Thomas Chandler Haliburton Essay - Critical Essays

Haliburton, Thomas Chandler


Thomas Chandler Haliburton 1796-1865

Canadian sketch writer, nonfiction writer, historian, and author of fictional letters.

The following entry presents selected criticism on Haliburton's works from 1981 to 1997. For discussion of Haliburton's works prior to 1981, see NCLC, Volume 15.

Haliburton was a pioneer in the development of Canadian and American humor literature. He is best known for his creation of the character Sam Slick, a glib, irreverent braggart and shrewd peddler from New England who personified Haliburton's political views on the relationship between England, Nova Scotia, and America. Common themes in Haliburton's various volumes, sketches, and essays include his fervent patriotism for Nova Scotia and his conservative Tory political views. Today, critics chiefly praise Haliburton for his creative rendering of dialects and for his satirical descriptions of various social classes.

Biographical Information

Born in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1796, Haliburton studied at the Anglican-controlled King's Grammar School and later at nearby King's College. During a trip to England in 1816, he met Louisa Neville who returned with him to become his wife. He resumed the law studies he had begun under the tutelage of his father, a provincial judge, and in 1826, after practicing law for several years, Haliburton became a Tory member of the provincial parliament. Upon his father's death in 1829, he inherited an appointment as judge of the Inferior Courts of Common Pleas. In 1841, the same year that his wife died, Haliburton was named to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. He retired from this position in 1856 and shortly afterwards moved to England, where he married his second wife, Sarah Williams. He continued his political career as a member of the House of Commons for Launceston. Haliburton died at his home in Islesworth in 1865 at the age of sixty-nine.

Major Works

Throughout his literary career, Haliburton produced historical and political writings, edited anthologies, and composed miscellaneous fictional sketches and letters. The most popular of his works were several series of sketches featuring the Yankee character Sam Slick. Scholars generally agree that Haliburton began his literary career with A General Description of Nova Scotia, published anonymously in 1823, followed by a re-working of the same material in An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia (1829). These volumes presented the province's history, its natural resources, and its economic potential for prospective settlers. In his political treatises, The Bubbles of Canada (1839), A Reply to the Report of the Earl of Durham (1839), and Rule and Misrule of the English in America (1851), Haliburton expressed his conservative views concerning Canada's prospective form of government, insisting that a constitutional democracy based on the American system would not be in the best interests of either Canada or Great Britain. Haliburton also wrote The Letter-Bag of the Great Western (1840), The Old Judge (1849), and The Season-Ticket (1860), in which he offered satirical commentary on social and political matters. In the first two series of The Clockmaker (1836 and 1838), the Yankee Sam Slick travels to Nova Scotia. There he meets a Squire, who travels with him, recording Slick's adventures on the road and his comments on such issues as women's rights and the political and social concerns of the Canadian provinces. The third series of The Clockmaker (1840) is set in England, where Sam's negative comments about the country are countered by the Squire and by another American, the Reverend Hopewell. In the two series of The Attaché (1843 and 1844), Sam serves at the American Legation in England. In Sam Slick's Wise Saws and Modern Instances (1853) Sam returns to Nova Scotia to examine the state of the province's fishing industry for the president of the United States. In Nature and Human Nature (1855), the last work in which Haliburton described the Yankee's experiences, Sam continues his investigations for the president and expounds on the condition of humankind, the state of female education, and the superiority of Americans over the English. Throughout these stories, Haliburton expressed his distrust of American democracy and advocated the loyalist view that the Canadian provinces needed strong ties with the British government.

Critical Reception

Of all Haliburton's writings, none attained the popularity or critical attention enjoyed by the Sam Slick stories. In these sketches, collected in the three series of The Clockmaker, the two series of The Attaché, Sam Slick's Wise Saws and Modern Instances, and Nature and Human Nature, Haliburton combines his political views with humorous storytelling. The character of Sam, called the author's “mouthpiece” by critics, provided Haliburton with a colorful means of prodding his fellow Nova Scotians into improving their work habits in order to compete with what the author believed to be the more vigorous and efficient Americans. The enduring interest of the Sam Slick sketches is due, in part, to their humorous presentation of Haliburton's political philosophy. Delivered in Sam's characteristically caustic language, this humor often takes the form of blunt observations regarding the American and British systems of government, the progress of society and technology in Nova Scotia, and the British disdain of life in the Canadian colonies. Sam Slick considers himself a master of “soft sawder,” his term for language meant to manipulate others. His skills as a merchant and orator allow him to convince customers that they not only desire, but also need what he has to sell. Though some critics have faulted Haliburton for the over-stylized stereotypical character that is Sam Slick, they have praised his renderings of the American frontier dialects presented in Sam's speech as consistent and largely accurate. Haliburton has been credited with popularizing many colorful and descriptive phrases and words, including “hot foot” for hurrying, “gumption” for courage, and “jawbreakers” for multisyllabic words. The first two series of The Clockmaker were well received by the public. However, subsequent writings were faulted as repetitive and lacking substantial literary merit. Haliburton's work, which has been derided as racist and misogynist, also receives attention from scholars who study the political messages and the dialectic and comic elements that he combined to create didactic narratives that influenced American satire.

