Campaign for Representative Government

The process through which Newfoundland acquired a local legislature in 1832 has long been misunderstood. It is generally assumed that by the 1820s the grant of representative government had become inevitable, since the political climate in St. John's and London had made constitutional reform a fait accompli. This misconception distorts the situation on both sides of the Atlantic. On the one hand, public opinion in St. John's was far from united on the question of representative government, as local reformers found it difficult to build on their successes in the wake of the Judicature Act of 1824. On the other hand, support for reform in England did not automatically carry over into colonial affairs, and the British government remained opposed to giving Newfoundland an elected assembly.

The politics of legal reform did not alter until 1827, when the British government announced new duties on imports into Newfoundland. This move sparked a protest that eventually transformed the island's entire reform movement. The tax proposal provoked the Water Street merchants into political action and the Chamber of Commerce petitioned strongly against the import duty. After Governor Thomas Cochrane forwarded the petition to London, George Robinson, a partner in a Newfoundland firm and the Tory MP for Worcester in the House of Commons, voiced the merchants' concerns in an interview with the Colonial Secretary. The free importation of fishery supplies had long been a mercantile tenet, but the British government justified the new duty on the grounds that Newfoundland now had to pay its own expenses. The Chamber of Commerce publicly denounced the import duty as a dire threat to the fishery and, in a form of political protest, merchant vessels sailing to St. John's refused to carry the mail in order to prevent Governor Cochrane from receiving instructions on the new tax.

This controversy over taxation raised important constitutional issues. Direct taxation from London would violate the widely-held principle that only the elected representatives in each British colony should have control over the appropriation of local revenues. It also appeared to contravene the Colonial Tax Repeal Act of 1778, which stated that the king and parliament of Great Britain would not impose any duty, tax, or assessment payable in any British colony (except duties imposed to regulate commerce, which were to be allocated only for the internal government of the colony). Since Newfoundland had received official colonial status in 1825, the Colonial Office could no longer use the island's former status as a fishing station as a convenient loophole to avoid such constitutional imperatives.

In December 1828 the St. John's newspapers announced a meeting to discuss both the proposed import duty and the question of a legislative assembly. Strongly endorsed by John Shea and Henry Winton (editors of the Newfoundlander and The Public Ledger respectively), this meeting marked a watershed in Newfoundland's constitutional history. Representing firms which would be directly affected by the new import duty, the Chamber of Commerce became heavily involved in the campaign for a local legislature. Mercantile interests united against the proposed tax and many of those whom previously had opposed a charter of incorporation now publicly endorsed the campaign for representative government.

'The Public Ledger', 1827
The Public Ledger, 1827
The Public Ledger was co-founded by Henry Winton in 1820.
Courtesy of the Provincial Reference Library, Arts and Culture Centre, St. John's, Newfoundland.

The leadership of the St. John's Irish Catholic community also continued to support the reform movement. The Roman Catholic Church maintained excellent relations with the Protestant elite. Tensions loomed beneath the political surface, but the relative harmony between the Protestant and Catholic communities persisted largely because Catholics saw a colonial legislature as a means to acquire civil rights. Driven by different impulses, the island's two main factions came together in a coalition to work for a local assembly.

Newspapers played a crucial role in building support for representative government. When the Newfoundlander first reported the proposed duty, it noted: "such a tax on a Colony like ours, without representation, would be a direct violation of the pledge given by the Government to the Colonies after the American Revolutionary War." An editorial argued that the duty should not be "exacted from us upon the principle of 'taxation without representation.'" (Newfoundlander 27 November 1827). Similarly, The Public Ledger stated that it did not object to the duty itself, but to the absence of the right to collect and appropriate such funds. Its editorial concluded that "a new and very powerful argument arises out of this subject to confirm the necessity of introducing a change in the government of this country" (The Public Ledger 22 April 1828). Letters to the editor also kept constitutional issues in the public eye. For example, in 1830 "Peregrinus" proclaimed, "Taxation and representation are inseparately united: God hath joined them; no British Parliament can separate them; to endeavour to do so is to stab our vitals" (The Public Ledger 7 September 1830).

On the other side of the Atlantic, George Robinson worked to keep the colonial reform movement alive in parliament. In July 1831 he opposed the annual grant to Newfoundland on the grounds that the absence of a local assembly rendered its expenditure unaccountable. Robinson advanced three arguments for granting a local legislature to Newfoundland: its socio-economic development necessitated an elected assembly; its people deserved the legitimate right to control their own affairs; and, if given an assembly, it would no longer need financial support from Britain. But the British government reiterated its long-standing policy that the island's peculiar development as a fishing station rendered it unsuitable for electoral politics. In response Robinson declared, "The people of Newfoundland have instructed me to say, that if you will grant them a local legislature they will not again ask for money. Here, then, is an inducement to alter the present system, under which it is impossible for you to tell what you pay for it" (quoted in The Public Ledger 6 September 1831).

A few months later Robinson pulled off a pivotal manoeuvre in the House of Commons. In September 1831 he introduced a motion shrewdly calculated to achieve maximum publicity. On the evening reserved for the third reading of the Reform Bill, Robinson interrupted the proceedings to state that the government's neglect of Newfoundland had compelled him to speak on a local subject. After reading several petitions for reform, he launched into a lengthy argument for the establishment of a local legislature, and concluded with a motion for an address to the Crown asking for a local assembly similar to the other North American colonies and in accordance with the principles of the British constitution.

Government ministers repeated the government's position that the colony's uneven development made it practically impossible to have an assembly properly representing the inhabitants of the entire island. They also noted that a group of English merchants had protested against the establishment of a local assembly in Newfoundland. However, several MPs supported Robinson's motion. Joseph Hume, a radical MP, declared that any further delay in the establishment of a local legislature would be extremely prejudicial to the interests of both the island's people and the British government. "The present government profess to be guided by liberal principles," Hume concluded, "let us see if they will act upon them" (quoted in Bannister 1994 37). By placing the onus on the British government, Hume made the issue of Newfoundland's governance a question of the credibility of the Whig's commitment to reform.

In October 1831 Governor Cochrane travelled to London for consultations at the Colonial Office. According to later testimony, he believed that the interviews had gone well. Yet the Colonial Office was already drafting a report on the type of legislature best suited for Newfoundland. In December 1831 Thomas Brooking, a representative from the St. John's reform committee, arrived in London for meetings with colonial officials. Brooking reported a rumour, which was probably true, that the government had made a decision regarding the future of Newfoundland. In January 1832 Lord Goderich, the Colonial Secretary, informed Brooking during a private meeting that the British government would grant Newfoundland a local legislature. After a decade-long struggle, the reformers finally achieved their ultimate goal and the island entered a new constitutional era.

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