Haliburton the Author and Sam Slick

A Literary Pioneer

Thomas Chandler Haliburton was (what would become) Canada’s first international best-selling fiction author. He is considered by many to be the “Father of American Humour,” inspiring authors such as Mark Twain with his satirical stories about Sam Slick.

Thomas Chandler Haliburton, circa 1841. NSM P141.19


Haliburton’s first foray into writing was non-fiction. His first book was one of the first histories of Nova Scotia, A General Description of Nova Scotia. He published it anonymously in 1826. It was followed by the much more authoritative and complete An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia (two volumes) in 1829, which Haliburton was proud to put his name on. This second book was published at a financial loss by Haliburton’s friend Joseph Howe and remains today an important historical record of colonial Nova Scotia.

Library at Clifton Museum Park, it was from this desk that Haliburton did much of his writing.


Sam Slick

Sam Slick, Haliburton’s fictional character, was first introduced in The Clockmaker; or The Sayings and Doings of Sam Slick of Slickville, first as a series of newspaper sketches and then collected into a book in 1835. The fast-talking Sam Slick travelled around the province using his “knowledge of soft sawder and human natur” [sic] peddling clocks. Haliburton used Sam Slick, an American, to provide an outsider’s critique of Nova Scotian’s political and social views and present caricatures of public figures and stereotypical characters.

Sketch by C. W. Jeffreys of Sam Slick selling one of his clocks. NSM 65.221.3


Sam Slick, the character, would go on to become more famous than his creator. He appeared in several books which became best sellers in Britain, the United States, and were even translated into German. From their first publication, the books were not well received by all readers, particularly in Canada. A reviewer at the time called Slick’s comical American slang “low, mean, miserable, and witless.”  Critical of Nova Scotians, whom Haliburton described as lazy, the books voiced his racist, classist, colonial values.

Despite their initial success, Haliburton’s stories have fallen in popularity over the years, partly due to their often imperialistic, misogynistic, and racist storylines but also because the sketches satirize political events of the time that are unfamiliar to today’s readers.

Sketch by C. W. Jefferys of Sam Slick talking to ladies. NSM 65.221.24


Famous Expressions

Sam Slick’s sayings are likely familiar, even if you have never read Haliburton’s work. The stories popularized many phrases which are still in use today. 

  • Quick as a wink
  • Facts are stranger than fiction
  • A place for everything, and everything in its place
  • It’s raining cats and dogs.
  • Six of one, half a dozen of the other
  • Bark up the wrong tree
  • Won’t take no for an answer
  • An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
  • You can’t get blood from a stone
  • This country is going to the dogs
  • The early bird gets the worm
  • Never look a gift horse in the mouth
  • A miss is as good as a mile
  • Mad as a hatter