Daniel Deniehy: The Bunyip Aristocracy

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This famous 1853 speech by early Australian republican Daniel Deniehy was in response to an attempt by William Charles Wentworth to establish hereditary Australian peerages—a "bunyip aristocracy". Deniehy's lambasting of William Wentworth and James Macarthur, amongst others, ensured this never came to pass.
Daniel Denihey

Why he had been selected to speak to the present resolution he knew not, save that as a native of the Colony he might naturally be expected to feel something like real interest, and to speak with something like real feeling on a question connected with the political institutions of the Colony. He would do his best to respond to that invitation to “speak up,” and would perhaps balance deficiencies flowing from a small volume of voice by in all cases speaking plainly and calling things by their right names. He protested against the present daring and unheard-of attempt to tamper with a fundamental popular right, that of having a voice in the nomination of men who were to make, or control the making of, laws binding on the community — laws perpetually shifting and changing the nature of the  whole social economy of a given state, and frequently operating in the subtlest form on the very dearest interests of the citizen, on his domestic, his moral, and perhaps his religious relations. The name of Mr. Wentworth had several times been mentioned there that day, and upon one or two occasions with an unwise tenderness, a squeamish reluctance to speak plain English, and call certain shady deeds of Mr. Wentworth's by their usual homely appellations, simply because they were Mr. Wentworth's.

Now, he for one was no wise disposed, as preceding speakers had seemed, to tap the vast shoulders of Mr. Wentworth's political recreancies— “to damn him with faint praise and mistimed eulogy.” He had listened from boyhood upwards to grey tradition, to Mr. Wentworth's demagogic areopagitas — his speeches for the liberty of the unlicensed printing régime of Darling; and for these and divers other deeds of a time when the honourable Member for Sydney had to the full his share of the chivalrous pugnacities of five- and-twenty, he was as much inclined to give Mr. Wentworth credit as any other man. But with those fantasias, those everlasting varieties on the “Light of other Days” perpetually ringing in his ears, he, Mr. Deniehy, was fain to inquire by what rule of moral and political appraisal it was sought to, throw in a scale directly opposite to that containing the flagrant and shameless political dishonesty of years, the democratic escapades, sins long since repented of, in early youth. The subsequent political conduct, or rather the systematic political principles of Mr. Wentworth, had been of a character sufficiently outrageous to cancel the value of a century of service.

The British Constitution had been spoken of that afternoon in terms of unbounded laudation. That stately fabric, it is true, deserved to be spoken of in terms of respect; he, Mr. Deniehy, respected it, and no doubt they all shared in that feeling. But his was a qualified respect at best, and in all presumed assimilations of the political hypothesis of our colonial constitution-makers, he warned them not to be seduced by mere words and phrases — sheer sound and fury. Relatively, the British Constitution was only an admirable example of slowly growing and gradually elaborated
political experience applied and set in action, but it was also eminent and exemplary as a long history, still evolving, of political philosophy.
William Charles Wentworth

But, as he had said before, it was after all but relatively good for its wonderfully successful fusion of principles the most antagonistic. Circumstances entirely alter cases, and he would again warn them not to be led away by vague associations, exhaled from the use of venerable phrases that had, what few phrases now-a-days seldom could boast, genuine meanings attached to them.

The patrician element existed in the British Constitution, as did the regal, for good reasons — it had stood in the way of all later legislational thought and operation as a great fact; as such it was handled, and in a deep and prudential spirit of conservatism it was allowed to stand; but as affecting the basis and foundation of the architecture of a constitution, the elective principles neutralized all detrimental influences, by conversion, practically, into a mere check upon the deliberations of the initiative section of the Legislature.

And having the right to frame, to embody, to shape it as we would, with no huge stubborn facts to work upon as in England, there was nothing but the elective principle and the inalienable right and freedom of every colonist upon which to work out the whole organisation and fabric of our political institutions. But because it was the good pleasure of Mr. Wentworth, and the respectable toil of that puissant legislative body whose serpentine windings were so ridiculous, we were not permitted to form our own Constitution, but instead we were to have one and an Upper Chamber cast upon us, built upon a model to suit the taste and propriety of certain political oligarchs, who treated the people at large as if they were cattle to be bought and sold in the market, as indeed they were in American slave states, and now in the Australian colonies, where we might find bamboozled Chinese and kidnapped Coolies. And being in a figurative humour, he might endeavour to cause some of the proposed nobility to pass before the stage of our imagination as the ghost of Banquo walked in the vision of Macbeth, so that we might have a fair view of those harlequin aristocrats, those Australian magnificos. We will have them across the stage in all the pomp and circumstance of hereditary titles. First, then, stalked the hoary Wentworth. But he could not believe that to such a head the strawberry leaves would add any honour. Next comes the full-blooded native aristocrat, Mr. James Macarthur, who would, he supposed, aspire to an earldom at least; he would therefore call him Earl of Camden, and he would suggest for his coat of arms a field vert, the heraldic term for green, and emblazoned on this field should be the rum keg of a New South Wales order of chivalry. There was also the much-starred Terence Aubrey Murray, with more crosses and orders — not orders of merit — than a state of mandarinhood. Another gentleman who claimed the proud distinction of a colonial title was the hereditary Grand Chancellor of all the Australias. Behold him in the serene and moody dignity of that picture of Rodias that smiled on us in all the public-house parlours. This was the gentleman who took Mr. Lowe to task for altering his opinions, this conqueror in the lists of jaw, this victor in the realms of gab. It might be well to ridicule the doings of this miserable clique, yet their doings merited burning indignation; but to speak more seriously of such a project would too much resemble the Irishman “kicking at nothing, it wrenched one horribly.”

