‘Commonwealth’ is a republican term

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There has been quite some discussion recently about whether Australia would remain within the Commonwealth of Nations if it became a republic. The irony is that the term ‘Commonwealth’ has a strong republican ancestry. Essentially, the name ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ would suit an Australian republic, writes Glenn Davies.


THE PERIOD from the late 1880s to 1891 was a strong republican moment with fifteen republican organisations and twenty radical republican newspapers or journals widely spread through the Australian colonies. At a national level, republican dimensions emerged when Henry Parkes, the Premier of New South Wales advocated the name ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ at the 1891 National Australasian Convention. The ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ was the title chosen for the new nation by the delegates to the 1891 National Australasian Convention and, despite some controversy in the intervening years, it was the title agreed to, with little fuss, at the People’s Convention in 1897 and 1898. Australians today are used to the term ‘Commonwealth’ which runs parallel to republican traditions without bearing the explicit connotations or implying the essential institution of republicanism.

Delegates to the 1891 National Australasian Constitutional Convention

Late 1889 was a time of renewed discussion on the prospects of an Australian federation. Henry Parkes’ ‘Tenterfield Speech’ had given impetus for national discussion. With New South Wales now supporting the federation movement there was the opportunity for serious and fruitful discussion among all the colonies. The 1891 National Australasian Convention began on 2 March 1891. The 45 delegates who had been appointed by the colonial parliaments to develop a draft constitution for a federal Australia were all eminent politicians in their respective colonies who earnestly wanted to maintain the British connection.

Henry Parkes’ proposal of the name ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ for the new Australian federation was stated to be because of its old English meaning – government ‘for the common good’ and yet the popular republican meaning of ‘Commonwealth’ and its associations to Cromwell’s republic in Britain were equally known to the convention delegates when they adopted it. However, for some convention delegates, ‘Commonwealth’ smacked too much of republicanism, and its associations to Cromwell’s republic established in Britain in 1649. This Commonwealth was associated with regicide.

Statue of the feared Oliver Cromwell

In 1971, the political historian John La Nauze definitively argued that Henry Parkes’ intention in proposing the term ‘Commonwealth’ was not to raise the spectre of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. La Nauze stated the specific linkage of the new Australian nation with Cromwell’s Protectorate of 1649 “still worried the more naïve loyalists of 1891”. [1] It may well be that they had just grounds for their concern.

Parkes had indicated that his admiration was for the English parliamentary leaders of the first half of the seventeenth century who resisted the absolutism of King Charles I before the time of the Protectorate.[2] Parkes asked Edmund Barton’s journalist-brother G.B. Barton to write an annotated version of the 1891 National Convention’s Draft Bill. In G.B. Barton’s The Draft Bill to Constitute the Commonwealth of Australia (1891) there was a discussion of the term ‘Commonwealth’. It was argued the term ‘Commonwealth’ emerged from the English writers before the Civil War and that when political writers such as Hobbes used ‘Commonwealth’ in 1651 in Leviathan, they “used the word in a general sense of a State or established community, no matter what the form of government might be.[3]

The Commonwealth of Oceana for the title for his study on government, G.B. Barton suggested it was not selected, for the purpose of securing the favour of ‘the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth’ to whom it was dedicated, but because it was the proper scientific term for his subject, according to the usage of the time.[4] This was the form of republic that Henry Parkes supposedly advocated. It was Milton in The Ready and easy Way to establish a Free Commonwealth (1659-1660) who used the word as an equivalent to the term ‘republic’. However, after the Restoration of King Charles II the term ‘Commonwealth’ disappeared from common usage for two hundred years. In 1891, G.B. Barton noted, “a decided tendency of the present time to revive it.[5]

