'Never have sentinels between the human and the inhuman been more necessary.'
Michael Ignatieff, The Warrior's Honor[i]
When Australian federation was being planned and its implications first worked through, various men and women with agendas of their own set themselves to make something of it. For some, it was all about internal free trade. For some it was about the equal participation of women with men in affairs of state. For some it was about uniformity of race, language, and/or accent. For some it was about the military defence of the continent. For some it was about wage justice. And so on.
For one Fremantle-born clergyman the most pressing matter was the creation of a national conscience for his country. Charles Lefroy believed that this new edifice, this Australia, must be a temple reaching to heaven. Lefroy was exercised by two ideas. The nation had been built, and was being built, on the subjugation of the original inhabitants. Also, for such as Lefroy, if power lost touch with conscience, then Christianity, on which his world rested, had no point. There was at least a hint of unworldliness in Lefroy's efforts, but as a pioneer in the field he deserves some glory.
Charles Lefroy was the great-grandson of Anne Lefroy, who is remembered by admirers of Jane Austen as the author's close friend and neighbour in rural Hampshire. His father, a native of the same place, had come to Western Australia in 1841, fresh from Oxford and a tour of the English Lake District, where he had met William Wordsworth. The older Lefroy became a daring explorer, but as an obituary puts it he was 'an idealist ... obviously unfitted for a settler's life'. He did not prosper. Charles, his second son, also went to Oxford (Keble College) and was ordained in Rochester cathedral. He too was an idealist.[ii]
Charles Lefroy had inherited a pattern of Christian thinking which was inherently gentle. It fed on daily intimacies and the sacredness of place. We woke each day to other people, and it followed for men and women like Lefroy that consciousness and conscience were really the same thing. Wordsworth's friend, that even greater poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, said so explicitly. So, today, does the English philosopher Roger Scruton. Through the ever-present gap between I and not-I, says Scruton, we not only make sense of the world. We also create moral life.[iii] Self exists in a mirror, or in a series of mirrors, because as a human being it is impossible to be self-aware, even in the simplest way, without being aware of others as our own reflection. Each of us is a thing of boundaries and beyond the boundaries reflections, and beyond that more reflections, ad infinitum. All this added up to one thing. There was a strict logical connection between self-awareness and the main point of Christ's Sermon on the Mount: 'Do to others as you would have them do to you.'[iv]
We not only see, we act in mirrors. It was the same with nations, or so men and women like Lefroy argued. A nation could not know that it was really a nation, that it was fit to be a nation with its own place in the world, without knowing what it owed to human groups beyond its edges. Federated Australia was White Australia, and the Blacks were barely citizens under the new dispensation. But for that very reason the national conscience must define itself at first through them.
Even before federation was accomplished, Charles Lefroy had spoken about its proper purpose. At that point he had also hoped for the union of English-origin churches in Australia in what he called 'the national Church of Australia'. That, he thought, would make all the difference. Such a church, he wrote in the Western Mail of 21 October 1899, 'would help them to develop the national character more than anything else', and surely, if they had a national character they must also have a national conscience.[v] After all, Lefroy said, 'States and nations have responsibilities to God, and hold a mission from Him, as plain and unmistakable as the mission and responsibility of the church.'[vi] In short, in this new land, Church, state, and nation should coincide as to the moral dimension of their joint existence. Together they should work through the years to fulfil it.
Late in 1909, Lefroy was appointed organising secretary of the Australian Board of Missions, which oversaw Anglican missionary effort throughout Australia, New Guinea, and Melanesia.[vii] This was his chance. As secretary, he was expected to make the board more efficient than it had been so far, but Lefroy looked forward to doing much more than that. The Church of England could claim to be Australia's leading church. It was the old government church, inheriting the social prestige and official ties of the Established Church 'at Home', and, at least in theory, it had more adherents than any other (about forty per cent of the whole settler population). But it had no settled Australia-wide leadership apart from the Australian Board of Missions. So, in his new post, Lefroy had some claim to be a national advocate for Christian values. He certainly possessed the energy, eloquence, and ease of manner needed to make a mark in the corridors of power.
The new federal constitution had left Aboriginal affairs with the old colonial, now state, governments. During a debate in his Church's national synod, Lefroy added his voice to a proposal that 'the physical, moral, and spiritual care of the aborigines is a national responsibility resting both on the individual States and also on the whole people of the Commonwealth', and he then launched an effort to get the federal government to adopt this approach and to act on it. In January 1911 he read a paper at the biennial conference of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science arguing that demoralisation and extermination had reduced the original population of the continent to a 'remnant'. That remnant must now, he said, become in its entirety 'a national responsibility under national control'.[viii]
The federal government had just taken control of the Northern Territory, hitherto governed from Adelaide. Lefroy wanted a federal minister for Native Affairs, who might set an example to the states among the people of the Territory by applying the highest standards of expertise and integrity. When that happened the state governments might agree to handing over to the minister their own responsibilities in that area. So all would be united. All would be national. Lefroy's speech before the AAAS was reported across Australia, and it found immediate support. On 24 January a delegation to the prime minister, Andrew Fisher, asked him for this new appointment and also for a commission of inquiry, to draw up 'a comprehensive scheme for dealing with all the native obligations of the Commonwealth'.[ix] Fisher, who was half-sympathetic, arranged that Baldwin Spencer of Melbourne University, the leading authority on Aboriginal matters, should head such an inquiry. Spencer was appointed special commissioner and chief protector in Darwin, and a detailed preliminary report was tabled in federal parliament in September 1913.[x] There was, however, no minister.
