Thomas Chandler Haliburton, aka Sam Slick

| September 2, 2010 | 0 Comments

Thomas Haliburton was an upper-crust Tory, a successful lawyer and businessman who was appointed to Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court and held office in England after his retirement. He was wealthy, respected and influential — and deeply frustrated.
As 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 dominated, bolstered by memories of the violent American Revolution and years of war against the bloody French revolutionary republic.
Haliburton thought protests against Britain’s mismanagement of the colonies were justified but feared that a campaign for “responsible government” would end in demands for independence from Britain, ultimately resulting in absorption into the United States. He maintained that Nova Scotians could help themselves by emulating Yankee industriousness to exploit their abundant natural resources, but they must avoid American vices.
To assuage his frustration, Haliburton created 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 newspaper, The Novascotian. Slick, with acerbic wit, made pithy observations and critiqued Bluenose attitudes, dispensing homespun homilies in an over-the-top regional dialect.
Under the guise of a slick Yankee, Haliburton could criticize Britain and her colonial administration in ways a colonist never could. His observations on Nova Scotia life 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.’”
An energetic entrepreneur and an unscrupulous con man, Slick’s business motto was “let the buyer beware.” He insisted that, although stealing a watch was 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, and allowed that it was the “knowledge of soft sawder and human natur” that made him a successful pedlar.
To counter his protagonist’s critical outsider persona, Haliburton created a foil, the Squire, a Nova Scotian who was not ignorant, lazy or uncouth, and who was endowed with an ironic Bluenose sense of humour. The Squire embodied the positive qualities of industriousness and energy that Slick contended Nova Scotians should acquire.
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 internationally popular Canadian writer. His contributions to literature were recognized in 1858 when Haliburton became the first colonial writer to be awarded an honorary degree in literature by Oxford University.
When Haliburton died in 1865, his writing career had spanned 37 years, he had written 18 major works and had become a prominent figure in 19th-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 things. His colourful lexis has greatly enriched the English language. “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.”
Although he wrote in a satirical and comedic tone as Sam Slick, as Haliburton put it, “There’s many a true word said in jest.”

Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is the associate editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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Category: Delights

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Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is an Alberta writer.

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