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New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s

Democrats, gentry, agrarians, bureaucrats

page 125

Democrats, gentry, agrarians, bureaucrats

Who should exercise political power and who were worthy of public honour and esteem? Many of the answers were provided by democracy which was flourishing in settler New Zealand. But there were countercurrents which can be neatly indicated by pointing to certain features of the country's constitution. While the House of Representatives had been elected on a universal male franchise since 1881, there was the Legislative Council, and an aristocratic Governor representing the Imperial Monarch, as continuing expressions of gentry traditions. And there was the ‘country quota’ with its agrarian message that country dwellers merited a bonus in political influence and esteem. Furthermore the dispersed nature of the New Zealand community magnified the significance of the departmental bureaucracies. Parliament's short, largely winter, sittings limited its supervision of the executive, while cabinet members themselves did not spend too much time together in the not over popular capital. Bureaucrats, gentry and agrarians gave colonial democrats a good run for their money.

The influence of gentry and agrarians was enhanced by two strong rural myths which the Anglo-Saxon world had bequeathed to the colony, the ‘landed gentry’ myth that was potent in English social and political life, and the American agrarian myth of the idealised yeoman. English landed society, drawing on a long aristocratic tradition, had shown considerable virility in weathering the challenges of the French and Industrial Revolutions, capturing the support and loyalty of the rising new classes, the labourers as ‘angels in marble’16, the industrialists and merchants as recruits to the gentlemanly ideal, with country estates and sons at the public schools. A ‘mushroom aristocracy’ quickly established a gentry style use of the open country of settler New Zealand. Teaming up with the leading merchants and professionals of the towns they formed a significant elite on the English model, with a pervasive input into the colony's social, political, economic, cultural and recreational life. Even in bush districts there were plenty of settlers with a hankering for the reassuring presence of this traditional English style of leadership, and genuine democrats such as Colonel Robert Trimble of Inglewood and George Marchant of Stratford were manipulated willy-nilly into the role of colonial pseudo-squire by popular demand.17

However most smallholders subscribed to agrarian not gentry ideals. By ‘agrarians’ I mean those who looked on yeoman farmers as the moral and economic backbone of the colony and attributed particular virtues to rural life. Like Thomas Jefferson, the most notable spokesman for the American agrarian myth, they believed that ‘those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people’, and that ‘corruption of morals' has never been the mark of ‘the mass of cultivators’ but rather of page 126 those who depend on ‘the caprice of customers’ and of ‘the mobs of great cities' who relate to pure government ‘as sores do to the strength of the human body’.18 In the 1860s the yeoman's prestige had received a great boost when the American yeoman North crushed the plantation aristocracy of the South. The development of the myth in the New Zealand context is well described in Miles Fairburn's ‘The Rural Myth and the New Urban Frontier’.19 Agrarians were natural supporters of the country quota. A country quota was first formally acknowledged in 1881 when the House agreed that country districts should contain 25 per cent fewer people than town districts. The issue came under sharp debate in 1887 when the predominantly urban Stout-Vogel ministry introduced a Representation Bill proposing equal electorates. Country members held meetings to discuss the matter and appointed a deputation to the government strongly objecting to the change from the 1881 arrangement. In the debates they spoke of the privations of the remote country districts ‘where farmers are turning the barren waste into cultivated fields'. They told of how difficult it was for many of their constituents to get to political meetings, get their names on the rolls, and cast their votes. They compared their own laborious journeys around their scattered electorates with the easy life of members representing little town parishes, and asked why their vast electorates should be further enlarged in the interests of what they considered a false equality. They pointed out that the towns were already over-represented because many country constituencies were represented by townsmen. Their strong, largely pragmatic, case won the day and the 1887 Act granted a country quota of 18 per cent, which was raised to 28 per cent in 1889.