Page last updated: 1st July 2004


Home   About MCH   About Manning & Dymphna Clark   About the House   Membership   Events   Papers   Bookshop

ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE DEMOCRACY IN AUSTRALIA 26 MARCH 1999

by

Dr DAVID HEADON

DIRECTOR

CENTRE FOR AUSTRALIAN CULTURAL STUDIES

CANBERRA

‘FORTIFYING THE BUNYIP ARISTOCRACY: TOCQUEVILLE, WENTWORTH AND 1850s AUSTRALIA’

On 16 August 1853, John Bayley Darvall, the member for the County of Cumberland in the New South Wales Legislative Council, presented a petition to the Council signed by 2,630 inhabitants of the city of Sydney. The petition was the direct result of a particularly lively meeting in Sydney’s Victoria Theatre, held the day before, which was called to consider the mother colony’s draft Constitution Bill (Sylvester 1853)

In its petition, the at times hostile crowd dismissed the Bill as ‘radically defective and opposed to the wishes and interests of the inhabitants of the colony’ in that it proposed, amongst other things, a hereditary peerage system in the Upper House, While Darvall participated actively in support of the proceedings at the Victoria Theatre, and its outcomes, it was Henry Parkes who moved the protest resolution and it was a young, relatively unknown member of the native-born who seconded it, His name was Daniel Henry Deniehy.

Deniehy’s speech in support of the resolution is now regarded as one of the most memorable in Australian political history, as he paraded a selection of the Legislative Council’s most eminent members imaginatively before his audience, These were men opposed to ‘the very dearest interests’ of the citizenry of New South Wales, men who brought ‘contempt’ on the country. Deniehy expressed his puzzlement as to how he might categorise them exactly. They were not like the grandees of Spain, who at least had ‘antiquity of birth’. These men, he declared, were nothing more than a ‘bunyip aristocracy’, inferior ‘political oligarchs’ who ‘treated the people at large as if they were cattle to be bought and sold in the market’. If New South Wales were to have an aristocracy, he concluded, let it not resemble ‘that of William the Bastard but of Jack the Strapper’ (Headon and Perkins 1998). The crowd loved it, according to the report of the conservative Sydney Morning Herald, responding with ‘Great laughter’, ‘Great cheering’, ‘Vehement and prolonged applause’.

While in his parade of ‘bunyip’ aristocrats Deniehy singled out four men for perusal — William Charles Wentworth, James Macarthur, Terence Aubrey Murray and George Robert Nichols — it was at Wentworth that he directed his most stinging and searching criticism, In his opening remarks, Deniehy noted that, earlier in the meeting, Wentworth had yet again seemingly according to now-established colonial practice — been mentioned in flattering terms. Deniehy was not about to conform to this decades-old protocol. From boyhood onwards he and his contemporaries had listened to endless stories of Wentworth’s youthful ‘democratic escapades’ in opposition to Governor Ralph Darling, in the later lS2Os. But times had changed, attitudes had altered, Wentworth’s ‘subsequent political conduct’, Deniehy asserted, ‘has been sufficient to cancel the value of even a century of action’ (Headon and Perkins 1998).

When Darvall presented his petition to the Council, the day after the Victoria Theatre throng, it would be Wentworth who responded in a very long, combative speech, and it would be Wentworth who concluded the protracted debate on the ‘second reading of the Constitution Bill’ (Sylvester 1853). He was not happy with events the day before — neither with the general tone of the meeting nor Deniehy’s caustic, personal remarks. The meeting participants he variously labelled the movement ‘out of doors’, the ‘deluded and ignorant mass’, a ‘noisy and intemperate faction’, ‘wild democrats’, ‘dirty ruffians’ and, simply, ‘anarchists’. But it was Deniehy’s remarks that clearly cut to the quick because they questioned Wentworth’s patriotism, his ijtotivations and, above all, the moral stature of his life in politics. Wentworth’s defence of the draft Constitution Bill reads at many points as a defence of his own public life, now under continuing attack for inconsistency and (in Deniehy’s words) ‘flagrant and shameless political dishonesty’ (Headon and Perkins 1998).

The terms of Wentworth’s defence make for curious reading for, despite his much-quoted assertion that he wanted ‘a British, not a Yankee Constitution’, and that he ‘heartily despise(d)’ the ‘American model’, the overwhelming number of his scholarly and political references is either to Americans, or to documents referring to America. Among the list were George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Calhoun and the 1852 American Almanac (Sylvester 1853) Wentworth cites each of these sources with obvious confidence in the reception of its authority. One source, however, is especially favoured: Alexis de Tocqueville.