Principal Works

A General Description of Nova Scotia [published anonymously] (history) 1823

An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia (history) 1829

The Clockmaker; or, The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville, first series (sketches) 1836

The Clockmaker; or, The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville, second series (sketches) 1838

The Bubbles of Canada (nonfiction) 1839

A Reply to the Report of the Earl of Durham (nonfiction) 1839

The Clockmaker; or, The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville, third series (sketches) 1840

The Letter-Bag of the Great Western; or, Life in a Steamer (fictional letters) 1840

The Attaché; or, Sam Slick in England, first series (sketches) 1843

The Attaché; or, Sam Slick in England, second series (sketches) 1844

The Old Judge; or, Life in a Colony (sketches) 1849

Rule and Misrule of the English in America (nonfiction) 1851

Sam Slick's Wise Saws and Modern Instances; or, What He Said, Did, or Invented (sketches) 1853

Nature and Human Nature (sketches) 1855

The Season-Ticket (sketches) 1860

Selections from Sam Slick (sketches) 1923

The Sam Slick Anthology (sketches) 1969

The Letters of Thomas Chandler Haliburton (letters) 1988


Darlene Kelly (essay date autumn 1982)

SOURCE: Kelly, Darlene. “Thomas Haliburton & Travel Books About America.” Canadian Literature, no. 94 (autumn 1982): 25-38.

[In the following essay, Kelly examines the ways in which Haliburton capitalized on the popularity of the travel book and used it as a medium for expressing his own political views regarding Canadian, American, and British relations.]

Thomas Haliburton's observations on British travel commentaries about America reward examination on several counts. First, they are valuable historically, recreating for the modern reader a phase of Anglo-American relations when these analyses of America renewed hostilities between two nations recently at...

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M. Brook Taylor (essay date spring 1984)

SOURCE: Taylor, M. Brook. “Haliburton as a Historian.” In The Thomas Chandler Haliburton Symposium, edited by Frank M. Tierney, pp. 103-22. Ottawa, Ont.: University of Ottawa Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, an earlier version of which was published in Acadiensis: Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region in spring 1984, Brook shows how Haliburton used historical narrative and promotional description to bolster Nova Scotian patriotism by suggesting that the colony embodied the best and most vital qualities of British civilization.]

“This is my own my native land.”(1)

Thomas Chandler Haliburton needs little introduction to students...

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Tom Middlebro' (essay date winter 1985)

SOURCE: Middlebro', Tom. “Imitatio Inanitatis: Literary Madness and the Canadian Short Story.” Canadian Literature, no. 107 (winter 1985): 189-93.

[In the following excerpt, Middlebro' claims that Haliburton's “The Witch of Inky Dell” is a successful short story because its combination of gothic conventions, a morally ambiguous hero, and the theme of madness results in compassion for the characters and an “unsettling awareness of the unintelligible on the frontiers of reason.”]

Plot in the short story may lead the reader's mind to an illumination of intelligibility, but sometimes it works to shatter the reader's comforting teleological expectations with...

(The entire section is 1662 words.)

Daniel Royot (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Royot, Daniel. “Sam Slick and American Popular Humour.” In The Thomas Chandler Haliburton Symposium, edited by Frank M. Tierney, pp. 123-33. Ottawa, Ont.: University of Ottawa Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Royot discusses how Haliburton borrowed ideas from various frontier humorists to create Sam Slick and how Haliburton's writings influenced later American humorists.]

A retrospective view of the Clockmaker series makes it clear that Haliburton deliberately established a link between various brands of the American comic spirit. Resulting from his gleanings of folk humour, his achievements were ultimately conducive to a new genre combining...

(The entire section is 4668 words.)

Darlene Kelly (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Kelly, Darlene. “Haliburton's International Yankee.” In The Thomas Chandler Haliburton Symposium, edited by Frank M. Tierney, pp. 135-49. Ottawa, Ont.: University of Ottawa Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Kelly suggests that Haliburton's writings, particularly The Clockmaker and The Attaché series, serve as political analyses of the relationship between England, America, and the Canadian colonies and are a social commentary on these cultures. She states that the character of Sam is the personification of Haliburton's satire of America and the means by which Haliburton makes fun of the English.]

After the first Clockmaker set in...

