Barton was born in Sydney, New South Wales, the ninth child of William Barton, a stockbroker, and Mary Louise Barton. He was educated at Sydney Grammar School, where he was twice dux and school captain. He graduated with first class honours in classics from the University of Sydney, where he also demonstrated considerable skill at cricket. Barton became a barrister in 1871. On a cricket trip to Newcastle in 1870, he met Jane Mason Ross, whom he married in 1877.
In the late 1870s, Barton's attention turned to politics, and he was elected to represent the University of Sydney in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1879. In 1882 he became Speaker of the assembly. From 1887 to 1891, and again from 1897 to 1898, Barton sat in the Legislative Council. During the 1890s Barton changed his economic views and joined the Protectionists, who were opposed to the Free Traders, led by George Reid. The mutual dislike between Barton and Reid drove much of New South Wales politics in the 1890s.
Barton was a strong advocate of the federation of the Australian colonies, and after the death of Sir Henry Parkes he effectively led the federal movement. Giving up the chance of high office in New South Wales, he campaigned tirelessly for federation. In 1897 he was one of the delegates elected from New South Wales to the Constitutional Convention which developed a constitution for the proposed federation. Although Sir Samuel Griffith wrote most of the text of the Constitution, Barton was the political leader who carried it through the Convention.
In 1899 Barton campaigned for New South Wales to approve the new Constitution at a referendum, but Reid opposed him and the draft was rejected. Barton was forced to do a deal with Reid to get the Constitution approved at a second referendum. He then joined Alfred Deakin and other politicians in London to lobby the British Parliament to pass the federation bill.
Few people doubted that Barton, as the leading federalist in the largest state, deserved to be the first Prime Minister of the new federation. But the newly arrived Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun, instead invited Sir William Lyne, the premier of New South Wales, to form a government. Since no federal Parliament had yet been established, the usual convention of appointing the leader of the largest party in the lower house party did not apply.
Hopetoun's decision can be defended on grounds that Lyne had seniority, but as an opponent of federation he was unacceptable to prominent federalists such as Deakin, who refused to serve under him. After tense negotiations Barton was appointed Prime Minister and a ministry appointed. The main task of this ministry was to organise the conduct of the first federal elections, which were held in March 1901. Barton was elected unopposed to the new Parliament, and his Protectionist Party won enough seats to form a government with the support of the Labor Party.
The Barton government's first piece of legislation was the Immigration Restriction Act, which put the White Australia Policy into law. This was the price of the Labor Party's support for the government. One notable reform was the introduction of women's suffrage for federal elections in 1902. Barton was a moderate conservative, and advanced liberals in his party disliked his relaxed attitude to political life.
For much of 1902 Barton was in England for the coronation of King Edward VII. This trip was also used for the negotiation of a permanent British naval presence, to protect Australia against the maurauding navies of the other powers, particularly Japan. While in London he was given a knighthood. In September 1903, Barton left Parliament to become one of the founding justices of the High Court of Australia. He was succeeded as Prime Minister by Deakin.
On the bench Barton adopted the same position of moderate conservatism he had taken in politics. After 1906 he increasingly clashed with Isaac Isaacs and H B Higgins, the two advanced liberals appointed to the court by Deakin. Barton died on 7 January 1920 at Medlow Bath, New South Wales. He had four sons and two daughters and his numerous descendants are still prominent in Sydney.
As Australia's first Prime Minister, Barton has become something of a national icon, and is remembered for his statement that: "For the first time, we have a nation for a continent, and a continent for a nation." Today Australians are less inclined to remember his other saying: "I do not think that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality."
Most historians feel that in reality Barton was a fairly ordinary politician. His greatest contribution to Australian history was his leadership of the federation movement through the 1890s, when he showed real leadership. By the time he became Prime Minister he was ready to rest on his laurels. A large, handsome, jovial man, he was fond of long dinners and good wine, and earned the nickname "Toby Tosspot."
(first Prime Minister)
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