of people rose from 3,244 in 1794 to a total of 10,018 in 1815. This population growth resulted in the development of a large resident fishery, whose growth had been stimulated by the increased demand in Europe for Newfoundland fish because of war conditions. The change in St. John's can be seen in a description written in 1804 by Governor Sir Erasmus Gower. He wrote:

"this Harbour is no longer a mere fishing station, built round with temporary Flakes, Stages, and Huts of trifling value, is a port of extensive Commerce...importing nearly two thirds of the supplies for the whole Island, and furnished with extensive Store-Houses and Wharfs for trade, containing a quantity of Provisions, Stores for the Fishery, British Manufacturers and West Indian Produce, as well as Fish and Oil ready for exportation, which together with the Buildings is computed to be worth more than half a million Sterling."

Consequently, by 1815 the centuries-old migratory fishery carried on by fishermen from the West of England had ceased to exist to any great extent. After 1800, the development of a seal fishery along the island's northeast coast and of a cod fishery in Labrador, also helped to strengthen the Newfoundland resident fishery and to spread the growth of settlement along the northeastern coast. Its growth was most pronounced after 1815. In 1829 there was a reported harvest of 280,000 seals worth over 100,000 pounds to the Newfoundland economy, while the following year there were 554,000 seals harvested. As historian Shannon Ryan has noted, the seal fishery provided extensive employment to the Conception Bay and St. John's areas in particular and its existence in the first decades of the 19th century enabled residents to survive slumps in the cod fishery. Moreover, the seal fishery played a crucial role in the development of the Labrador cod fishery, for the same crews and sailing ships prosecuted both fisheries. The seal fishery was also a factor in spreading settlement along the northeastern coast of the island as residents during the 19th century left Conception, Trinity, and Bonavista Bays in search of better fishing grounds in Notre Dame Bay and further northward.

While it is true that in 1817 Newfoundland had no form of elective government, yet, there did exist an informal and voluntarist structure of government beneath the system of naval governors which had been first instituted in 1729. While the governor only lived in Newfoundland during the summer fishing season, there was in place a permanent system of resident magistrates, surrogates, sheriffs, deputy sheriffs, constables, a collector of customs and his deputies, other officials, plus a large military garrison situated in St. John's (Patrick O'Flaherty--Francis Forbes in Newfoundland, lecture to the Newfoundland Historical Society, 1985). Law and order was also maintained through the considerable influence the Roman Catholic clergy exerted over its flock. Indeed, one anonymous writer from St. John's observed in November 1817 that "the priests are our police officers--we are taught to believe that we are more indebted to the Catholic priests for our safety than to any other class of men on the Island; hence, there are sometimes pompous addresses to them for their services and aids in the administration of government" (Cyril Byrne, ed., Gentlemen-Bishops and Faction Fighters, St. John's, 1984, p. 25). In addition, the Grand Jury of the Supreme Court served as a formal airing of local grievances and suggestions for public improvements; other channels of public expression were the St. John's Merchants Society, the St. John's newspapers, and the support of sympathetic members of the British House of Commons.

