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The Southern Tree of Liberty : The democratic movement in New South Wales before 1856 - Terry Irving

The Southern Tree of Liberty

The democratic movement in New South Wales before 1856

By: Terry Irving

Hardcover | 16 November 2006 | Edition Number 1

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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. n

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. n

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

  • Charles Harpur, the native-born poet who wrote 'The Tree of Liberty (A Song for the Future)'; n
  • Johann Lhotsky, the revolutionary who spent five years in an Austrian prison; n
  • Ben Sutherland, the English upholsterer who formed the first working-class political organisation and edited its newspaper; n
  • William A Duncan, the Scots Catholic who created a network of radical intellectuals; · Henry Macdermott, the Irish-born 'friend of the people'; and n
  • Edward J n
  • 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

Industry Reviews
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

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