But though their weakness was ridiculous, he could assure them that these pigmies might work a great deal of mischief; they would bring contempt upon a country whose best interests he felt sure they all had at heart, until the meanest man that walked the streets would fling his gibe at the aristocrats of Botany Bay. He confessed he found extreme difficulty in the effort to classify this mushroom order of nobility. They could not aspire to the miserable and effete dignity of the worn-out grandees of continental Europe. There, even in rags, they had antiquity of birth to point to; here he would defy the most skilled naturalist to assign them a place in the great human family. But perhaps after all it was only a specimen of the remarkable contrariety which existed at the Antipodes. Here they all knew that the common water-mole was transformed into the duck-billed platypus; and in some distant emulation of this degeneracy, he supposed they were to be favoured with a bunyip aristocracy.

However, to be serious, he sincerely trusted this was only the beginning of a more extended movement, and from its commencement he argued the happiest results. A more orderly, united, and consolidated meeting he had never witnessed. He was proud of Botany Bay, even if he had to blush for some of her children. He took the name as no term of reproach when he saw such a high, true, and manly sensibility on the subject of their political rights; that the instant the liberties of their country were threatened, they could assemble, and with one voice declare their determined and undying opposition. But he would remind them that this was not a mere selfish consideration, there were far wider interests at stake. Looking at the gradually increasing pressure of political parties at home, they must, in the not distant future, prepare to open their arms to receive the fugitives from England, Ireland, and Scotland, who would hasten to the offered security and competence that were cruelly denied them in their own land. The interests of those countless thousands were involved in their decision upon this occasion, and they looked, and were justly entitled to look, for a heritage befitting the dignity of free men.

Bring them not here with fleeting visions and delusive hopes. Let them not find a new-fangled Brummagem aristocracy swarming and darkening these fair, free shores. It is yours to offer them a land where man. is bountifully rewarded for his labour, and where a just law no more recognises the supremacy of a class than it does the predominance of a creed. But, fellow-citizens, there is an aristocracy worthy of our respect and of our admiration. Wherever human skill and brain are eminent, wherever glorious manhood asserts its elevation, there is an aristocracy that confers eternal honour upon the land that possesses it. That is God's aristocracy, gentlemen ; that is an aristocracy that will bloom and expand under free institutions, and for ever bless the clime where it takes root. He hoped they would take into consideration the hitherto barren condition of the country they were legislating for. He himself was a native of the soil, and he was proud of' his birthplace. It is true its past was not hallowed in history by the achievements of men whose names reflected a light upon the times in which they lived. They had no long line of poets or statesmen or
warriors; in this country, Art had done nothing but Nature everything. It was theirs, then, alone to inaugurate the future. In no country had the attempt ever been made to successfully manufacture an aristocracy  pro re nata. It could not be done; they might as well expect honour to be paid to the dusky nobles of King Kamehamaka, or to the ebony earls of the Emperor Souloque of Hayti.

The stately aristocracy of England was founded on the sword. The men who came over with the conquering Norman were the masters of the Saxons, and so became the aristocracy. The followers of Oliver Cromwell were the masters of the Irish, and so became their aristocracy. But he would inquire by what process Wentworth and his satellites had conquered the people of New South Wales, except by the artful dodgery of cooking up a Franchise Bill. If we were to be blessed with an Australian aristocracy, he should prefer it to resemble, not that of William the Bastard, but of Jack the Strapper. But he trespassed too long on their time, and would in conclusion only seek to record two things — first, his indignant denunciation of any tampering with the freedom and purity of the elective principle, the only basis upon which sound government could be built; and, secondly, he wished them to regard well the future destinies of their country. Let them, with prophetic eye, behold the troops of weary pilgrims from foreign despotism which would ere long be flocking to these shores in search of a more congenial home, and let them now give their most earnest and determined assurance that the domineering clique which made up the Wentworth party were not, and should never be, regarded as the representatives of the manliness, the spirit, and the intelligence of the freemen of New South Wales. He had sincere pleasure in seconding the resolution, confident that it would meet with unanimous support and approval.

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