Although the call for a colonial legislature for Newfoundland had been heard since at least the early 1800s--especially from such voices as the Scottish-born doctor, William Carson (1770­1843) and the Irish-born merchant James McBraire--it was not until the 1820s that a vigorous political agitation arose to achieve this goal. Among its chief leaders were Carson and Patrick Morris, another Irish-born merchant. According to D.W. Prowse in his History of Newfoundland (1895), the two men were opposites in political temperament--the former being a "stiff-mannered, pedantic old gentleman, dogmatic, self-opinionated, and independent, a very clever man...." Recent scholarship by Patrick O'Flaherty has described Carson as a "man of restless energy and driving ambition. There was in him an instinctive revulsion at the exercise of arbitrary power, together with an equally strong urge to confront such power, expose it, and defeat it. These were combined with a supreme confidence in the rightness of his own Whig views, a devastating frankness of expression, and a will of iron...he was by nature a partisan, was never inclined to compromise, and was prepared to follow his beliefs with absolute conviction into political action. He was the most radical and influential of the early Newfoundland reformers.... As a legislator, he tried to provide Newfoundland with useful social institutions and to preserve what he thought to be the rights and privileges of the House of Assembly" (Patrick O'Flaherty, "William Carson." Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. VII). Morris, Prowse wrote, had "all the qualities of a popular tribune; you can see both in his writings and his speeches that he was an impetuous Irishman; everything was done with a rush; in place of the doctor's calm reasoning and carefully polished periods, his pamphlets are full of go, flashes of Irish wit and sarcasm,...." Morris was the leading Irish layman in St. John's and had the necessary "restless energy, driving ambition, and business acumen" to be a successful merchant in an intensely competitive economy dominated by Protestant British merchants (see John Mannion, "Patrick Morris," Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. VII). Both Carson and Morris had a strong sense of grievance against imperial policies in Newfoundland, both past and present, and shared a strong belief in the vast agricultural potential the Island had to offer. All that was needed for Newfoundland to achieve greater prosperity, they believed, was the establishment of a local legislature. What agriculture there was in the 19th century was subsistence farming by fishermen along the northeast coast of the island as well as small market gardens in the St. John's area (see Patrick O'Flaherty, The Rock Observed, Toronto, 1979, pp. 55­59; Richard MacKinnon, "Farming the Rock: The Evolution of Commercial Agriculture around St. John's, Newfoundland, to 1945," Acadiensis, vol. XX, Spring 1992, pp. 32­61; and Sean Cadigan, "The Staple Model Reconsidered: The Case of Agricultural Policy in Northeast Newfoundland, 1785­1855," Acadiensis, vol. XXI, Spring 1992, pp. 48­71).

There was strong support from the St. John's mercantile community and outport residents for a local legislature and they were greatly assisted in the British House of Commons by a number of Whig politicians such as Joseph Hume and George Robinson who were sympathetic to the Newfoundland cause. Robinson was also one of several British M.P.s who had close business and family ties to the Newfoundland fish trade. The political agitation successfully accumulated in 1832 with the British Parliament granting Representative government to Newfoundland, on the same day that the British Parliamentary gave third reading to the Reform Act that broadened the franchise for parliament.

The traditional view on the establishment of a legislature in 1832 was that it was a struggle by Newfoundland patriots against an alliance of the Imperial government and the West of England merchants with their long fishing interests in Newfoundland. In 1977 historian Keith Matthews disagreed with this view presented in 1895 in D.W. Prowse's A History of Newfoundland, arguing that reform triumph in 1832 was simply the victory of the St. John's elite over the apathy of the local population and the Imperial government. To Matthews, they were foreign-born reformers with traditional Whig and British/Irish middle class interests and values who would have supported political reform, no matter where they lived in the British Empire. In 1988 Patrick O'Flaherty took exception with Matthews arguing that the seeds of reform were native to political and economic conditions in Newfoundland (O'Flaherty, "The Seeds of Reform: Newfoundland, 1800­18," Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 23, Fall 1988, pp. 39­56). In an unpublished paper entitled, "Beyond the Myths of Colonial Reform: The Campaign for Representative government in Newfoundland" (paper presented to the Canadian Historical Association in June 1994), Jerry Bannister claims that by the late 1820s a strong political coalition had emerged that encompassed the interests of all segments of local society. For Bannister, victory was possible because the reformers "could utilize diverse and sometimes contradictory arguments because their movement focussed on a single, simple goal: the achievement of a local legislature. Contentious issues surrounding how to govern the Colony remained outside the political discourse. Without an assembly in which to debate such issues, the reform movement could attract and maintain a relatively broad base of support among the propertied classes" (p. 29).

