This chapter from my book, The Southern Tree of Liberty, discusses three discourses by radical intellectuals responding to the deformed system of representation in New South Wales in the 1840s - constitutional, civic and plebeian. It focuses on James McEachern as the voice of constitutional radicalism, William A. Duncan as the voice of civic radicalism, and Edmund Mason and William Evers whose newspapers allowed the voice of plebeian radicalism to be heard. It is an example of materialist intellectual history, establishing the meaning of ideas through studying their historical context.

Radical Strategies – Radical Voices

Chapter 9

By 1843, the radicals had achieved a great deal. Through their efforts the first wave of free immigrants had constructed a colonial political identity as independent workingmen, and the delegates of the trades were propelled into a leadership role in the contentious politics of mass pressure. Radical ideas had shaped a new understanding of popular politics in which the demands of “the people” superseded the earlier focus on emancipist rights. All of this was achieved in the absence of representative self-government – and indeed because of its absence. Through publicly called, properly conducted, and broadly attended meetings, the radicals had sought to reveal the nature of public opinion. Through agitation they had set out to move people into action, to create “the people” as a political actor. Through education they had hoped to create a following for the idea of equal rights and radical policies on land and immigration.

Then, with the beginning of representative government, the radicals faced an entirely new and confronting situation. Along with everybody else, radicals in the colony accepted that a representative, “parliamentary”, assembly was a more reliable and legitimate means than public meetings for reaching a majority view on matters of public interest. An elected legislature, even if it were “mixed” with appointed members and unable to determine who would form the government, was constituted to engage in meaningful deliberation. So, when the Legislative Council met, instantly the radicals were out-manoeuvred as the sole defenders of public opinion. In addition, their project of creating the people was undermined. Elections were an alternative site of agitation, one that fed into the process of elevating prominent local citizens by highlighting social difference, rather than integrating the people through common action. Finally, the radical education of the people was jeopardised by the volatility of the crowd, as political leaders, expressing the greater complexity of public life, exploited nativist, ethnic, and religious identities in their quest for support.

Of course, the new situation also provided opportunities, and thus the need to make strategic choices. One choice was “to combine”, to challenge the new governmental arrangements with a more inclusive “people’s organisation”. The timing of the formation of the Mutual Protection Association (MPA) – on the eve of the first meeting of the partly elected Legislative Council – certainly indicated that some radicals were intent on following this path. Another choice was to divide, to recognise that choosing one path meant ignoring others. The imperfections in the new constitution, by forcing consideration of the principles of representation and self-government, produced such a choice, dividing the radicals into those who opted to reform the constitution and those who wanted to suspend it. Moreover, the new situation also provided a structure of opportunity, in which new forces pushed their way through a door which earlier forces had opened. In New South Wales, the idea of self-government as a demand for recognition by workers was bound to spread beyond the “respectable” and educated workers to the plebeian and unskilled, and a new fissure was created. In this way, the impulse “to combine” was undermined by the appearance of different strategies and voices in the radical movement. In this chapter we will look at these discursive differences. We will look at three voices and four radical writers: James McEachern and the voice of constitutional radicalism; William Duncan and civic radicalism; and Edmund Mason and Henry Evers whose newspapers allowed the voice of plebeian radicalism to be heard.

Constitutional radicalism

The system of representation provided by the new constitution was deformed. The franchise was restricted, the distribution of seats was skewed to under-represent voters in the towns, and the membership of the Council was confined to wealthy landowners. Colonists were entitled to vote if they owned freehold property worth 200 pounds or occupied a residence valued at 20 pounds per annum. In 1843 there were 9315 on the rolls, while the free white male population at the census of 1841 was 63,454. The seat of Sydney had 3319 electors and two members, whereas the seat of St Vincent and Auckland (the most southern of the county electorates) had just 73 electors for its single representative. Port Phillip (excluding Melbourne) had 470 electors but was entitled to five representatives.1 An elected member of the Legislative Council had to possess a freehold of 2000 pounds or 100 pounds per year.

If consent was the fundamental and legitimating principle of representative government, it was difficult to pretend that the people had consented at the 1843 election to be governed by their representatives.2 The colonial radicals drew two conclusions: that the Council was not legitimate (Lang’s Colonial Observer called it “the Bastard-Parliament of New South Wales”),3 and that they should campaign to reform the system of representation. This campaign, drawing on ideas of equal citizenship rights, presented the radicals as non-sectional, defenders of the British Constitution. In this campaign the colonial voice of constitutional radicalism was raised.

There was no shortage of provocation making such a campaign necessary. Every colonist who had followed the arguments about representative government since 1842 knew that the constitution was meant to be a barrier to popular rule. Indeed, Wentworth, whose victory in Sydney had confirmed how out of touch the electoral minority were with majority opinion in the town, reacted to arguments about the Legislative Council ignoring or injuring the interests of the people by declaring, with Hobbesian arrogance, that “the House is the people”.4 If the British Parliament was Wentworth’s model then he had failed to appreciate that the Reform Act of 1832 was based on a different understanding of the relationship between parliament and people. Certainly since that Act the members of parliament could retain their independence as representatives of a diverse and extended electorate only if “the people” and “the representatives” were separate entities, if the House was not the People. It was, of course, to the post-1832 constitution that radicals offered their loyalty. They responded to Wentworth’s claim, as the liberal and radical proponents of parliamentary reform had in 1831, by arguing that a selfish aristocracy dominated the legislature. Like the Philosophical Radicals of 1831, the colonial radicals advocated the formation of a union of the middle and working classes to defeat this aristocracy, and to extend the franchise, increase the representation of the towns, and secure the independence of voters through the ballot.5 Only when these reforms were achieved would elections perform the role of legitimating representative government through the consent of the people.

