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The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon


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My acquaintance and friendship with my late chief and colleague, Richard John Seddon, extended over a period of twenty-one years. For nearly thirteen years of that period I was a member of the Ministry with him, and was naturally constantly and closely associated with him. I had probably better opportunities than most men for gauging his qualities of head and heart, and observing his peculiarly vigorous methods of work, and I am pleased to have this chance of briefly recording my personal impressions of the strong man and good friend who has gone.

Probably no colonial statesman was more praised or more abused than was Richard Seddon during his long term of office as Premier of New Zealand—idolised by his friends and made the target of unreservedly frank criticism by his political opponents. Probably this very criticism, to use a mild term, was the most convincing proof of his energy, ability, and courage. No weak man makes enemies. But Seddon had very few personal antagonists; what opponents he had—and they were many—based their dislike on political grounds. Politics aside, there were few who could not like and love him. His hearty, bluff manner, his loud cheery laugh and kindly greeting, his unfailing memory for names and faces, his readiness to adapt himself to his company, won him friendship where many a man a trifle more reserved would have failed. “He never forgot a friend,” might well have been his epitaph. No man was ever less ashamed of his humble friends of early days; to the last the democrat whom kings delighted to honour was unspoiled by the praises showered upon him, and to his old old mates of the digging-days he was to the last plain “Dick”.

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It is probably unnecessary for me to write much concerning my late chief's political achievements; Mr. Drummond in his excellent work tells in detail the story of Mr. Seddon's legislative triumphs. It will be sufficient to remark that for twenty-seven years he sat in the Parliament of this country, returned again and again by his staunch West Coast friends, though any constituency in the colony would probably have returned him. For fifteen years he was a Minister of the Crown, and for thirteen years, as Premier, he practically ruled New Zealand. To chronicle the measures which he has been mainly instrumental in passing into law during those thirteen years would be to write our public history for that period. Humanitarianism was his political creed. “I believe,” he wrote in his famous manifesto issued just prior to the last general election, which resulted in such an overwhelming victory for the Liberal party, “that the cardinal aim of government is to provide the conditions which will reduce want, and permit the very largest possible number of its people to be healthy, happy human beings. The life, the health, the intelligence, and the morals of a nation count for more than riches, and I would rather have this country free from want and squalor and unemployed than the home of multi-millionaires.” This was the keynote of Mr. Seddon's political life-work. It was a lofty and noble ideal. Long ago a philosopher laid down the axiom that “ideals can never be completely realised,” but Richard Seddon did his strenuous best, and the truly happy State which he had in his mind's eye is more nearly approached in New Zealand than in any other country on the globe.

It was often said of the late Premier that with all his insight and keenness of judgment he was too impulsive, too apt to be led away by a wave of public opinion. But he had the true democratic conviction that it was his duty to give effect to what he believed to be the will of the people. Indeed, one of the great secrets of his success was that he possessed the gift, or knack, or whatever it may be called, of anticipating the trend of popular feeling; the happy gift of intuition. This was particularly emphasized during the Boer War, when Mr. Seddon's offer of New Zealand contingents for service in South Africa not page ix only gave definite and hugely popular expression to the rising feeling of patriotic sympathy with the Old Land, but anticipated similar offers from the other British colonies, to the unbounded delight of New Zealanders and the liberal advertisement of their country in lands where the very name of New Zealand was hardly known.

The fact that Mr. Seddon was the first, after the campaign, to protest against the flooding of South Africa with Chinese coolies by the men in whose interests the grievous war had unwittingly been waged, in no wise detracted from the merit of the promptitude of his offer of troops. Indeed, to the Boer War and Mr. Seddon's share therein, New Zealand owes more than perhaps most of us readily grasp. It was really to his big-hearted impulse, his initiative, that we owe the new and broader Imperialism, and when the great Council of the Empire, as yet in nubibus is fully realised, let us remember that it is through Mr. Seddon that it has been made possible. Perhaps we were too close to him to see him in the true perspective. Half a world away they sized the big man up more accurately than even New Zealanders could. What New Zealander's heart but beat with pride when he read, the day after the tragic news of the Prime Minister's end, the sorrowful panegyrics cabled from all parts of the world, the eulogies of the most famous English journals! “A man of noble ideals and generous sentiments;” “a great servant of the Empire:” “the most effective labour politician of his day;” “a, man whose death deprived the Empire of a powerful driving force;” “a man who largely taught the British worker to grasp the value of Empire” —these were the verdicts passed on Richard Seddon by the great voices of public opinion at the other end of the world. His strenuous and earnest advocacy of the maintenance of racial purity, too, and his efforts in the direction of the extension of British rule and New Zealand's influence in the Pacific, were all the outcome of his splendid and far-seeing patriotism.

But again it is on the attractive personality, the very human side, of the late Premier, that one wants to dwell. His very foibles, his boisterous impulses, his little eccentricities, all page x went to make him the loveable man that he was. Instances of his tender-heartedness, his overflowing good-nature, even to those with whom he had at one time or other “differences,” will occur to everyone who knew him. Above all, the children loved the old man, and this love of the children is perhaps a finer testimony of worth than the esteem of older people. In his life-work, Mr. Seddon, it is scarcely necessary to tell New Zealanders, toiled like a very horse. He never gave himself a rest, nor did he allow others to rest. His love of work, of action, of public speaking, killed him in his prime, but it could not have been otherwise. A life of leisured and luxurious inactivity he could never have endured.

Physically powerful, vigorous, and imposing, with a keen and fearless eye, Mr. Seddon was a man who compelled respect and attention whenever and wherever he spoke. There was a stern and fighting glint in his clear straight eyes that said, as Carlyle said of the Abbot Samson, “Let all sluggards and cowards, remiss, false-spoken, unjust, and otherwise diabolic persons, have a care; this is a dangerous man for them.” And as the sage has written elsewhere of that same grave old Abbot, it could with exactitude be said here of my old chief, that he was “a skilful man; full of cunning insight, lively interests; always discerning the road to his object, be it circuit, be it short-cut, and victoriously travelling forward thereon.”

Probably the best monument to a departed statesman is a faithful, sympathetic record of his life and works. In this book Mr. Drummond has given such a record, and it is one that I trust will be widely read, and that will faithfully preserve for those who come after us the memory of a truly great man, and a man whose influence has irrevocably moulded for good the fortunes of our country, New Zealand.

Joseph George Ward.

29th December, 1906.