It was not the England of the regicides the supporters of the title ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ appeared to connect with but the intellectual England of the republican writers that is, a high-minded definition based on English writers usages before the English Civil War. On the use of ‘Commonwealth’, Quick and Garran noted in 1901,
“...it is not too much to say that this grand old word, rich in meaning and tradition, and intimately associated with the literature and history of the English people, did more to arrest the public attention and kindle the public imagination than any other word in the English language could have done. For a little while, indeed, it jarred upon some ears with a slight revolutionary echo, owing to association with Cromwell’s Protectorate; but its older and deeper meaning soon prevailed, and it stands today for the type and the ideal of Australian nationhood.” [6]

Parkes was no doubt the source for Quick and Garran’s comment that ‘Commonwealth’ had an “older and deeper meaning” than Cromwell’s Commonwealth. The South Australian delegate Thomas Playford stated,
“...if we go back to the time of Shakespeare we find that the word is distinctly understood to mean a state under a monarchy. The secondary meaning of the word is given as the commonwealth which was established by Cromwell under the Protectorate.”[7]

Edmund Barton argued the term ‘Commonwealth’ was not a republican term:
“the process of Republicanism as associated with the title given to the English body politic under him [Cromwell] was inimical to the common- weal … I would remind … it was a name inherent in the minds of Englishmen long before that time [English Civil War].”[8]

Quoting Shakespeare, Harrington and Locke, Barton stressed that the word ‘Commonwealth’ simply described a state or community that in turn did not necessarily exclude monarchy. It corresponded with the term respublica, as used by the political writers of ancient Rome. R.R. Garran stated:
“After the Restoration, the term Commonwealth became for a time unpalatable to the bulk of English society, as it was supposed to imply a republican form of government. In his work on Civil Government, published after the Restoration, John Locke, the philosopher, ignored the association of the word with Cromwell’s republic and used it in its primitive sense as understood by Shakespeare, Bacon, Hobbes and Harrington.”[9]

It appeared to be Locke who was responsible for broadening the term ‘Commonwealth’ back to its pre-Civil War understanding. Interestingly, Garran refers to the pre-Civil War understanding of the term ‘Commonwealth’ as “its primitive sense”. However, word associations do not disappear easily. Edmund Barton had also chosen to accept a “primitive” interpretation of the meaning of the term ‘Commonwealth’ based upon the usage by English writers rather than popular understanding. Even more interesting, this interpretation was accepted by a majority of 1891 convention delegates. Obviously, they had no political concerns about having to explain this apparent linkage to radical republicanism to their colonial constituents. Barton continued, “there can be nothing unsavoury in a title which means, according to the best authority, ‘the nation, state, realm, the commonwealth’.”[10] He was saying the term ‘Commonwealth’ was used during the English Civil War but it could also be as easily used to describe a government ruled under a monarch. The distinction Barton was making was the term ‘Commonwealth’ was appropriate for any government grounded in concepts of ‘common good’ and popular sovereignty. This resulted in the disappearance of any republican references once a monarch became part of the government structure. For Barton, ‘Commonwealth’ was a catch-all term for democratic governments and one that the middle-class, convention delegates also accepted.

Henry Parkes

The pragmatic Henry Parkes had understood since his association with John Dunmore Lang in the1850s that the term ‘republic’ was a political career stopper. As premier of New South Wales, Parkes had watched the republican upsurge from the stage of the Sydney Town Hall at the second meeting called to discuss the celebration of Queen Victoria’s 1888 jubilee. Parkes fiercely denounced the republicans who would not honour the Queen’s jubilee. Yet one of his first actions at the 1891 National Convention was to propose the name ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ for the new federal nation. He had no hesitation in championing a name with republican ancestry, and nor did a majority of other federation delegates. In an 1853 editorial in the Empire, Parkes had written,

“We avow that we do not care by what name the popular principle is designated – the name is a shadow, and we merely want the substance. Let us disabuse ourselves of the stigma, and perhaps we shall cease to be thrown into convulsions.”[11]

For almost fifty years Parkes had realised that it was not possible to use the term ‘republic’ in the Australian colonies. The name ‘republic’ was proscribed but not republican thinking, as long as it was not linked to the term ‘republic’.