This paper will first re-visit William Charles Wentworth’s formative political years, recalling what Deniehy refers to as the ‘sins’ of his ‘early youth’, in order to understand or at least contextualise his later stance and behaviour; second, it will address the scope of Wentworth’s Tocquevillean argusAlents. How did he use Tocqueville to reinforce his defence of himself and his class of landed gentry or ‘Shepherd Kings’, and what specific passages did he cite as corroborating evidence? Certainly, Wentworth’s aggressive disavowal of the American example in 1853 is noteworthy because, as historian N. D. McLachlan has correctly observed, Wentworth ‘took a well- informed and often sympathetic interest in (the United States of America] throughout his life’ (McLachlan 1977).

William Charles Wentworth was born in 1790, the son of a convict mother and a surgeon father who had apparently avoided criminal conviction for highway robbery only because of his agreement to journey to far-off New Holland. At an early age, William marked himself as an individual capable of rising to pre-eminence in his native land (Melbourne 1934). His proclivity for revelry and, as one contemporary put it, his tendency for ‘rough language’ no doubt endeared him to his peers at a time when such behaviour might have appeared the mark of an independent spirit (Barton 1866). It was not long, however, before youthful brashness yielded to the adult’s more crafty intellect. His language evidently remained unchanged, but the list of ambitions grew. Wentworth’s inquiring mind began to conceive of the important contribution his family, and possibly his country, demanded of him.

His A Statistical, Historical and Political Description of the Colony of New South Wales was one of the most influential books about the new settlement to be published in the half century to 1838 (Wentworth 1819). In i Went-worth voiced disgust with the ‘aristocratic body’ in New Holland ‘which would monopolise all situations of power, dignity and emoluistent, and put themselves in a posture to domineer alike over the governor and the people’. Such people aimed at converting ‘the great body of the people into an hereditary deformity’. But Went-worth could not content himself solely with censure Obviously cognisant of seminal eighteenth-century American political tracts such as James Otis’ The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764), John Dickinson’s Late Regulations respecting the British Colonies Considered (1765) and Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania(1767—8), as well as the confirmed republican propositions of John Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and the Federalist Papers, he proceeded to outline a series of positive reforms. These echoed, in part or in whole, the American colonial demands (and grievances) of the 1770s. Wentworth demanded an elected assembly of small property holders and a nominated legislative council; equal rights for emancipists; trial by jury and a satisfactory process of appeal; an end to press censorship; and no taxation without representation.

Should any of his absent-minded English readers jul55 the intended analogy, the self-confessed ‘native of Australia’ clarified his position, elucidating the lengths to which some colonists might be prepared to go if their pleas went ignored — namely, emulation of, even alignment with, America, Wentworth soberly outlined the Australian case, giving special attention to the logistics of colonial strategy. If Britain continued to show it had learned nothing from the ‘terrible’ lesson of the American Revolution, Australians would be forced to discard their ‘intolerable yoke’ and place themselves “under the government of more just and considerate rulers’. Furthermore, ‘from constrained resistance to tyranny, and in vindication of their most sacred and indubitable rights’ they could readily conduct a guerilla war by initially retreating to the security of the nearby Blue Mountains:

To those who are acquainted with the local situation of this colony, — who have traversed the formidable chain of mountains by which it is bounded from north to south, who have viewed the impregnable positions. . . the independence of this colony, should it be goaded into rebellion, appears neither so problematical nor remote, as might otherwise be imagined (Wentworth 1819) Wentworth’s scheme might not have been very practical but it still provoked British sensibilities, giving first significant colonial voice to the direct connection between American revolutionary events (and ideology) and the political scene in New Holland. His rationale found ready acceptance amongst his more radical native colleagues throughout the 1820s as they gradually realised the power and influence of press stridency. Statistical Description established the effectiveness of America as a tool for the use of aijibitious Australians. It was for many years the primary text of those colonials who envisaged an independent future.

Yet it should be noted that, even as the young patriot, Wentworth categorically refused to advocate the republican position adopted by most of his AiiLerican predecessors. Indeed, one paragraph after the threat of rebellion, he protested against being classed among those who are the sworn enemies of all authority. . . There is not a more sincere friend to established government and legitimacy than he, who mildly advocates the cause of reform, and points out with decency the excrescences that will occasionally rise on the political body, as well fro an excess of liberty as of restraint: such a person may prevent anarchy; he can never occasion it.

