William Alexander Henry, one of the Judges of the Supreme Court of the Dominion, is a son of Robert N. Henry, merchant, holding a variety of local offices, and was born in Halifax, N. S., December 30, 1816. His mother was Margaret Hendriken. He received his education in the Government High School in his native city; studied law there with Hon. Alexander McDougall; was called to the Bar of Nova Scotia in November, 1840, and practiced first at Antigonish, and then at Halifax. From the very start it became evident that he had talents of no ordinary stamp, and that he was likely, if life was spared, to make his mark. He had not been in practice a month before he was chosen to represent the County of Sydney, now Antigonish, in the Legislative Assembly. He took his seat on the Liberal side, espoused the cause of Responsible Government, then a leading question, and though once or twice defeated on that issue, participated in its triumph in 1848. From that year to 1867, Mr. Henry represented his county constantly, losing his seat the latter year on account of the opposition to Confederation, which he favored. On the start in his profession he devoted himself faithfully to its duties, becoming a leader at the Bar, and soon being elected President of the Bar Society of Halifax. For one or two terms he was Mayor of Halifax.
In 1849 he was created a Queen’s Counsel; accepted a seat in the Executive Council the same year; became an active and marked politician, and an influential member either of the Government or Opposition, being entirely Independent, and giving his strong powers of mind to whatever cause he thought was for the best interests of the people. It was his shaping hand that led to measures for the protection of the Fisheries at the Gut of Canso and other Canadian waters from the inroads of American fishermen; that secured for the Province of Nova Scotia as complete a system of telegraphy as that of any part of the Continent of North America, and that, in the face of great and persistent opposition, effected important legal reforms. One of these, known as the Chancery Reform Measure, was of such great value, that the mother country was not too proud to adopt it. We find this matter referred to in a sketch of Mr. Henry, published in the Spectator, of Hamilton, Ontario, March 9, 1878. At a dinner given to Mr. Henry by the Bar of Nova Scotia, at Halifax, January 4, 1876, on the occasion of his appointment to his present position, his Honor, the Lieutenant-Governor, Mr. Archibald, in referring to the matter, said:” It is fair to say that on our smaller scale, Judge Henry has had the honor of initiating in this Province something in the same line of policy which has lately been carried out in England. If his bill did not succeed at once, it, at all events, entitles him to be considered as one of the earliest and oldest advocates in this country of a policy on the subject of judicial tribunals, which has, after a long struggle, prevailed in the mother country.” In 18.51 also, adds the Spectator, Mr. Henry saw the results of another of his reform victories. In that year the first edition of the Revised Statutes of Nova Scotia was published, he having previously carried the resolution of the House under which the work was prepared, Nova Scotia having thus, under his guidance, been the first of all the colonies of Britain to carry out this most valuable improvement. The work of revision was so admirably done that Lord Campbell, then Chancellor of England, passed a high eulogium on it in the House of Lords.
In 1854, on the reorganization of Government, Hr. Henry was appointed Solicitor-General, a position which he held, with a seat in the Cabinet, until 1857, when he became Provincial Secretary. About this time the Catholic Question came up, it being charged that the Liberal Administration then in power, was proscribing politically the Roman Catholics, and Mr. Henry felt in duty bound to change sides, he representing a Catholic constituency, and wishing to see equal justice meted out to all parties. The Opposition won in the fierce fight, and in 1859 he was appointed Solicitor-General. The year before this he had been one of the delegates selected to join in London other delegates from Canada and New Brunswick, to urge the Imperial Government to adopt measures for building a railway to connect Halifax with the Provinces of Lower and Upper Canada, passing through New Brunswick a road since built and now known as the Intercolonial Railway.
During that year Mr. Henry was engaged as one of three Commissioners designated to make a second revision of the Statutes, a labor promptly and carefully performed.
