thomas chandler haliburton
Thomas Chandler Haliburton

Thomas Chandler Haliburton in a lithograph by E.U. Eddis (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-6086).

“He drank like a fish.” “The early bird gets the worm.” “It’s raining cats and dogs.” “You can’t get blood out of a stone.” “As quick as a wink.” “Six of one and half a dozen of the other.” “There’s many a true word said in jest.” These, and many other expressions, colour our vernacular without our being aware that the satiric voice behind them belonged to Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a prominent Nova Scotian.

Haliburton was born on December 17, 1796 in Windsor, NS, the son of a judge and grandson of a lawyer. An upper crust Tory, he was also a successful lawyer and businessman and was appointed to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. He held office in England after his retirement from the bench. He was wealthy, respected and influential, but, despite his accomplishments, he was deeply frustrated.

A member of the conservative elite, Haliburton could not freely express his progressive opinions in Nova Scotia, where conservative anti-republicanism and pro-British colonial patriotism still dominated, bolstered by memories of the violence of the American Revolution and years of war against the bloody French revolutionary republic that led to Napoleon’s tyranny and had ended only in 1815.

Haliburton thought protests against Britain’s mismanagement of the colonies was justified but feared that a campaign for “responsible government” would end in a demand for independence from Britain. He believed cutting ties with Britain would result in absorption into the United States. He maintained that Nova Scotians could help themselves if they emulated Yankee industriousness to exploit their abundant natural resources but avoided American vices.

sam slick

Haliburton’s “‘Sam Slick; The Clockmaker”, 1858, Philadelphia (courtesy National Library/Rare Book Division).

To assuage his frustration, Haliburton created an alter-ego, Sam Slick, a Yankee clock maker who peddled his wares around Nova Scotia. Slick cantered into public view on his horse Old Clay in September 1835 in Joseph Howe’s Halifax newspaper, The Novascotian. Haliburton, through Slick, made pithy observations and critiqued Bluenose attitudes with acerbic wit, dispensing homespun homilies in an over-the-top regional dialect.

An American outsider, Slick could criticize Britain and her colonial administration in ways that a colonist never could. His observations on life in Nova Scotia were pointed and sarcastic. “We [Americans] reckon hours and minutes to be dollars and cents. They do nothin’ in these parts but eat, drink, smoke, sleep, ride about, lounge at taverns, make speeches at temperance meetin’s, and talk about ‘House of Assembly.’”

Slick was depicted as both an energetic entrepreneur and an unscrupulous con man whose business motto was “let the buyer beware.” He insisted that, while stealing a watch would be wrong, it would be “moral and legal” to cheat someone out of one. He was a great conniver and an astute observer of his fellow human beings. Slick allowed that it was the “knowledge of soft sawder and human natur (sic)” that made him a successful pedlar.

To counter his protagonist’s critical outsider persona, Haliburton created a foil, the Squire, a Bluenose who was not ignorant, lazy or uncouth. The Squire embodied the positive qualities of industriousness and energy that Slick contended they should acquire. The Squire was endowed with an ironic Bluenose sense of humour that Slick could never hope to acquire.


The home of Thomas Chandler Haliburton, one of Nova Scotia’s most famous 19th-century figures (photo by James Marsh).

Sam Slick was wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Haliburton established his reputation as a writer with serious works on provincial history, including An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia (1829). But it was The Clockmaker; or the Sayings and Doings of Sam Slick of Slickville that made him the first Canadian writer to become internationally popular. His contributions to literature were recognized in 1858 by Oxford University when Haliburton became the first colonial writer to be awarded an honorary degree in literature.

When Haliburton died on August 27, 1865, his writing career had spanned 37 years, he had written 18 major works and had become a prominent figure in nineteenth-century English literature. Haliburton’s work does not resonate politically with modern readers as it did with his contemporary audience. Today we value Slick’s dialogue more for how he says something than for the meaning behind it; his colourful lexis has greatly enriched the English language.

Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Thomas Chandler Haliburton.

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About Laura Bonikowsky

Laura Neilson Bonikowsky has lived in and travelled across Canada, the United States and Europe. Her interests lie in a variety of topics, including history, science, technology and medicine.


Culture, History, Literature