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Famous Australians

Edmund Barton: Australia’s First Prime Minister

Edmund Barton was born in Glebe Sydney in 1849 to William and Mary Louise (nee Whydah). A clever boy with a love of literature, music and art, Barton was educated at Fort Street Model School and Sydney Grammar School.

It was at Sydney Grammar that Barton first met Richard O’Connor. The lives of Barton and O’Connor would run parallel courses; each dedicated to the cause of Federation, both members of Australia’s first Federal Cabinet, and, ultimately, both would sit on the nation’s first High Court.

Matriculating to the University of Sydney in 1865, Barton studied Classics under Professor Charles Badham, engaged in debates held at the Mechanics School of Arts, and cultivated his love of cricket. In 1868 he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Classics and two years later received a Masters of Art. On the 21st of December 1871 Barton was admitted to the Bar. The following year he became engaged to Jane (Jean) Mason Ross. Barton, however, was slow to establish his legal career and financial insecurity prevented the two from marrying until 1877.

With his interest in debating and a keen legal mind Barton was intent upon entering politics. In the 1870s and 1880s members of Parliament were unpaid. The colonial parliaments were composed of the Crown represented by the Governor, a Legislative Assembly of elected members, and the Legislative Council, a house of review whose members were appointed for life. Voting was not compulsory. Only those male Australians over the age of twenty-one, who either owned property to the value of one hundred pounds or paid rent to the value of ten pounds, were entitled to vote or to stand for the Legislative Assembly. Plural voting was allowed for university graduates and those who owned more than one property. Despite these limitations, NSW was considered to be democratically progressive.
Defeated for the University of Sydney seat in the Legislative Assembly in 1876 and again in 1877, Barton was eventually successful in 1879. NSW politics of this period were divided between the equally conservative Protectionist Party espousing tariff protection of State products and the Free Trade Party who believed in an open economy. Each State effectively operated as a separate country imposing import and export taxes on goods travelling across borders. Economic competition between the States was a major obstacle standing in the path of a federated nation. It was as a Protectionist that Barton initially entered the Legislative Assembly, however, over the next 20 years his commitment to a Federation would see him advocate free trade within Australia, while calling for a protectionist stance against the world. Barton’s rise to political prominence was rapid, and by 1883 he had become Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of NSW.

In the early 1880s Barton became a member of the Athenaeum Club. Here, he could satisfy his epicurean taste for fine food and wine while sharpening his debating skills in conversation with some of Sydney’s most respected intellectuals, artists, professionals and politicians. The proprietor of the Sydney Morning Herald Sir James Fairfax, the editor of The Bulletin J.F. Archibald, the Professor of English Literature at the University of Sydney Sir Mungo MacCallum, the artist Julian Ashton, as well as the politicians Richard O’Connor and Sir William Lyne, were members. The writers Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson visited the Athenaeum on their travels through Sydney.

By the early 1890s Barton was faced with many competing demands for his time and energy. Having contributed to the first draft of the Constitution in 1891, Barton dedicated many unpaid hours to speaking at public meetings and publicising the cause. However, Barton was under considerable pressure to provide for his growing family. When on the 23rd of October 1891 Barton accepted Premier Dibbs’s offer to serve in his protectionist government as Attorney-General, he negotiated the right to maintain his private practice as a barrister. Two years later Barton’s parliamentary responsibilities came into direct conflict with his private practice when he accepted a brief against the Crown and was forced to resign.

Between 1893 and 1897 Barton passionately devoted himself to the Federation movement and to the drafting of the Constitution. By the end of the century Barton had overseen the drafting of the amended Constitution, its protracted and difficult passing through the NSW Legislative Assembly and Council, as well as an exhausting campaign through two referenda to its eventual approval by the British Parliament in 1900.

Although it was fully expected that Barton would be selected to be the first Prime Minister to take the people to their first Federal election, the new Governor General Lord Hopetoun instead selected William Lyne Premier of NSW. In a mark of solidarity with Barton, appointed members of Cabinet refused to serve under Lyne. Barton was finally appointed the nation’s first Prime Minister, taking the portfolio of Minister of External Affairs.

The celebrations for Federation in Sydney took place on 1st January 1901. For Barton, however, it was the start of yet another campaign trail as a Federal election now had to be fought and won. In March 1901 Barton and his entire Cabinet, including old friends and allies, Alfred Deakin, Charles Kingston and Richard O’Connor, were formally approved by the Australian voters. Although only Prime Minster for a little over two and a half years, the Australian Public Service, the instigation of the White Australia Policy, women’s right to vote and the High Court were all established during his term.

Having twice refused a Knighthood, Barton finally accepted a GCMG (Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George) in 1902. In September 1903, worn out by the responsibilities of being Prime Minister and the long and exhausting federation campaign that preceded it, Barton resigned.

Shortly afterwards Barton was appointed to sit on Australia’s first High Court. For the next 17 years Barton interpreted the Constitution he had helped to create. Before the opening of the present High Court in Canberra in 1980 the High Court divided its time between the State capital cities. Despite the travelling, the life of a High Court judge was far less onerous than that of a politician. Barton was finally able to resume his dinners at the Athenaeum Club and spend more time with his wife, six children and grandchildren.

Barton also had time to indulge his love of literature. As his son Judge E.A. Barton fondly remembered: ‘His great love was Shakespeare. It would be scarcely an exaggeration to say that he remembered every act and every scene in the plays and innumerable passages were stored in his memory.’ (Reynolds, 1948, p. 72)

In January 1920, at the age of 70, Edmund Barton died suddenly of heart failure at Medlow Bath in the Blue Mountains.

About Craig Hill

Teacher and Writer. Writing has been cited in New York Times, BBC, Fox News, Aljazeera, Philippines Star, South China Morning Post, National Interest, news.com.au, Wikipedia and others.


2 thoughts on “Edmund Barton: Australia’s First Prime Minister

  1. Reblogged this on Craig Hill.

    Posted by Craig Hill | March 28, 2012, 10:16
  2. Hi,
    Very good history about our first Prime Minister here in OZ.
    Yes those were the days when no money was paid for these people that represented the public, of course we can’t say that now, they all get paid heaps. 😀

    Posted by magsx2 | March 28, 2012, 12:44

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