When Parkes said, “there will be no republican talk here”, he was referring to oppositional republicanism, the republicanism of the radical nationalists. Yet he also stated, “if a time should come when it would be necessary to sever the connection with the mother country, it will come, as it came in America, in spite of the loyalty, in spite of the good feeling of the chief men of the time”.[12] Then, on 18 March 1891, Henry Parkes stated during the National Australasian Convention Debates he had, “no time to talk of the question of republicanism which ha[d] been so ungraciously launched amongst us.” He described such talk as the “wild ravings” of a person who was, “without the slightest knowledge of what he was talking about.[13] Although it was Henry Parkes who was instrumental in reading the Australian people in 1891 and sensing the opportunity to create a ‘milk and water’ version of republicanism through proposing the name ‘Commonwealth’ he made it clear that he would not support any direct republican action. This was a defining moment for Australia’s political development.

The Constitutional Functions Committee of the 1891 National Convention ran from 19 March to 31 March 1891. It was in the Constitutional Functions Committee that Henry Parkes nominated the title ‘Commonwealth’ in tribute of his admiration to the seventeenth century statesmen of the ‘Commonwealth Period’.[14]

[caption id="attachment_2295" align="alignright" width="88"] Alfred Deakin

According to the young leader of the Australian Natives’ Association and future Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin in the Constitutional Committee did not enthusiastically accept the term due to its flavour of republicanism.[15] In The Federal Story, Deakin’s account of the 1891 Federal Convention he referred to a number of the delegates as having “a streak of republicanism in their politics”.[16] Al Gabay described Deakin as a master of persuasion who in each case knew his man.
“[Deakin] appealed first to the streak of republicanism in the elderly Adye Douglas. Inglis Clark, Griffith and Barton supported [the name Commonwealth] out of friendship to Parkes, and Sir George Grey because it was the ‘most radical’ name proposed.” Gabay continued “apart from its inner significance, the name Commonwealth sat well with Deakin’s political Liberalism”.[17]

This became evident on 21 July 1891 when Deakin spoke in the Victorian Parliament about,

“the days of Hampden and Pym, when important issues were decided like the, assertion of Constitutional liberty … the supremacy of Parliament … the right of the nation to concede no taxation excepting through … Parliament … to be tried by their own courts … and [for their] representatives to speak in Parliament without danger of arrest by the Myrmidons of a despotic king.”[18]

The Colonial Premiers, 1891

Many of the delegates who were initially opposed to the term ‘Commonwealth’ after reflection agreed the term had more merit than any other suggestions. In The Federal Story Deakin related while he at first was not a supporter of the title ‘Commonwealth’, he changed his mind, seeing the “rival epithets as barbarous, clumsy and uneuphonious.[19] Deakin recorded how he seconded Parkes’ proposal to call the new Australian nation “The Commonwealth of Australia” after a night’s reflection and then lobbied other delegates on the merits of the term.[20] The result was the motion was carried by one vote in the Constitutional Committee. The votes went:
“In favour: Parkes, Deakin, Douglas, Inglis Clark, Barton, Russell and Grey. Against – Gilles, Downer, Forrest, Lee Streere, Payford and Thynne.” [21]

Samuel Griffith[/caption]

Samuel Griffith, as the Constitutional Committee Chairman exercised a casting vote only. However, as the Convention debates showed, Griffith was in favour of the term.