Representation was a liberal principle but no liberal movement mobilised to advance it – a situation that continued until the Australian Colonies Government Act of 1850 forced the Government and the elected members to legislate for electoral reform. In the first cohort of elected members, only Lang showed any interest in extending the franchise or redistributing the seats, and even he was lukewarm.6 In fact, the main purpose of the elected members’ interest in representation was to restrict popular involvement in elections, and in particular to break the connection between the Municipal Council and “the mobocracy of Sydney”.7 This Wentworth hoped to do by restricting membership of the City Council to holders of property worth 1000 pounds, and requiring citizens to produce six months of rental receipts for enrolment to vote, but doubts about feasibility, and the sight of McEachern, Macdermott and Bob Nichols addressing an angry public meeting called by the MPA against the proposal, led to its defeat.8

This was not the first occasion that James McEachern had appeared in public after his Sydney Free Press had folded late in 1842. He worked briefly for the municipal corporation – before being dismissed by the Town Clerk. McEachern insisted that the reason was his interference in an internal inquiry to defend another employee, but the record suggests that McEachern was not a particularly willing subordinate. It was rumoured that he was on the lookout for another journal to edit.9 In March 1844 he was sufficiently re-connected to JD Lang (who had given him his first break in colonial journalism) to be able to help the MPA publish the early issues of its paper, The Guardian, from the office of The Colonial Observer.

It is not clear if McEachern was ever a member of the association; certainly by April 1844 he was ejected from The Guardian. He made no appearances at the meetings of the working classes, but then nor had he supported the trades societies in 1841 during the campaign over the Masters and Servants Bill. However, his philosophic and philanthropic instincts propelled him into meetings on the franchise, on relieving the distress of the Sydney Aboriginals, and on law and order in the city.10 As maverick as he was impetuous, McEachern supported Duncan at the end of the year for a seat on the Municipal Council, although there had been a very public falling out between them in 1842.11

It was McEachern who wrote the powerful leading articles of the Guardian’s first three issues, dealing with the MPA’s political philosophy, its critique of the colony’s social, economic and political arrangements, and its strategy. He described its political principles as those of “Constitutional Radicalism”, or “pure and rational liberty, based on the indefeasible rights of man, and regulated by just views and sound policy”. Of course, he said, “constitutionality” was defined differently by Tories, Whigs, and Radicals. The Radical understanding, based on the writings of Bentham and Lord Durham, relied not only on the positive rights recognised by the constitution, but on principles prior and independent to these, such as rectitude, and justice, as defined in the phrase, “the greatest good of the greatest number”. James Mill was likely to have been another influence.

The aim of constitutional radicalism was “a salutary balance of power between the constituent interests of the colony”. Using the categories of classical political economy (land, capital, and labour), McEachern distinguished the three great interests of modern society, the landed, the monied, and the trading and industrial, each with an associated social class: the aristocracy, the middle classes, and the working classes. In political life, however, the middle classes made common cause with the working classes to produce the two great parties of the age: the aristocratic and the democratic. When the aristocratic party had too much influence, government tended in the direction of oligarchy; when the democracy had too much power, government tended to be republican. The MPA would strive for a sound balance between these extremes as the basis for constitutional government and British liberty.

Turning to the situation in New South Wales, McEachern told his readers that “the working classes” of the colony were suffering because of the lack of “a legitimate and wholesome equilibrium between the constituent interests” – he was referring to the economic balance. The wealth of the pastoral industry underpinned a “colonial aristocracy”. The MPA, McEachern stressed, had no objection in a social and economic point of view to the existence of a landed class. The trouble was that great wealth generated great “pride” and “lust for power”, and eventually to “a spirit of domination”. It was even worse when this wealth had been amassed through “slave labour”, as in New South Wales.

The current example of this lust for power was the attempt to impose a tariff on wheat and flour from Tasmania. In this matter McEachern drew on the propaganda of the Anti-Corn Law League in Britain. For several weeks the paper was heavy with extracts from Cobden’s speeches, dense discussions of the free trade arguments of Say, McCulloch, and Ricardo, and smug refutations of protectionist fallacies. However, the favourite, persistent example of aristocratic dominance was immigration. There were select committees of the Legislative Council on Immigration in 1835, 1837, 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1843. There would be further committees in 1845 and 1847. McEachern wrote that the report of the 1843 Committee reflected the views of “a shameless and disgraceful combination among employers of labour” to reduce wages. “Experience and common sense”, he said, showed workingmen that their interests were not identical with those of their masters. They knew this from their own distress and from observing the attempts of the employers to “overstock” the “labour market”. The workingmen should be on their guard, for the next move of the employers would be to revive the campaign for Coolie labour. Here McEachern came close to the issues of dignity and respect that convict and Coolie labour elicited among workers, but the impression his discussion leaves is that he was writing as someone commenting from the outside.

The suffering of the workingmen was entrenched because the landed interest monopolised political representation. Constitutional radicalism relied on a union of the middle and working classes to restore the balance, thus avoiding the accusation of class bias had the working classes alone been called upon. But how would this come about? Then McEachern referred to the colony’s political history: the people awoke to their interests only when the period of “delusive prosperity” began to wane in 1842. At the two meetings on representative government in that year, “the domineering spirit of the Aristocracy were signally unmasked”. McEachern, of course, had reason to remember those meetings. He had made a fool of himself at the first meeting, and had published his pamphlet on “the indefeasible rights of man” in an effort to make up some ground for the radicals. Successfully, at least in his own memory, for he went on to say that despite the “treacherous manoeuvres” of Macarthur and Wentworth the franchise was extended to the middle and working classes in Sydney and the towns. This statement would have surprised all those workers – perhaps 80 per cent of them – who could not vote. He did acknowledge however that the (supposed) enfranchisement was offset by the skewing of the seats to favour the “counties”. The strategy for the middle and working classes, therefore, was to use their “associated numbers” in the MPA to form public opinion around a program to extend the franchise, obtain the secret ballot, redistribute the electorates to reduce the dominance of the counties, and “to elect men of proper stamp” in the towns to represent “the popular interest”.12

By the time these articles were printed the MPA had already decided that it should campaign for the Governor’s recall.13 The association criticised Gipps for the inadequate response of the Government to the plight of the unemployed; it also saw him as the symbol of the constitutional arrangement that excluded the middle and working classes from representation, and so allowed the government to follow an anti-working-class policy.14 The logic of constitutional radicalism as well as contingent pressures lay behind the decision.

