Liberals, Conservatives, and Sectarianism

The reform, or Liberal, movement gained popularity during the era of representative government (1832-1855) by catering to segments of Newfoundland society that felt marginalized by the colony's ruling classes. Reformers portrayed themselves as defending the welfare of fishers, local professional and business interests, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Irish, and Scots against both the English Anglican elite, who traditionally governed the colony, and the wealthy fish merchants with British connections, who directed Newfoundland's single major industry. By appealing to various discontented groups, reformers secured a sizeable portion of the public vote and often dominated the elected House of Assembly.

Opposing the Liberals was the Conservative or Tory party, which generally represented Church of England and mercantile interests. Conservatives tried to maintain the Church of England's control of government patronage and defended the business interests of local merchants. Both Conservative and Liberal candidates often exploited existing social tensions to gain voter support from the various groups they claimed to represent; this in turn helped to polarize Newfoundland society along class, religious, and ethnic lines.

Class Tensions

The general election of November 1832 was the first of its kind in Newfoundland. In previous years, Britain appointed the colony's governor, who in turn appointed other officials to the Executive Council, judiciary, and other posts. Most governing officials were relatively wealthy, of English descent, and belonged to the Anglican Church, which received more government support and funding than any other denomination. Many appointees were also fish merchants, or at least sympathetic to mercantile interests.

Unlike Newfoundland's governing elite, its public was largely comprised of fishers from various denominations and parts of the British Isles. By 1832, approximately 52 per cent of the island's population was Irish Roman Catholic. Scots and Methodists were also present, although in smaller numbers. When campaigning began for the first general election in the fall of 1832, tensions already existed between the various socioeconomic groups.

Roman Catholic and Methodist officials believed it unfair that the Church of England received the vast majority of government support and funding; many fishers felt oppressed by resident merchants; and some working-class Irish feared they were being discriminated against by English governing officials and the English population in general. Tensions in the colony also stemmed in part from political struggles taking place in Britain, where Irish political leader Daniel O'Connell was spearheading a movement for Irish and Catholic rights against the British government. Many Newfoundland residents maintained strong ties to the British Isles and events unfolding overseas often affected local society.

1832 General Election

The 1832 general election gave voters the ability to elect politicians who could more accurately represent the religious and ethnic backgrounds of the public. A sizeable Irish Catholic electorate, coupled with significant numbers of resident Methodists, meant English Protestants would almost certainly have to relinquish some political power to candidates from other religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Although campaigning unfolded relatively smoothly in most outport communities, where many races were uncontested, there was much controversy in St. John's as five men rigorously competed for three seats. Candidate John Kent ran on a platform of Irish Catholic rights and won the backing of Roman Catholic Bishop Michael Fleming. Both men became engaged in a drawn-out public dispute with local newspaper editor Henry Winton, who repeatedly criticized Kent and Fleming in the Public Ledger. Winton argued religion had no place in politics, while Kent accused Winton of promoting anti-Irish sentiments and of trying to keep political power within the English-Protestant sphere.

John Kent, n.d.
Reformer John Kent was elected to the House of Assembly with more votes than any other St. John's candidate during the 1832 general election.
From D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial, and Foreign Records, 2nd edition (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1896) 486.
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John Kent, n.d.

In the end, Kent was elected to the House of Assembly with more votes than any other St. John's candidate. Coming in second and third were fish merchant William Thomas and government contractor Patrick Kough, respectively. The St. John's campaign received much publicity and helped to divide the colony's society and politics along class, ethnic, and denominational lines.

Sectarianism dominated Newfoundland politics in the coming years and intensified existing tensions between different segments of society. It also sparked bitter rivalries between members of the two opposing political groups that emerged soon after the 1832 elections – the Liberals (also known as reformers) and Conservatives (also known as Tories).

Liberals and Conservatives

The Liberals generally promoted Irish, Catholic, and Methodist rights, as well as those of fishers, servants, and other members of the working class. They sought to distribute government patronage – which included funding and political appointments – more equally among the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches and to make it easier for Irish residents to serve on juries and enjoy other privileges granted to their English counterparts. Liberals also wished to obtain more public revenue to pay for the judiciary, road-building projects, and other expenses by taxing the fishery.

