Race and republicanism
Written by Professor David Flint AM   
Tuesday, 07 July 2009

Eighteenth century republicanism in America, and nineteenth century republicanism in Australia were both driven to a great degree by racism.

For 70 years after independence, the US accepted the institution of slavery, surely the ultimate deprivation of human rights, writes Peter Heerey in “A question of judgment,” The Australian Literary Review, June 2009 .   The article links to a contrary argument about a bill of rights made by arch Australian expatriate republican Geoffrey Robertson, who ironically is a British Queen’s Counsel.

”Racial segregation in public education and elsewhere in American society continued for another century,” Mr. Heerey says . "Today the US has a murder rate far above that of other Western countries, at least in part because of its constitutionally entrenched right to bear arms. Capital punishment, abolished by legislation (not charters of rights) in Australia and most other Western countries, continues in the US.”


“Although abhorrent, or at least strange to us, the constitutional interpretations that produced these outcomes were endorsed from time to time by the highest judicial authority, the US Supreme Court: slavery in the Dred Scott case (1857), segregation in Plessy v Ferguson (1896), capital punishment in Gregg v Georgia (1976), the right to bear arms in District of Columbia v Heller (2008).”

Readers of this column may recall that the ultra republican former Premier of NSW, who is opposed to Bill of Rights, Bob Carr, recently described  the appalling Dred Scott judgement upholding slavery as a “great decision.”

Bob Carr is held out to be an expert on US history. Yet the ABC presenter, Tony Jones, did not seem to notice Carr's comment. Dred Scott, made under the Bill of Rights, was handed down 85 years after Lord Mansfield in London had ruled that the common law did not recognize slavery. (Lord Mansfield's portrait appears above)

That decison by Mansfield, the fear that it would have to be be followed  in America, and the refusal of the British Parliament to reverse it,  were high among the causes of the War of Independence. This is  something not taught in American schools. Instead , the taxation wihtout representtaion mantra is repeated ad infinitum as if it were the sole cause.

....a Bill of Rights can work both ways.....  

The American experience suggests,”  continues Mr Heery ”  that human rights may be better protected at the legislative rather than the constitutional level. An example is segregation. Brown v Board of Education (1954) held segregation in public education to be unconstitutional but had little practical effect on segregated education in the south. It was not until Lyndon Johnson's civil rights legislation of the '60s, and in particular the conferral of voting rights, that practical changes were seen on the ground.”

Had we had a Bill of Rights at Federation, reflecting the prevailing values then, he says it could well have included the recital: “DETERMINED that Australia shall forever remain a home and haven for the White Man...” 

Australians would do well to recall that the nineteenth century movement to make Australia an independent white republic disappeared with the realization that the new federal entity would have the power to override British imperial policy on immigration, which was opposed to discrimination.  Like the American example, republicanism in Australia was intrinsically racist. 

Lest no one misunderstand the theme of this comment, I am not saying that Australian republicanism today is racist .

But as I found during the referendum campaign, some republicans are embarassed and indignant if this historical fact is raised when the debate goes into our past.