Joseph Howe on press freedom, 1835

In this speech, Joseph Howe, a nineteenth century Nova Scotia politician, argues for press freedom

Joseph Howe was a self-taught printer and journalist in the colony of Nova Scotia. He used his newspaper, the Novascotian, to criticize the British colonial administration, a tightly managed club controlled by the governor and his friends. As a result of his criticisms, Howe was indicted in 1835 for criminal libel, and made this eloquent speech to a Halifax jury in 1835.

“Leave an unshackled press as a legacy to your children”

Sacred fire of liberty

Will you, my countrymen, the descendants of these men, warmed by their blood, inheriting their language, and having the principles for which they struggled confided to your care, allow them to be violated in your hands? Will you permit the sacred fire of liberty, brought by your fathers from the venerable temples of Britain, to be quenched and trodden out on the simple altars they have raised? Your verdict will be the most important in its consequences ever delivered before this tribunal; and I conjure you to judge me by the principles of English law, and to leave an unshackled press as a legacy to your children. You remember the press in your hours of conviviality and mirth—oh, do not desert it in this its day of trial.

Generous impulses

If for a moment I could fancy that your verdict would stain me with crime, cramp my resources by fines, and cast my body into prison, even then I would not endeavour to seek elsewhere for consolation and support. Even then I would not desert my principles, nor abandon the path that the generous impulses of youth selected, and which my riper judgment sanctions and approves. I would toil on and hope for better times, till the principles of British liberty and British law had become more generally diffused, and had forced their way into the hearts of my countrymen.

Persecuted family

In the meantime I would endeavour to guard their interests, to protect their liberties; and, while providence lent me health and strength, the independence of the press should never be violated in my hands. Nor is there a living thing beneath my roof that would not aid me in this struggle: the wife who sits by my fireside; the children who play around my hearth; the orphan boys in my office, whom it is my pride and pleasure to instruct from day to day in the obligations they owe to their profession and their country, would never suffer the press to be wounded through my side. We would wear the coarsest raiment, we would eat the poorest food, and crawl at night into the veriest hovel in the land to rest our weary limbs, but cheerful and undaunted hearts; and these jobbing justices should feel that one frugal and united family could withstand their persecution, defy their power, and maintain the freedom of the press.

Open and unshackled press

Yes, gentlemen, come what will, while I live, Nova Scotia shall have the blessing of an open and unshackled press. But you will not put me to such straits as these; you will send me home to the bosom of my family, with my conduct sanctioned and approved; your verdict will engraft upon our soil those invaluable principles that are our best security and defence.

Your verdict will, I trust, go far towards curing many of the evils which we have been compelled to review. Were you to condemn me, these men would say there is no truth in those charges, there is nothing wrong, and matters would continue in the old beaten track. If you acquit me, as I trust you will, they must form themselves into a court of inquiry for self-reformation; they must drive out from among them those men who bring disgrace on their ranks, and mischief on the community in which they reside. But, gentlemen, I fearlessly consign myself, and, what is of more consequence, your country’s press, into your hands.

I do not ask for the impunity which the American press enjoys . . . but give me what a British subject has a right to claim—impartial justice, administered by those principles of the English law that our forefathers fixed and have bequeathed. Let not the sons of the rebels look across the border to the sons of the Loyalists, and reproach them that their press is not free.

My life is before you

If I wished to be tried by your sympathies, I might safely appeal to you, who have known me from my childhood, and ask if you ever found malice in my heart or sedition in my hands? My public life is before you; and I know you will believe me when I say that when I sit down in solitude to the labours of my profession, the only questions I ask myself are What is right? What is just? What is for the public good? I am of no party, but I hold that when I am performing my duty to the country, I am sincerely doing that which I engaged to do when I took the press into my hands.

Plain facts

You will hear the attorney general close this case on the part of the Crown, but do not allow yourselves to be won by his eloquence from the plain facts and simple principles I have stated. I must, however, do that gentleman the justice to acknowledge that in the conduct of this prosecution I have received nothing but courtesy at his hands. As an officer of the Crown he is bound to perform this public duty, but I well know that persecutions of the press are little to his taste. When urged at times by members of the Assembly, over which in his capacity of Speaker he presides, to resent attacks made on that body in the Novascotian, his answer had invariably been: “No, let the press alone; if we cannot stand against its assaults, we deserve to fall.”

Municipal corruption

That, I doubt not, would have been his advice to the magistrates had they deigned to consult him. But oh, had I his powers of oratory, how I could have set this case before you! “Were I Brutus, and Brutus Antony, there were an Antony that should move the very stones,” not of Halifax to mutiny and sedition, but the broken stones in Bridewell to laughter and to scorn. The light of his penetrating intellect would have revealed the darkest recesses of municipal corruption; and with the hand of a master he would have sketched the portraits of these jobbing justices, and, hanging them around the walls of Bridewell, would have damned them to imperishable renown.

Howe was acquitted, and his brilliant self-defence attracted the attention of Reformers. He was nominated as their representative for Halifax County in 1836. He became a major political force, and thanks in great measure to his efforts, Nova Scotia in 1848 became the first British colony to achieve responsible government. He was later to become a fierce opponent of confederation with Canada, preferring an imperial alliance with Britain.

Acquitted

Howe was acquitted, and his brilliant self-defence attracted the attention of Reformers. He was nominated as their representative for Halifax County in 1836. He became a major political force, and thanks in great measure to his efforts, Nova Scotia in 1848 became the first British colony to achieve responsible government. He was later to become a fierce opponent of confederation with Canada, preferring an imperial alliance with Britain.

Source

Lawrence Burpee, ed., Canadian Eloquence (Toronto: The Musson Book Company Limited, 1909) pp. 9–15. 

More information

Canadian Encyclopedia: Joseph Howe
The Statesman, Joseph Howe [1 minute]
National Film Board: Joseph Howe: Tribune of Nova Scotia [30 minutes]

Photo

National Portrait Gallery, London, England

5 thoughts on “Joseph Howe on press freedom, 1835

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  1. Thank you. We certainly need more journalists able and willing to stand up for freedom of the press today.

    Like

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