Sir Edmund Barton

The Australian statesman and jurist Sir Edmund Barton (1849-1920) was a leading protagonist for federal union. As prime minister from the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia, he played a key role in the early phase of national administration.

Edmund Barton was born on Jan. 18, 1849, in Sydney and was educated there, graduating from the University of Sydney. He practiced law from 1871 and at the age of 30 was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. For 4 years from 1883 he was Speaker of the House. In 1889 and again from 1891 to 1893 he was attorney general.

For many years "inherent laziness" appeared to keep Barton from attaining the success his talents merited. But from the early 1890s he threw himself into the campaign to federate the Australian colonies. He was prominent in the Federal Convention which met in Sydney in 1891, helping to draft a bill to constitute the Commonwealth. When the aging Sir Henry Parkes retired, Barton accepted leadership of the federalists in New South Wales, and he kept the issue of colonial union alive in the face of strong opposition within the colonial legislature. Out of Parliament from 1894, he addressed hundreds of public meetings from which grew a movement to call the popularly elected Federal Convention of 1897. In the poll he gained three of every four votes cast in New South Wales and was subsequently made "leader of the convention" and chairman of its constitution-drafting committee. After the convention's recommendations were accepted by the various colonial electorates, Barton headed the delegation which sought approval of the measure by the British Cabinet.

With the Commonwealth Act in force, Barton was the only man acceptable to his colleagues as prime minister, and he was commissioned to form the first Australian Cabinet, which was sworn in on Jan. 1, 1901. In recognition for his services he was knighted in 1902.

Barton's administration quickly gained parliamentary approval for the Immigration Restriction Act, blocking admission of Asians by giving the immigration examiner the right to impose a dictation test in any European language he cared to choose. A separate act closed the door to South Sea Islanders and provided for repatriation of those already working on Queensland's sugar plantations.

He was soon plagued by what he described as "rancorous party strife, " and having attained his objective of a united Australia, he decided in September 1903 to accept the second judgeship in the newly formed High Court of Australia. His distinguished career on the Court continued until his death from heart failure on Jan. 7, 1920.


Further Reading on Sir Edmund Barton

A useful biography is John Reynolds, Edmund Barton (1948), which contains an appreciative foreword by Robert G. Menzies. Comments on events leading to federation are given in Alfred Deakin, The Federal Story: The Inner History of the Federal Cause, 1880-1900, edited by J. A. LaNauze (1944; 2d ed. 1963). Background is provided in John Quick and Robert Randolf Garran, The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth (1901); H. G. Turner, The First Decade of the Australian Commonwealth 1901-1910 (1911); Bernhard Ringrose Wise, The Making of the Australian Commonwealth, 1889-1900 (1913); George Houstoun Reid, My Reminiscences (1917); Arther Norman Smith, Thirty Years: The Commonwealth of Australia, 1901-31 (1933); Louise Overacker, The Australian Party System (1952); and John Quick, Sir John Quick's Notebook, edited by L. E. Freedman (1965).