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Alfred Deakin died in 1919. His ‘Inner History of the Federal Cause’ was first published in 1944 by Messrs Robertson and Mullens of Melbourne, in an edition edited by his son-in-law, Herbert Brookes, who gave it the title of The Federal Story. The present edition, published with the permission of Mr and Mrs Brookes, has been newly collated with the manuscript, passages omitted from the 1944 edition have been restored, and new material has been added. These matters are more fully explained in the Note on the Text which follows this Introduction.

The narrative was begun in March 1898 in the closing days of the Federal Convention. Most of the portraits and judgments of the Australian participants in the federal movement were set down during the next few months. The account of the conclusion of the movement and its final stages in London was added in 1900, before the inauguration of the Commonwealth. Thus Deakin's assessment of motives and conduct was contemporary, and unaffected by the charity, the disillusionment or the mere information which the years might bring. That is why it is so vivid and so valuable. For this is not simply the work of a highly skilled journalist, though Deakin was that among other things; it is the work of a man who was from first to last at the centre of the events he describes, and whose place as one of the three or four founders of the Commonwealth of Australia is beyond dispute. If he saw the federal movement and those engaged in it in a certain way, that is itself a fact relevant in historical explanations. His narrative is thus a document for the student. For the general reader it remains, and is likely to remain, the most exciting and readable book on its subject.

It must be remembered what that subject was: not a general, nor even a political history, but an ‘inner history of the movement and private aspects of those concerned in it’. Deakin left it to ‘the student of the future’ to write a full, scholarly and critical examination of the federal movement in Australia. A careful reading of his first and last pages will show that he was aware of the importance in it of economic and other factors which in recent years historians have begun to explore; but his purpose was to set down personal impressions and interpretations which otherwise no historian could recover. It is a pity that others who played leading

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roles in the events did not do so. Bernhard Wise's Making of the Australian Commonwealth (1913) comes nearest to being in the same sense a ‘document’ as well as a narrative, but it is coloured not only by the inevitable contemporary bias which Deakin warned his own readers to allow for, but by the intervening personal frustrations of its author's life after 1900.

No full and formal history of the federation movement has yet appeared. Some of the ways in which, drawing partly on recent work, such a history would need to supplement or correct Deakin's narrative are not difficult to indicate. His viewpoint, for example, was essentially Victorian. He did not fully appreciate the complexity of the federal issue in the senior colony, New South Wales. He knew well enough that there ‘again and again it was made the sport of Ministries and Parliaments and local agitations’; but he did not allow sufficiently for the real weight of the objections to the Constitution as it was framed by the Convention. Again, taking the narrative on its own terms as mainly a retrospect of men and motives, some corrections should probably be made in its estimates. He was for many years deeply engaged, actively and emotionally, in ‘the federal cause’. His account of it, in contrast to the autobiographical chapters about his early years in politics,note is not primarily concerned with his own role, but it does reflect his own anxieties and emotions to a greater degree than an unwary reader might suspect. A decade later he recalled that he had ‘once thought our Federation a distinct illustration of a real and great victory won against hopeless conditions’. His judgments of men were made before he even knew that it was a victory.

The elaborate portraits of Sir Henry Parkes and Sir George Reid, for example, have given joy to readers for years, but they are not equally detached. The treatment of Parkes is the more penetrating because here Deakin was not only an acute, but, as it were, a clinical observer. Parkes was dead, and had played no part in the second phase of the federal movement, not yet concluded, but as Deakin saw it, brought to a halt which might mean failure largely by the actions of Reid. Deakin believed what he had said at the Adelaide session of the Convention: ‘Should we fail in our task, it is … easily possible that decades may pass before another such opportunity as this can present itself.’ His verdict on Reid is affected by this belief. It is not therefore necessarily unjust, but there is a case against it to be considered. Again it is obvious that

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the comments on men, manners and politics in England, though vivid and entertaining, are necessarily more superficial than those based on more than a decade's experience in the federal movement in Australia. Deakin was, however, extraordinarily sensitive to impressions, and skilful in communicating them; and the views he expressed in 1900 about the governing classes in England help to explain the way in which, as Prime Minister of the Commonwealth, he approached the question of imperial relations during the next decade.

These and other comments on the narrative which treat it as if it claimed to be that history which, so far, ‘the student of the future’ has not provided, are in danger of forgetting that its author described it as a ‘sketch, undertaken while the last series of events are fresh in recollection and almost all the actors in all stages still upon the scene’. It was not his fault that the other principal actors were too uninterested, or unskilled or lazy to set down their interpretations of these events. In style and significance, his remains the most valuable memoir yet written by an Australian politician; and he needed no assistance to write it. Certainly the role of economic interests and organizations, the designs and activities of pressure-groups, the personal exigencies of political leaders in their local politics, need further exploration. But it is unlikely that historians will be able to brush aside the question implicit in Deakin's conclusion, or to dismiss as irrelevant to explanation the feelings to which only at the end he gave expression: ‘To say it was fated to be is to say nothing to the purpose: any one of a thousand minor incidents might have deferred it for years or generations. To those who watched its inner workings, followed its fortunes as if their own, and lived the life of devotion to it day by day, its actual accomplishment must always appear to have been secured by a series of miracles.’


University of Melbourne

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