Wit and Wisdom of Sam Slick

“He drank like a fish.” “The early bird gets the worm.” “It’s raining cats and dogs.
“He drank like a fish.” “The early bird gets the worm.” “It’s raining cats and dogs.

"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


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.

Thomas Chandler Haliburton (NAC/C-40887).

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.