Edmund Barton, the great federal leader [by Professor Ernest Scott, 22 July 1939]

[Editor: This is part ten of the “Men who made Australia” series written by Professor Ernest Scott.]

Men who made Australia — No. 10

Edmund Barton, the great federal leader

Sir Ernest Scott, continuing his series of articles on the men who made Australia, brings before us a figure well remembered by many Australians now living — Sir Edmund Barton, the first Prime Minister of Australia. To Barton he gives the foremost place among the great men who brought about the federation of the colonies. For the first time light is let in upon many incidents connected with Federation, and an amusing story is told in which the father of Britain’s present Prime Minister figures prominently.

By Professor Sir Ernest Scott

Of all the great leaders of the Australian Federal movement forty years and more ago, Edmund Barton had the hardest row to hoe. There was an anti-Federal party in every State, but for various reasons the political currents adverse to Federation were stronger in New South Wales than elsewhere. More: ability was displayed in leadership there, and leaders made a more subtle appeal to popular prejudice and conflicting interests. From the beginning of the last phase before the Commonwealth was established, no doubt really existed as to the majority being favorable to Federation, but there are ways of defeating the wishes of majorities even in a democracy; and the ingenuity of the Sydney anti-Federalists was remarkably resourceful.

The brunt of the battle in its acute stage was borne by Barton, whose great services deserve to be remembered with the deepest respect and admiration by generations which have no direct knowledge of his services to this country.

Let us look at the origins of the man. He was born in Sydney just over 90 years ago (January 18, 1849). He and his brother, George Barnett Barton, were educated at the Sydney Grammar school, and in due course studied at the University of Sydney. I have heard men who knew both well, maintain that George Barton was the abler of the two, but was baulked by an incurable deafness from carving out a notable career. Certainly his book of critical essays, “Poets and Prose Writers of New South Wales,” shows good judgment and scholarship, and his smaller contributions to literature are good; but there is no trace in them of the qualities which gave distinction to the man who became the first Prime Minister of Australia.

At the University, Edmund Barton specialised in classical literature, and was one of the earliest of the students who came under the direction of Professor Charles Badham — a truly great man, characterised by Cardinal Newman as “the first Greek scholar of the day,” and by George Grote, the historian of Greece, as “the greatest of living scholars.” That young Barton was awarded first class honors and an exhibition by Badham is in itself proof enough that Ben Jonson’s remark about Shakespeare’s “Small Latin and less Greek” did not apply to him.

Last university member

So far as the present writer has been able to discover, no touch of his scholastic training was revealed in any of Barton’s public speeches. To his table-talk he would occasionally impart an Horatian flavor or a Virgilian illustration, but the Australian political atmosphere is scarcely congenial to classical quotations. Nor, for the matter of that, is any elected house of legislature nowadays. Gladstone, sixty years ago, could roll off a dozen lines of Lucretius, in his rich voice, with the certitude that a fair proportion of members of the House of Commons would get the sense of the passage; but a modern Premier who did the same might, for his temerity, have to face a no-confidence motion! Even in France, with her classical tradition in education, where the Radical-Socialist President of the Senate, Edouard Herriot, could worthily occupy a chair of classics in a university, one supposes that a rude rebuff like “I do not know you, sir,” which provoked the response, “What! Do you take me for a classical quotation?” — would no longer lead to a duel.

In due course Barton was called to the bar, and acquired a practice which might have been very lucrative if he had cultivated it. But the siren of politics sang, and he was willingly allured. His first seat in the Parliament of New South Wales was as representative of the University of Sydney; for the Electoral Act, following English precedent, provided for a University member as soon as the number of graduates reached one hundred. W. C. Windeyer was the first member elected under that franchise, and when he became a judge Barton succeeded him. But he was the last man to sit in an Australian Parliament as a University representative. The special franchise was abolished, and Barton had to find another seat, which he did without difficulty.

From that time till the achievement of Federation. Barton was in the forefront of New South Wales politics. He was Speaker of the Assembly for four years, and Attorney-General in two of Sir George Dibbs’s Administrations.

A robust, handsome man, solidly built, with thick hair inclining to curl, iron-grey in his later years, and having an habitually gentle expression, Barton was physically marked for distinction. His very bright, sensitive eyes lit up the whole countenance — “eyes of considerable beauty,” Alfred Deakin noted, “glowing like jewels in the ardor of his inspiration.” He was capable of heroic spurts of effort varied with periods when, like Walt Whitman, he liked to “loaf and invite my soul.” He was fond of good books, good company, good food, good wine, wit, merriment, and friendship. He was by temperament and in his outlook a happy man; and he nursed no rancors.

