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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
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Agenda Paper 1969-26

Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada

Lawrence Kavanagh

Staff Report (E. Bush) 8 April, 1969, pp. 464-466.

I. Summary

Lawrence Kavanagh, the first member for Inverness County (Cape Breton Island) in the Nova Scotia Legislature, was elected in 1820 and held the seat till his death in 1830. Although a Roman Catholic, he was allowed to take his seat in 1822 at a time when the Catholic disabilities were still in force in Great Britain and throughout the Empire, except in the province of Canada. Kavanagh was therefore the first Roman Catholic outside of Canada to be seated in a British legislature since the imposition of the religious Test in the seventeenth century.

II. Biographical Sketch

Lawrence (Laurence) Kavanagh, the first Roman Catholic member to sit in the Nova Scotia Legislature, was born in 1764, the son of Laurence and Margaret (Farrall) Kavanagh, who had emigrated from Waterford, Ireland, in the year 1760. [1] His father, according to the Lieutenant Governor's report of 1768, in association with one James Gething, had acquired title to "500 acres at Little St. Peter's where they have built a house, storehouses, stages, and flakes, and have a large quantity of cattle. [2] Apparently the Kavanaghs attained a measure of prosperity and local prominence at an early date in the little Cape Breton community.

The Nominal census roll for 1811 lists a Lawrence Kavanagh, with the notation that he had refused to divulge any information to the census taker; he is described merely as a merchant. It is not clear whether this entry refers to the father or the son. [3]

By the year 1814 Laurence Kavanagh had gained sufficient standing in the community that, in writing to the administrator of the colony of Cape Breton, Brigadier General Hugh Swayne, on 10 May, Kavanagh thanked Swayne for the confidence he had reposed in him. Kavanagh had been charged with the administration of statute labour in connection with road construction.Kavanagh concluded his letter with the assurance that he would zealously carry out the Governor's instructions, while endeavouring to maintain good will in the colony. [4]

Cape Breton Island, following the success of British arms in the Seven Years War, was annexed to Nova Scotia in 1763, but the former French colony was administered as a separate British dependency, with its own Lieutenant Governor and Council, from 1784 to 1820. On being reunited with the mainland colony in the latter years, two members were elected to represent Cape Breton in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly in Halifax; one of these was Lawrence Kavanagh, a Roman Catholic. [5].

At this time the Test Acts were still in force in Nova Scotia, whereby persons taking public office were required to subscribe to declarations, under oath, renouncing papal authority and transubstantiation; this no conscientious Catholic could be expected to do. On arriving in the capital, Kavanagh refused to take the objectionable oaths, and so was barred from taking his seat.

A spirit of tolerance in advance of the times was, however, abroad in the colony. It was widely felt that the time for religious disabilities, particularly since the decline of the French menace, had passed. Sir James Kempt, Governor of nova Scotia, himself a tolerant and liberal-minded man, entered into correspondence with the Colonial Office in an effort to have Kavanagh exempted from the requirements which were at variance with his religious beliefs. In a dispatch of 15 November 1821, Kempt described the as yet unseated member as "one of the most loyal and respectable of the whole community," and "a Roman Catholic gentleman of considerable influence among them and of the highest character and respectability." None the less, Kempt had little choice but to await further instructions from the Home Government. Lord Bathurst, the Colonial Secretart, replied to Kempt on 21 December, commending the Governor fro referring the issue to London, and advising him to seek further instructins should Kavanagh claim his seat. In that event Bathurst would advise the King to admit Kavanagh under a milder and less offensive State Oath. In Bathurst's opinion, since Kavanagh had declined to take his seat for a year or more, a few more months delay was not a matter of moment. Bathurst hoped that the Catholic member would not put in an appearance before the royal pleasure was known. [7].

