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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman


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"We think our fathers fools so wise we grow
Our wiser sons no doubt will think us so."


Not long ago I listened to a speech broadcast by a New Zealand Cabinet Minister, in the course of which he said: "Let us recall the names of our great New Zealand statesmen of the past." But, to my surprise, his retrospect went no farther back than 1890, and, after mentioning Richard John Seddon and one or two of his colleagues or successors, the speaker's interest in, or knowledge of, other statesmen abruptly faded out. Now, it is true that a new epoch in New Zealand politics began in 1890, and that period is rightly regarded as a sort of political watershed; it is, however, an egregious error to regard the earlier political landscape as being wrapped in mediaeval darkness and to reserve all the sunshine and splendour for this side of the great divide. Without idealising the early statesmen, it is true to say that, at almost any given period before 1890, there were far more giants on the political stage than can be found at any given period since that date. This can easily be put to the test. Let the reader ask any reasonably informed citizen for the names of the Cabinet Ministers he can recall who have held office since 1890, and he will be hard put to it to mention more than two or three, apart from the successive Prime Ministers. The rest are, for the most part, vague and transitory shadows. On the other hand, it requires but a glance at our earlier history to see that the political sky was then studded with stars of permanent brightness and many of the first magnitude. Even if they are now merely dim ghosts to the present generation, all students of history page xirecognise that the men who patiently and courageously, built the foundations of our modern State were such men as Sir Edward Stafford, Sir Frederick Weld, Sir Robert Stout, Sir Julius Vogel, Sir Harry Atkinson, Sir Frederick Whitaker, Sir George Grey, Sir Donald McLean, Donald Reid, W. S. Moorhouse, J. E. Featherston, Sir W. Fitzherbert, J. E. Fitzgerald, and William Rolleston. These men were progressive and far-sighted statesmen who, with few precedents to guide them, faced and solved problems of the greatest magnitude and complexity. Consider, for example, the many phases of the Native question and the Maori Wars, the early and varied provincial problems of land settlement and tenure, the control and government of the picturesque and turbulent population of the goldfields, and the long struggles between provincialism and centralism.


The story of William Rolleston is that of a man, well born and well educated in England, who desired in early life to escape from the trammels and conventions of the circle in which he found himself. He felt stifled and smothered by Old World restrictions. He saw in the young rising settlement of Canterbury the chance of freedom. But he also had a wider vision. He dreamed of the possibility in New Zealand of building up a new and better social order. It was natural that this ideal should appear readily attainable in a virgin country free from tradition and precedent. He once confided in a friend that, as a youth in England, he was considered "a terrible radical", and that it was dissatisfaction with English institutions as they existed and the hope of founding a political Utopia in a new world that impelled him to emigrate.

It was this call that led him to plunge into political life. He began in Provincial politics. He was at first a member of the Provincial Government, and later Superintendent of the Province of Canterbury. His occupancy of this post page xiiduring the last eight years of its existence coincided with its most halcyon days of prosperity and progress. During the same period he was a Member of Parliament, and later rose to Cabinet rank. In this capacity, for five years, he proved himself a constructive reformer and an administrator of outstanding ability.

Altogether he was in politics for thirty-six years, though during the last decade (1890-1900) his political fortunes were chequered, and, at successive elections he met with alternations of victory and defeat.


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."


Apart from his own individual temperament, Rolleston represented a type that was much in evidence in earlier days, particularly in Canterbury. The chief characteristics of this group were that they were all the product of the page xvEnglish Public Schools and Universities. To those who can recall the type of which I am speaking, it would appear as if those great seats of learning—the Universities of the Old World—produced at that time a finer vintage than the output of later years. They were men who were at once cultured scholars and men of affairs. Of simple habits, they dressed plainly, eschewed personal ornaments and all forms of affectation. They were of a peculiarly masculine type, and hated vulgarity and ostentation. Towards rich and poor, young and old, they displayed that grave and charming courtesy that was so marked an attribute of what were called "gentlemen of the old school".

I remember, for example, that illustrious and venerable old man, Sir Joshua Williams, who was a lifelong friend of Rolleston. When I was a mere office boy, he would raise his hat and sweep it almost to his knees in acknowledgment of my shy salute. In like manner he would treat a prisoner at the Bar, or a witness in the box, with such perfection of manner that it seemed almost a privilege to appear before him in any capacity.

There are others that might be mentioned of lesser calibre but of like courtesy and simplicity. When men of this class took an interest in public affairs, they naturally carried great weight and influence. It will be interesting to see, as years go by, whether in New Zealand we will reproduce this type or something as good or better.


Part of the paradox of Rolleston's career lay in the conflict between his social position and his political opinions. The landed squatters regarded him as their friend socially, but they viewed with bitter hostility his obstinate efforts to prevent aggregation of large properties. On the other hand, while he was sometimes called "the people's William" and "the idol of Canterbury", the more radical section of the community failed to take him entirely to its page xviheart because of his social friendship with the other sections of the community and because of his political associations.

These political associations were in the main with the party which ultimately came to be regarded as conservative; but he himself held radical views on many questions, and might most correctly be described as a Liberal of the old school. One of the main features of English Liberalism during most of the nineteenth century was its opposition to State interference. The historical explanation of this was the determination of the early English Liberals to free industry from the shackles imposed by the State. Hence when, in the 'nineties, there emerged in politics a fresh impulse towards State intervention and control, the principles of true Liberalism, as understood by Rolleston, were laid aside. To his astonishment and dismay he, who had started out in life as a Radical, found himself dubbed a Conservative. He thought that in due time the pendulum would swing. On some questions, as this narrative will show, it has after many years swung back to an approach to Rolleston's views; but it is probable that the political pendulum never oscillates fully to its opposite extreme. The law of periodicity never fully operates in politics. As Bertrand Russell truly says: "The movement of human society is partly cyclic, partly progressive—it resembles a tune played over and over again, but each time with a fuller orchestration than before. In this tune there are quiet passages and passionate passages, there is a terrific climax, and then a time of silence until the tune begins again."

1 Wertheimer, Portrait of the Labour Party, p. 143.