Meanwhile, the “party” led by Wentworth in the Council was also following a constitutionalist path. It had been attacking the local government’s constitutionally protected powers since the beginning of representative government. So a suitable issue might bring the working-class MPA into an alliance with the agricultural and pastoral employers who followed Wentworth’s party. Gipps’s Squatting Regulations of April 1844 had just this effect. The Guardian called the Regulations an “arbitrary exercise of power ... by an irresponsible Executive”, accepting the (invalid) argument developed by the pastoralists that Gipps had acted illegally, on the grounds that the Waste Lands Act made the Governor subject to legislative authority in this area.15 Most of the members of the MPA’s Committee signed the Pastoral Association’s petition.16

Of course, it was a very unequal partnership, because Wentworth’s campaign against irresponsible government would always have far greater public impact than the MPA’s arguments for constitutional reform. Wentworth and his followers claimed the legitimacy of elected representatives, they attracted the regular attention of the colony’s main daily, The Herald, and they had a lot of money. More damaging for the radicals was the fact that this new alignment diverted attention away from the anti-working class and anti-democratic policies of the pastoral capitalists who formed the political elite. Radicals were expected to decide whether they thought the Government or the “cormorant squatters” were their worse enemy, when they might have been agitating to create the union of the working and middle classes. This was confusing. However, once the issue was posed in these terms it was impossible to escape the choice. Constitutional radicalism led its adherents to oppose the Governor; those radicals who chose to continue to see radicalism as a struggle against class oppression, and therefore chose to support the Governor, found a voice in the new weekly journal of WA Duncan.

Civic radicalism

When Duncan published the first issue of The Weekly Register of Politics, Facts and General Literature in July 1843, he called his new venture a “resurrection”. His radical faith was as strong as ever; at 32 years of age he was not ready to recant just because he had been expelled from the editorship of The Chronicle a few months earlier. He announced that he would continue to oppose class legislation, and to advance “the popular cause”; he would defend the many against the few, especially as “moderate conservatives” ran the rest of the Sydney press. About “moderate conservatism” he was scathing. It was “just as much oppression of the many by the few as the spirit of the age will bear”, and he named the oppressors: the false “patriots” (led by Wentworth) who would strip the people of their rights behind the cloak of attacks on the Government, and the speculators with their pet schemes to saddle the people with a national debt so that capitalists like themselves could exploit the people.17 Over at The Chronicle, the new editor warned Duncan to curb “the hastiness and acerbity of his temper”, but it was pointless to expect Duncan to moderate his radical hatred of oligarchical rule.18

Nor had Duncan lost any of his sympathy for the working classes and the trades societies. He gratefully received donations from the societies of the shoemakers and painters when The Register was setting up, and, as two other societies – of stonemasons and carpenters – decided narrowly not to support his paper, it is quite clear that many workers in the organised trades believed that Duncan was still defending their cause.19 The Weekly Register amply repaid this support. When the MPA took up the plight of the unemployed he reported favourably on their efforts to obtain relief, and wished that the Governor would be more sympathetic.20 In December 1843 he castigated the witnesses who appeared before the select committee on immigration for the “rancorous animosity” they displayed against the working classes.21 As a proponent of political economy, Duncan defended the rights of workers to combine to raise wages, as this was clearly provided for under the laws of supply and demand, and similarly, employers had the right to combine. The only limitations on this organised contest were that neither side should harm third parties nor expect to be assisted by public funds.22 Workers were entitled to high wages when the economy was strong, but they had to expect lower wages when the economy contracted.

Yet, in time, he did break ranks with other radicals, for he became increasingly critical of the Mutual Protection Association. This was not because he was unimpressed by the idea of a “union of the trades”, for he publicised the need for such a development as part of a “union of the liberal interest”. It was because he thought the MPA was not what it claimed to be, and because he thought it pandered to the baser instincts of the working class.

Initially, Duncan offered support for the MPA, but distanced himself from its leaders: “such an institution if well conducted cannot be otherwise than beneficial”, but he hoped that “enlightened and more prudent” men would come to the top.23 What he saw was an organisation whose leadership was divided into two groups, neither of which he could support. First, there were men from the building trades societies who called for government-funded public works but wanted to use such work to hold onto the level of wages that prevailed before the depression. As public funds were being used, Duncan regarded this as illegitimate. Second, there were the building contractors whose ultimate objective was the privatisation of the public works. They were quite happy to support the push for higher wages on public works in the hope that it would discredit government-run construction, with the result that the work would be let out on contract. Duncan believed these master-builders did not really want to serve the interests of the workingmen.24

Apart from unacceptable leaders, the MPA had another defect in Duncan’s eyes: it was culturally suspect. The association held its weekly meetings at a pub – Clarkson’s Spread Eagle Inn on Elizabeth Street. Although Duncan liked to drink wine, he did not approve of the connection between liberal politics and “pot-houses”.25 Vigorous debate might be the hallmark of radicalism, but the meetings of the MPA had a reputation for warmth of the wrong kind. According to the writer of a letter published by Duncan, rum was consumed in shocking quantities.26 The Guardian reported that after the annual meeting there was a fracas caused by some disaffected and “turbulent” members who were told to mend their ways or face “punishment”.27 The fear of losing the status of being “respectable”, of diluting reason with sentiment, inserted a cultural divide between Duncan and the mostly uneducated workers for whom class politics meant empathy and spontaneity, nurtured in the kind of conviviality found in the public house. Those delegates of the trades who preferred to meet in Vercoe’s Temperance Coffee House, and the Irish improvers who rallied at meetings of the St Patrick’s Total Abstinence Society, no doubt understood his feelings.

Duncan’s break with the MPA came over the Governor’s Squatting Regulations. He had observed the behaviour of the elected legislators in 1843 with increasing indignation. The usury Bill, the paper currency plan, and other “mad” schemes to lift the pastoral speculators out of the depression at the expense of their fellow colonists were, in his eyes, examples of class legislation of the worse kind.28 When the budget estimates came up for discussion, and the elected members tried to undermine the Government’s financial powers in the interests of their idea of self-government, his leading article was headed, “Retrenchment – Revolutionary Politicians”. He accused the “demagogue lawyers”, Wentworth and Windeyer, of “incipient disloyalty”.29 At the end of the year, he warned that if the land- and stock-owners achieved their aim of flooding the market with cheap labour, the colony would face a future of “interminable conflict” between classes.30 So the formation of the Pastoral Association in April 1844 to organise opposition to the Squatting Regulations he saw as the not-unexpected culmination of a history of selfish and misguided policies.