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R. D. MacDonald (essay date summer 1988)

SOURCE: MacDonald, R. D. “Thomas Chandler Haliburton's ‘Machine in the Garden’: Applying Leo Marx's Criticism of America to Haliburton's Clockmaker.Canadian Review of American Studies 19, no. 2 (summer 1988): 165-80.

[In the following essay, MacDonald compares Marx's ideas on technology to Haliburton's philosophy that Nova Scotians should be more progressive in the development of technology, yet remain conservative in their traditional values.]

In a recent symposium, Robert L. McDougall has puzzled over T. C. Haliburton's being a reactionary tory and yet an advocate of technological progress: “How come … we find this [early nineteenth-century Nova...

(The entire section is 8550 words.)

Stanley E. McMullin (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: McMullin, Stanley E. “Thomas Chandler Haliburton.” In Canadian Writers and Their Works: Essays on Form, Context, and Development: Fiction Series, Volume Two, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley, pp. 27-76. Toronto, Ont.: ECW Press, 1989.

[In the following excerpt, McMullin maintains that even though Haliburton's popularity waned and he was alternately labeled a British or an American writer, his Tory philosophy was primarily linked to Canadian intellectual tradition.]

It seems to me that Robert L. McDougall has come closest to answering the question of why Thomas Chandler Haliburton's reputation has waned while lesser writers continue to...

(The entire section is 11327 words.)

Gordon MacKay Haliburton (essay date fall 1991)

SOURCE: Haliburton, Gordon MacKay. “The Planter Roots of Thomas Chandler Haliburton.” Dalhousie Review 71, no. 3 (fall 1991): 292-309.

[In the following essay, Gordon MacKay Haliburton traces Thomas Chandler Haliburton's ancestry back to Boston and Scotland and argues that his views were influenced by the fact that he and his compatriots were all representative members of the third generation of the Planter community in Nova Scotia.]

Thomas Chandler Haliburton, the first Canadian writer to enjoy international acclaim, was, like all of us, moulded by a combination of genetic inheritance and by the environment around him in his early formative years. What were these...

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Ruth Panofsky (essay date fall/winter 1993)

SOURCE: Panofsky, Ruth. “The Publication of Thomas Chandler Haliburton's The Clockmaker, 1st Series.Canadian Literature, nos. 138/139 (fall/winter 1993): 5-20.

[In the following essay, Panofsky details the publication history of The Clockmaker, focusing on the unauthorized reprintings of the first series in England and America.]

What is known today as Thomas Chandler Haliburton's The Clockmaker series began as a group of sketches entitled “Recollections of Nova Scotia.” This series of twenty-one sketches appeared anonymously in the Novascotian, or Colonial Herald, a weekly newspaper published in Halifax by Joseph Howe. The weekly...

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George Elliot Clarke (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Clarke, George Elliot. “Must We Burn Haliburton?” In The Haliburton Bi-centenary Chaplet: Papers presented at the 1996 Thomas Raddall Symposium, edited by Richard A. Davies, pp. 1-40. Wolfville, N.S.: Gaspereau Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Clarke proposes that the writings of Haliburton and the Marquis de Sade have been consigned to obscurity due to their similar offensive views on reform—that liberalism is a false promise of equality and that the elite should rule by strength. Haliburton, a conservative, opposed capitalism, reformism, and abolitionism because he saw these as products of a liberal world resulting in a breakdown of the natural hierarchy. Sade, a...

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Ruth Panofsky (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Panofsky, Ruth. “Breaking the Silence: The Clockmaker on Women.” In The Haliburton Bi-centenary Chaplet: Papers presented at the 1996 Thomas Raddall Symposium, edited by Richard A. Davies, pp. 41-53. Wolfville, N.S.: Gaspereau Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Panofsky compares Haliburton's derogatory treatment of women in the The Clockmaker series to the societal norms of the nineteenth century.]

In a recent overview of African-Canadian literature, George Elliott Clarke refers to Thomas Chandler Haliburton as “Canada's most vaunted early writer” (7). More than 160 years following the appearance of The Clockmaker sketches, which...

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Further Reading


Chittick, V. L. O. “Haliburton as Member of Parliament.” University of Toronto Quarterly 33, no. 1 (15 October 1963): 78-88.

Details biographical information and political views from the time of Haliburton's return to England to his death.

Davies, Richard A. “‘Not at All the Man That We Have Imagined’: Mr. Justice Haliburton in England (1835-65).” Dalhousie Review 59, no. 4 (winter 1979-1980): 683-95.

Discusses Haliburton's life in England and refutes V. L. O. Chittick's assertion that Haliburton was a failure.

———. “‘The Wilson Collection’ at Acadia...

(The entire section is 791 words.)