In his history of the local seal fishery to 1914, Shannon Ryan presents the thesis that a local legislature was the natural result of the spring seal fishery in the early 19th century when merchants found it necessary to reside year-round in Newfoundland to manage their sealing operations. Between the 1820s and 1850s seal oil was in great demand in Britain, while the markets for local saltfish were less reliable and profitable. As opposed to the traditional saltfish merchants living in Britain, sealing merchants saw no reason why local government should be kept from Newfoundland. They became actively involved in the reform movement (see Ryan, The Ice Hunters: A History of Newfoundland Sealing to 1914, St. John's 1994). What should be kept in mind, therefore, is that these individual interpretations are not exclusive of each other.

The Island's constitution was similar to the model then operating in the other British North American colonies. It provided for a bicameral legislature consisting of an appointed upper house, or Legislative Council, and an elected House of Assembly of fifteen members chosen from nine electoral districts. The head of the government was the governor who was advised by an appointed Executive Council whose members also sat in the Legislative Council. The franchise for selecting the members of the House of Assembly (MHA) was given to adult male householders in the colony.

The first election for the selection of members to the House of Assembly was in the autumn of 1832. In the outport districts, most seats went uncontested with the MHAs being returned mainly either outport merchants or St. John's professional people. In the three-member St. John's district, four candidates ran for the three seats. This contest is noteworthy not only for the failure of Carson to win election, but also for the active intervention in the campaign of the Roman Catholic Bishop, Michael Fleming, in support of the 26-year-old John Kent, his future brother-in-law. Detail on this election campaign can be found in the Lahey article in your Book of Readings. With the active support of Fleming, Kent won one of the three seats, but, in doing so, the ensuing political debate of the 1830s between Fleming, Kent and Winton of the conservative Public Ledger has been seen by many historians as casting divisions in Newfoundland politics for the next fifty years along religious lines--Liberals being regarded as predominantly Roman Catholics and Tories (or Conservatives) as being mainly Anglicans. This is an interpretation which Conservative politicians of the 1830s used to explain the strong political divisions and animosities of that period.

However, this explanation of 19th century Newfoundland political alignments ignores the real social and economic differences which existed between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Conservative politicians and their spokesmen like Winton had supported the campaign for a local legislature and in the late 1820s had favoured giving Roman Catholics in Newfoundland religious freedom in keeping with the recent emancipation for their counterparts in Britain. What Winton objected to after 1832 was that the extensive franchise was too liberal, that it was an "egregious error" which would endanger the peace and prosperity of the colony. According to Winton's biographer, Patrick O'Flaherty, the subsequent election of Liberal candidates only confirmed this view in his eyes.

His opinion was that only truly independent men should have the vote; those who could not think for themselves, such as the mass of the Catholics in St. John's, who appeared to him to be mentally enslaved by their clergy, should be excluded. These voters were merely tools in a clerical conspiracy to gain control of the House of Assembly.

The Roman Catholics must be understood in terms of their Irishness and their desire to have an influence in Newfoundland government, the civil-service, and society, which reflected their majority composition of the Island's population. During the early 1830s they resented the fact that Anglicans had a monopoly on positions in government and the civil service. Moreover, the Catholic Church through Bishop Fleming saw itself as the guardian of the educational and political rights of Irish Roman Catholics against an Anglican, English establishment in Newfoundland and considered and used the Liberal Party as its political vehicle. Fleming was a "man of strong opinions and uncompromising character, completely convinced of his own cause," educational historian Phillip McCann has written, and that "once his course of action was decided upon, he pursued it with unremitting energy and vigour. He was an impassioned defender of the Catholic religion, a devoted follower of the Irish nationalist leader Daniel O'Connell, and a champion of the poor Irish immigrants of Newfoundland." To the officials at the Colonial Office, Fleming was "an inveterate enemy of the public peace and an incendiary priest" whom two governors, Cochrane and Prescott, tried to have removed from the island for its own good (McCann, "Bishop Fleming and the Politicization of the Irish Roman Catholics in Newfoundland, 1830­1850," in Terrence Murphy and Cyril J. Byrne, eds. Religion and Identity: The Experience of Irish and Scottish Catholics in Atlantic Canada, St. John's, 1987, pp. 81­97). Fleming found it difficult to accept opposition to his policies from among his fellow co-religionists because a unified Catholic front under his guidance was necessary to protect and promote the interests of the church (see Raymond J. Lahey, "Michael Anthony Fleming," Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. VII).