On 1 April 1891, the National Convention reconvened into a ‘Committee of the Whole’ to consider the draft Constitution. Immediately, objections were raised to the proposed title of ‘Commonwealth’ for the federation of Australia, mainly on the ground that it was suggestive of republicanism. It was Alfred Deakin who informed the National Convention that, “in the opinion of a majority of the committee, it possessed more advantages than any other name that was suggested.” The first clause stated: “This act may be cited as ‘The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia’.” James Munro, a delegate from Victoria, immediately moved to have the word “Commonwealth” removed. His concern was “it is a title with which we are not familiar, and a title which historically raises rather serious questions.” Deakin’s response was “it is a distinctly English word, and a well known word”. He also emphasised the “pacific purpose” of the word, that is, its sense of “the common good of its people, the common-weal”. Interestingly, Deakin used as a selling point the originality of the term in that there were no other existing states that used the term. John Downer supported Deakin’s comment that a majority of the Constitutional Committee had supported adoption of the term. However, Deakin did express his recollection that Henry Parkes, upon proposing the term ‘Commonwealth’, warned the National Convention to consider “not only the technical … but also the popular understanding … of the word ‘commonwealth’ [which] is certainly connected with republicanism.” Parkes’ warning demonstrates his keen awareness of the republican connotations of the term ‘Commonwealth’. Deakin responded emphatically this connection was not obvious. As Downer pointed out, the goal of the NationalConvention was to bring about “union under the Crown” yet the reference to “the most glorious period of England’s history” brought about “two conflicting propositions … one that we are thoroughly loyal, and the other … which is certainly connected with ideas other than those which are strictly loyal.”[22] Other less emotional convention delegates recognised that legally the term did not imply any republicanism but rather maintained that the popular understanding of it connected with republican times, and thus it should not be chosen. In the popular mind the term ‘Commonwealth’ had anti-monarchical associations. This association did not appear to be the case within the minds of the middle-class political elite. It is surprising there was not more discussion on the republican reference to ‘Commonwealth’ from radical sections of Australian society.

The generally accepted position by historians has been that none of the important federal leaders were republican. This is not correct. Although the only avowed republican in the inner group of Founding Fathers was the Tasmanian Andrew Inglis Clark who was known for his admiration of the American federal republican system when the division occurred for the vote on the name ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ there were 26 Ayes and 13 Noes.[23] Even with the republican ancestry to the term ‘Commonwealth’ there were obviously many republican sympathisers among the 45 convention delegates.

It seems quite surprising the term ‘Commonwealth’ was accepted so easily by the convention delegates in 1891. J.A. La Nauze traced the appearance of the term ‘Commonwealth’ in Australian political discourse over thirty years to 1888 in an effort to establish Henry Parkes’ awareness and acceptance of the term, his rationale for proposing the term as the name for the new Australian federation, and the principal reason for the convention delegate’s eventual acceptance of the term.[24] The 1891 convention delegates saw themselves as part of the British monarchy and Empire. For them the expression ‘Commonwealth’ was intended to mean a form of governing control. Certainly, there were objections from some Australians to using the term ‘Commonwealth’ as they considered it an inaccurate term. A ‘Commonwealth’, to some, meant a state that was “complete and whole in itself”, and as a federation, and a limited one at that, Australia was certainly not a commonwealth. More accurate names were suggested: “The Federated States of Australia” was one; “Federal Australia” was another; and “United States of Australia” a third, but support for them was not broad enough for one to be accepted. Perhaps it was this sleight of hand of Henry Parkes that allowed a republican term to enter the Australian political discourse of federation under the Crown.

The 1891 convention delegates assumed Henry Parkes was relying upon the recent publication of James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth as his source.  Bryce’s 1888 American Commonwealth was the great source of knowledge as to the working of the federal government amongst English speaking people and certainly a product of the term ‘Commonwealth’. In 1933, R.R. Garran recalled, “The American Commonwealth had recently been published, and was a mine of information as to the working of the federal system on a large scale.[25] Bryce explored how the founders of the United States kept as close to the British constitution as was consistent with the idea of a federal republic. Washington and his colleagues had had a quarrel with the British government, but they had a general admiration for British institutions as the best known to them. La Nauze described the moment at which the delegates understood the similarity of Bryce’s American Commonwealthto the proposed Australian federation as “the shock of recognition”.[26] However, the term passed without much notice into the popular discussion of federation, and having thus taken root was adopted almost as of course.[27]

