Responsible Government, 1855-1933
'Responsible government' meant that the Executive Council, or the government, was 'responsible'
to the legislature. In other words, the governor, as the Crown's representative, appointed elected
members of the Assembly - and sometimes members of the appointed upper house, the Legislative
Council - to administer the colony. They held office only so long as they were able to maintain the
support of a majority of members in the House of Assembly. Usually, the government was drawn from
the largest party in the Assembly, but sometimes the head of a minority party or a coalition was
appointed premier. The premier or prime minister (the title used after 1909), and other members
of the Executive Council, remained in power for a four-year term, unless defeated in the House of
Assembly. A general election would then have to be called. The Legislative Council could defeat
(until 1917) or amend legislation coming from the Assembly.
Responsible government was instituted in Newfoundland in 1855, following a general election won
by the Liberal (Reform) party led by Philip F. Little. A Roman Catholic lawyer from Prince Edward
Island, he became the colony's first premier.
|Philip F. Little (1824-1897), n.d.
Little, leader of the Liberal party
in the 1850s, was the first premier of Newfoundland.
From D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial,
and Foreign Records, 2nd edition (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1896) 464.
The leader of the Conservative (Tory) Opposition was
Hugh W. Hoyles. Supported by most Roman Catholics and Methodists, the Liberals remained in power
until 1861. But in that year the governor dismissed the Liberal government, installed the
Conservatives, and presided over elections (attended with some violence) which the latter narrowly
won with Methodist help.
The Denominational Compromise
The result was a Roman Catholic - Protestant political split, which from 1865 the Conservative
premier Frederic B.T. Carter sought to heal. He did this by instituting a system whereby seats in
the Assembly, Executive Council positions, government offices, judicial appointments and public
monies were shared between the major denominations - Roman Catholic, Anglican and Methodist - on a
proportional basis. This “denominational compromise” was adopted by all political parties, and became a
fundamental, if unwritten rule of Newfoundland politics. The principle was further embedded when,
in 1874, the government grant for education was similarly divided between the three churches. It
came to be criticized as inefficient and wasteful, but the compromise prevented open sectarian
The compromise was threatened by the confederation issue, which dominated colonial politics for
a decade after 1864, since the vast majority of Roman Catholics were anti-confederate. But the
confederate and anti-confederate parties - which temporarily replaced the Conservatives and
Liberals - both commanded Protestant and Catholic support. Led by the Anglican merchant Charles Fox
Bennett, the anti-confederates won the 1869 election with an overwhelming majority, so large that
confederation disappeared for many years as a practical political issue. From this time on,
politicians took to smearing each other as confederates when convenient, just as sectarian
prejudices were sometimes manipulated to shore up political support.
The Conservatives used the sectarian tactic successfully in the early 1870s, managing to remove
Bennett from power. Led by Frederic Carter until 1878, and thereafter by William V. Whiteway, the
Conservatives eventually absorbed the Liberals. Their agenda was dominated by the effort to create
economic alternatives to the fishery and to remove foreign competitors from Newfoundland waters.
During the 1870s most of the coast of Newfoundland had been settled and, as the historian David
Alexander argued, the traditional economy based on the inshore cod fishery had reached the limits
of its expansion. Periodic downturns in the economy put thousands of people on government relief,
and even in good times the fishery was not able to support new entrants. By the 1880s, many people
were emigrating to the United States and Canada.
Newfoundland governments pursued several goals to help resolve long-term economic problems.
They attempted to promote diversification within the fishing industry. They encouraged the
development of alternative and supplementary industries, such as mining, agriculture and forest
products. And they attempted to pressure the british government into negotiating an end to French
fishing rights on the Treaty Shore, so that the west coast could be opened up to land-based
economic developments. While these general aims were supported by politicians of all parties, there
were considerable differences of opinion over how they were to be achieved. Two issues were
particularly divisive and controversial. One was how to deal with the problem of the French
fisheries on the Treaty Shore and on the Banks; the other was the ambitious and potentially
expensive proposal to build a railway across the island.