The Liberal Party was not exclusively an Irish Roman Catholic Party, as can easily be seen by the identification of prominent Protestant radicals like William Carson and Robert J. Parsons in its ranks. Nevertheless, the party owed its electoral success to the leadership of the Irish-born Fleming and the clergy and their influence over their flock. Thus, in a by-election in late 1833 in St. John's, Carson won election to the Assembly because of Fleming's strong endorsement. In turn, Carson became the leader and chief spokesman for the Liberal cause in the legislature.

During the life of the first House of Assembly from 1832 to 1836, Carson and his minority radicals in the House encountered strong opposition from Conservative officials who sat in both the Executive and Legislative Councils. In 1833 Chief Justice Richard Tucker, who had opposed the institution of Representative government in the early 1830s, used his influence in the Legislative Council to reject a revenue bill the Assembly had passed. He had informed his colleagues on the Council that, if they did not disallow the bill, then he would disallow it in his capacity as Chief Justice. Protests to the Colonial office by the Assembly subsequently resulted in its view being sustained and Tucker being replaced. Tucker's successor as Chief Justice was an individual equally as conservative in his views on democratic institutions--Henry John Boulton from Upper Canada. In his History of Newfoundland, Prowse wrote that Boulton was the "worst possible selection for both the Council and the Bench. His views, both of law and legislation, were most illiberal; ...his harsh sentences, his indecent party spirit, and his personal meanness caused him to be hated as no one else was ever hated in this country."

Boulton's subsequent actions confirmed Liberal suspicions that there was an apparent Tory conspiracy to destroy Representative government in Newfoundland. Among his many controversial actions were changes in the rules for the selection of Supreme Court juries to exclude Irish Roman Catholic radicals. Other changes were a new criminal code empowering judges to use their own discretion in handing out harsh sentences. He also altered the laws concerning the traditional relationship between fisherman and merchant. Hence, the current mercantile supplier would no longer have first claim on a fisherman's catch for that year. Instead, the fisherman's past debts must first be settled before the current supplier could be paid, thus making it difficult for a fisherman to find a supplier willing to take a risk without having a first claim on the catch of a new year. Boulton further infuriated Liberals when he convicted Parsons, the editor of the radical Patriot newspaper, for libel against the Bench. However, the Imperial government had Governor Prescott release Parsons from jail because of Boulton's unusual handling of the case in which he acted as prosecutor, judge, and jury.

In the colony's second election held in 1836, the Liberals sought to exploit both the class tensions created between fishermen and merchants by Boulton's actions and the frustrations of Roman Catholics because of their exclusion from most public offices. With this strategy and the help of the strong influence of the Roman Catholic clergy, the Liberals won eleven of the fifteen seats and thus had a majority in the new Assembly. During the election campaign, the Liberals in St. John's used the threat of physical violence to force their Conservative opponents to withdraw from the race; a similar experience happened in Harbour Grace. The Liberal victory was hollow for the election had to be disallowed, once it was discovered that the official seal authorizing the election writs had been left off them. A new election took place the following year and the Conservatives decided, for the most part, not to contest those districts where they had no chance of winning. In those districts which they could win, their strategy was to put up weak candidates. Consequently, the Liberals elected 13 of the 15 members to the Assembly, thereby giving them complete control of the lower House.

