Independent manhood

Deakin’s oratorical triumph in London in 1907 was especially important in the political context. Despite the achievement of Federation, Australia remained constitutionally subordinate to British power. The contradiction between Australia’s continuing condition of colonial dependency and its assumed status as a self-governing nation exacerbated continuing tensions between Deakin and the Colonial Office and made the conference a tense and testy affair. Deakin’s biographer, J. A. La Nauze, observed that Deakin approached the Colonial Conference as one would a ‘battlefield’, the proud colonial ever ready to defend Australia’s honour in the face of imperial condescension.[7]

Deakin yearned for recognition of Australia’s independent manhood, a condition exemplified by the nation he liked to call ‘the great republic’.[8] In literature as in life, he was attracted to American strength, vigour and power.[9] Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce enchanted him. After their momentous meeting in Australia in June 1888, Royce remembered Deakin in Scribner’s as ‘an admirer of America and of good scenery, a lover of life, of metaphysics, and of power’.[10] What we might call Deakin’s republican desire, his love affair with American manhood, fuelled endless contests with the knighted Englishmen in the Colonial Office, who were loftily disposed, in their turn, to ‘ignore Mr Deakin’ and his litany of querulous complaints.[11]

A capacity for great oratory was one of the masculine virtues Deakin associated with the nation builders of ‘the great republic’. He would have been pleased indeed to receive a letter from an American journalist comparing his speech-making at the Constitutional Conference in 1890 with the ‘splendid oratory of Charles Sumner and Wendell Phillips’. Zadel Gustafson, who had heard him speak at the conference in Melbourne, in February that year, sent Deakin the article she had written, in which she compared his speech with the ‘truth-charged burning words’ of those great anti-slavery campaigners:

It is with the memories of these men’s lives and truth-charged burning words, fresh in mind that I write to say how great the delight I felt in hearing the Constitution and institutions of my country set before this Conference of Australasia in the very hour of the conception of the nation that is to be.[12]

Gustafson then analysed the elements that combined to render Deakin’s speech into such powerful oratory. There were the cogent arguments that resulted from thoughtful study and investigation, his sympathy with his subject, the absolute fitness of the words chosen for his theme and the whole made luminous with ‘the passion of Nationality’. As an American, Gustafson was especially moved by Deakin’s admiration and knowledge of United States history, law and politics. ‘If you can hold on your way with such lucidity, vigor, courage, discretion and passionate patience, as characterized your yesterday’s speech, the union of these colonies will come,’ she assured Deakin. And this historic event would occur largely through his efforts, which would also bring about closer relations with that ‘great American Union of States’ whose political character had been ‘so clearly apprehended’ by Deakin.[13] The young Victorian politician would have rejoiced in this tribute, though he was probably less pleased by Gustafson’s description of him to her readers as ‘tall, straight and dark like a rugged impression of Philip II of Spain’.[14] As an ardent Anglo-Saxonist, he would not liked to have been thought of as swarthy.

For Deakin, the Americans’ oratory expressed their vigorous independent manhood and he would use his own oratorical power to redeem Australian manhood from its condition of colonial dependency, as he had done 20 years earlier in 1887, when he famously stood up to the British Prime Minister, the Marquis of Salisbury.

Prime Minister Deakin and Secretary Hunt had gone to the imperial capital in 1907, with the aim of challenging the ‘limitations on our right of legislation’ and ‘removing from the Colonial Office practically all control of the self-governing Colonies’.[15] The British and Australian governments, he determined, must henceforth deal with each other as equals and as men. In his letters to Garran, Hunt complained that he was treated as a subordinate by his fellow officials in the Colonial Office. He wrote to Garran on 16 April:

You can hardly conceive what extremely unimportant persons we are in the minds of the Colonial Office. Not one of these exalted gentlemen have done me the honour to leave a card, certainly Sir Campbell Bannerman did so, but to expect Mr Johnson for example, to say nothing of Bertram Cox, Lucas and the rest to have to recognise my existence would be asking a great deal too much.

Hunt was affronted by his ignominious treatment: ‘I may be permitted to wait in an ante-room and even carry in any papers that may be sent for, but beyond these ennobling duties I must not infringe the sanctity of the Conference by my profane presence.’[16] Hunt was effectively denied a voice at the conference, but there was little he could do except fret and fantasise. Deakin, on the other hand, was able to speak his mind and frequently did so.