As soon as the movement for the federation of Australia took shape, Barton determined to subordinate local politics to the attainment of this national purpose. Speaking in the Legislative Assembly in 1891, he declared, “There is one great thing which, above all others, actuates me in my political life, and will actuate me until it is accomplished, and that is the question of the union of the Australian colonies.”

Sir Henry Parkes was the acknowledged leader of the Federal cause in his own State, and by virtue of his gift of eloquence and his venerable personality, he wielded great influence beyond the confines of New South Wales. Parkes had unquestionably “drawn Federation from the clouds and made it the first issue of Australian politics.” His Melbourne speech in 1890, wherein the old man thrilled, his hearers with that vivid phrase which went the round of the world, “The crimson thread of kinship runs through us all,” did, perhaps, almost as much as the debates of the Sydney Convention of 1891 to make the Australian public Federation-minded. But Parkes had come nearly to the end of his political tether. When his fourth and last ministry fell, later in that year, he felt that his career as a public man was over and his life nearing its end. Both those anticipations proved correct.

Parkes’ successor

On the evening when his Ministry was defeated by a majority of two votes (October 19, 1891) Parkes sent a message to Edmund Barton, who had been one of his political opponents, requesting an interview. Barton went to his room. Parkes asked him whether he was prepared to take up the leadership of the Federal movement. Barton, taken by surprise, asked why the question should be put to him so pointedly. The old statesman replied that symptoms warned him that he was nearing his end, and probably would have to retire from public life. He was convinced that the Federation issue ought to be placed in the hands of a younger man, who would be likely to bring it to a successful conclusion.

Barton accepted the role thus offered to him, and henceforth was recognised throughout Australia as the leader of the great cause. It is true that he afterwards, though reluctantly, became Attorney-General in the Ministry of his friend Sir George Dibbs, who had declared a determination to postpone the consideration of resolutions favorable to the Federation Bill of 1891. But two points weighed with Barton. First, he stipulated for a free hand on the Federation question, which Dibbs conceded, and secondly that he believed he could more effectually promote Federation from inside the Cabinet than as a private member. It was a matter of political tactics; and there was not among those who knew him the slightest doubt of his unswerving loyalty to the cause of which he was now the trusted leader.

Barton had distinguished himself in the Convention of 1891 — the members of which were chosen by the respective Parliaments — by his diligent application to the onerous work of drafting the clauses of the proposed Federal Constitution. In that task he was associated with C. C. Kingston of South Australia and Inglis Clark of Tasmania, and Sir Samuel Griffith of Queensland was chairman of the committee. The masterful personality of Griffith at that time might have overshadowed any but men who were his intellectual peers but he was too great to be other than generous. He was just also in acknowledging on the last day of sitting, that Barton “devoted himself to that work as strenuously and industriously as any man with whom I ever had the pleasure of working, and I venture to say that I have done a good deal of hard work in my time.”

Convention leader

The demand for Federation was revived by the proposals emanating from a conference at Corowa, that a new Convention should be elected by the people of the States, instead of being chosen by their Parliaments. In New South Wales, the election of Barton at the top of the poll — 15,000 votes ahead of G. H. Reid — was a generous popular endorsement of his leadership, and a well-deserved reward for his exertions during the campaign. The hundreds of meetings addressed by him, in all parts of the country, his downright sincerity of purpose, and his great qualities as a leader, gained a sweeping victory in the State where there was the strongest and bitterest opposition.

The most successful and continuously strenuous public work performed by Barton was as official leader of the Australian National Convention which sat in Adelaide during March and April 1897, in Sydney during the September of the same year, and in Melbourne during January, February and March 1898. Leadership involved constant attendance at the debates, and at long sittings of the Drafting Committee, which was responsible for the textual construction of the Constitution.

Throughout these prolonged meetings Barton was urbane, unruffleable watchful, intimately acquainted with every detail of every item of business, adroit in steering round difficulties and smoothing down personal discords — a great leader of a deliberative assembly in every sense. His colleagues in the Drafting Committee were Richard O’Connor and Sir John Downer. To these, when the Convention, having finished its task, was about to close, Mr. Isaacs, as he was then, moved that the thanks of the Convention should be accorded. Speaking with expert knowledge, he praised “the industry, fidelity and extreme ability and eminent success” of the Committee. In acknowledging the vote. Barton did a thing which illustrates his generous promptness to applaud good work done quietly in the background. He alluded to the help given to the Committee by its secretary, Robert Garran, “whose technical knowledge, strong and varied research on this subject, and literary taste and judgment in the expression of his ideas,” had been of the very highest value. No allusion is made to the gracious incident in Quick and Garran’s well-known “Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth,” but it is worth rescuing from the massive records of the Convention debates as one illustration of Barton’s character.

