This Week in History


The Slick Wit of Thomas Chandler Haliburton

This story was initially published in 2006

On 17 December 1796, Thomas Chandler Haliburton was born in Windsor, Nova Scotia, to William Hersey Otis Haliburton and Lucy Chandler Grant. His early life was spent in Windsor attending King’s College from which he graduated in 1815. The following year, Haliburton married Louisa Neville, whom he met while visiting his uncle in England. Five years after graduation, he was admitted to the bar, and subsequently established his law practice in Annapolis Royal. Haliburton became Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas in 1828. When that court was abolished in 1841, he was promoted to the Supreme Court.

Thomas Chandler Haliburton
Thomas Chandler Haliburton
© Photo by Allen Penney
Outside the courtroom, Haliburton pursued a literary career. He was part of a group of amateur writers, called “The Club,” to which he contributed one essay over its three-year existence. Another member was Joseph Howe, who published the group’s work in his newspaper, the Novascotian.

At age 27, Haliburton published his first work of non-fiction, a pamphlet called A General Description of Nova Scotia. Five years later, he published his Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia – the first history of that province.

By 1835, Haliburton turned his attention to fiction. He contributed 22 installments of The Clockmaker, or the sayings and doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville to Howe’s newspaper. The first installments were collected into one text that Howe published in Halifax and Robert Bentley published in London in 1836. In 1837, it was published in Philadelphia. Due to its popularity, two additional series of installments were issued in 1838 and 1840. The texts were frequently reprinted, earning Haliburton fame, but not money, as he failed to copyright his work.

The home of Haliburton, Clifton Grove, circa 1912.
The home of Haliburton, Clifton Grove, circa 1912.
© Image courtesy of Tony Beckles Willson of the Twickenham Museum
The Clockmaker features two main characters who function as caricatures of their type: an American clockmaker named Samuel Slick and a Nova Scotian, or Bluenose, squire. These caricatures conform to common stereotypes of the day, making them amusing, identifiable, and somewhat offensive. The plot is divided into episodes, each of which is summed up by a maxim, like “the early bird gets the worm.” Such maxims are allegedly original to this text.

Haliburton retired from the bench of the Supreme Court in 1856. That year, Haliburton, who was widowed in 1840, married Sarah Harriet. They moved to England where he served in the British House of Commons from 1859-65, representing Launceston in Cornwall.

Haliburton was awarded an honorary literary degree from Oxford University in 1858. For his literary achievements, Thomas Chandler Haliburton became a National Historic Person in 1936.

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