Chapter II – Historical Background to Australian Republicansim

Republicanism as an intellectual movement in multicultural Australia
October 14 1991. © Jessica Stewart 1991 & 1995.


I believe the 1990s will be as significant in Australia as were the 1890s, one hundred years ago….[The] 1990s will be the decade when not only the most significant economic reform and strunctural change take place in this country but also, I hope, serious constitutional debate will take place as occurred one hundred years ago when creating the Federation.10

Republican sentiment in Australia has a history dating to the early nineteenth century. This chapter will follow the early republican movements, seeking to place them in a sociological and political perspective. Assessing which people were attracted to them is difficult but it is my contention that the movements were led by writers and scholars, resulting in their intellectuality.

First it is necessary to investigate the concept of nationalism to understand what were the forces behind these early republicans. What was motivating and influencing them to act in radical ways? Richard White in Inventing Australia points to three main factors which moulded ideas about Australia’s identity (the thoughts and images which place a country in a context). The first of these is that national identity is never a true reflection of that country but is imposed as part of the “cultural baggage” brought from elsewhere. In Australia this was British “baggage” and it necessarily linked the colonies to the intellectual history of Europe11. For instance the grimy industrialisation and displacement of farmers in Great Britain during the colonisation of Australia provoked a desire to find here the England of yesteryear — Eden before the fall, a rural Arcadia. Secondly, the intellectuals who created these images were not locked into one timeframe but constituted a dynamic force, changing constantly. Just as they were examining Australia from the ‘outside’ it is necessary to look at them in the same way, to discover their perceptions of themselves as a group, the influences they were under, and how they effected changes in society. Finally, White states that those groups in society which wield economic power exert a large influence over national identity: the intelligentsia creates the images but they rely on economic patronage to flourish.

“Nationalism is both an ideology and a movement for the attainment and nurture of such a nation, sovereignty usually resting with the people.”12 Where White indicated the forces prevalent in shaping national identity, Noel MacLachlan takes the concept of nationalism in Australia to discover its characteristics and the conditions in which it flourished. He notes that these bear close similarity to other new societies of the period and classifies Australia as sharing a ‘new world nationalism’. Most notably among these post-colonial societies was a virulent anti-Englishness. There was great resentment of and contempt for English high society, which patronised the colonies continually. The Governors were an ever-present reminder of British ‘superiority’. This was also part of a new distaste for the ‘old society’ compared with the progress and new social justice in the colonies. The ‘frontier’ was seen as a source of distinct identity in these societies: the themes of exploration and the yeoman farmer were important in popular culture which contributed far more to nationalism than the colonies’ ‘inferior’ high culture, as it was seen by Britain. Finally, the nineteenth century saw much wider literacy which fostered the growth of numerous journals, newspapers and pamphlets; they were a crucial agency of nationalism because they exhibited a liberal and radical style which stemmed from the social egalitarianism of the labour movement, and its middle class supporters. This will be examined later.

Charles Blackton writes that intellectuals led the transfer of loyalties from Britain to Australia among the population. There was no independent Australian nationalism in the first half of the nineteenth century but one developed strongly in the fifty years which followed and was largely due to “the conscious efforts of dedicated avatars of nationalism [and] an emerging native literature.”13 In agreement with Noel McLachlan (1989), he claims that intellectual radical leaders came from predominantly middle-class origins and were in touch with theoretical, intellectual developments abroad. “Serious thinking with regard to a distinct Australian identity was left to a minority of educated or dedicated men.”14

The notion that Australia would have an independent government had surfaced long before John Dunmore Lang took it up in the mid-nineteenth century but he was one of the first to express it in a scholarly form, setting the intellectual tone of this debate. He was a Scottish Presbyterian minister, journalist and politician, interested primarily in the example set by the United States and its successful separation into “manageable portions”. He believed that when the colonies were able to manage their own affairs independence would be granted by the mother-country. His vision of young emigrants “peopling [Australia’s] vast solitudes with a numerous, industrious and virtuous population” was reminiscent of early views of North America. He was responsible for many of the myths about Australia; exaggerated descriptions were to attract and deceive migrants throughout the nineteenth century15.

Lang’s liberal reform of the constitution was tied closely to his republicanism. His philosophy regarding political rights was radical for his time. On 11 November 1853 with irony yet to be realised, Lang wrote in The People’s Advocate that independence was “the most constitutional thing in the world.” He believed that independence would produce a people’s movement. This would establish universal [male] suffrage, vote by ballot, equal electoral districts, the payment of those in public office, their being amenable to and removable by the Council, and an end to financial ties between church and state16.