Up to this point, Duncan had not publicly criticised the MPA, but when it endorsed the squatters he felt that the association had finally revealed its true, pro-employer interest. In the following issue of The Weekly Register Duncan mocked the association and its journal:

Who for example would refuse himself the gratification of perusing a journal said to report the proceedings of some new Grand Junction “Mutual Protection Association”, [purporting] to relate some unheard of “Glorious Triumph of the Working Classes”.31

What was “mutual” about small squatters and “cormorant” squatters paying the same licence fee? The present licensing system worked against the small squatters; the new Regulations would make the large squatters pay more. The readers of The Guardian, who ought to welcome a more equitable regulation of squatting, were being duped.32 Just weeks later he allowed The Register to carry the letter exposing the dominance of the building contractors in the MPA, and by July he was announcing with satisfaction that “the operatives” were separating themselves from “the ‘Mutual Protection’ nuisance”.33 When Duncan publicly broke with the MPA his reasons were consistent with his long-standing radical hatred of class legislation. It did not signal that he was becoming more conservative or less sympathetic to the workingmen.

Since 1841 he had been castigating the “cormorant squatters” as a “faction”.34 This term had a long history in British parliamentary radicalism. Duncan chose it deliberately to convey not just the divisive effect of the squatters’ actions, but to suggest that they were promoting their interests at the expense of the public. They were acting in bad faith, and betraying the people.35 They were calumniators, labelling the “popular” forces as “rebels, Jacobins and Chartists”.36 When the Legislative Council began to meet he noted that the elected members, behind the pretence of “constitutionalism”, voted as an oligarchic faction. They were seeking to steal the land of the colony, land that the Crown held in trust for the people of the whole empire.37 They cared nothing for “the community at large, including those who earn their livelihood with their own hands”.38 It was clear to him that factional politics was divisive; worse, as he contemplated the actions of Wentworth and Windeyer, he concluded that it promoted demagoguery. He recalled that Wentworth had made an “inflammatory” speech to his supporters on the eve of the election riots, and that Windeyer made a provocative speech at the 1842 representative government meeting. Looking further afield, he detected the same tendency for factional politics in the City Council, as well as more evidence about Wentworth’s manipulation of electoral politics. Councillors Thurlow and Flood claimed that Wentworth’s election was due to improper control exercised over the workingmen who rented his properties.39 Duncan began to feel that the problem was more basic, a “deficiency of public honour and public spirit”.40

What was to be done? Was it more radical to try to overcome factionalism within the existing constitutional framework or to reject the constitution and the long-standing liberal campaign for self-government? Duncan chose the latter course. Representative government might be a “beautiful” principle but it was not universally applicable.41 Would we allow it to govern the family, or schools, or penitentiaries? No; so, why would we deem it suitable for young colonies where a “dominant faction” plans “to subject the executive power” to its control?42 Some institutions, some immature societies, Duncan concluded, needed to be guided from above. As for “constitutionalism”, it was a mere fetish, a “magical” term:

For our own part, we never could understand precisely what people mean by constitutional and unconstitutional, even as applied to England, far less as respects the colonies ... [We] find some of them governed by the mere will of the Sovereign; others by a small body of Crown nominees; others by a mixed assembly of nominees and elective members; and some few by a legislature moulded after the Parliament of Great Britain, and consisting of two houses.43

When the people had knowledge, public spirit, and settled political principles then it might be time for representative government. In the meantime, “We do not think that the representative principle is yet a sufficient check to that already too well displayed selfishness of our representatives in dealing with the property of the Empire”.44

What was the alternative to representative government? Back in 1839 Duncan had let fly with angry rhetoric when faced with Buller’s “gammoning” by James Macarthur: the colonists should petition “for a dictator, for the unfettered rule of one single man, responsible only to his sovereign and to public opinion for his deeds”.45 By the end of 1843 rhetoric had become political argument. He had decided that there were times when it was necessary to defend the principle of monarchy against “revolutionary politicians” in the ruling class, although he admitted to feeling awkward about this, because his political views still tended towards democracy. The title of one of his leading articles asked: “Shall we have the Queen or an Oligarchy?” As he had repeatedly exposed the self-serving program of the elected members, his answer was never in doubt. Now it was time to recognise the benefits bestowed on the colony by the Imperial Government and its local representative. It had promoted religious and educational institutions, established trial by jury, extended the franchise beyond that recommended by the famous Petition Committee, and conferred municipal government on the colony against the wishes of Wentworth and his followers.46 He followed the analysis up with action. When the elected members passed a series of resolutions on “grievances” in 1844, Duncan made the office of The Register available for the signing of a petition from “persons of influence” supporting the Governor against statements in the resolutions “offensive” to the Executive government of the colony.47 These so-called grievances, he said, boiled down to the Governor interposing his authority between the grasping squatters and the people, and that was a blessing, not a grievance.48

Duncan understood the importance of patronage in professional life, and he would be rewarded for his loyalty only two years later with a government job in the Brisbane customs office. We do not know his motives at this time, but in his writings he went far beyond any arguments that might have counted had he wanted merely to woo the Governor. He provided a coherent justification for benign autocracy in terms that envisaged the development of a society in which radical values could flourish. It helped, of course, that the Governor was curtailing the power of the “cormorant” squatters, but, paradoxically, the absence of self-government had opened a space to consider the social underpinning required for popular rule. In this space, a civic radicalism could be contemplated, one that placed the emphasis not on the constitution of the state but on the proper relationship between ruler and ruled. Communication between elected rulers and the people should be characterised by “that sympathy of life” by means of which each member of society “is necessarily interested in the head, as the head is in the well-being of the community he represents”.49 For the time being an autocrat would rule, but after a set of benign reforms, to nurture this sympathy, the people would be ready to govern themselves.