For the next four years the Liberal-dominated Assembly and the Conservative Legislative Council constantly disagreed over the Assembly's claim for control of the expenditure of public funds. In particular, they disputed the road and poor relief appropriation bills, the Assembly claiming for itself the right to name the individuals to be responsible for dispensing these funds. On the other hand, the Legislative Council asserted that this right belonged solely to the Governor. Feelings ran so high that, during the 1837 session, the Council passed only 10 of the 32 bills approved by the House of Assembly. Consequently, in January 1838 the Assembly sent a delegation to the Colonial Office to present its views on the disputes with the Council and to have Boulton removed as Chief Justice. Consisting of Patrick Morris and John Kent, the two delegates pointed out to Colonial officials the inequity Roman Catholics suffered under the existing political system. They presented a list showing that, out of 100 offices in the colony, Roman Catholics held only three of them. The only action the Imperial government decided to take in response to the visit was to remove Boulton from office because of his strong partisan activities. Since the government was awaiting the report of Lord Durham on the state of political conditions generally in British North America and the need for constitutional change in the colonies, its position towards the Newfoundland Delegation of 1838 must be seen in this context. The Imperial government also got the Vatican in September 1838 to reprimand Bishop Fleming for his political activities since 1832, especially his strong efforts to silence any criticism among independent-minded Roman Catholics (who were known as "Mad Dogs"). This reprimand had the effect of keeping Fleming out of public politics for the next few years.

Yet, tensions between Liberals and Conservatives in 1838 worsened, mainly as a result of the famous "Kielley v. Carson Affair." This incident involved an attempt by the Assembly and its Speaker, William Carson, to have Edward Kielley, a surgeon at the government hospital, censured before the House for a gross breach of the privileges of the House. Kielley was charged with allegedly striking John Kent in the streets of St. John's. Kielley refused to apologize to the House and Carson ordered him incarcerated. Judge Lilly of the Supreme Court ruled that the Speaker had no authority to take such an action and had Kielley released, noting that the local Assembly never had the same powers as the British Parliament. Concerned over a loss of face in the matter, the Assembly had both Lilly and Kielley placed under house arrest. Having decided that the matter had gone far enough, Governor Prescott closed the Assembly and had both men freed. Kielley then launched a suit in the Supreme Court against Carson for false imprisonment. That Court upheld the actions of the Assembly and Kielley appealed to the Privy Council, which in 1843 overturned the decision of the Newfoundland court. The Council's decision, that no colonial assembly enjoyed the same rights and privileges as the British Parliament, became a landmark decision in the constitutional development of British colonies.

However, the effect of the Kielley-Carson Affair on Newfoundland politics after 1838 was to strengthen the fears of Conservatives that the Liberals were out to stifle free speech in the colony and to establish a Roman Catholic hegemony over the Island. With their ability to dominate the Assembly, Conservatives regarded the establishment of Representative government in 1832 as a mistake and began to work actively for its repeal, or, at least, some modification of the 1832 system to lessen the influence of the Liberals in the legislature. The disputes between the Assembly and the Legislative Council over money bills only served to confirm the Conservative view that the Assembly sought to increase its authority at the expense of the Governor and his Executive Council.

In 1840 Bishop Fleming broke his public silence on political affairs when he intervened in a St. John's by-election campaign. The Liberals had put up a Presbyterian, James Douglas, to contest the vacant seat. Douglas had the support of prominent Roman Catholic politicians such as John Kent, Lawrence O'Brien, and John Nugent, and the endorsement of the Patriot. Fleming disagreed with the choice of Douglas and insisted that O'Brien run instead, presumably because O'Brien would be more amenable to the Bishop's wishes. The result was a split in Liberal ranks, the clergy supporting O'Brien, the Patriot favouring Douglas. The town's merchants, who jumped at the opportunity to criticize the priest-ridden O'Brien candidacy did likewise. Frequent brawls and street fights broke out between the two factions, which ultimately saw O'Brien prevail over Douglas on polling day.

