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The Life of a Soldier and Peacemaker: Sir John Harvey

For the week of Monday June 20, 2005

On June 25, 1812, Lieutenant Colonel John Harvey was posted to Upper Canada at the outbreak of the War of 1812. This appointment was the first of many, for he successfully served in more colonies in British North America (BNA) than any other governor.

Major General John Harvey, K.C.B., Governor of Newfoundland 1841-1846
Major General John Harvey, K.C.B., Governor of Newfoundland 1841-1846
© Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador / VA 27-39A
Born in 1778 in England, Harvey embarked on a career in the military. He became a war hero for his victory against the Americans in 1813 at Stoney Creek, Ontario, after he led a surprise attack at 2 a.m., and for his strong presence in the British victory at the Battle of Crysler’s Farm. These were both important battles in the War of 1812.

Harvey was well into his 50s when he began his second career as a colonial administrator. He held the position of Lieutenant-Governor in a number of eastern BNA colonies. Colonial administrators reported directly to London. This lead to local power struggles as each group tried to sway the administrator, and through him, the British Government. Harvey faced many issues, including personal wealth and colonial economics, religion, land ownership, and the rural/urban population split. He also had to manoeuvre between the elites, who had traditionally dominated power in the Legislative and Executive Councils, and the elected members of the colonial Assemblies. These competing interests led to unstable political conditions in each of Harvey’s colonial appointments, which included: Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and finally, Nova Scotia.

Government House in St. John
Government House in St. John's, used as Sir John Harvey's residence while Governor of Newfoundland
© Parks Canada / J.F. Bergeron / 2002
In 1846, Harvey was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia. Around this time British policy emphasized closer relations between colonial administrators and elected members, and endorsed executive councillors who could maintain the support of a majority of the elected members in the colonial Assemblies. This was known as Responsible Government, which Harvey implemented in Nova Scotia in 1847, the first in the British Empire overseas. This led to the emergence of political parties and government ministries that would evolve into what we have today.

Harvey’s health deteriorated dramatically after his wife’s death in 1851, leading to his own death in 1852. In all his appointments, Harvey made many positive changes, owing his success to the rare qualities of both bravery and administrative competence. Sir John Harvey was designated as a National Historic Person and a plaque commemorating him was placed at St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. The First Responsible Government in the British Empire Overseas is a National Historic Event, commemorated at Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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