By now Charles Lefroy, afflicted by ill health, had moved on. Also by now Lefroy's ideas about the national conscience, taken up by other enthusiasts, had been hopelessly muddied by practical difficulties and by obfuscating theories of race. And then, World War I intervened.
In getting his message across, Charles Lefroy had relied on several essential points. A great wrong had been done to the Aboriginal peoples since 1788. 'With regard to the ill-consequences of the European occupation,' he said, 'there was reason to think that by cruelty, negligence, and the communication of disease and moral corruption, it had reduced the native population by three-fourths.' Secondly, Lefroy pressed the idea of shared humanity by highlighting Aboriginal intelligence and virtue. They were good people, he said, in some ways as good as the best of 'us'. 'Their tribal and family laws were of considerable moral value.' Like Jane Austen herself, Lefroy was alert to the way in which a certain etiquette – a delicate thoughtfulness, face to face – might prove moral worth. He recalled travelling by steamer to the mission at Yarrabah, near Cairns, when he talked on deck under the stars with a 'full-blood aboriginal'. 'I felt,' he said, 'I was conversing with a refined and courteous gentleman.' He used that experience to confirm that 'we' owed much to these people.[xi]
Lefroy wanted more than just a one-off solution. Character and conscience were things of eternity. He argued for structured, lasting leadership which would entrench certain governing methods and, in doing so – as 'we' became a distinct nation, with 'our' own boundaries and our own character – would at the same time entrench a national sense of right and wrong. The fundamentals of Christian teaching were to be enacted daily in ongoing Christian exchange, as Lefroy understood those things. Whatever national conscience now existed would be coaxed into robust, permanent life, though interaction between people and government, as the latter did its duty. For Lefroy this would be a suitable result of his church's missionary effort. Its mission was to both Black and White because justice depended on a general allegiance to uplifting Christianity, and that, he said, depended on 'a very great movement, which would spread steadily throughout the whole of Australia'. 'In other words they had to organise.'[xii]
The 'very great movement' had to go beyond the church and church people. It had to be imbued with a Christian spirit and to be guided by churchmen, but in order to be truly national it had to transcend religious order. At a meeting Lefroy convened in Sydney straight after the AAAS conference, the leading speaker, Arthur Vogan, explained that a continent-wide body of opinion was already emerging, in step with federation. '[A] "new public",' he said, 'has arisen above the political horizon.' For that reason alone there was cause to hope for government action in this matter, Vogan said, so that 'the remnant of the decimated natives may be accorded some show of justice and mercy'.[xiii]
National conscience, as Lefroy seems to have defined it, must show itself in many ways. This essay is not about any single cause, even a cause as crucial as race relations and Indigenous rights. Charles Lefroy was right, at least in this. The national conscience was to be understood in terms of national character, which would reveal itself in many ways over time, and would have long-term standards of assessment and some means of action. There had to something like organised, focused, and engaged public opinion, and there had to be administrative machinery through which it could act.
Lefroy and Vogan understood all that. Arthur Vogan was an archaeologist and explorer, but he was also a journalist. He knew about public opinion and he took a long-term view. His book, The Black Police: A story of modern Australia (1890), had been the first detailed account of the murderous operations of the Queensland Native Police, which had been active on the Queensland frontier through most of the second half of the nineteenth century. In that book and since, Vogan had pulled no punches in his effort to shock and persuade. Vogan was a man of action and a man's man. As the working-man's paper Truth remarked, he was a writer of 'virile vehemence'. And really, for Vogan, conscience was a gendered thing. Strong, true judgement existed mainly among men, and men who were intellectually and physically strong. Happily, Australia, a country of free men, was gathering strength of all kinds. Having rid ourselves of a selfish governing class, we could feel about us, he said, '[t]he fresh, warm blood of rejuvenating democracy'. So, already, 'our Public Opinion is healthier' and better able to fight, as men should, for justice.[xiv] Thus inspired, Vogan joined Lefroy's campaign.