One justification was to enhance the attraction of autocratic rule by contrasting it with the single most negative effect of oligarchic dominance in public life: keeping the people ignorant of their true interests. Throughout 1844 and 1845 this was one of his recurrent themes. “The cause of liberty has suffered more from the unenlightened exercise of the popular will, than it could possibly have done from the machinations of tyrants”. For example, the French republicans, having drenched the country in blood, called on Napoleon to save them.50

Our present constituency have not that knowledge of what is calculated to affect their political interests for good or evil, nor have they that rectitude and firmness of character which are essential in order that public opinion should be a sufficient safeguard against bad legislation.51

Popular ignorance is certainly one of the greatest evils that can exist in a free state. Beautiful as is the principle of representative government, it must be acknowledged that to heap franchises on a people that neither know the value nor the uses of them is, after all, but to furnish them with the weapons of self-destruction. To contemplate a people who are blind and deaf to their own obvious interests is anything but an agreeable pastime.52

The more important justification, however, was the analysis of what made the people so indifferent to their interests. Duncan’s key insights here were the flux and individualism of colonial society. New South Wales was “a new country” in which there were no “time-hallowed institutions” and where parties were “not yet strictly formed”.53 Nor was there any tradition of deference to one’s betters, because “all men are upon a perfect equality”.54 Moreover, in their economic relations “men are more independent of one another”, because of the insidious “lure of money-making”. Culturally, it was a multi-cultural, multi-faith society, “peopled as it is from four different nations, professing a variety of creeds”.55 Hence, “new classes and new interests of classes are daily springing up”. In this kind of society, divisions could be exploited by demagogues, “men who would perpetuate division by making existing and unavoidable divisions a watch word at elections”. Such men “ought to be branded as public enemies”.56

How could such divisions be bridged? In 1840 Duncan had declared that “A PEOPLE do exist in this colony” and that they “only only want to be put in motion”.57 Three years later, disillusioned by the absence of popular movement and the predatory behaviour of the elected members, and fortified by his analysis of the nature of colonial society, he accepted the need for a pro-active state to strengthen the corporate identity of the people. Three reforms would be needed, each of them currently opposed by the squatters but fortuitously embraced to a certain degree by the Government. They were: public education, small-scale cooperative agriculture, and municipal government.

Education was “one of the first and greatest wants of a people – the source of their glory and prosperity, the base of their political existence”.58 Duncan had championed the idea of “a non-denomina-tional, comprehensive system” of education as early as 1840, when it was possible to imagine that enlightened reform was unstoppable, but now it was desperately needed.59 The elections of 1843 had demonstrated that “interested politicians” could seduce the people with the prospect of “temporary benefits”, and this was a “danger to liberty”. Thus, it was imperative that education should have a “public” function. It had to provide a “moral and intellectual” foundation for the exercise of political rights.60 Indeed, it was just as important as widening the franchise, a view that got Duncan into trouble with the constitutional radicals for whom franchise reform was the sine qua non of radicalism.61 However, it was denominational resistance that created the most difficulty for the proponents of the “National” system of education that Duncan supported. In September 1844 an organised crowd of Catholics broke up successive meetings in support of moves in the Legislative Council to supersede the system of voting public funds for denominational schools. Opposition also came from meetings of members of the Dissenting denominations and the Church of England.62 These signs of division were painful to Duncan. They reinforced his view that education was necessary not only to protect the people, through strengthening their public life, but also to help them realise their collective identity. Individuals and sections could be misled, but it was “hardly possible for an educated community to fall into such errors”.63 Public education was the very basis for a politics of the people.

Mutuality came a close second. Between December 1843 and April 1844 Duncan published four articles (which he reproduced as a pamphlet) recommending government assistance to agricultural unions.64 He was also well known as an advocate of diversifying the colony’s rural resources, writing pamphlets on wine-growing and the reason for the failure of crops, and a stream of articles on rural products, including olives, silk, tallow, and mimosa bark. He was not alone in wanting to switch the balance of the economy from pastoral to agricultural production; there was a very general agrarianism in the colony – part pre-industrial nostalgia, part colonising vision – as well as the more politically focused hatred of the squatters. But what made Duncan unique was his insistence that the agricultural unions should be cooperative enterprises. Faced with a turbulent mass of unemployed workers, made redundant in Europe by industrialisation and in the colony by pastoralism, Duncan was one of those progressive thinkers who sought an alternative solution to that offered by economic liberalism. “Let it be clearly understood”, he wrote, “that we are advocating the principle of association in opposition to the establishment [on farms] of isolated uninstructed working men”.65

What was being associated was labour rather than capital. As he re-iterated in the fourth of his articles, concluding his survey of rural communes in France, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland, in agricultural working unions, “United labour supplies the place of capital”.66 One of his sources, a French newspaper called L’Unité, formulated the basic principles of this tradition of labourist associationism: the agricultural union should consist of every rank, and recognise that “labour is the imprescriptible right of all men”.67 The leading exponent of this tradition was the recently deceased French socialist writer, Charles Fourier, whom Duncan referred to in his pamphlet. Fourier envisaged “phalanges” of about 1600 people, living in a common building (the phalanstère) but in private domestic spaces. They would work their land in common and vary their tasks. The product of their labour would be divided among them according to a strict formula measuring the amount of labour, capital, or talent that members contributed. After Fourier died in 1837 his followers set up various phalanstères, one of which provided Duncan with his model. In Duncan’s plan, the government would provide “a trifling advance” to cover the setting-up costs, but members would also contribute either a small sum or additional labour to the association. Departing from Fourier, Duncan said that a successful working union would need about 100 members and two or three hundred acres of land. Each member would have a small private plot for an orchard or individual crop, but there would be common land (he mentions 200 acres) for the association’s joint crops or herds. Members would work part of the day in the common land for the association, or on agricultural experiments, and the remainder in their private gardens.

The superior productivity of such associated enterprise was assumed not to need proof, but Duncan (unlike Fourier) was not optimistic about human nature, which he felt might be too individualistic for cooperative work. So he drew on his faith in benign autocracy. The agricultural union had to have a strong “central committee”, and elaborate Regulations “which must be framed with judgment, and they must be strictly enforced”. There should also be incentives for “merit, industry, and orderly conduct”. Eventually, small villages would form around these associations, attracting tradesmen from the city and investment in schooling and policing from the government. But this was agrarianism with a very particular social purpose. Duncan did not lose sight of his aim of using these agricultural cooperatives to “raise up” the workingmen, so that they would no longer be slaves of the higher classes of society.68 They would instead form part of a self-sufficient, self-governing, and respectable population of farmers and tradesmen – a population that could be trusted to know its own interests.