Lang’s republicanism was motivated by rationality: the enormous distance between the two countries was sufficient justification for the break but his main concern, one which would prove valid in later years was that the continued relationship with Britain put the Australian population in constant danger of being drawn into foreign wars of no concern to them17. “War would come to Australia only through England’s quarrels, and from this danger separation was the logical escape”18 (italics added). Britain received neither economic nor military advantage from Australia, only the dubious glory of colonialism, and Australia could serve equally well as an outlet for British migrants when independent. Lang took a convinced republican position in his lectures The Coming Event (April 1850), concluding: “The worst possible government which any community of British Colonies can ever be supposed capable of setting up for themselves, will be incomparably better than the very best they are ever likely to have from home.”19 In his later work, Freedom and Independence in the Golden Lands of Australia, Lang said “Australia’s connection with Britain may have done more harm than good.”20 He drew on the mother/child analogy of inevitable separation which would benefit both. It was thought to be a natural law, practiced among colonial powers throughout history: “Independence was justified by the law of nature and the Ordinance of God.”21 Lang assumed that republicanism had popular support for it seemed obvious that if independent, the colonies would prosper as could never happen under the yoke of the crown, but he was greatly overstating its support. He had a large personal following (more in spite of his republican views than because of them) and this, with his electoral success in the Parliament elections of the early 1850s was “more than sufficient verification.”22

Lang’s interest in America was, however, not solitary because liberal and radical intellectuals were striving to create a social and cultural Australian identity as the new country moved further and further away from England. Through a liberal view of progress Australians saw themselves in advance of Europe and so their destiny changed. ‘Americanisation’ took over as intellectuals began to identify with the United States. The early colonists had a clear political and cultural self-image “as part of a group of new, transplanted, predominantly Anglo-Saxon emigrant societies”23 but as the colony grew larger and more permanent the United States became their obvious model as the oldest, biggest and most advanced of the new societies. The reformist issues which appeared from the 1820s — freedom for the press, universal suffrage and others — were framed in terms of conflict between colonial opinion and the British Government. Lang said that “there is no other form of government either practicable or possible in a British colony attaining its freedom and independence than that of a republic.”24

It is interesting to see where the Australian population was in its development as an independent nation with an independent mentality. Charles Blackton describes the uncertainty of the colonies, see-sawing between dependent loyalty and aggressive nationalism. The discovery of gold in the 1850s led writers to describe Australia as soon to become a world centre but cries for protection from the Royal Navy were not infrequent. “That such changes were possible suggests the adolescent state of Australian nationality.”25 Lang could foresee opposition to independence coming from four main classes whom he said had interests in the maintenance of the “existing abuses”. These were the squatters, government officials, merchants and professional men. He was fast to dismiss them as only a fraction of Australia’s population: the colonial traders, miners, labourers and employees were all presumed to be supportive. Here Lang displays considerable naivety because the small number of these supposed opponents held most, if not all, of the political power. The fact that they were antagonistic to separation indicates that Australia was still seen by the ruling classes as colonised for the purposes of Great Britain. When Lang stood for the seat of Stanley in the 1854 election, which he lost, The Moreton Bay Free Press called him one who wished to “trample England’s time-honoured flag in the dust”. In the same campaign The Moreton Bay Courier said:

We feel assured that the interest of these colonies for many years will be to cement and keep firm their union with England, as their best protection from foreign insult and aggression and so fully do we feel assured that the majority of the colonists think the same….26

It seems that Lang was very much a lone prophet with serious misconceptions about the strength of his support.

In the 1880s, republicanism found firmer ground with more vigorous endorsement. B. Mansfield documents the history of radical republicanism in this period and writes that there was no single republican movement, but “a variety of persons, journals and small groups giving expression to republican views.”27 There was a need to re-examine the imperial connection for one main cultural reason from which economic and political reasons sprang.

Economic factors tended to create a nationalistic outlook. Britain, until 1873, refused the colonies the right to enact discriminatory tariffs. There were complaints about the quality of goods imported from Britain. Many colonists felt that British capital flowed more readily to Turkey than to Australia. Intercolonial trade rivalries — while divisive — set many to thinking about the remarkable similarity of terrain, customs and aims among all the colonies and by engrossing colonists in Australian problems, reduced their identity with Britain. Working to the same ends, the nationalistic press and the system of public education created a native attitude to counteract the imported culture which dominated libraries, universities and private schools.28

As Australia developed in both population and cultural sophistication, Great Britain was seen increasingly as part of the Old World while Australia took its place among a breed of free and egalitarian new societies. The continued links to a decadent Empire based on the exploitation of the working man would corrupt and eventually destroy Australia’s innocence. Critical discussion was common among radicals and intellectuals (“those who supported social reform or were critical of the status quo and the possessing classes of Australia and abroad.”29) Many of those who were influenced by republicanism later played a part in the labour movements and the early years of the Labor Party.