Governments, enlivened by fresh, warm blood, would be the strong right arm of a well-informed public opinion. Lefroy and Vogan were very different characters, but in his scheme for 'federalising the Aborigines', Lefroy happily enlisted Vogan's help. However, the campaign was soon taken over by bigger names. Vogan had hoped to see, or rather to feel, an impulse of moral responsibility, such as every good man feels for the weaker souls depending on him, sweeping the continent from shore to shore. Instead, a lobby group, led by the parliamentarian Bruce Smith and the newspaperman Harry Gullett, assumed effective control, and the concerns of the movement were extended to the welfare of Indigenous peoples beyond national boundaries, into the western Pacific. They became sub-imperial. And so, Vogan said, their appeal to the national conscience, to the moral energies of this new people, was 'swamped out of existence, as an altruistic affair, by political women; and all the original members left'.[xv]
He left, anyway. In fact, the Society for the Protection of the Native Races in Australasia and Polynesia, founded in August 1911 with Lefroy as secretary, was reasonably effective. But it was nothing like the 'very great movement', a movement deep among the people, which both Lefroy and Vogan, in their different ways, had both hoped for.[xvi]
What was lacking for 'a very great movement'? Look at attempts made at the same time to interest Australian public opinion in the natural environment, especially native birds. This was not an issue for the national conscience according to any definition I am using here, but it does suggest that Vogan was right about a 'new public'. The Gould League of Bird Lovers, started in 1909, was modelled on an American effort, the Audubon Society. The founder was John Leach, a schoolmaster and a great publicist, and his great aim was to change the habits and attitudes of Australian children. Members signed a pledge not to hurt birds or raid their nests and, thanks to sympathetic state governments, the message was relayed in detail through nature-study classes in the schools and annual 'Bird Days'. Gould Leagues multiplied state by state, signing up thousands of members in no time, and they worked with the Wildlife Preservation Society, founded in Sydney in the same year and meant from the start to be a nationwide. Besides children, both organisations targeted women, who were told to stop buying hats with feathers on them. Thus adorned, the 'fashionable woman' was told, she wore on her head 'the blood of slaughtered innocents'.[xvii]
In this way, the conservation movement made its way directly into the lives of thousands of families. It shaped the enthusiasm of children, and so it affected, at least a little, the thoughts of parents. It was part of family life, taking advantage of everything from principled hatred of bloodshed to childish love for the sweet-voiced and cuddly. It confronted violence and the impact of violence, on a national scale, but in a much less rebarbative way than was apparently possible with Lefroy's campaign.
If violence was repulsive to many at that point, who can tell how much such logic might have coloured Australian public opinion for the long term if war had not intervened in August 1914? Who can say how violence might have figured in common conversation, in newspaper rhetoric and so on, without that mighty slaughter – 62,000 deaths among Australians alone? Even before the war a great deal had been done to militarise public opinion, but clearly the general attitude to violence was unresolved. The declaration of war and even more the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 turned the tide of national feeling. And yet, as recently as 1911, when war was still far from certain, there had been reason to look forward to a robust national conscience, which could see a direct link between large-scale violence and large-scale suffering, even within Australia's borders.
It would have been small comfort to individuals such as Lefroy, but a digital survey of Australian newspapers shows the term 'national conscience' turning up twice as often during 1910–19, the decade of World War I, as in the previous ten years, and far more than ever again. 'National conscience' was making its way into ordinary language, though with divergent meanings. The role of the national conscience in wartime was highly debatable. For over twenty years there had been a growing feeling that the British Empire was in danger, especially from Germany, but when it came to their own military defence Australians subscribed to a larger nationality. They were British. Also, as this was a matter of life and death, moral judgment, individual or collective, seemed barely relevant.
Fifteen years before the 'Great War', the Australian colonies had one by one signed up to support Britain's quarrel with the Boer republics, in South Africa. In the Western Australian parliament, Frederick Vosper, who shared Arthur Vogan's manly, egalitarian moral sense, complained that the people knew too little about the justice of the war. 'We do not want to know', said the premier, Sir John Forrest. Our existential loyalty, in other words, ended all such questions.[xviii] In 1914, at the outset of World War I, national public opinion was more clearly focused, but that larger loyalty remained. Individual assessments mattered only as fragments of something vastly bigger, because, said Joseph Cook, former prime minister, '[i]n days of war the individual conscience and judgment had to reconcile itself to the national conscience and judgment'.[xix]
A massive sacrifice of life was to be expected. So too was an all-consuming daily sacrifice, from household to household, and this clearly depended on a moral consensus from shore to shore. Clergy, whose voices were expected to reach into every family and every individual conscience, devoted their sermons to recruiting and morale, asking that men forget the demands on conscience made by other kinds of human relationship so as to give themselves up to nation and empire. 'We are set against a foe who incarnates all that faith in God abhors,' said Archbishop Wright, in Sydney. 'It is for us to call our men to fight.'[xx]
The nations of the earth were in alliance with good or evil, even with the hosts of heaven or hell. From 1916 to 1917 the effort on both sides shifted to total war and national populations and economies were regulated for all-out victory. But clergy had been arguing for totality from the start. In Brisbane in March 1915, a month before Gallipoli, Archbishop Donaldson defined 'Christian Patriotism' as the willingness to give all for our country, 'our money, energies, well-being, our health and even our life itself'. In November 1916, Donaldson told his congregation that he wanted peace delayed until Australia was ready for victory, until '[o]ur moral and spiritual condition' was assured.[xxi] Patriotism was for national redemption.
At the same time, questions of conscience were complicated by a sharper sense of Australian nationality. During the conscription debates of 1916–17, voters were asked to support the men at the front by agreeing that the government should send after them the many who would not volunteer. The first conscription plebiscite, in October 1916, narrowly failed. In December 1917, a few days before the second, Canada voted a pro-conscription party into government, and in Australia sympathetic papers, copying from the Canadian press, announced 'a great moral upheaval of the National conscience' in that country. Faced with a choice between acting and waiting while more died, Canadians, it was said, had put up their hands as patriots should.[xxii]
In Australia the pro-conscriptionists lost again, and by a larger margin, and yet in the long term they did not lose. Thanks to the war and thanks to this debate, something profound had happened. Moral upheaval in Australia might not have equalled Canada's, but it took on resounding power. It asserted the worth of manly virtues, but not as Vogan had done, and to much greater effect. From this point the nation was supposed to have been formed, not only by federation but also by a type of foundational agreement, between those who fought abroad and those who worked at home for their support. The obligation was perpetual. The idea of a great, nation-making contract created a new national consciousness, and a new type of national conscience, for Australia. It defined forever a duty owed to the nation's fighting men, who left its shores to represent its virtues.
