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A nationalist who spoke his mind


Bert Riggs,

(an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University),
whose column, A Backward Glance
appears in the Telegram each Tuesday

Transcribed From the Telegram

By: Barbara McGrath



The men most readily associated with the fight for an elected legislature for Newfoundland in the 1820s and 1830s are William Carson and Patrick Morris. But a number of others played prominent roles in that fight, and one of the most overlooked is Robert John Parsons. Born in Harbour Grace in 1802 or 1803, Parsons's early life is somewhat a mystery. He obviously received a good education, as he was began his working life as an apprentice printer at The Royal Gazette, Newfoundland's first newspaper, sometime in the late 1810s or early 1820s.

He joined the staff of Henry Winton's newspaper, The Public Ledger, as foreman of the printing office in 1827. He spent six years there before leaving in 1833 after a violent confrontation with Winton, which resulted in Parsons charging his former employer with assault and battery.

Parsons was associated with the group of reformers agitating for a local assembly. As his views were in opposition to Winton's, who seemed to prefer the status quo, this may have been the underlying cause of their quarrel.

The reformers established a newspaper to promote their cause, The Newfoundland Patriot, and Parsons became its managing editor.

The Patriot, under Parsons' editorship, soon became a very vocal advocate of the reform movement. A firm believer in the justness of the cause, Parsons was not averse to reproaching those he felt stood in the way of constitutional reform. Chief Justice Henry John Boulton, whom the reformers saw as a partisan in a position requiring objectivity, was one of his favourite targets.

In May 1835 Parsons wrote a rather sarcastic article in The Patriot on the merits of hanging, stemming from remarks on the subject Boulton had made on the bench. Boulton had Parsons arrested, charged him with contempt, prosecuted him, then convicted him, fined him 50 pounds and sentenced him to three months in jail.

Shocked and appalled

The reaction of the townspeople was one of amazement and disbelief. The military garrison was put on the alert to prevent Parsons' supporters from freeing him by force.

Calmer heads prevailed. A protest to the Colonial Office in London, accompanied by a 5,000-name petition, resulted in the verdict being overturned.

Boulton's treatment of Parsons resulted in a concerted effort by the reformers to secure his removal from Newfoundland.

By 1838, he was replaced on the bench. Other members of the governing class, and some members of his own movement, also felt the sting of Parsons' journalistic wrath when he believed their actions warranted it.

It was a natural progression that Parsons would enter the political arena once an elected legislature was introduced. St. John's was awarded three seats in the new assembly, which - given the denominational make-up of the town - usually elected two Roman Catholics and one Protestant. William Carson held a proprietary right to the Protestant seat. After Carson's death in 1843, Parsons was elected as his successor.

For the next 35 years, Parsons represented St. John's in the House of Assembly, a record that still stands for length and continuity of political service. His seat in the House and the editorial pages of The Patriot provided him with two powerful platforms in the fight for responsible government, which dominated much of the following decade.

Parsons was one of the few Protestant members of the Liberal party, remaining steadfastly loyal to the ideals of the early reformers. He supported the Liberal administrations of both Philip Little and John Kent, the first two prime ministers after responsible government was granted in 1855.

He was never a member of cabinet, but did serve as acting speaker during the 1860 session. He joined his colleagues in opposition after the Conservatives won the 1861 election.

In 1865, the Liberal leader, Ambrose Shea, entered into a coalition arrangement with Conservative Prime Minster Frederick Carter. Shea and Carter had represented Newfoundland at the Quebec Conference in 1864, and both returned to St. John's as supporters of the proposed union of British North American colonies.

Parsons passionately opposed Newfoundland becoming part of Confederation. He did not join the Shea-Carter coalition; instead, he was one of the Liberals to become part of the resultant anti-confederate movement, which under the leadership of Charles Fox Bennett won the 1869 election, and kept Newfoundland out of the new federation.

Parsons used the pages of The Patriot, of which he had become sole owner in 1840, to espouse the anti-confederate cause. Long a champion of Newfoundland nationalism, Parsons was one of the founders of the Newfoundland Natives Society in 1840. He was fiercely committed to fair treatment for native-born Newfoundlanders in their own land, and was ever vigilant in exposing abuses of power by the British officials responsible for administering the colony.

Parsons married Eliza Flood of St. John's on Nov. 5, 1835. They were the parents of several children including Robert Jr., who read law and who followed his father into the House of Assembly. He married Fanny Toussaint, daughter of the French vice-consul in St. John's; his sister Ellen married Fanny's brother William.

Eliza Parsons died on Nov. 11, 1854; three years later, Parsons married Fanny Byrne, a widow herself.

Robert John Parsons, the great patriot, died at St. John's on June 20, 1883.

Bert Riggs is an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. ...



This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (September 2000)
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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