A song written—but unsung

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A few minutes before midnight on 31 December 1900, a message from Alfred Deakin, one of the leaders of the Federation movement, was projected before the crowd assembled in Melbourne’s Town Hall: ‘May the new year of the new century usher in a new Nation, whose history shall be an illustrious record of progress in all the arts of peace’. 1 The conjunction was compelling: the year, the century, everything was ‘new’. The following morning, the Sydney Morning Herald also welcomed the new year, the new century and Australia’s ‘entry on a new and broader nationhood’. ‘It is not often in history’, the editorial continued, ‘that we meet with coincidences so striking’. 2 Federation had been many years in the making, but the timing of Australia’s inauguration helped focus attention away from the process, towards the moment. It was not an end, but a beginning.

‘Awake! Arise! The wings of dawn Are beating at the Gates of Day’: George Essex Evans won fifty guineas for his ode in honor of Federation, which, like the work of many other poets, writers and speechmakers, located Australia’s nationhood within natural processes of growth and development. 3 It was a birth, a coming-of-age, the dawn of a new day. Celebratory effusions also commonly invoked images of portals and gateways, thresholds to be crossed, journeys begun. ‘Our Commonwealth like a mighty ship of State has been launched on the great ocean of destiny’, proclaimed John Quick. 4 The decorative arches, which framed the route through Sydney towards the official ceremony, stood as symbolic gateways, reinforcing the feeling of movement, the passage from old to new. 5 Such metaphors combined continuity and change, constructing Australia’s life history from the contrast imagined between its past and its future.

The past, however, was not located solely in the histories of Australia’s constituent colonies. Federation was, according to Quick, ‘the greatest triumph of freedom and democracy, combined with cherished respect for traditional principles, that the world has ever seen’. 6 Having joined the life of nations, Australia sought to map its lineage, seeking its progenitors not in Melbourne or Sydney, but in Europe. Australia was new, while Europe was old; Australia was fresh, young and pure, while Europe was tired and battle-scarred. 7 Federation offered a new start to the civilizing mission: ‘from the old world wrecks which strew the ground’, concluded George Essex Evans’ ‘Federal Song’, ‘We build anew’. 8 Australia’s destiny was foretold in its youth. It was, as Brady reflected in the introduction to Australia Unlimited, ‘yet like a flower in the seed, or a song written—but unsung’. 9

Modernism was rising, and the ‘new’ was in vogue. Around the world, intellectuals, artists and revolutionaries were seeking to wrest control of destiny from the inhibiting grasp of nineteenth century determinism. Thinkers like Bergson and Nietzsche reconceptualised the present, emphasising it as the realm of creative involvement. Action and experience were favoured over received wisdom or idle contemplation. 10 In politics and social policy, progressives took up the reformist challenge, investing nineteenth century liberalism with new energy and zeal, and looking increasingly to the state to set the course of progress. 11 It was a time for new ideas, a time for change.

Helen Irving argues that a fin de siècle spirit of experimentation smoothed the path to Federation. The new nation was conceived and realised within a ‘utopian moment’ that encouraged creativity and dulled suspicion of change. 12 To some, Federation offered an example of the new political and social forms that could emerge through the energising power of nationalism. William Jethro Brown, Professor of Law at the University of Tasmania, suggested that Federation would enrich the character of Australian democracy, fostering national ideals ‘to fire the enthusiasm and… impart a generous ardour to the imagination’. 13

The spirit of experimentation was carried into the newly-formed Commonwealth Parliament, where would-be nation builders imagined it possible to sweep away old conflicts and divisions. Alfred Deakin’s liberals championed ‘New Protection’, a rational system of legislation and institutions that would dispel class antagonism and allow all to share in the bounties of progress. 14 Educational reformers sought to overhaul tradition-bound curricula, offering ‘New Education’ as the means of building better citizens and a stronger nation. 15 A progressive faith in the ameliorative power of the state gave the nation-builders confidence in their own ability to create something new and better.

‘Awake! Arise! The wings of dawn Are beating at the Gates of Day’: George Essex Evans’ ode had orginally begun with the words ‘Awake! Awake!’, but it was changed at the suggestion of Alfred Deakin. 16 To the feeling of promise and renewal, Deakin added a sense of action—‘Arise!’ The newness of the Commonwealth was not merely to be found in the contrast with Europe or in a catalogue of potentialities, it was something to be made, a challenge to be met.


  1. Quoted in the Age, 1 January 1901, p. 5.
  2. SMH, 1 January 1901, p. 14.
  3. George Essex Evans, Ode for Commonwealth Day, Sydney, 1901.
  4. Age, 1 January 1901, p. 5.
  5. Helen Irving, To constitute a nation: a cultural history of Australia’s constitution, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 9-12; Tessa Milne, Archways to Federation: the story of the celebratory arches of 1901, Researching Federation manual no. 2, 1901 Centre, University of Technology, Sydney, 2000; Robert Freestone, and Sharon Veale, ‘The street beautiful: triumphal arches and urban improvement in Sydney, 1888-1925’, Public History Review, vol. 4, 1995, pp. 25-40.
  6. Age, 1 January 1901, p. 5.
  7. John Hirst, The sentimental nation: the making of the Australian Commonwealth, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2000, pp. 19-24; Irving, To constitute a nation, p. 36; Richard White, Inventing Australia, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1981, ch. 7.
  8. George Essex Evans, ‘A federal song’, in Richard Jordan and Peter Pierce (eds), The poets’ discovery: nineteenth-century Australia in verse, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1990, pp. 421-2.
  9. Edwin James Brady, Australia Unlimited, George Robertson and Company, Melbourne, 1918, p. 17.
  10. Stephen Kern, The culture of time and space, 1880-1918, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1983.
  11. Michael Roe, Nine Australian progressives: vitalism in bourgeois social thought, 1890-1960, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1984, pp. 1-21.
  12. Irving, To constitute a nation, pp. 36, 212-3.
  13. Quote in Bob Birrell, Federation: the secret story, Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney, 2001, p. 174. For more on Brown, see Roe Nine Australian progressives, ch. 2.
  14. JA La Nauze, Alfred Deakin – a biography, 2 vols, vol. 2, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1965, pp. 410-13; Stuart Macintyre, 1901-1942: The succeeding age, Oxford history of Australia, vol. 4, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 102-4.
  15. Macintyre, The succeeding age, pp. 108-9
  16. Hirst, The sentimental nation, pp. 23-4.

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