Other forms of national conscience were cast into shadow. Here surely was 'a very great movement', deeply shaping the national character, but not at all the sort of movement Charles Lefroy had wanted.
This short story of the varieties and vicissitudes of national conscience during the first twenty years of Australian federation has two conclusions. Obviously, the opinions of the few who tried to set a general standard jostled more or less awkwardly with the rest. And there was always religion. In a post-Enlightenment world, complicated doubts lived on about the way fragments of Christian theology, including the idea of conscience itself, might shape collective opinion. The churches were ever-present.
Both questions go a long way back. Jean-Jacques Rousseau invented the idea of the 'general will' in his Social Contract (1762), where he argued about the way a national community creates its government. By the general will, Rousseau meant not shared opinion, but something slower and deeper, an unchanging murmur of power rather than anything more vocal – the rumbling of Leviathan, or possibly not a noise at all but only a parcel of settled expectations, the nation's political DNA. Finer, more instantaneous judgement from day to day was the business of leadership alone. The idea of the general will quickly entered political conversation. It was understood to be something leaders ignored at their peril. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) used the idea of the 'general will' to justify the overthrow of the ancien régime and, in 1793, the execution of the king.
The French Revolution itself deepened the problem. How was this manifestation from the deep to be articulated by government in Paris for practical purposes? Could there be national consensus, and if so how was it to be harnessed for government? The French writer Germaine de Staël sketched these questions in her pioneering essay in 1791. Already, initiatives in Paris had run a long way ahead of the rest of France. Mme de Staël argued about the need for a single long-term understanding of legitimacy, and in the short term for voting and numerical majorities. [xxiii] Nevertheless, this left an awkward grey area in between.
In Britain the question was more straightforward because public opinion was understood to be the collective opinion of the educated classes, the people who governed. So the 'public conscience' was the creation of 'public men', the sort of men who normally held high public office. In his famous Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 1774, Edmund Burke argued that a member of parliament had to make up his own mind without reference to the community he represented. He was not its delegate. He was its representative, and whatever his constituents might think he had to preserve intact 'his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgement, [and] his enlightened conscience' – more unbiased than theirs, that is, more mature and certainly more enlightened.[xxiv]
Unlike revolutionary France, Britain was also self-consciously Christian and the public conscience was associated with the Church of England, the church of Jane Austen, the Lefroys, and the bulk of 'public men'. In 1797 William Wilberforce, a fervent Christian and a friend and ally of the prime minister, the younger William Pitt, astonished the 'Higher and Middle Classes' with a scorching reprimand as to their moral character. Heartfelt Christianity, he said, was in decline. Certainly, there was respect for the duties of family life and a 'decent conformity to the established faith', but these things alone, said Wilberforce, were simply 'decent selfishness'. To be genuinely Christian was to be unselfish in every aspect of our lives, among ourselves and beyond our borders. In short, Britons of suitable rank must have the moral energy to take their faith – not so much its doctrine as its dynamic altruism – to the world at large.[xxv]
Wilberforce's readers knew about the sacred duty of all Christians, set out in the New Testament, to broadcast their faith through the world, 'pre propaganda fide'. For instance, in August 1786, when the plan to send convicts to New South Wales was announced, some wrote in anger to the newspapers, condemning a scheme which would change convicts into missionaries of English vice through those newly discovered seas, 'pro propaganda vitiis Anglicanis'. It was 'an affair', they said, 'in which the national honour and character are deeply involved'.[xxvi]
But Wilberforce went further. He took Christianity beyond anything in the gospels and thus invented the modern national conscience. Under this new rubric, national character was to be acted out in ways which were not only moral and devout, but also interventionist and systematic. Guided by conscientious public men, the people were to understand themselves, as a people, by looking beyond themselves. They were to know themselves better for the long term. True patriotism, said Wilberforce, was the enemy of selfishness. He called it 'public spirit'. It looked actively beyond national limits. Yet in doing so, he said, it 'attaches us in particular to the country to which we belong'.[xxvii] It was extraordinary suggestion, complicated, challenging, but true.
Wilberforce wrote at just the right time. A vigorous public opinion had grown up in Britain during the eighteenth century, and in the 1790s a few years of war against revolutionary France sharpened the general sense of national pride, throwing up a belief, conceited but creative, that it was up to Britain to restore the moral balance of the world.[xxviii] In his thoughts about national conscience, Wilberforce looked to the teachings of the Church of England, but he bypassed the church, speaking directly to a wartime audience anxious in new ways about national destiny.