Wentworth wanted appropriate recognition of his claims — his due as an Englishman — so that he and others of his social standing might pursue higher goals as society’s leaders. Statistical Description was no treatise for an independent Australian republic. Democracy had no place in Wentworth’s plans. Landed property, he maintained at another point, constituted ‘the only standard by which the right either of electing, or being elected, can in any country be properly regulated’. The Council that Wentworth had in mind bore ‘istany resemblances to the House of Lords’, In effect, he wanted to replace one privileged group with another more regionally qualified.

>Understandably, after the publication of Statistical Description, which quickly ran to three reprints, Wentworth’s local supporters grew in nuA in the forthcoming years. Emancipist and native-born alike jubilantly hailed his reference to the colony’s exclusives and their attendants as nothing but ‘whores, and rogues, and vagabonds’; they appreciated, too, his intimidating presence on the local scene after his return from England in 1824. Wentworth’s threat of a ‘general revolution’ and the bold independence of his claims temporarily boded ill for the grand plans and secret ambitions of colonial Tories. The aggressive nature of a Wentworth-inspired petition to Ralph Darling in January, 1827, prompted the governor to write in a letter to home that:

He [ speaks as he wrote when compiling his book, of the independence of the colony, and compares it to the situation formerly of America, and the probability of its being driven, as America was, to shake off the yoke. In short, he is anxious to become the man of the people, and he seems to think that the best means of accomplishing this is by insulting the government.

Two things are important here: Darling’s conception of Statistical Description as a potentially revolutionary work and his insight into the personal motives hidden behind Wentworth’s campaign for the public benefit. Occurrences in the lSSOs bore out the validity of Darling’s suspicions.

What contributed to Wentworth’s eventual desertion of the free population? Among other things, the gradual waning of emancipist/ exclusive hostility, Wentworth’s substantial inheritance after his father’s death in 1827, his marriage in 1829, his acquisition of many large properties in New South Wales, and the sudden increase of emigrants arriving in the colony. As the 1830s progressed, he became the increasingly reactionary spokesperson not of Jacksonian democracy, but of Hamiltonian class privilege. Wentworth asserted the claims of property and education for the moulding of a suitable governing class. He began to defend the emergent squattocracy against the claims of a rising tide of emigrants agitating for more land, Though he referred as late as Ausifalia Day 1833 to government chosen by the ‘people’ when recommending the American record for cheap government, he seemed by then to hold a different conception of the term ‘people’ (Australian 1933). Government by the people had come to mean, for the Wentworth of the middle 1830s, government in the hands of his own class, He wanted an educated ruling minority, one constitutionally validated and rich enough to resist the perils of democracy, of the people ‘out of doors’, Wentworth’s ideas at this time mirror those of John Adams as outlined in Adams’Defence of the Constitutions of the United States (1787—8) and Discourses on Davila (1790—1).

The years following the formation (in 1835) of the insular, elitist Australian Patriotic Association witnessed a severe curtailment in Wentworth’s popular support, since he now spoke for a certain vested interest — a minority of wealthy, ambitious emancipists and emigrants, and a growing number of Tories. A succession of incidents soured the general populace: his refusal to chair the January 1837 Australia Day meeting because only native-born were going to be present; the cancellation of his Sydney Gazette subscription; his furtive, unprincipled attempt to secure massive tracts of land from the New Zealand Maori people; and finally (and in the eyes of egalitarian Australians, most despicably), his support of the movement to reintroduce convict transportation. Wentworth’s tens of thousands of colonial acres needed cheap labour to convert them into profit. To obtain such workers, he willingly backed movements to secure more convicts or, if necessary, coolie labour from nearby Pacific islands, Sydney’s popular press now angrily attacked their hero of years gone by, calling him a ‘rabid, frothing bulldog’ (Clarke 1968). Perhaps the saddest irony of all was the indictment delivered by the Australian, the paper Wentworth had helped to found so that values and ideals such as independence, freedom, consistency, honesty and integrity could gain credence in the colony. With Australia Day, 1842, only a week away, the Australian pronounced:

Mr. Wentworth is one of those persons who was an influential wan. His day is gone by. His opinion is worth nothing He stands alone and is altogether disregarded. Certainly he first taught the natives of this colony what liberty was, but he has betrayed them since and they have withdrawn their confidence in him (Australian, 18 January 1842)

