Editorial: The Wit and Wisdom of Sam Slick

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

Thomas Chandler Haliburton was born on 17 December 1796 in Windsor, Nova Scotia, 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.

Thomas Chandler Haliburton, author and politician

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

Haliburton thought protesting Britain's mismanagement of the colonies was justified. However, he 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, while avoiding American vices.

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. Through Slick, Haliburton made pithy observations and critiqued Bluenose attitudes with acerbic wit. He dispensed 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. His 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 said 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.

Sam Slick was wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Haliburton also 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 by Oxford University in 1858; Haliburton became the first colonial writer to be awarded an honorary degree in literature.

When Haliburton died on 27 August 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 something than for the meaning behind it.