Wilberforce is known today as the leader of the British campaign against slavery. More broadly, he wanted a new dimension to nationality, and public opinion responded, from a feeling of national pride but also from a feeling of national guilt. For some the British Empire was all greed and aggression. Increasing power abroad was being used, it was said, 'not for the protection of freedom, not for the relief of the oppressed, not to do good to men, either with regard to the temporal or eternal interests, – but rather to spread desolation and misery'. The moral cost was cumulative – 'justice, mercy, national honour, and every principle that we ought to hold sacred, as men, Britons, and Christians'. Wilberforce himself said that in gathering power abroad, 'in defiance alike of conscience and reputation, we industriously and perseveringly continue to deprave and darken the Creation of God'.[xxix]
That 'we' was both British and Christian, but Wilberforce pushed beyond boundaries of faith. He built on the moral universalism of the European Enlightenment, but he went back to the story of the Good Samaritan, in the New Testament, where the self-sacrificing hero was not a Jew, not one of 'us', and the man whom he finds half-dead on the roadside is. [xxx]
Of course, such rhetoric appealed directly to national vanity. Towards the victims it was ultimately patronising. But it worked as the great originating definition of national conscience. It was not just rhetoric. It was a new form of moral logic and a new theology, linking an inchoate democracy and national self-awareness with the moral order of the world. Public opinion, simply for its own sake and whatever the cause, has not been the subject of much historical narrative, and the national conscience, for its own sake, even less. That is particularly strange, given its urgency now. Part of the problem is the continuous entanglement of national conscience with Christian understanding.
In Britain the first great surge of anti-slavery speeches and pamphlets had an early impact. During the 1790s, parliament received many hundreds of petitions against the British slave trade and the trade was abolished in 1807. In due course, the final movement to end slavery itself, in 1833, provoked 5,000 petitions, carrying one and a half million signatures, men and women, from a population of 16.5 million.[xxxii] Exact motivation hardly matters. What matters is the main uniting idea. In Australia, at the onset of nationality, Charles Lefroy hoped for 'a very great movement', as a foundational expression of national conscience, but he got nothing beyond an address to the prime minister. In the making of modern British nationality a hundred years before, Wilberforce and his colleagues had done much better.
Some of these issues have been usefully covered by the North American scholar Michael Ignatieff in his book The Warrior's Honor (1998), about 'moral obligation beyond our tribe, beyond our nation, family, intimate network'. But when Ignatieff says 'our' he means us as individuals and as international citizens. Addressing readers worldwide, he does not mean 'us' as a nation. He writes of the modern conscience as universalist at every point. I and not-I are multiple and similar, like grains of sand. So, in Ignatieff's book, 'the sameness of victimhood' is apparently met by a sameness of emotional response, worldwide.[xxxiii] Neither victimhood nor response has national definition. And yet, at least in the Australian experience, the national and the international are mutually defining. It seems impossible to understand one without the other.
Besides, a good deal has changed in the near-twenty years since Ignatieff wrote The Warrior's Honor. Appalled by genocide in the Balkans and Africa, Ignatieff treated feelings of nationality in wholly negative terms. 'Nationalism,' he says, 'is a fiction.' It has nothing real to do with personal identity. It is born of fear and multiplies fear, and it corrodes that 'multiple belonging' which is the only good road for humanity.[xxxiv] But, if it was not obvious in the 1990s, it is obvious now that national governments are the only hope in meeting the world's worst challenges. That includes especially the problems caused by global enterprise. Whatever individuals and international bodies might do, national populations are still the main bodies of public opinion and only national governments can give those bodies moral force.
Ignatieff himself says that the International Committee of the Red Cross, which works from Geneva, is run mainly by Swiss, because '[o]nly an executive composed of a single nationality ... could be free of the paralysis that often afflicts multinational organizations'. Its moral sensibilities, or at least its attitude to war, he calls 'very Swiss'.[xxxv] This suggests continuing signs of life in conscience formulated at the national level, where it can be driven by national habits of self-understanding, so as to cross global boundaries and aim for the long term.
The anti-slavery campaigners, including Wilberforce, did something else right. At that point, best-selling romantic authors of verse and fiction, and therefore their readers, had begun to explore inner motivation with new authority. Whole stories turned on the moral subjectivity of men and women. In the mid-eighteenth century, writers had pinpointed sexual reputation. Think of Samuel Richardson's Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740). Now everything suddenly broadened out, with fresh attention given to what the Evangelical writer Hannah More called our 'sudden sense of right'.[xxxvi] Best of all, from 1811, were the six novels in which Jane Austen showed female characters wrestling with the common moral problems of daily life. Writing fiction about women made it easier to focus on conscience alone – private, individual conscience, exercised in deeply personal ways.
The process continued through the nineteenth century. By the time of Anthony Trollope, the 1850s to 1870s, it extended equally to men.[xxxvii] The process was easily clichéd, and the Victorian period is notorious for its attention to conscience, but this only shows how familiar the main idea had become.
In due course, women were involved in enormous numbers in all expressions of the British national conscience. During the nineteenth century, there was a massive increase in women's involvement in philanthropic causes as donors, organisers, and publicists. That included missionary and anti-slavery societies. '[C]ompassion and benevolence,' says historian F.K. Prochaska, 'were thought to be the preserve of the female sex', and women's sympathetic ambitions might go far afield, entering especially into the sufferings of women and children elsewhere in the world.[xxxviii] Through women's involvement such campaigns became part of the heartbeat of family life, affecting everyone, through meetings, periodicals and so on.
In Britain, and as part of the British view abroad, awareness of empire was part of the creation of national conscience, and women were aware of empire in different ways from men. By direct or indirect means, British women now set national moral agendas. In post-federation Australia, Arthur Vogan's reliance on the manly conscience was a hundred years behind the times. If he and Lefroy had been able to appeal somehow to the consciences of Australian women they might well have made a larger impact.
