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Barton, Sir Edmund (Toby) (1849–1920)

from Argus (Melbourne)

Widespread regret was expressed to-day at the announcement that Sir Edmund Barton, P. C., senior puisne judge of the Federal High Court, had died at the Hydro Majestic, Medlow Baths, this morning, aged 71 years. He was found dead in the bathroom, having apparently suffered a heart seizure immediately after taking a bath. He had been in indifferent health for some considerable time.

The name of Edmund Barton will linger most lovingly in the memories of Australians in association with the closing years of the nineteenth century. As the century waned his personality waxed in the public eye and when the midnight bells proclaimed a new year, a new century, and a new Commonwealth there were thousands of Australians who regarded Edmund Barton as a not unworthy embodiment of all the aspirations contained in that momentous stage in our history. The long struggle for a united Australia had been won; strong feelings on either side had given way to a unanimous enthusiasm which had to

"Wait but the sunkiss to proclaim
The Day of the Dominion born"

Before the day was proclaimed there was a passing cloud, but it served only to emphasise the high place which Mr Barton (as he was then) occupied in the esteem of his people. The first Governor General, the late Lord Linlithgow (then Lord Hopetoun), acting it is said, under instructions from the Colonial Office, invited Sir William Lyne, then Premier of New South Wales, to form the first Cabinet. A keen sense of disappointment, amounting almost to depression, permeated the people at the announcement that another man should be designated for the place which they had fashioned for Sir Edmund Barton. How Sir William Lyne failed to form a Cabinet and how Sir Edmund Barton was called upon after all to undertake the task, is a matter of history. Sir Edmund Barton was surrounded by the strongest Cabinet that has ever been associated in Australia. Mr Deakin was the second in command as Attorney-General, the late Mr C. C. Kingston was Minister for Customs, Sir George Turner Treasurer, Sir William Lyne Minister for Home Affairs, Sir John Forrest Postmaster-General, the late Sir James Dickson (Queensland) Minister for Defence, and Mr R. E. O'Connor (afterwards Mr Justice O'Connor) Vice president of the Executive Council and Leader in the Senate.

Long before this the people of Australia had learned what manner of man was he who had won this high place in the hearts and the minds of his countrymen. Edmund Barton was then 50 years of age, having been born at Glebe, Sydney on January 18, 1849. He was a brilliant student matriculating with honours at 16 years of age and receiving a special prize for proficiency in the classics. At the University he won several scholarships and in 1868, when only 19 years of age, graduated with first class classical honours and a special University prize. In the following year he took his degree as Master of Arts and in 1871 was called to the Bar. Even at that early age he was ambitious for political honours, and a few years later he stood against the late Sir William Windeyer as a candidate for the Sydney University, which then sent a member to the Legislative Assembly. He was unsuccessful on that occasion, but in 1879, two years later, Sir Edmund Barton was returned for the University, his opponent being Sir Arthur Renwick. After representing Wellington also in the Legislative Assembly he occupied the position of Speaker for four years. Subsequently he was a member of the Legislative Council, holding the office of Attorney-General in the Dibbs Government. While Sir George Dibbs was on a visit to England Sir Edmund Barton was acting Premier of New South Wales, and in that capacity was charged with the chief executive authority during the great Broken Hill strike in 1892.

It was after the first Sydney Federal Convention in 1891 that the voice of Sir Edmund Barton began to travel across State boundaries. Many years elapsed before the first Federal Convention was elected. In the meantime, Sir Edmund Barton, aloof from party conflict, had established himself leader of the Federal movement in New South Wales, and at the election for the Convention in New South Wales in March 1897, he was placed at the head of the poll.

To write Sir Edmund Barton's history in succeeding years would be to write the history of the Federal movement. He was the leader of the Convention, the senior member of the drafting committee, and in an assemblage where many notable men were associated none disputed his right to supremacy, and he at all times acted his part with credit to himself, and with signal success.

On June 2, 1898, Victoria accepted the Federal Convention by an overwhelming majority, and the people of Australia were awaiting the result of the New South Wales vote. Owing to a blunder in the compilation of the returns, it appeared at one time as though the necessary majority had been secured. Sir Edmund Barton actually spoke from a balcony in acknowledgment of the great enthusiasm with which this announcement was received in the streets. But the jubilation was premature. A majority had voted in favour of the bill, but the affirmative vote fell short of the minimum required by the Amended Federal Enabling Act.

But the flowing tide was with the federal movement, and at the State elections in New South Wales, which followed immediately afterwards, the acceptance or the rejection of the bill became the issue. Sir Edmund Barton announced himself as an opponent of Mr. Reid (afterwards Sir George Reid) for the King division of East Sydney. He could scarcely have expected to have defeated the Premier of the State in his own constituency. But it was his desire to force the Federal question clear of the great mesh of local issues into which it was in danger of becoming involved, and in this he was successful. Sir Edmund Barton found a seat in the Legislative Assembly through the patriotic withdrawal of Mr Frank Clarke (afterwards a member of the first Commonwealth Parliament). In 1899 and 1900 the Constitution was accepted in all the States and during 1900 Sir Edmund Barton led the delegation which went from Australia to pilot the bill through the Imperial Parliament.

When Sir Edmund Barton returned to Australia he was something of a popular idol. Shortly afterwards he was made a Privy Councillor, and the Right Honourable Edmund Barton was the full official title of the new Prime Minister when the Commonwealth was founded in 1901.

In 1902 Sir Edmund Barton visited England as the representative of the Commonwealth at the Imperial Conference. He returned from that conference, which was convened in conjunction with the Coronation of His Majesty the King, with the title of the Grand Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (G.C.M.G.). 

The next year, 1903, when the term of the first Federal Parliament was drawing to a close, was the last year of Sir Edmund Barton's Parliamentary work. He and his traditional antagonist, Mr Reid, had many a fine battle across the table in that session. That year the naval agreement was given effect to with the aid of the Opposition, and in that year also the High Court Bill was passed into law. The name of Sir Edmund Barton was persistently mentioned as the first Chief Justice of Australia. But he more than once declared that he had no intention of taking the position. Indeed, had it not been for the insistence of his friends and the many evidences of a strong public feeling in favour of his translation, Sir Edmund Barton would not have taken a seat on the bench. However, after Sir Samuel Griffith had accepted the first place, Sir Edmund Barton was prevailed upon to accept the second, and they, with the late Mr Justice O'Connor, were sworn in as the first High Court bench in October 1903.

Altogether, when Sir Edmund Barton's career is looked at, whether as a framer of the Federal Convention or as the first Prime Minister of Australia, or a justice of the High Court, he must ungrudgingly be given the place of a great federalist.

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Citation details

'Barton, Sir Edmund (Toby) (1849–1920)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/barton-sir-edmund-toby-71/text71, accessed 21 November 2017.

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