The French Treaty Shore and Railway Issues
From 1855, Newfoundland was self-governing in local matters, and was fully responsible for its
own finances. But external affairs were still controlled by the imperial government. Thus the
implementation of the Anglo-French treaties which governed the French Treaty Shore fishery was an
imperial responsibility. Accordingly, the british government felt it had to prevent the
Newfoundland government from taking any actions that might possibly contravene the treaties. This
imposed a real limitation on responsible government, in that the colonial government did not have
full sovereignty over the French Shore. This was much resented in the colony, and successive
governments fought - with some success - to extend their jurisdiction over the French Shore. The
major political difference of opinion was whether aggressive confrontation, with both britain and
France, was the better option, or whether the Newfoundland government should pursue compromise and
diplomacy. Barriers to economic development on the Shore were finally removed by an Anglo-French
agreement 1904, but some time before then, the imperial government had lifted its original ban
(imposed in the 1870s) on building a railway across to the west coast.
The railway and French Treaty Shore issues were closely linked, and were central to the politics
of the late 19th century. The Conservatives - who appropriated the “Liberal” label after 1889 -
generally favoured railway-building as a way to solve economic problems, and a compromise approach
to the French Shore issue. Those who opposed the railway, which was begun in 1881, became known
first as the Reform, and later as the Tory party. Their approach to the French issue was generally
more aggressive and hawkish.
||Locomotive No. 103 at Topsail Pond, ca. 1900
In the late 19th century many people thought railway-building would solve Newfoundland's
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (Coll-137, Photo
24.01.005), Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
During the late 19th century and up until 1909, the Liberal administrations of William Whiteway
and Robert Bond (who became premier in 1901) focussed much of their attention upon railway building
and land-based industry.
Robert Bond, January 1, 1921
Bond served as premier of
Newfoundland from 1901-1909.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (Coll-237),
Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
Bond was particularly concerned to negotiate a reciprocal free trade
agreement with the United States, hoping to get access to the American market for Newfoundland
products, including fish, and to attract American investment. Canada strongly opposed these
initiatives, and there was also protectionist opposition in New England. As a result, the draft
treaties which Bond negotiated in 1890 and 1905 were not ratified.
The FPU and World War I
Bond's Liberal party was defeated by the newly-created People's party, led by Edward Morris, in
1909 - the regularly-scheduled 1908 election had resulted in a tie, unique in Newfoundland
political history. The same period saw the emergence of William Coaker's Fishermen's Protective
Union [FPU], founded in 1908, which soon developed a political wing. The FPU aimed to increase the
incomes of fishermen by breaking the fish merchants' monopoly on the purchase and export of fish
and the retailing of supplies, and wanted to revitalize the fishery through state intervention.
The union had emerged in Notre Dame Bay and spread among Protestant fishermen along the
northeast coast. But it failed to make inroads in those parts of the island with Roman Catholic
majorities. So a class-based political movement aimed at advancing the cause of rural working
families once more revealed sectarian divisions within the electorate. Coaker and his party wanted
to achieve their aims by winning enough seats to hold the balance of power in the legislature. The
FPU did well in the 1913 election, becoming the official Opposition in all but name. But its
political prospects were fatally damaged by the experience of the First World War which broke out
the next year.
Normal party politics were suspended during the war. The war effort was run on behalf of the
People's party government by a non-partisan, inter-denominational Patriotic Association until 1917,
when a coalition National Government took over. This change was precipitated by a bitter and
divisive debate over whether conscription should replace voluntary enlistment for the Newfoundland
Regiment. This debate was particularly damaging for the FPU, whose leadership supported
conscription against the wishes of rank and file members.
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians took great pride in the achievements of the Regiment, and in
their country's representation in the Imperial War Cabinet and at the Versailles peace talks.
Indeed, the country gained an unprecedented prominence in terms of international status and
reputation. But the glow soon faded. The war left Newfoundland with a large debt and, because a
prolonged economic recession set in after the war, chronic financial problems. The pre-war party
structure had effectively disappeared. As a result, the politics of the years from 1919 to 1934
were characterized by fierce partisan battles between unstable factions. The electorate became
increasingly disillusioned with politics and politicians. These conditions lay behind the
suspension of responsible government in 1934.
©2001, Jeff A. Webb