Like individual conscience – the sense of right felt by ordinary men and women – national conscience seemed to spring from an internal drama of opinion. What was internal to each of 'us' became internal to the nation. It was embodied, not just in books, and not just in the new monthlies and quarterlies which were common in Britain and elsewhere from the late eighteenth century, and not just among specialist writers, but also in endless local committees, inexpert speeches, and letters to the papers. It might draw life from pre-existing social and institutional patterns. So, however feebly, however hypocritically, it was built into modern nationalism.
For two centuries or more, the immediate challenge to collective conscience among Australia's settler population was the fact that they lived by invasion and conquest. In 1911, when Lefroy and Vogan made their big effort, that idea was not new. During the 1820s and 1830s, forty or fifty years after first settlement, a robust public had emerged in each of the colonial capitals, thanks to a sudden accumulation of clergy, lawyers, newspaper editors, and other professional men. Many had families, and women's philanthropic organisations multiplied, as in Britain. Also, the sudden inrush of propertied settlers put extreme pressure on the Indigenous peoples, and at the same time weakened government control. We need not worry, said the editor of the Australian: 'we have not to lay upon our consciences that we can only live by their destruction'. Others were not so sure. 'How is it,' said the Sydney lawyer, Richard Windeyer, in a passage which has been made famous by Henry Reynolds, 'that our minds are not satisfied? ... What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?'[xxxix]
Again, women drew attention to common suffering. Many women who wrote against slavery took on the imagined voices of the victims, especially other women. So they asked readers to leap the frontier from I to not-I with a keen effort of feeling. They were to look back at themselves from a strange place. In verse published in 1838, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop wrote about the recent massacre at Myall Creek, near Inverell, of at least twenty-eight men, women, and children, as if she were an Aboriginal mother soothing her child:
Oh, could'st thy little bosom
That mother's torture feel,
Or coulds't thou know thy father lies
Struck down by English steel.[xl]
'English steel' was a term sharpened to touch the national conscience. In a later stanza, Dunlop's talk of 'the Christian's God', who must hear the 'murder cry' of the Blacks, went to its deeper dimensions.
Few questioned the long-term moral propriety of invasion and conquest, but some stumbled in reconciling means to end, and recurring hints of moral equivalence between Black and White weakened conviction. The landowner and magistrate James Macarthur spoke in the Legislative Council about the 'intolerable tyranny' every Aboriginal must suffer in being brought under British laws. '[I]t was placing him between Scylla and Charybdis, for the savage had laws also,' Macarthur said, 'as binding and as stringent on him as our laws were on us, and equally incomprehensible to us as our laws were to him.' Troubled by ongoing brutalities, Macarthur suggested a special tribunal to hear cases, educing all possible evidence from both sides, which would have been a mere scratch on the moral surface. Edward Smith Hall, of the Sydney Monitor, was less compromising. Frontier brutality was beyond adjudication. '[A] murderous spirit', he called it, a 'wicked malignity generally prevalent among our graziers and settlers against the blacks of all tribes, horrible and disgraceful ... to a civilized nation'. There could be no fair peace, said the colonial writer Alexander Harris, unless, at some unlikely point, 'we give up their land and forsake their country'.[xli]
[xlii] Her friend, Olive Pink, in Alice Springs, used the same terminology.It was a long time before any better answer appeared, its complexity unfolding from the 1920s, when massacres were still occurring in central and north-west Australia, and through the twentieth century. Again, the remnants of the anti-slavery movement, still active because slavery still existed in the world, gave room to women as leading voices, and women were now better prepared to talk about violence, including child-theft and systematic rape. So I and not-I became more clearly a physical matter, a matter of mirrored bodies. Beginning in the late 1920s, Mary Montgomerie Bennett, who had ties with the London Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society, spent her life arguing for 'an enlightened national conscience' with respect to the Aborigines. She lived twenty years among them, in remote Western Australia.
Anthropologists such as Olive Pink and, in Sydney, A.P. Elkin, argued for the continuity of Aboriginal culture, and so they slowly created a wider understanding of the richness of Aboriginal spiritual life. Elkin, the leading figure, was an Anglican clergyman, alert to the power of ritual and the importance of place-bound belonging, and, like Wilberforce, his attachment to a sometime national religion gave him a structured moral view of the way nations might work. As a scientist trained in the new cultural relativism, Jonathan Lane of Sydney University says, Elkin offered 'a consistent, precise and systematic account of Aborigines'. But he gave this account a 'moral imperative, inspired by a religious vision'. From that vision came Elkin's extraordinarily energetic political strategy. Religion happened first, politics second.[xliii]
Working and often living among Aboriginal people, the anthropologists were publicists for suffering. At the same time, in the 1930s small number of Indigenous leaders also began to speak to nationwide public opinion. On Australia Day 1938, the sesquicentenary of White settlement, Bill Ferguson, William Cooper, and John Patten led a Day of Mourning, as part of a campaign for change in civil rights and living condition among their people.[xliv] The Day of Mourning has since evolved into NAIDOC Week.