Naturally, strong local government was part of this perspective, and it would prove equally elusive. Although the Constitution Act of 1842 provided for the establishment of District Councils, Britain never intended them to function merely as local governments. They were a way of fastening half the cost of police and gaols – a contentious issue in the Legislative Council since 1835 – directly on to the population, and of enhancing the power of the Governor. He would administer the police fund raised in part by the tax imposed by the councils, appoint the Warden for each council, and approve or disallow the district by-laws. Consequently there was not the slightest chance that the Legislative Council would pass the necessary Acts to set up this pretence at local government, as it demonstrated each year from 1843. At last, in 1846, the Colonial Office admitted defeat and quietly dropped the District Councils. Meanwhile, the Governor had been stubbornly trying to carry out his constitutional duty, issuing 29 charters for these councils. A few of them met, but as the Legislative Council refused to pass the local Act enabling District Councils to impose rates or duties they soon slipped into inactivity.69 However, this front of the struggle between the Governor and the elected “land monopolists” made another opening for Duncan to develop his argument about the kind of society the people needed for self-government.

Duncan never accepted that the opposition to the District Councils was purely because they were taxing bodies. As he pointed out, as early as 1842 James Macarthur had opposed the introduction of local government on the grounds that it would enfranchise “small farmers, shop keepers, and mechanics”, and he noted that, in the current Legislative Council, Wentworth, Windeyer and Lowe had opposed the Governor’s attempt to lower the voting qualification for the District Councils. Macarthur and others of his ilk had spent their livcs “endeavouring to establish and consolidate in this colony a system of aristocracy, or plutocracy … which would debar the middle and lower classes from all share in government”.70 Macarthur’s friend, the nominee Edward Hamilton, was quite explicitly reactionary in his view of all municipal institutions: they were “only schools for popular agitation”.71 Year by year, as the elected representatives blocked the setting up of the District Councils, Duncan became more incensed. At first he was content to set out the benefits of local government, the jobs that public works would produce, the schools that would be built, and the general civilising effect of local responsibility.72 But by 1844 he was calling on the Governor to dissolve the Legislative Council because its opposition to the District Council clauses had made the constitution a dead letter. The defiance of imperial law by the land monopolists, he said, should be regarded as an act of political suicide.73 At the same time his vision of the purpose of local government had come to the fore. Not only were local government bodies “absolutely essential to the maintenance of the liberties of the people”, but they were “schools of politics”. In a telling phrase that summed up his preoccupation with the formation of popular identity, he likened the “District Corporations” to “small republics”.74

The republican ideal of active citizenship was the common thread in Duncan’s civic radicalism. His vision of citizens actively governing their own lives at the local level while accepting that they were subjects of a benign governor at the level of the central state could have been drawn from the republican traditions of Tudor and Stuart England.75 However, the epigraph for each issue of The Weekly Register indicated that he was also influenced by the republican debate at the time of the framing of the United States Constitution in the late 18th century. He attributed the epigraph to Alexander Hamilton, one of the joint authors of The Federalist Papers, and it came from number 51 in the series:

It is of great importance in a State – not only to guard Society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of Society against the injustice of the other part. Justice is the end of Government – It is the end of civil Society.

He substituted “State” for “republic” in the original, but the republican thrust of the idea of protecting society from its rulers is still present. And he omitted a large slab of the original about the importance of including a multiplicity of interests in society so that he could get quickly to the sentence about justice. That was Duncan’s point, the prevention of one class oppressing another rather than the benefits of multiplying interests within a conservative federalist structure, which of course was irrelevant in the colony. When the squatters in April 1844 revealed that they wanted responsible government so that they could claim the Crown lands as their “inheritance” (the term was Wentworth’s) Duncan pointed to his epigraph for proof of his foresight. And in the same editorial he indicated that he would prefer a Cromwell or a Napoleon to arise and clear the house to make room for a better government than to allow an unjust but “responsible” squatter government to rob the people of the land.76 In his desire to achieve an active citizenry before worrying about the structure of representative government he had travelled a long way from the position of the constitutional radicals.

Plebeian radicalism

We now come to a very different radical voice. Representative government was meant to be a bulwark against popular rule. The colonial radicals in the early 1840s, or at least those who articulated radicalism’s program and strategy, accepted this; they were not “democrats” in the contemporary sense of supporting a system of government that produced popular turmoil and anarchy, however much their agitation and organisation militated in a mass, popular direction. Mobilising labourers and “the poor” for collective action was part of radicalism’s process of creating the people; giving them the vote was not – at least not until they had been exposed to a liberal education and the practice of citizenship at the municipal level. Whenever the colonial radicals of the early 1840s were pushed into contemplating universal male suffrage they qualified their “in principle” support for it in this way.77 However, although the idea of representation could be quarantined, its object, self-government could not, for it was bound up with powerful expectations about subjectivity. “Self-government” turned out to be a very contagious idea, not as a description of how the state should be run, but as part of a cluster of ideas about the connection between politics and the personal.

Among these ideas were “independence” and “dignity”. Just as, for the “respectable” part of the population, “economic independence” was a political idea because it functioned as a guarantee against bribery in voting, for the labouring part of the “operative classes” demanding recognition as a free person was politically subversive. This was because insisting that you were not a slave connected ideas of dignity and independence with a natural rather than a man-made order. As The Star, one of the journals that addressed the labourers, insisted, “The natural disposition of man is independence [not] hired service”.78 Self-government in the discourse of those who ruled was a claim for equality between two bodies, Britain and the colony, and, in the same way, among those who were ruled it meant a claim for equal rights for all colonists on the basis that, as nature intended, they could govern their own selves. It denied the practices of subserviency and invisibility that characterised relations between labourers and other classes in Britain, and thus placed labourers firmly in the march to “independence” with other workers in the colony. Thus, a “plebeian” radicalism took shape.