In contrast were the Conservatives, who largely represented mercantile and Anglican interests. Tories tended to oppose taxing the fishery, as well as any measures that may allow political privilege to slip away from the predominately Church of England elite. Conservatives generally dominated the appointed Executive Council, while Liberals often held the majority of seats in the elected House of Assembly.

Liberal popularity stemmed in part from the group's ability to appeal to various discontented segments of society. The Irish Roman Catholic vote was critical to the Liberals' early success and remained the backbone of their continued popularity, while Methodist support became increasingly important in later years. Many Methodists supported the Liberals after Kent backed a bill in 1833 that would grant Methodist clergy the same rights as their Church of England and Roman Catholic counterparts; the local Church of England opposed the bill.

Internal Divisions

Although Liberals and Conservatives traditionally represented different segments of society, this does not mean that all members of any socioeconomic group or denomination voted in the same way or agreed with their peers. Deep divisions, for example, existed within the Roman Catholic congregation and not all parishioners voted for Liberal candidates or for those endorsed by Catholic clergy.

Many wealthy and prominent Roman Catholics had strong ties to the Protestant mercantile community and felt alienated from Fleming and the reformers. These included Eliza Boulton, wife of the colony's Tory chief justice Henry Boulton, and Conservative politician Patrick Kough, whose participation in the 1832 election helped split the Roman Catholic vote. Some later Roman Catholic Liberal politicians, including Ambrose Shea, were also sympathetic toward Anglican Bishop Edward Feild. Similarly, neither Anglican, Methodist, English, nor Irish residents voted uniformly. Many working class Anglicans supported the Liberal platform, while some Irish and Methodist voters favoured Conservative candidates for various reasons.

1840s and 1850s

In 1842, the Colonial Office and Governor Sir John Harvey tried to bring greater harmony to the Newfoundland system of government by merging the council and assembly under a single temporary Amalgamated Assembly that would operate for six years. Colonial Secretary Lord Stanley was instrumental in bringing about the union, which he hoped would end the many disputes between councilors and assembly members that impeded government business. He introduced a bill to create the Amalgamated Assembly in May 1842 and it received royal assent two months later.

The system worked relatively smoothly under Harvey's governorship, but former conflicts reemerged by 1848 when the British Parliament dissolved the assembly and reinstalled the previous bicameral system. By then, Feild had become the colony's new Anglican Bishop and Sir John LeMarchant its new governor. Feild inflamed religious tensions by opposing public funding of Methodist and Roman Catholic schools, as well as Methodists' rights to perform marriages and baptisms. Feild received the support of Governor LeMarchant and various Conservative politicians, while Liberals generally defended Roman Catholic and Methodist interests.

Church of England Cathedral, St. John's, 1871 Anglican Cathedral, St. John's, 1871
Anglican Bishop Feild wanted to subdivide government funding of Protestant schools among the Anglican and Methodist denominations during the 1850s.
From Charles de Volpi, Newfoundland: A Pictorial Record (Sherbrooke, Quebec: Longman Canada Limited, ©1972) 117.
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In the 1850s, Feild attempted to subdivide government funding of Protestant schools among the Anglican and Methodist denominations. This sparked protest from Methodist residents, who feared a redistribution of funds would favour the more populous Anglican community and leave Methodists with a poorly funded and inadequate school system. Liberal politicians courted Methodist support by successfully blocking Conservative attempts to subdivide school funding during the 1850, 1851, and 1852 legislative sessions. This in turn provided Liberal candidates with the strategically important Methodist vote during the 1852 general election.

Liberals also actively promoted the establishment of responsible government during the 1850s, which most Tories opposed. The party's new leader, Philip Little, tried to portray the campaign for political reform as an inclusive and non-sectarian struggle against an out-of-touch and elitist Conservative party. Roman Catholic Bishop John Mullock, who succeeded Fleming in 1850, endorsed the campaign for responsible government and Little maintained relatively strong support from resident Methodists. As a result, the Liberals won the 1852 election and were ultimately successful in establishing responsible government in Newfoundland in 1855.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2009, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

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