From the 1950s to the 1970s W.H. Stanner, Elkin's former student, and C.D. Rowley recast the pre-war approach for a new generation, and in turn, before an increasingly wide audience, historians started to dislodge old orthodoxies. In 1981 Henry Reynolds published his first important work, The Other Side of the Frontier, a title which sums up the guiding image of my own essay. From now on, the frontier was a hinge or pivot on which turned the nation's ideas about itself, and the leap of imagination attempted by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop was given mighty evidentiary power. There was emphatically another side to the frontier, with its own past and future.
Events moved quickly from that point and the speech made by the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, at Redfern in Sydney in 1992 summed up an apparently robust national conscience.[xlv] What could be more telling of the conscious of the nation than great moral truths, heavy with intended change, in the mouth of the head of government? It was a speech about 'we' and 'us'. Keating addressed himself to his own people, 'us non-Aboriginal Australians', and he linked collective conscience and self-knowledge with 'our' old power. So, he said,
[w]ith some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.
Keating spoke like the eighteenth-century innovators in taking for granted the authority to act, plus solidarity of feeling and a simple, urgent moral equivalence.[xlvi]
The waters have been shallowing since. Kevin Rudd's apology in 2008 on behalf of a lesser 'us', past Australian parliaments and governments, referred to the 'profound grief, suffering and loss [inflicted] on ... our fellow Australians'. It made a deep impact, but, so long overdue, it seemed less clearly an act of grace.[xlvii] Nor was it accompanied by any compensation, as required by international human rights law.
More lately and more tellingly, great speakers from the other side of the frontier have turned 'we' and 'us' inside-out. In November 2014 Noel Pearson's remarkable eulogy at the funeral of Gough Whitlam spoke of the dead statesman, maker of Australia's Racial Discrimination Act 1975, as 'one of those rare people who never suffered discrimination but understood the importance of protection from its malice'. For Stan Grant, speaking in October 2015, 'we' and 'us' have distinctive punch, as in 'when British people looked at us, they saw something sub-human'. Grant lists reasons to hope that we (speaking now from both sides) are 'better than that', but there is something larger in his announcement that the 'Australian Dream', a congeries sublime with the hopes of ordinary men and women, means nothing useful on his side of the line. For the Indigenous 'us', the Australian Dream, he says, is interwoven with conquest, racism, and violence.[xlviii]
A national imaginary jarring with the national conscience spells fragility or futility for both. At the same time, there is a second frontier, at the continent's edge, which gives the national conscience more urgency than ever.
Michael Ignatieff sees the present age as one of extreme evil, so that, as he says in the quote at the start of this essay, 'Never have sentinels between the human and the inhuman been more necessary'. Ignatieff looks to international humanitarianism as the obvious sentinel, but given their power and the way they represent and sometimes shape national public opinion, surely much more has to depend on national governments.
There is the national conscience and there are international refugees. Some parts of the refugee question are complicated, just as the rights and wrongs of original British settlement might be said to be complicated, but some parts are simple. One morally simple aspect of British settlement was frontier brutality, and one morally simple aspect of Australian refugee policy is the brutality of refugee detention, especially offshore.
They are strictly comparable. They both traumatise conscience, but in the latter case there is a curious disconnect between the conscience of authority and conscience elsewhere. As a result there is no national conscience, at least of the useful sort Wilberforce invented.
This is curious, but clear, and not only with regard to refugees. The neatest quantitative measure of the national conscience is foreign aid. Foreign aid attracts no votes. It brings some diplomatic advantage but the exact quantity of foreign aid is a moral rather than a practical matter. In other words, foreign aid is an index of a nation's moral self-confidence. William Wilberforce would have called it an index of 'public spirit' and genuine patriotism. In Australia, foreign aid makes up about one per cent of national budget expenditure, but it has made up twenty-five per cent of all cuts made and projected for the period 2013–19. In 2016 Australia's total foreign aid is 0.22 per cent of GDP, a fraction of the proportion given by some other wealthy countries.[xlix]
With regard to conditions in refugee camps, the current prime minister says, 'We cannot be misty-eyed about this ... We must have secure borders and we do and we will.' And in a letter dated 30 April 2016 to the Melbourne Age, one Peter Lynch replies:
Mr Turnbull tells us we mustn't get 'misty-eyed' – about a man who felt it necessary to immolate himself, a man who unnecessarily died of sepsis from a scratch, a man who was killed when his head was crushed with a rock, or a raped woman who waited weeks for a late abortion.
Lynch goes on, 'What should we do?' It was wrong to be misty-eyed. 'Weeping with pity, shame and anger might be a more appropriate response'.[l]
The apparently total collapse of the national conscience in its usual form, the simple dereliction of moral dignity, has to have some historical explanation. Modern nationality emerged in the nineteenth century with the mass publication of maps. Before the 1830s maps were expensive to produce and they were not often used for educational purposes. In no country was the bulk of the population familiar with maps. From the 1870s maps became standard issue in schools, they became part of the mental furniture of anyone with any education, and from that point nations were identified in popular imagination, not just by their human membership but also by the lines that closed them in.[li] Governments have since learnt the potency of maps for explaining, and where necessary simplifying, the problems of the world.
Maps enchant, but they also dehumanise. They are figments of learning. They depict blocks of power, including democratic power, and the international refugees are entangled in maps. Australian children at the time of federation were taught to memorise both maps and verse:
For God has made her one: complete she lies
Within the unbroken circle of the skies,
And round her indivisible the sea
Breaks on her single shore.[lii]
Australia was a diagram before it was a nation. With cartographic boundaries came a keener sense of geographical destiny, and of positioning in the world.