A new style of journalism developed at this time which overturned conventional values and appealed to a new generation, contributing to a “generalised political radicalism: republicanism, free thought and socialism.”30 The later nineteenth century saw the professionalisation of intellectuals. Formerly educated but disassociated individuals became journalists and writers. This helps explain, with the progress in common literacy, why radicalism found a voice in the press.

Consequently, the main forum for republican debate was in the myriad of journals and newspapers, particularly the Bulletin, “one of the chief instruments that awakened Australians to their social and moral responsibilities.”31 It spoke of the greater human rights within a republic, the patriotism and virtue which would inevitably be felt by its citizens. In 1884 the Bulletin claimed to stand for “humanity in the laws, more freedom in the Parliaments, more healthy independence in the press”32 and spoke out against the “noxious principal” of hereditary institutions.33 Another paper, the Radical (founded in Newcastle in 1887) exhibited hostility to the English aristocracy, and another called the Republican began in July 1887. It called for independence to free Australia from “abject grovelling” and “sacrifice of all our interests, hopes and manhood to English avarice, culpability and pride…If you must be loyal let it be to Australia first and to Australia last, and let us leave the rest of the world to mind its own business whilst we mind ours.”34

Forming an independent, unified nation had become a tangible objective for radicals and their followers by the 1880s, but they considered federation too much of a concession to England without bringing the desired freedom, for an Englishman would be appointed federal governor. Australia was free of Britain’s rigid peerage, state, church and costly navy and army and they felt that there was no need for a new country to adopt “old wars and complications.”35 Republicans believed that retaining the British connection, even in a federation, sanctioned continued British exploitation of Australia. They rightly predicted that Federation would retard the desire of Australians to become a republic. Henry Parkes, one of its main proponents, was criticised for his sycophantic attitudes to the British monarchy and government. In an article titled “The Republic not the Dominion” Parkes stresses the importance of union and removal of parochial left-overs from colonialism. An anonymous Bulletin writer reacted as follows:

to adopt the Federal scheme of Parkes is to become a mere provincial appendage of the Empire. Let the republic come… We must ourselves be worthy of the birthright of the free. We must eschew all the miserable gew-gaws, the decorations, the titles, the paltry bits of metal and snatches of alphabet with which we at present tickle our small souls…We must be a pattern and a model of courage and independence…who would rather be free in hell than enslaved in heaven, who would rather bend the head to a monarch’s curse than bend the knee for a serf’s badge of knighthood.36

The Bulletin saw itself as the voice of the white working man. It claimed in an article in 1891 titled “The Republic Comes Along” that “the great majority” of Australians, especially the workers, despised the monarchy and those ‘unpatriotic’ Australians who fawn to “an elderly lady in a distant land….It is against such tomfoolery and its attendant arrogance…that the proletariat of New South Wales protest.”37 At the 1888 Intercolonial Trades Union Congress in Brisbane, ‘God save the Queen’ was replaced by “Three cheers for the Federated Republic of Australia!” McLachlan describes an incident which he feels indicates the strength of anti-monarchical feeling. At a small public meeting with Sydney’s Lord Mayor to discuss the Jubilee fete for school children, a statement was made that “the proposal to impress upon the children of the colony the value of the Jubilee year of a sovereign is unwise and calculated to anger the democratic spirit of the community.” There was disruption to a second meeting a week later with a call for ‘three cheers for a republic’. The Bulletin went so far as to state that “all men who place the happiness and prosperity of their adopted country before the interests of Imperialism are Australian…Australian and republican are synonymous.”38 In February 1892 the Wagga Wagga Hummer, the official Organ of the Riverina Workers Association, declared “Everyone knows that nine out of every ten Australian workers are republicans.” McLachlan believes that the Hummer was expressing a “neglected, largely inarticulate republican strand in New South Wales”39, a claim which is examined below.

The important issue to resolve is which sectors of society were responsible for the push for republicanism, and who followed. The large amount of reformist journalism seems to validate the intellectuality of this movement but numerous articles, such as those above, insisted that it was supported, even led, by the workers. This is a questionable assertion. The examples in this chapter of nineteenth century journalism were by radical intellectuals hypothesizing about where Australia’s future lay. They were aware of events overseas which encouraged nationalistic feelings. An example is the anger over continued transportation to Australia in the 1850s. J.D.Lang’s Australasian League, a nationalist, utopian and republican organisation which lasted between 1851-1854, regarded convictism as a national insult. “A sensitive national feeling showed in their argument that Canada, the Cape and England were not similarly exposed to the ‘moral leprosy’ imposed on Australia.”40 Excitement in Australian intellectual circles flared over idealistic movements in the European capitals after the publication of Marx’s Communist Manifesto in 1842 but radicals often despaired of their fellow colonists who were apathetic and comfortably complacent.41 Materialism and equal economic opportunity had reared their heads.

