‘Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-51’ by Michael Roe

In his long epilogue to War and Peace, Tolstoy mused about the role of ideas in history.  He didn’t think much of  it: according to him,  it was “altogether impossible to agree that intellectual activity has controlled the actions of mankind”.  Michael Roe’s Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-51 , however, is just such a history of ideas.

In particular, Roe poses the question: as the penal nature of the Australian colonies subsided, what new form of power was to take its place?  Was it to be the charisma of an individual or a small group of men?  Virtuosity on the part of government? Or the dominance of a set of ideas? He plumps for the final one: the set of ideas he dubs ‘moral enlightenment’ which, he argues, provided an alternative vision of society to the one  presaged by the dominance of conservative forces in the early 1800s.  The  Church of England and the transplanted (albeit rather second-rate) landed gentry had been dealt with generously in the carve-up of land and authority in the penal years, and they could have shaped Australia into an antipodean replica of a paternalistic, authoritarian, static society.  But they did not succeed, and this book explores that failure.

Roe argues that the conservative forces of the Episcopal Church and the landed gentry were challenged by four main factors.  First was the squatting movement which eschewed the landed gentry’s emphasis on property ownership and paternalist responsibility for a more pragmatic use of the land without emotional attachment and without actually paying for it. The squatters vociferously resisted any form of authority which attempted to constrain them, and once attaining political power in the 1850s, became a staunchly conservative force in protecting their gains.   Second was the phenomenon of radical politics, part of the mental freight of free immigrants especially in the 1840s.  They brought with them a strong antipathy to taxation without representation, and by the late 1840s a distinct working-class political movement had emerged, eclipsing the earlier linking of  native-born ‘Australianism’ and the emancipist cause.  The third and fourth factors are different manifestations of religious expression: the Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism.   The Catholic Church, although not necessarily ‘liberal’ in its politics drew on a strong Irish tradition of resisting Anglican supremacy, and identified more with “have not” policies that championing the small man.  Protestantism, on the other hand, was more fractured than Catholicism, but shared its insistence on equal standing before the law.  It also injected an element of self-will and challenge to hierarchical authority.

These factors did not cause, but did support the intellectual and emotional attractiveness of the philosophy he calls (after the poet Charles Harpur) “moral enlightenment”.  This grew out of eighteenth-century thought, combining  Romantic, Protestant and liberal attitudes.  It drew on the utilitarian tenets of individualism,  rationality and progress, suffused with the Romantic ideals of a simple and optimist view of humanity and perfectability.

In Australian society it was manifested through the emphasis on generalized learning (Mechanics Institutes, debating societies etc),  a popular but not deep interest in science and technology, belief in progress, temperance,  voluntaryism and self-help.  To be sure, it was a transplanted derivative philosophy, common across the European and especially English-speaking world.  But it lent itself easily to the concept of a new start in a new country, where the absence of tradition was a boon rather than a handicap.

I was nudged into reading this book which I’d had on my to-be-read list for some time, by a friend’s negative response to it.  Where were the people? she asked- and certainly, there is a dizzying array of small-time largely forgotten colonial political activists, named but then passed over without a coherent narrative being drawn out of their individual contributions.  This name-dropping tendency seemed less obvious in the final part of the book, perhaps because his research on transcendentalism and temperance was deeper and more original, and there was less need to tip his hat to the men and times of  colonial politics that he assumed would be familiar to his readers.

I was looking for an exposition of Conservative colonial politics and the challenge to it in 1840s NSW society- and in that, I am satisfied.  I was hoping for a template into which  I could fit Judge Willis’ own political stance and in that I was frustrated.  That, however, reflects the man.  I also found myself wanting to go one step further back- “But where did moral enlightenment come from?”. It was, as Roe, admits a transplanted species, and I find myself wondering if this contest of ideas was played out across many colonial societies of the 19th century, or whether it was a particularly Australian challenge.


Michael Roe Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-1851, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1965.

2 responses to “‘Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-51’ by Michael Roe

  1. Pingback: ‘Family Fortunes’ by Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall « The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  2. Pingback: ‘The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790′ by Rhys Isaac | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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