On 25 February 1822 a motion was introduced in the House of Assembly to exempt Kavanagh from the oath, pending final instructions from London. It was defeated by a vote of 17 to 13.[8]  Meanwhile, the Assembly sent a bill to Council on 28 February enacting "the removal of certain disabilities, which H.M. subjects, professing the Popish religion, now labor under in this province .... Council concurred in the desirability of this measure in the interests of the growing spirit of tolerance in the colony, but feared that legislation so directly contrary to the royal instructions might injure the cause of religious toleration. in response, the Assembly passed the following motion:

Resolved the house agree with his majesty's council, that no evil consequences will attend the admission of Roman catholics into the legislature of this province ... The House, sensible of the harmony that now hapily prevails among his majesty's subjects of every religious denomination, are unwilling to disturb that peace  by partial and individual legislation. [9]

On 5 march 1822 the Council invited the Assembly to unite with it in the formulation of an address seeking the alteration of the royal instructions,  in order that Catholics might be relieved of their disabilities. The following day, however, a motion in the Assembly to this effect was defeated by a vote of 22 to 11. [10] The memorial from the Legislative Council presses upon the Governor the desirability of placing Catholic subjects on an equal footing with the rest of the population, in the interests of the province at large: 

As the principles of Religious toleration which prevail so extensively in this province have been very instrumental in advancing the population and prosperity, His Majesty's Council beg leave to suggest to your Excellency this expediency of submitting this subject to the consideration of His K Majesty's Government. [11].

On 2 April of this same year, 1822, Kempt sent a message to the House stating that he had received royal authority to admit Lawrence Kavanagh to the House, without his subscribing to the test oaths; Kavanagh was merely to take the State Oath - which, though strongly worded by today's standards, merely renounced the temporal authority of the Pope. [12] On the following day, 3 April, the House of Assembly resolved that Kavanagh be admitted under these conditions. [13] In this manner, Lawrence Kavanagh made his long deferred entry into the legislature, serving as an instrument in the cause of growing religious toleration. In the words of J. L. MacDougall's History of Inverness County, N.S.:

Plain honest, Lawrence Kavanagh did a service for us all. The Assembly of Nova Scotia did itself everlasting honour, in being the first British legislative body in which that arbitrary and discriminating declaration was repealed in silence. [14]

While this may seem a sweeping statement, in view of the fact that the Constitutional Act of 1791 had removed Catholic disabilities in the province of Canada, it is true that the 1791 Act was legislated for Canada by the British Parliament; in 1822 the Nova Scotia legislature took the initiative in removing the disabilities in that province.

Kavanagh, judging from the far  from complete legislative records available in Ottawa, does not seem to have been a particularly active or vocal member of the House. He was appointed to a committee in 1825 to examine into and report on the reservation of mines and minerals in the province. [15] And he is on record, on 25 March 1825, as having voted with the majority against a proposed assessment for the support of schools in the province. [16]

Lawrence Kavanagh died at St. Peter's, Cape Breton Island, on 20 August, 1830. [17]


1. Public Archives of Nova Scotia, A Directory of the Members of the Legislative Assembly of Nova Scotia 1758-1958, (Halifax, 1958)

2. C. Bruce Fergusson, ed., Uniacke's Sketches of Cape Breton and Other Papers Relating to Cape Breton Island, (Halifax, 1758)

3. D. C. Harvey, ed., Holland's Description of Cape Breton Island and Other Documents, (Halifax, 1935), p. 144.

4. Public Archives of Canada, Hugh Swayne Papers, pp. 289-292.

5. Fergusson, op. cit., pp. 26-7.

6. P.A.C., Colonial Office 217, Kempt to Goulburn, 15 Nov., 1821, folios 224 and 222.

7. Report of the Department of the Public Archives for the Year 1947, (Ottawa, 1948), p. 6.

8. Beamish Murdoch, A History of Nova Scotia or Acadie, (Halifax, 1867), III, 478-79.

9. Ibid., pp. 479-80.

10. Ibid., pp. 480-81.

11. C.O. 217, Vol. 141, pp. 14-15.

12.                                                    New State Oath

" I further declare that it is no article of my faith that I de renounce reject and abjure the opinion that princes excommunicated by the Pope and Council or by any authority of The See of Rome or by any authority whatsoever may be Deposed or murdered by their subjects ..... and i do declare that I do not believe that the Pope of Rome or any other Foreign Prince, Prelate, State or Potentate hath or ought to have any temporal or civil jurisdiction .... " C.O. 217, Vol. 141, folio 21.

13. Murdoch, op. cit., pp. 495-96.

14. J. L. MacDougall, History of Inverness County, N.S., (n.p., 1922) pp. 13-14.

15. Murdoch, op. cit., p. 531.

16. Ibid., p. 533.

17. See Kavanagh's obituary, Nova Scotian and Colonial Herald, 1 Sept. 1830, p. 278.