• Publication Date: November 17, 2006
  • EAN: 9781862876170
  • 304 pages; 6" x 8⅝"

The Southern Tree of Liberty

The democratic movement in New South Wales before 1856


Product Description

Who would imagine that democracy in NSW was won through fierce political battles and street rallies? The Southern Tree of Liberty sheds light on this turbulent and violent period in Australian history.

For twenty years, the advocates of democracy mobilised the working class and fought hard to bring popular rule to the colony. The elites, on the other hand, used their legislative powers to halt this march towards liberty, most notably in the Constitution of 1853.

There were many colourful characters involved in the push for self-government:

Charles Harpur, the native-born poet who wrote ‘The Tree of Liberty (A Song for the Future)’;

Johann Lhotsky, the revolutionary who spent five years in an Austrian prison;

Ben Sutherland, the English upholsterer who formed the first working-class political organisation and edited its newspaper;

William A Duncan, the Scots Catholic who created a network of radical intellectuals; · Henry Macdermott, the Irish-born ‘friend of the people’; and

Edward J

Hawksley, the radical journalist who was part of every democratic campaign from 1840.

These characters and more are covered in Irving’s engagingly written and thoroughly researched book. The Southern Tree of Liberty highlights the contribution of the democrats to public life and shows how their struggles made possible the democratic advances that followed after 1856.

I ask no more than “the birthright of a British subject”, namely the privilege of voting on the same grounds as would entitle me to vote in my native land … Henry Macdermott, 1842

They had to decide whether they would have the rights of Britons or that vile and bastard democracy which had led to so many evil results in different parts of the world. … James Macarthur, 1842

… it is a grievance for the working man to be totally unrepresented; to have the nominal form of elective privileges whilst he is legislated for by a class entirely antagonistic to his interests and his claims. … Guardian newspaper, 20 July 1844

A NSW Sesquicentenary of Responsible Government publication.


Johann Lhotsky’s Revolutionary Proposal
How to get an Assembly “instanter, de facto”

Vanishing Funds: Emblematic of Botany Bay
A discredited agent

The Patriots versus the Public
Six hundred gentlemen to rule the country

Immigrant Workers: A Warmer Attachment to Free Institutions
The germ of an alternative public
The collective impulse
Workingmen’s politics, 1840-43
A more practical knowledge of public affairs

The Friends of the People
A conservative realignment
A generational unit
Leaders of sufficient talent

1842 – The Challenge of Representation
Representation and democratic public life
“O long may the Tories of Sydney remember”
The perils of process

The Governor’s Other Class Struggle
Gipps and the working men
The MPA and the working men

A Great Revolution in Class Relations
Who were the activists of the MPA?
The politics of the MPA: class and colony
The sudden end of the MPA

Radical Strategies – Radical Voices
Constitutional radicalism
Civic radicalism
Plebeian radicalism

Street Violence: “Do as the Canadians Did!”
Death of a tradesman
The Hydra which rears a head in every quarter of our city: the election rioters
What should we go to our homes for; we’ve got nothing to eat?

The Great Fear
A coercive law unknown to England

Mass Activity: A Storm Long Gathering
Mass activity in a critical period
Meetings and militancy

Social Alliances: Those You Trusted Have Deceived You
The mercantile interest and the democratic movement
The trades societies and the democratic movement
The “Operative” newspaper

Headquarters: The Red House in King Street
The organising impulse
Revolt on the Turon
The irrepressible force of common sentiment

Elections: Submitting to the Popular Will
The hydra-headed monster that we can never govern nor lead: the mob of Mr Parkes
Delegates of the people
The increasing strength of the radical party

Democracy as a Popular Movement

Members of the Mutual Protection Association, 1843-1844
Speakers at meetings on constitutional reform and anti-transportation, 1846-1855
Activists of trades societies, 1846-1854
Members of five radical organisations, 1848-1854

Select Bibliography

Unlike many historians of the early decades of the European Colony in Sydney, Irving does not concentrate on constitutional debates, British policies or landed elites. He argues that ‘there was a political movement for democracy that envisaged popular sovereignty’ and ‘tells the story of the mobilisation of the working classes, turbulent street crowds’ and the ‘leadership role of radical intellectuals’. While he works from secondary sources and original documents, the book’s strength lies in the way he brings the latter to the reader’s attention.

Irving notes the necessity of understanding the spirit of the times. … The book’s title comes from a Charles Harpur verse of 1849 expressing the possibility that while democracy seemed to be failing in Europe, it could still succeed in Australia. Irving’s research shows the importance of newspapers as rallying points for radicals, as were public meetings for the less literate population. …

Working from distant sources, Irving manages to give some coherence to diverse and transient organisations such as the Australian Patriotic Association, the Mutual Protection Association and the Political Association. He brings life to a huge range of characters. Some such as WC Wentworth, Macarthur … are well known … It is a delight to encounter others such as McEachern, Duncan and Macdermott, and the plebeian readicals Edmund Mason and Henry Evers. While juggling this large cast, Irving maintains the thread of philosophies that ebbed and flowed with events and with the public prominence of the men who championed them. – AQ – Australian Quarterly, January-February 2007

Irving’s explanation of the timing and form of responsible government is based firmly on the political economy of the period as it was experienced and interpreted by the people of Sydney in the [eighteen-]thirties, forties and fifties. The evidence he presents is exhaustive, and carefully documented and interpreted. The argument that results is forceful and compelling. – Jim Hagan, Illawarra Unity, Vol 7 No 1, 2008

Scroll to Top