Its effect was to divide radicals by sensibility as much as by ideas. The sensibilities that clustered radicals around two poles were those of the head and the heart, of reason and feeling, of planning and spontaneity. The former pole attracted those with an elitist attitude to the radical project, the latter pole attracted the plebeians. Sociologically, the bearers of the two sensibilities were different. The elitist sensibility attracted those who already had an economic stake in the colony as tradesmen, shopkeepers, small manufacturers or farmers. The plebeians were labourers and journeymen, often peripatetic. Culturally, the division was between “respectability”, which was signalled by domestic propriety, savings, church attendance, self-improvement, avoidance of pubs, perhaps even teetotalism, and its opposite, a lifestyle of work and play, spending one’s earnings on gambling, drinking and entertainment, in pubs, theatres and sporting contests.

Feeling and spontaneity had political functions, although it was difficult for Duncan, Lang, or McEachern to accept this. When the “friends of the people” spoke of rights their oppositional rhetoric always assumed that the people were a reasoning public. Their right to be heard on behalf of the people was based on arguments drawn from the abstract realms of political philosophy; their prescriptions were based on political economy. Moreover, the collective identity of their constituents could be idealised as “industrious” and “productive” as well as “reasonable”. It was difficult to extend these arguments and values to unskilled labourers and journeymen, seasonal workers and seamen. Numerically, however, these were more truly of “the people” than the tradesmen and shopkeepers who could afford sixpence or more a week for a radical newspaper. More importantly, they were “the mass” that the radicals relied on. In the colony there were newspapers selling for a penny or threepence that sought their readers from amongst these “outsiders”. At first glance their matter seemed sensationalist and lurid, with advertisements for “Persons Afflicted with Syphilitic Complaints”, and another for John Merrington, whose carts collected night soil, dust and rubbish, “agreeable to the Act of Council”. However, they also treated their readers as political actors.79

Two of these papers with runs between 1843 and 1846 have survived. Edmund Mason and Henry Evers published The Sun and New South Wales Independent Press, which appeared in the early months of 1843. It became The True Sun in June 1843, when Evers alone appears to have been in charge. It was still appearing, perhaps intermittently, in November 1844. Mason in July 1843 had turned his attention to a weekly called The Censor Morum, which aimed to protect “the prisoner of the crown from all oppression” and “the labouring poor against the tyranny of the monied interest”.80 At the end of the year he brought out The Parramatta Chronicle, which he continued to publish until late in 1845, and in March 1844 (when the MPA’s Guardian also began to appear), The Star and Working Man’s Guardian.81 It lasted until May 1846.

Their voice was plebeian rather than “working class” in the sense used by respectable radicals, with overtones of resentment, defiance, and menace. In fact The Star used the term “plebeian” to describe the social category in the towns that needed to be “raised up” so that, in cooperation with the tenantry, the “Agrarian Party” could be defeated.82 Although sometimes the writers identified themselves with the “respectable operative classes”, they more commonly referred to the “labouring” people or classes, or with less of a sense of stratification, to the “oppressed, defenceless, and destitute”, or the “labouring poor”. Even “the prisoners of the Crown” were among the people who needed to be protected.83 In other words, “the people” were defined by their experience of oppression rather than analytically, and their plight was a regular theme. According to The Sun, “the people were condemned to struggle incessantly”. Like their British counterparts, they were “suffering”. Their rulers, “a small number of privileged persons” of vast wealth and aristocratic instincts, “wrapped up in mere enjoyment”, had no conception of their situation. They could not understand why the people resented “distinctions of rank”. The landowning class could not, for example, see that the District Councils they opposed as taxing bodies might actually improve the lives of the people in the towns by providing better roads and local amenities. The advocates of Coolie importation could not understand “the cruelty and injustice” of their proposal to free workingmen.84

The social order imagined in these papers was precarious. The first issue of The Sun warned the “the pseudo-magnates of the land” to regard the paper as “a political barometer, giving timely notice of a brewing storm of public indignation or a whirlwind of popular fury … in which they might otherwise perish unprepared”. Next month it threatened the local government with an outbreak of Chartism unless it forced the landowners to unlock their lands for cultivation by “starving immigrants”. Perhaps with the same menacing intent, both papers devoted much space to the Irish nationalist movement led by Daniel O’Connell, and the mass action that characterised the campaign for repeal of the Act of Union. In November 1844 The Star carried an extract from “an English liberal journal” about the “passions” boiling beneath the surface of society which will “find a vent”. The colonial editor then supplied his gloss:

The working classes have now their eyes open to the wickedness of their oppressors ... [their distress] will one day cause a clamour that will go nigh to shake the colony to its foundation. Something must be done, and shortly too; and if neither the Government nor the Council will stir in the matter, let the operatives themselves take some desided [sic] step to obtain justice.

When the colony had not come to the boil a year later, The Star hoped at least that the voters would remove the representatives of the oppressors from the legislature at the next election. In his hope for vindication, the writer could see no reason to separate the liberal Cowper from the conservative Macarthur.85

Although their plebeian voice was a world away from the serious, improving and temperate voice of the radical journals, there were connections both of personnel and of ideas with popular politics. One of the publishers, Henry Evers, was a printers’ joiner by trade, but a publisher of radical and clandestine literature by choice. Never recorded as a member of the MPA, he spoke at meetings of the working classes before and after its existence, and he was still an active radical in 1850 when he was one of Lang’s supporters. Edmund Mason publicised the MPA and the activities of the trades delegates from his printery in Parramatta. He used the shop of a fellow printer in Sydney – JG Cregin’s Book Mart opposite the Royal Hotel in George Street – to receive material and subscriptions for the paper. Cregin published pamphlets, including accounts of Daniel O’Connell’s trial in Dublin. These men were typical of a class of printers who survived with difficulty, supplementing their jobbing work by publishing pamphlets and journals “on spec”. When things got very tough they resorted to “underground” publishing of malicious placards and obscene periodicals. Evers, for example, was caught up in GR Nichols’s marital squabble when he published a libellous placard by a friend of Nichols’ wife.86 In another dispute, the Government threatened him with closure for printing an allegation about corruption at the convict barracks.87

A year later the Government did seize his type and press, on the grounds that it was unlicensed, but it is pretty clear that the government regarded him as politically dangerous. The Government, always anxious about retaining its authority in an ex-convict colony, had in its sights a weekly penny-ha’penny dreadful called Paddy Kelly’s Budget, published by Evers, which specialised in reports from the police courts, and which derided the police as much as the offenders.88 By this time, the Government and the respectable citizens of the city were alarmed by the growth of collective violence on the streets. The rioting and the plebeian press shared the same sensibility. The authorities, knowing the riots were often reported in these papers with barely suppressed satisfaction, took steps to protect themselves.