If one asks why these writers insisted that the workers supported republicanism, scepticism about the claims arises. As stated above, intellectuals and democrats were familiar with social movements of the nineteenth century and were inspired especially by the Chartists in Britain, a movement of mass dissent which was openly republican by the 1840s and fought against unemployment, low wages and for reform of the House of Commons. The inflamed journalism and poetry by the intellectuals reflects radicalism that one could expect from them at this time. They were trying to rally the people in the struggle for their rights. However, in New South Wales, there were fewer grievances and the conservative Sydney Morning Herald “took the democrats to task for importing the old-world talk of the oppressors of the people into a society where there was no leisured, privileged class living off the labour of others.”42 Hirst says that “In a colony where loyalty and attachment to Britain were so strong, [the democrats’] lack of enthusiasm for the British connection, even when they were not openly advocating republicanism, made them even more isolated and suspect.”43

Brian Head argues that a milder version of nationalism is evident in some historians’ views. He cites Russell Ward’s view that an indigenous popular culture of social equality and practicality developed from the early decades of colonialism as a collective response to the harshness of the Australian environment. It became a base for the democratic reforms mentioned above which “had an easy triumph in Australia because the cultural baggage imported by nineteenth century British settlers was heavily influenced by radical-liberal reformism and Chartism, not by conservatism.”44

Supporting the opinion that rational intellectuals dominated republicanism, it seems that despite the emotional rhetoric of the newspapers, interest was confined to discussion group circles out of which it had arisen. Two such organisations were spawned at this time, the Republican Union (July 1887) and the Republican League, a breakaway group formed by the more radical section of the Union six months after its conception. The latter was led by George Black and Thomas Walker, both members of the Legislative Assembly in New South Wales and both radical intellectuals who contributed to The Republican and The Radical. In yet another example of intellectuals speaking for the workers, Sir Charles Lilley, former Queensland Premier and Chief Justice, said in a letter to the Brisbane and Sydney Telegraphs:

Since 1856…there has been a strong democratic and republican element in these communities which is steadily growing and every serious thinker and the great body of working men who are…the real rulers of the land look steadily to the inevitable and noble outcome of the Australian republic.45 Trying to establish the working class involvement in republicanism is therefore difficult: there is very little empirical evidence from workers themselves. The valid point that this sector of the community was largely inarticulate goes some way in explanation but leaves the issue unresolved.

A brief examination of the early labour movement in a mining town in Queensland sheds more light. Labour politics in Charters Towers began in 1886 with the formation of a Miners Accident Association which developed quickly into a Miners’ Union. Initially it was not well supported but pressures on the labour market and opposition to cheap Chinese labour caused it to spread. There were marked similarities to the intellectual independence movements: “The 1888 depression…served generally to strengthen radical and anti-British feeling….Charters Towers’ opinion was inclined to link the advent of hard times with the coming of British capitalists.”46 A Republican Association was formed in 1890 with a platform similar to the Bulletin’s and within months it had a membership of over three hundred. Despite initial success, the Association was too unsure of its methods and aims to survive against the more firmly established Australian Labor Federation which wanted to stifle diffuse radicalism with planned programs and a socialist philosophy. Associations formed to expand the republican ideal failed because they were unable to translate their principles into action, partly because of diverse membership and unprofessional organisation.47 In his study of radical politics, Robert Brym supports the idea that without the power to act on their beliefs, intellectuals in politics become apathetic, apolitical, and disilliousioned.48

If the movements failed to successfully communicate a compelling case to the population, this is indicative of the diversity of opinion and resulting confusion. (Federation was gathering speed at this time which detracted from republicanism for, to the average worker, they were remarkably similar: “The aim of Imperial Federation is as patriotic as it is magnificent to the many good but unthinking people who are deluded by its clamour.”49) There was also a certain inactivity within the movements themselves. Republicans believed strongly in the “natural law” of separation and as social reform was much faster than in Britain it was ‘proof’ that Australia was approaching maturity with independence imminent. The depression of the 1890s tolled a final death knoll for these early movements: twenty-five to thirty percent unemployment caused “class…to be more compelling than nation.”50

Two prominent entwined beliefs encouraged republicanism among Australian intellectuals: firstly, the idea that Great Britain represented the Old World, and secondly, indicative of the movements’ rationality, was that Australia had advanced beyond this world and was destined to travel further. Its youth and progression would be impeded by old ties. Henry Lawson, on the anniversary of one hundred years of white settlement stated:

We have little in common with the English people except our language. We are fast becoming an entirely different people. We are more liberal, and considering our age, are more progressive than England is.51

There was a strong feeling that if the political and sentimental ties between the countries were not broken they would be strengthened. One hundred years would elapse before it surfaced again.

(Next Chapter)

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