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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



It would be pleasant if the narrative contained in this study of Rolleston should succeed in showing that his early dreams came true. From one aspect his career was highly successful, and at his death the whole Dominion rang with praise of his single-minded devotion to the public welfare and his steadfast adherence to the highest principles that should govern a statesman. But, viewed from his own standpoint, there was much to disappoint and disillusion him. This did not arise from any question of his own personal success or failure, as he was by no means self-seeking in public affairs. In like manner, his dreams of a new Utopia were not in fact achieved, or perhaps attainable; but he might well have been content with the rich contributions he himself made to the progress of the Dominion in the way of social and legislative reforms.

What robbed him of a fuller measure of success was his inability to adapt himself to the exigencies of political life, for, in trying to achieve his plans, he was baffled, thwarted, and frustrated by the constant need for compromise, conciliation, and party manœuvres. He could never reconcile himself to Lord Morley's dictum that the art of politics consists in the acceptance of the second best. Like Alexander Hamilton, he viewed politics as a religion, and never as a game. In private life, he was a genial and charming page xiiicompanion, whose company was eagerly sought by men who loved good fellowship. But his public utterances were uniformly serious and sombre, so that he was often regarded as a gloomy prophet of evil.

This intense seriousness was part of his temperament. It manifested itself in an almost excessive conscientiousness—an intellectual scrupulosity which made his political path thorny and difficult. Gisborne, an acute and accurate observer, once declared that Rolleston suffered from "an excess of virtue". Even in his early days as a sheep-farmer, this trait in his temperament was in evidence. His old friend, Professor Sale, says: "Rolleston was almost unduly nervous and anxious about his sheep station and his business affairs. This anxiety was not due to any excessive regard for money, but arose from a desire to do the very best in whatever he was doing. It was in fact only another form of his distinguishing characteristic, conscientiousness." He quotes as an instance the fact that, one day, Rolleston, having promised a party of road-workers to supply them with mutton, made three attempts on horseback to cross the Rakaia River, which was in high flood. The task proved impossible. "The workmen saw him from a distance, and would have dissuaded him if they could have got within speaking distance; but they could not. They were in no danger of starvation, for, by walking a few miles, they could have secured supplies from the adjoining station. But they were none the less strongly impressed by Mr Rolleston's regard for his workmen and his conscientious determination to fulfil his promise if it were physically possible. They always spoke of him with love and veneration."

It was this same quality of extreme sense of duty that Rolleston carried with him through his political career. It is the key of his character. He was in effect Horace's "just man". "The Just man tenacious of his purpose and not to be diverted by any power from above or clamour from below."

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This is not to imply that Rolleston was a political Pharisee. It only means that he was puzzled by the rapid shifting of both individuals and groups in the political arena. He forgot perhaps the truth that "the workers (and, we may add, the electors) have learned from the history of centuries that they may expect no less valuable service for their cause from the careerist than from the just and the upright."1 The electors are not inclined to inquire too closely into the motives of politicians in their changes of front as long as they get the service they expect.

I have been at some pains to emphasise this cardinal feature of Rolleston's temperament, because it seems, in a broad way, to explain his political history. He could not bring himself to seek after popularity. This is partly the explanation of why it was that, while in his own election contests he was several times defeated, he was all the time rising in the esteem of the nation.

Regarded as a local politician and judged by election results, he was to some extent a failure. Regarded as a national figure steeped in the high traditions of the older statesmanship, he was a conspicuous success. In short, his career is a signal proof of the fact that a public man is ultimately judged in the eyes of the nation not by his attitude on particular measures but by his character. Thus it came about that, when he died, a leading journal that had always opposed his political views said: "There is scarcely a home from the North Cape to the Bluff in which his name is not held in grateful and affectionate regard. The secret of his popularity was that everyone trusted him."