1 NSW Legislative Council, Votes and Proceedings, 1850, vol 2, p 301; the provisions of the Constitution Act of 1842 are discussed in ACV Melbourne, Early Constitutional Development, pp 269-76.

2 B Manin, The Principles of Representative Government, p 92.

3 Col Obs, 21/12/42.

4 WR, 17/8/44.

5 Guardian, 16/3/44.

6 Lang’s failed attempts to extend the franchise and provide two more seats for Sydney: V & P, for 26/9/43 and 30/9/45; and Report of the Select Committee on the Extension of the Franchise ... V & P 1844, vol II, pp 617-23.

7 WR, 7/9/44 (the phrase was used by Councillor JR Holden, supporting Went-worth’s proposal).

8 Wentworth’s attempt to require rental receipts for voting enrolment: Guardian, 7/9/44; WR, 7/9/44. The public meeting: Guardian, 14/9/44; WR, 14/9/44.

9 Aust, 14/7/43.

10 WR, 15/6/44, 14/9/44; Guardian, 8/6/44, 29/6/44, 5/10/44.

11 WR, 28/9/44. McEachern was associated with the Commercial Journal in 1845.

12 Guardian, 16/3/44, 23/4/44, and 30/3/44.

13 Guardian, 20/4/44.

14 Guardian, 18/5/44.

15 Guardian, 11/4/44, 27/4/44.

16 Guardian, 11/5/44.

17 WR, 29/7/43.

18 Chronicle, 2/8/43.

19 Guardian, 13/7/44. The evidence is from a letter referring to events in 1843.

20 WR, 5/8/43, 12/8/43, 30/9/43, 28/10/43, 2/12/43.

21 WR, 16/12/43.

22 WR, 26/8/43.

23 WR, 23/9/43.

24 WR, 22/6/44.

25 Guardian, 13/7/44.

26 WR, 22/6/44.

27 Guardian, 24/8/44.

28 WR, 2/9/43.

29 WR, 21/10/43; also 28/10/43.

30 WR, 16/12/43.

31 WR, 6/4/44.

32 WR, 27/4/44.

33 WR, 22/6/44, 6/7/44.

34 AC, 4/2/41.

35 AC, 5/3/42.

36 AC, 8/5/42.

37 WR, 28/12/44.

38 WR, 26/8/43.

39 WR, 28/10/43, 23/9/43, 7/9/44.

40 WR, 16/11/44.

41 WR, 24/8/44; 6/9/45.

42 WR, 7/12/44.

43 WR, 28/12/44.

44 WR, 4/5/44.

45 AC, 17/12/39.

46 WR, 21/10/43, 14/12/44.

47 WR, 28/9/44.

48 WR, 14/9/44.

49 AC, 26/11/39.

50 WR, 16/3/44.

51 WR, 4/5/44.

52 WR, 6/9/45.

53 AC, 5/3/42; WR, 16/11/4.

54 AC, 5/3/42.

55 AC, 13/10/40; WR, 16/11/44.

56 WR, 27/7/44, 16/11/44.

57 AC, 13/10/40; he made a similar point in AC, 12/1/41.

58 WR, 27/1/44.

59 AC, 12/1/41.

60 WR, 27/1/44; 3/2/44.

61 WR, 16/3/44.

62 WR, 7/9/44, 14/9/44.

63 WR, 27/1/44.

64 WR, 30/12/43, 20/1/44, 27/1/44, 27/4/44; [Anon] On Self-Supporting Agricultural Working Unions for the Labouring Classes, shewing the means by which industrious men may raise themselves to a state of comfortable independence in Australia, with or without the assistance of ruling authorities, Sydney, WA Duncan, King Street East, 1844 (8pp).

65 WR, 30/12/43.

66 WR, 27/4/44.

67 WR, 27/1/44.

68 WR, 27/4/44.

69 Melbourne, Early Constitutional Development, pp 271, 317-24.

70 AC, 5/1/43; WR, 23/3/44.

71 Guardian, 31/8/44.

72 WR, 12/8/43, 16/9/43.

73 WR, 27/7/44, 3/8/44.

74 WR, 16/9/43, 18/10/45.

75 M Peltonen, “Citizenship and Republicanism in Elizabethan England” in Martin van Gelderen and Quentin Skinner (eds), Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage Volume 1: Republicanism and Constitutionalism in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

76 WR, 13/4/44.

77 McEachern supported an educational test for voting, as we have noted in an earlier chapter; Duncan as we saw above was prepared to withhold the vote until after a public education system was operating.

78 Star, 17/8/44.

79 True Sun and New South Wales Independent Press, 28/2/44.

80 Aust, 14/7/43. This journal may not have appeared; no copies are extant. Incidentally, it was to have the same title as one of William Cobbett’s journals.

81 In October 1845 BE Bailey was the listed publisher, but Mason’s name reappears in 1846. Other journals of this kind: Omnibus (1841-3); Satirist (1843); Censor Morum (Aust, 14/7/43), The Bee of Australia (1844), The Citizen (1846).

82 Star, 17/8/44.

83 Aust, 14/7/43 (advert for Censor Morum); Star, 2/3/44, 17/8/44; Sun, 28/1/43, 4/2/43; Parramatta Chronicle, 30/12/43.

84 Sun, 28/1/43, 4/2/43; Star, 25/5/44, 15/6/44, 10/8/44.

85 Sun, 28/1/43, 4/2/43, 25/2/43; Star, 25/5/44, 2/11/44, 27/9/45.

86 True Sun, 28/2/44.

87 Sun, 4/3/43.

88 True Sun, 28/2/44; WR, 2/3/44.