[caption id="attachment_2299" align="alignright" width="84"] Early republican, Andrew Inglis Clark

The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 April 1891supported the ancient linkage implicit in the term ‘Commonwealth’ when it stated: “The Commonwealth of Australia, the word is the exact equivalent of the Roman Respublica – otherwise our modern republic.”[28] On the issue that commonwealth meant republicanism, the Goulburn Herald, 3 April 1891argued the presence of a revolutionary echo:
“Having looked into the dictionary, we are unable to assert that the word ‘commonwealth’ is absolutely incorrect as applied to a federation of states under a sovereign; but we do not recollect a single instance of its being used except in relation to a republic. Certainly the commonwealths we most read of - that of Rome and that of England - were republics; and the English people have for generations been accustomed to regard the Commonwealth as synonymous with the abolition of royalty. Assuredly the first impression of strangers who read that there is to be an Australian commonwealth must be that we are about to throw off our allegiance to Queen Victoria.”[29]

It is in the English Civil War writings of James Harrington that the republic and the Commonwealth was the same thing. Harrington maintained that a natural aristocracy of men should retain the initiative in any governmental system.[30] Perhaps if the origin of ‘Commonwealth’ had been better known, the name would have met with more opposition. The essence of Australia’s republican spirit is captured in the notion of the ‘Commonwealth’.

[1] J.A. La Nauze, “The Name of the Commonwealth of Australia”, Historical Studies, Vol.15, No.59, 1971, p.63.

[2] See H. Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History, Vol.1 (London, 1892), p.639.

[3] G.B. Barton (ed.), The Draft Bill to Constitute the Commonwealth of Australia (Sydney, 1891), p.9.

[4] Ibid., p.10.

[5] Ibid., p.11.

[6] J. Quick & R.R. Garran, The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth (Sydney, 1901), p.131.

[7] Official Report of the National Australasian Convention Debates, Sydney 1891, pp.554-555.

[8] Ibid.

[9] R.R. Garran, Commentaries on the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia (Sydney, 1901), pp.313-314.

[10] Official Report of the National Australasian Convention Debates, Sydney 1891, pp.554-555.

[11] Empire, 17 November 1853.

[12] Official Report of the National Australasian Convention Debates, Sydney 1891, p.323.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The Convention Committee meetings were held in camera and as such there were no minutes recorded. However, La Nauze demonstrates this was no doubt the case. (La Nauze, “The Name of the Commonwealth of Australia”, pp.59-71)

[15] A. Deakin, The Federal Story. The Inner History of the Federal Cause 1880-1900 (Parkville, 1963), p.51.

[16] Ibid, p.47.

[17] A. Gabay, The Mystic Life of Alfred Deakin (Cambridge, 1992), p. 75.

[18] Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol.66, 21 July 1891, p.496.

[19] Deakin, The Federal Story, p.47

[20] Ibid.

[21] La Nauze, “The Name of the Commonwealth of Australia”,fn.61.

[22] Official Report of the National Australasian Convention Debates, Sydney 1891, pp.550-557

[23] La Nauze, “The Name of the Commonwealth of Australia”, p.71.

[24] Ibid.

[25] See R. Garran, The Federation and the Founding of the Commonwealth (Cambridge, 1933).

[26] La Nauze, “The Name of the Commonwealth of Australia”, pp.59-71.

[27] See Moore, The Commonwealth of Australia (1897), p.65.

[28] Sydney Morning Herald, 3 April 1891

[29] Goulburn Herald, 3 April 1891

[30] H. Irving, “Who were the republicans” in D. Headon, J. Warden & B. Gammage (eds.), Crown or Country. The Traditions of Australian Republicanism (St. Leonards, 1984), p.71.  
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