The 1840 by-election in St. John's, in fact, signalled the beginnings of a growing split in the Liberal Party between clerical and anti-clerical supporters, and native-born and Irish-born leaders, a split that would become more pronounced in the 1850s. The growing divisions between the clerical and anti-clerical wings of the party were also evident in the outports. In a by-election in Carbonear in late 1840, two Roman Catholic candidates contested the seat, with one of them, James Pendergast, representing the anti-clerical faction. Tensions ran high during the campaign which eventually culminated in a riot in Carbonear and some people being wounded. Consequently, no candidate was declared elected for the district and a temporary garrison of troops was dispatched to the town to maintain law and order. The election showed the tensions existing between native-born and foreign politicians, the former having earlier in the year formed themselves into the Newfoundland Natives' Society. The society agitated for the placement of natives, both protestants and catholics, in political and public office. By the mid-1840s the society had quickly disappeared from the public view after it suffered heavy financial losses in the St. John's fire of 1846 and as natives began to have a greater participation in the public life of the colony (see Patrick O'Flaherty, "Natives' Society," Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, vol. 4).

It was against this background that in September 1841 Newfoundland received its new governor, Sir John Harvey, who had been transferred from New Brunswick. His arrival coincided with a Select Committee of Enquiry the Colonial Office was undertaking into the Newfoundland political situation. In written correspondence to the Committee, the Liberals replied to Conservative opposition to Representative government by stating that, since the Conservatives could not control the Assembly, they wanted to abolish it. As for Governor Harvey, his suggestion to the Colonial Office was for the abolition of the Legislative Council and the amalgamation of the councillors in one chamber with the elected members. This proposal found favour with the Colonial Office, and on August 12, 1842 the British Parliament adopted a new constitution for Newfoundland.

The new constitution provided for one legislative body consisting of ten nominated and fifteen elected members. It also provided for tighter property qualifications for both candidates and voters and for money bills to originate with the Governor and his Executive Council. Given his past administrative experience in other colonies of being able to reconcile various conflicting political factions, Harvey was a good choice to oversee the implementation of the new constitution, which was a temporary measure to remain in force until 1846. He sought to end sectarian conflicts by attempting to conciliate Roman Catholics and Bishop Fleming, from whom he secured a promise to refrain from politics, which the Bishop kept. In return, Harvey agreed to administer the government on an impartial basis and make Roman Catholics part of the governing process through appointment to the civil service. He also convinced leading Liberals such as Carson, Morris, and O'Brien to serve on his Executive Council, which was equally composed of Catholics and Protestants. While he controlled the introduction of money bills in the Amalgamated Legislature, he allowed the legislators considerable input as to how the funds should be distributed, a concession the Liberals readily accepted and which provided for a more harmonious legislature. Harvey also permitted the annual legislative grant for education to be split, according to Bishop Fleming's wishes, between Protestants and Roman Catholics, thereby giving the Bishop control of his educational system and settling a contentious issue among Roman Catholics (see Jones "Religion, Education, and Politics in Newfoundland, 1836­1875").

While the new political system worked efficiently, there were some politicians such as Liberal John Kent who wanted Responsible government introduced into Newfoundland. With the 1842 constitution about to end in 1846, Kent brought forward proposals in that year based on similar proposals elsewhere in British North America for the establishment of Responsible government. The Kent proposals passed by one vote in the legislature and Harvey forwarded them to the Colonial Office, with the recommendation that Newfoundland should return to its former 1832 constitution as a four-year experiment. Involved in its own domestic problems, the Imperial government decided simply to deal with Newfoundland's political situation by simply extending the life of the Amalgamated Legislature by one year to September 1847. Any possible protest from Newfoundland politicians, however, was soon lost in the work of rebuilding St. John's following a fire in June 1846 which destroyed much of the town. When the Imperial government finally got around to the Newfoundland problem the following year, in June 1847 it decided to restore the 1832 constitution with a couple of changes. These were the retainment of the property qualifications for voters and electors and the origination of money bills with the crown. These had been features of the 1842 constitution. Otherwise, Newfoundland once more would have a combined bicameral legislature consisting of an appointed Legislative Council and an elected House of Assembly. However, the Colonial Office considered the restoration of the 1832 constitution only to be a temporary measure; eventually, Newfoundland, like the other British North American colonies which recently had been given Responsible government too would have to be given Responsible government. Source: Melvin Baker, "History 3120 Manual: Newfoundland History, 1815-1972", Division of Continuing Studies, Memorial University, 1994, revision of 1986 edition)