Wentworth’s influence did not decline. In fact, for at least the next decade he was as powerful as any single man, other than the governor, in the colony. But his doctrines gained energetic support only from his social equals. The fresh waves of mostly poor, democratically minded emigrants, of whom a significant percentage were radicals and Chartists like Henry Parkes, instantly distrusted Australia’s reputed great patriot. The dislike had become mutual. For Wentworth, the ‘people’ were now a mob consisting of ‘ignorant pretenders’, anarchists who, for the well-being of the colony, had to be excluded from all branches of executive power on the basis of property, experience and education (Melbourne 1934). As Alexander Hamilton put it, the ‘great beast’ had to be checked. By the decade of the 1840s, Wentworth fully agreed with the fundajitental tenet of Hamiltonian economics ‘That power which holds the purse-strings absolutely, must rule’ (Parrington 1923). His Itioney, and his elevated social position, apparently, testified to his capacity.

This was the stance he took into the Legislative Council chamber on 16 August 1853. The ‘great beast’ had growled menacingly the day before in the Victoria Theatre and Wentworth sought to justify why it had to be tamed, In turning to Alexis de Tocqueville for endorsement, he was only repeating a pattern which had been established in Britain over the previous two decades. While English writers such as Adam Hodgson in his Letters from North

America (1824), Willia Hazlitt in the later 1820s and Thomas Hamilton in Men and Manners, had singled out several dangerous or dumbing-down features of American democracy in the years before Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, it was undoubtedly Tocqueville’s three-volume classic work which exerted the most profound impact on the English public — and, in turn, on the readership of the British colonies as well (Crook 1965).

For Tocqueville seemed to offer salve to Tory, Whig and den Locrat alike. Writing in 1861, Henry Reeve commented that Democracy in America had in the intervening decades since its publication actually ‘gained in interest from the inexhaustible depth, the unflinching truth, and the extraordinary foresight which are its characteristics. It is, and will rei by far the greatest work of political philosophy of this age, for it embraces futurity itself, and that with no uncertain range’ (Crook 1965). While gratified by its enormous reception, from conservative and liberal alike, Tocqueville himself expressed disappointment that his writings on America were so often

taken out of context. In particular, he complained about the English opponents of universal suffrage using ‘his criticisms in an alien spirit to discredit democratic foes and to justify aristocratic government’ (McLachlan 1977).

Tocqueville would not have approved of William Wentworth’s manipulative selections from his work in the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1853, though he might well have been flattered by the sheer extent of the homage. In Wentworth’s major speech, occupying some 54 columns of newspaper reportage, approximately 31 enlarge on American federal and state constitutional issues, the significant majority of the Aisterican content devoted to lengthy excerpts from Democracy in America (McLachlan 1977). Intending to show that he was, in his own words, never ‘a democrat or a republican’ but rather ‘in middle age a Whig’, and now a man who ‘shall die a Conservative’, Wentworth makes it clear from the outset that he intends systematically to address the principal arguments against the Constitution raised by Deniehy, the Rev, John Dunmore Lang and the rest of the noisy

Victoria Theatre out-of-doorsmen, amidst their torrent of ‘obloquy and abuse’ (Sylvester 1853).

Three points for Wentworth comprise ‘the battle field of the question’:

first, the principle that the forthcoming Constitution might only be altered by a two-thirds majority of both houses of the Legislature; second, the intended re-organisation of the Legislative Assembly to favour ‘the great interests of the country’, the ‘Shepherd Kings’, in the rural electoral districts; and, thirdly and most contentiously, the idea — strongly advocated by Wentworth — that the future Legislative Council be ‘fortified against popular opinion’ with members non tinated by the governor and members of a hereditary colonial peerage.

In Wentworth’s elaborate defence of these arguments, in defence of his elite squattocracy, it is with Tocqueville that he comes armed, The selection of Democracy in America as the central reference point is an astute one, for Tocqueville’s writings had exerted a direct influence on Colonial Office thinking since at least 1842. Wentworth uses the Frenchman’s best known work to confirm for his audience the effect, as he puts it, of ‘this system of democracies on the social condition of the people of America’.