Saving Chamberlain’s face

The Constitution haying been accepted by the people, Barton was the chosen spokesman of the Australian delegates who went to London in 1900, at the invitation of the Secretary of State, Joseph Chamberlain, to advise and assist during the passage of the Bill embodying the Constitution which, when it became part of an Act of the Imperial Parliament, would be the instrument consummating the Federal union of Australia. The occasion was memorable for the conflict of opinion between Chamberlain and the delegates over the clause affecting the right of appeal from the High Court of Australia to the Privy Council “in any matter involving the interpretation of this Constitution or the Constitution of a State, and, further, giving the Commonwealth Parliament power to limit the matters in which appeal to the Privy Council ought be made.

Chamberlain, moved by the Lord Chancellor Lord Halsbury, objected to the limitation of the right of appeal. The delegates, particularly Barton, Deakin, and Kingston — Dickson of Queensland differing — stood, firmly for “the Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill.” Chamberlain, as acknowledged by his biographer, J. G. Garvin, found them “some of the stoutest negotiators he had met in his life;” and, indeed, the controversy was waged with much more stubborn energy than he had bargained for. It was, says Mr. Garvin, “nothing less than dour.” Kingston at one stage was almost inarticulate with wrath,” and Chamberlain vowed that he’d “be damned” if he would give way. But at a final conference a compromise was agreed upon, leaving the contentious clause as it now stands in the Constitution, enabling an appeal in cases in which the High Court of Australia itself certifies that such an appeal ought to be allowed.

Chamberlain confessed, after a late-at-night tussle with the delegates, that he felt “as if I had walked thirty miles;” but the stalwart three were light at heart if heavy in the body, having got substantially what they wanted though agreeing to a compromise in form to save Chamberlain’s face; and they finished the incident by anticipating the prowess of the Russian Ballet in the scene described by Walter Murdoch in his biography of Deakin:

“When they left Chamberlain’s room they were shown into another room where they could discuss the matter with one another. The form their discussion took was unusual. When the door closed upon them and they found themselves alone, they seized each other’s hands and danced, in a ring, round the room. This corybantic behaviour on the part of three middle-aged and solidly-built statesmen should furnish an Australian painter with a fine subject for a historical picture. The compromise was announced to the House a few days later by Chamberlain, to the undisguised wrath and mortification of Dickson.”


Barton was the first Prime Minister of Australia, and might have been the first Chief Justice of the High Court if he had wished. It is a fact that Andrew Fisher — a sturdy political opponent, who had a warm affection for him — urged him to take the position, arguing that no man had a better right to preside over the Court which would interpret the Constitution than the man who had rendered such brilliant service in its creation. But Barton gently waved the suggestion aside. Sir Samuel Griffith was in his view the pre-ordained Chief Justice, and he was himself content to occupy a place secondary to that distinguished jurist.

Barton’s career as a judge lasted 17 years. On the bench he was largely overshadowed by the supremacy of Griffith, whose interpretations of the law he generally shared. He and the Chief Justice died in the same year, 1920.

As we look back upon Barton’s career, it becomes apparent that the shining feature of it was his conviction, from the time when he became an outspoken Federalist, that no other issue in Australian politics was so thoroughly well worth fighting for as that of the union of the six States. For that cause he neglected his opportunities for extending his practice at the bar, which would have brought him great reward. He threw himself into the advocacy of Federation with more energy than he displayed in any other piece of work during his life. The key to success lay in New South Wales, where the anti-Federal party was directed with great determination and dexterity, and where the path was treacherous with many pitfalls. Barton took over the leadership there at a time of crisis, and he more than any other individual brought the struggle to successful fruition.

This he did by sheer weight of reason, imparting no bitterness into the contentions, never speaking to wound an opponent, but to convince the people whose votes would decide.

His leadership of the Convention was thoroughly masterly in all its features, so suave, and patient, and concessionary that difficulties seemed to melt away as soon as he touched them. Withal this leader in a great national cause was one of the most lovable of men, kind and gentle, polished and polite in his manners, on easy terms with everybody. If one looks down the list of names of the members of the Australian Federal Convention — and there are illustrious names in that list — and asks the question: Could anyone else have led that assemblage of politicians with anything like Barton’s success? — only one answer is possible.

The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Saturday 22 July 1939, page 22

[Editor: The editorial introduction to this article has been italicized, so as to distinguish it from the text written by Professor Scott.]

Speak Your Mind