Australia's federation fathers made much of maps and also of democracy, that spirit of self-determination and self-help which on the other side of the Pacific was summarised by Abraham Lincoln: 'Government of the people, by the people, for the people'. That is, government for 'us'. In the spirit that founded Australia, maps and democracy went together, and here the cry was, 'Australia for the Australians'. In these circumstances, whatever Arthur Vogan liked to think, democracy was not an expression of mere humanity. Time has unfolded this truth, and now Stan Grant's searing lesson seems to have a wider reach. It is not just the Australian Dream but the driving ideas of federation itself, about territory and self-government, which now cut life short. In a newly compact world there can be no self-contained island-continents, uniform and singular from shore to shore. So those ideas have lost traction. They give nil to the future.
It is unlucky that an extreme challenge to Australia's national conscience, the refugee crisis, comes at a time when the national conscience is especially feeble and when the way forward especially dim. Thus pressured, Australia seems to have come to the end of an old familiar road, and answers which had seemed absolute for generations have failed.
The point of an historical account such as this one is also to look for fundamental ingredients by going back to the beginning. Some of those ingredients, which would have made sense to Wilberforce, are to be found in the effort by the Australian Council of Churches to establish a network of sanctuaries for refugees, sometimes within their own places of worship.[liii] Christianity, like some other religions, is remarkably fluid. Territorial in its own way, it is tangential to democracy – in the end has nothing to do with it – and it forces a rethinking of boundaries. It can stiffen the bigotry of boundaries, but also dissolve it. Its power either way is vast. So all other frontiers can fail in sanctity at the doorways of churches.
This was Wilberforce's point. From his religious understanding he took lessons about selfishness, from which he took his definition of patriotism. That shaped his understanding of boundaries within and beyond the British Empire. This was also Charles Lefroy's point. Defining conscience in Christian terms, he thought that the Australian nation could not properly exist without the self-awareness which goes with a national conscience. Finally, it was A.P. Elkin's point, in rethinking for the twentieth century the relationship in Australia between Black and White. Elkin's religious vision and his ideas about moral equivalence shaped his political strategy.
It does not need a religious revival to find out the importance of religion for the unfolding of the national conscience, if only because an effective national conscience has to work with the separate and vast incomprehensibility of spiritual life among others, the gap, in Roger Scruton's terms, between I and not-I. All otherwise is brutality.
So we can return to the eighteenth century, where it all started, and quote from the English novelist Laurence Sterne (as the anti-slavery campaigners did): 'tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, and then endeavor to make 'em so'.[liv]
Alan Atkinson is a graduate of three universities (Sydney, Trinity College Dublin, and the ANU). He has taught and been a visiting fellow at several other universities, most notably the University of New England, where he is Emeritus Professor of History. His magnum opus, the three-volume The Europeans in Australia, has won numerous major awards. Professor Alan Atkinson is the inaugural ABR RAFT Fellow.
Australian Book Review warmly thanks the Religious Advancement Foundation Trust, which has funded this $7,500 Fellowship.
References and other reading
Albury Banner, 13 August 1915
Atkinson, A. (2014), The Europeans in Australia: A history, vol. 3, University of NSW Press, Sydney, pp. 109-19, 121
Atkinson, A. (1982), 'The Ethics of Conquest', Aboriginal History, vol. 6, no. 2, December, pp. 82 91
Australian (Sydney) 12 June 1835
Australian (Sydney), 13 December 1838
Beatson, John (1789), Compassion the Duty and Dignity of Man; and Cruelty the Disgrace of his Nature, the author; Hull, p. 55
Brisbane Courier, 5 March 1915; McKernan, Australian Churches at War, pp. 68-9, 111
Burke, E., (1999) 'Mr Edmund Burke's Speech to the Electors of Bristol', in Francis Canavan (ed.), The Select Works of Edmund Burke (Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, vol. 4, pp. 10-11
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Coleridge, S.T., 'Essay on Faith', in H.N. Coleridge (ed.), The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (William Pickering, London 1838)
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Farrell, P. 'Churches Offer Sanctuary to Asylum Seekers Facing Deportation to Nauru', Guardian Australia, 4 February 2016
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Lake, Marilyn (1999), Getting Equal: The history of Australian feminism, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, pp. 93-5, 110-35
Lane, J.A., 'Anchorage in Aboriginal Affairs: A.P. Elkin on religious continuity and civic obligation', PhD thesis, University of Sydney 2007, pp. 37-8; Robert Manne, "W.E.H. Stanner: The Anthropologist as Humanist", and W.E.H. Stanner, "The Boyer Lectures: After the Dreaming (1968)", and "Continuity and Change among the Aborigines", in Stanner, The Dreaming and other Essays (Black Inc, Melbourne 2009), pp. 1-2, 14, 168-9, 179-80
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Sydney Morning Herald, 14 January 1911
Sydney Morning Herald, 26 August 1911, 26 August 1913
Sydney Morning Herald, 4 (Lefroy to editor), 14, 25 January 1911
Sydney Morning Herald, 19 October 1910
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Sydney Morning Herald, 24 August 1842
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