There are some nine broad assertions about democracy, all reinforced by Wentworth either with miscellaneous paraphrasing of Tocqueville or with carefully excerpted quotations from the ‘very celebrated’ Democracy in America. The paraphrasing is particularly mischievous as Wentworth purports to quote from Tocqueville in a range of assertions: that democracy ‘excludes from power the upper and best educated classes’ and ‘throws the government , , . into the hands of the lower classes’; that it discourages society’s ‘most talented individuals’ from entering politics, resulting in public offices being ‘for the most part filled with corrupt and incompetent functionaries’; and that it encourages ‘revolting scenes’ in its state legislatures, where ‘the bowie knife and revolver are frequently resorted to . ,with deadly effect’. In addition, democracy is accused of creating a system of unstable laws, failing to pay its principal public offers adequate salaries, encouraging its rulers to be ‘corrupt’, containing ‘irtherent defects’ in the ‘conduct of its foreign relations’ and failing to protect adequately its individual citizens in that universal suffrage would inevitably lead to a tyranny of the majority in matters pertaining to the justice system, and to the manipulation of public opinion. Wentworth develops his case to damn democracy around selective Tocquevillean argument for two reasons: the Frenchman’s prestige as a commentator on democracy and the fact that, according to Wentworth, Tocqueville, ‘so deeply . . . imbued with democratic prejudices’, could nonetheless judge the American example as resulting in a ‘degrading tyranny’. In using Tocqueville in this way, Wentworth applied Tocqueville to the Australian situation exactly as Sir Robert Peel cited him in Britain to lay ‘the foundations of the great party of conservative resistance, after the popular movement of 1832’ (Crook 1965). Peel fancied Democracy in America as a Tory book, quoting extensively from it in 1835 during the Commons debate on election bribery, and again in 1837, in his inaugural address as Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow. Predictably, he highlighted the sections on the tyranny of the majority. With the shouts of the Victoria Theatre mob ringing in his ears, in 1853 Australia, William Charles Wentworth would do exactly the same,

Wentworth did not get his hereditary peerage. However, when he travelled to England in 1854 to guide the Constitutional Bill through the imperial parliament, he had a document in his suitcase which gave him just about everything else he wanted: the two-thirds majority clause, a Legislative Assei franchise well short of manhood suffrage, electorates shaped to fortify the class of ‘Shepherd Kings’ and a Legislative Council comprised of men nominated for life by the governor on the advice of the Executive Council (Inglis 1974) The wild democrats, the ruffians and anarchists might have got to the door, But they did not get in.

David Crook argues persuasively in his American Democracy in English politics 1815—1850 (1965) that, by the middle 1850s, England had effectively withstood the agitation of the Reform movement, It is worth noting that when Tocqueville visited the country in 1857 he was struck by how little things had altered since his 1833 visit. It was, he wrote, ‘still just the same old England’. As Crook comments: ‘In twenty years revolutionary Radicalism, Chartism and Utopian Socialism had petered out- Despite the expectations of 1831, the age of Sturm uS Drang had become the age of Victorian balance’. The same was true, it might be argued, in the Australian colonies. Wentworth stated in his last speech to the Legislative Council on the Constitution Bill’s second reading that the Wentworth of 1853 was not ‘the man of 1843’. Nor, as I have shown, was he the precocious young man of 1823. Wentworth, the elder statesman of property and influence, now feared the mob. Alexis de Tocqueville helped him to articulate those fears.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Australian, 1 February 1833.
  • Australian, 18 January 1842.
  • Barton, C.B. 1866.Literature of New South Wales. Sydney: Thomas Richards.
  • Clark, C.M.H. 1968. A History of Australia Vol. II (New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land 1822-1838). Canton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press,
  • Crook, David Paul. 1965. American Democracy in English Politics 1815- 1850. London: Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  • Headon, David and Elizabeth Perkins, eds. 1998. Our First Republicans John Dunmore Lang, Charles Harpur and Daniel Henry Deniehy Selected Writings 1840-1860. Sydney: The Federation Press.
  • Inglis, KS. 1974. The Australian Colonists. An Exploration of Social History 1788-1870. Canton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press.
  • McLachlan, N,D, 1977. “ ‘The Future America’: Some Bicentennial Reflections,” Historical Studies, 17 (April 1977): 361-83.
  • Melbourne, A.C,V. 1934. William Charles Wentworth, Brisbane: Biggs.
  • Parrington, Vernon Louis. 1927. Main Currents in American Thought. 3 Vols. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
  • Persse, Michael. 1967. ‘William Charles Wentworth’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 2 (1788-1850). Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press
  • Sylvester. Edward Kennedy. 1853. New South Wales Constitution Bill The Speeches in the Legislative Council of New South Wales on the Second Reading of the Bill for Framing a New Constitution for the Colony Sydney: Thomas Daniel.

©2002-present Manning Clark House Inc. ABN 39 997 015 544
11 Tasmania Circle, Forrest, ACT PO Box 3096, Manuka, ACT 2603
Telephone: +61 (02) 6295 9433 email: manningclark@ozemail.com.au