Joseph Howe: Volume I, Conservative Reformer 1804-1848


389 pages
Contains Illustrations, Index
ISBN 0-7735-0387-0




Reviewed by James G. Snell

James G. Snell is a history professor at the University of Guelph,
author of In the Shadow of the Law: Divorce in Canada, 1900-1939, and
co-author of The Supreme Court of Canada: History of the Institution.


J. Murray Beck has been investigating the life of Joseph Howe for many years. With this volume (and its anticipated companion) the fruits of that study are revealed in this detailed biography of the first 44 years of the famous Nova Scotian’s life.

Based on extensive research and very well documented, the book is not simply a biography. It also recounts the political history of the colony in those years in vast detail. Indeed, one of the problems with this book is that it is too long, too detailed. Rather than being more selective in the information provided, Professor Beck has chosen to give the reader far too much material. The result is somewhat tedious and the reader at times becomes lost in a wealth of information.

Joseph Howe quickly becomes so immersed in the various political struggles of the colony that the reader lacks an overview. For example, the biography’s subtitle, Conservative Reformer, could have been explained more fully and used more thematically to help explain Howe’s actions, some of which are not always apparently consistent.

Nevertheless, the Nova Scotia politician is revealed in this book “with all his warts.” One learns not only of Howe’s political principles and victories, but of his mistakes, his naïveté, and his economic tribulations (due often to Howe’s own miscalculations).

Professor Beck has chosen to concentrate on the most famous side of Howe’s life — his political career. The opportunity is thereby missed to place Howe in context with the economic growth and development of Nova Scotia. As well, one yearns for more detail as to his family life. Here was a man who fathered eleven children (one illegitimate, who was then taken into Howe’s home), whose attachment to his wife and family seems clear; at the same time he easily indulged his personal ambitions, leaving home for lengthy rambles through the province or elsewhere while expecting his wife to add most of his local chores (such as editing the newspaper and paying accounts) to her already extensive domestic duties.

But what this indicates is that there is still room for further analysis of this intriguing Nova Scotian. What Professor Beck has done is provide us with an extremely useful scholarly presentation of Joseph Howe, the politician.


Beck, J. Murray, “Joseph Howe: Volume I, Conservative Reformer 1804-1848,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 27, 2024,