He acted with the Conservative party from February, 1857, to the Confederation, ten years later, his party being sometimes in power and sometimes out. It was successful in 1873, and for a third time Mr. Henry became Solicitor-General, holding that position until the next year, when he became Attorney-General, and held that office until 1867, at which time the Administration was handed over to the Provincial Local Government, formed at the Confederation. And here, in justice to Mr. Henry, it ought to be mentioned that he was one of the earliest movers towards this Confederation. Early in 1864 he attended a meeting held at Prince Edward’s Island, and was a delegate, later in the same year, from Nova Scotia to a meeting held at Quebec in this interest. Says the writer already quoted in the Spectator:
“He (Justice Henry) had no sympathy with village statesmen. He saw the immeasurable benefits of union which would necessarily flow from a cordial linking together of the scattered, weak, diverse colonies, and casting aside with disdain all the trammels of the narrow minded men who saw in union nothing but the destruction of their own insignificant political existence, he boldly stepped forth the champion of Confederation a measure desired by the Imperial authorities, a measure calculated to raise the different Provinces from the humiliating position of struggling weaklings to the dignity of young athletes, a measure which would enable each Canadian from the Atlantic to the Pacific like the ancient Roman who exultingly cried ‘Romanus sum,’ to exclaim with pride, ‘I am a citizen of the great Dominion of Canada,’ instead of being compelled to acknowledge himself an inhabitant of a Province so petty that its existence even was unknown to thousands of intelligent foreigners; a measure calculated above all other measures to increase the trade, wealth and influence of each Province; and, above all, a measure whose effect would unquestionably be to cement in one powerful organization, and bind with links of steel, the isolated Provinces to the great British Empire, from whose connection no evil would flow, and from whose protection incalculable good must continue to come. The Conference, with singular ability and unanimity, agreed upon a scheme which formed the basis of a plan that was subsequently adopted in framing the Act of Union.”
In 1865 Mr. Henry was sent with two delegates from New Brunswick to London, to negotiate for the building of a railway of about 150 miles in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick; and the next year represented his Government at Washington in an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate for the continuance of the Reciprocity Treaty in its relation to the United States and the British North American Provinces. Later in the same year he was a delegate to the Lon don Convention, which resulted in the consummation of the union of all the British North American Provinces, known, on the Imperial Statute books as The British North America Act, 1867.”
‘While Mr. Henry favored this grand measure, Nova Scotia bitterly opposed it, and that ended his political career. He was offered a seat on the Supreme Bench of his native Province, by the late and present Governments of Canada, but he declined both invitations, remaining in the practice of his profession until October 8, 1875, when he was summoned to the Supreme Court of the Dominion.
The dinner given to him in January, 1876, to which reference has already been made, was a well merited tribute to his worth, and showed the esteem in which he was held by his neighbors and associates who had known him longest and best. He made a speech on the occasion, full of the genial flow of his nature, and calculated to fasten him with hooks of steel”to his old friends.
Justice Henry first married Sophia Caroline, daughter of Dr. McDonald, of Antigonish, N.S., in 1841, she dying in 1815. His second marriage was in 1850, to Christiana, daughter of Hugh McDonald, Esq., Elmbank, Antigonish, N.S. He has lost seven children, and has one son living by his first wife the only child she ever had and two sons and two daughters by the second.
Judge Henry is a master of the British Constitution, and understands thoroughly the rules which govern in its application to the colonies. Years ago in Nova Scotia, he had much experience as an adviser of the Crown and in diplomatic duties, and this discipline, with that of his labors in various positions in the public service, has had a tendency to expand his mind and ripen his judgment, and give him especial fitness for a jurist. His character is untarnished, and he stands as a splendid sample of a self made man, whose rise is owing solely to his own inherent powers, energies and accomplishments. Socially the Judge towers like a Saul. Ha shakes hands like a brother all the year round and not at certain times only, like some candidates for office. His cordiality knows no ebb; it is always flowing at high tide, and the Dominion has no truer, nobler man.