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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Macarthur, James (1798–1867)

by J. D. Heydon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

James Macarthur (1798-1867), by unknown artist

James Macarthur (1798-1867), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, Original:MIN 67

James Macarthur (1798-1867), landowner and politician, was born on 15 December 1798 at Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta, fourth son of John Macarthur. He was educated privately at Parramatta by the Breton emigré, Huon de Kerilleau, until March 1809, when he left for England with his father and his younger brother William. He went to a school at Hackney, London, run by Dr Lindsay, classicist and Unitarian, until in 1813 he was apprenticed to a broker in a London counting house. From March 1815 to May 1816 he travelled with his father and William in France, Switzerland and Northern Italy. In September 1817 the three arrived in New South Wales. The elder John Macarthur had decided that his eldest son, Edward, should take up a military career in England, that the most intelligent son, John, should read law and represent the family's interests in England, while James and William administered the colonial holdings. For the next decade James devoted himself to estate administration, although he also served as unpaid magistrate in the first Court of Petty Sessions in the Camden district and helped to establish churches, schools and other local institutions.

During James Macarthur's early manhood an important shift was occurring in the family holdings. While the original Camden Park estate was being intensively developed, further grants were successfully obtained through the Colonial Office and land was also bought at Sutton Forest, James's personal holding, and in the Taralga district, shared between James and William. The holdings proved very profitable and finally led to the Macarthurs becoming squatters on adjoining land. James's exertions as estate manager were more intense now than at any later stage and, although it was not his most important activity, he displayed great skill at it in association with William. William was unstable, liable to hysteria and fluctuations of mood, and tending towards brilliant but unsound plans. James was more a financier, a very sound book-keeper, who modified William's ideas to reality. He assisted William in such schemes as the expansion of vine-growing, for which they had brought back cuttings and seeds from Europe in 1817, and a complicated but effective method of washing sheep before shearing to ensure that the wool would show well in the auction room. As an energetic explorer he was one of the first to go beyond Cookbundoon Range into the Taralga area. As an estate overseer he was a vigorous and hard master: while giving his convicts good food and clothing, he worked them for long hours, but had little faith in them, a feeling later reflected in his distrust of the working classes. He was vigorous also in such matters as insisting that tenants paid their rents during drought. He acquired much land but did not leave it idle: money and energy were devoted to its improvement, and in the late 1820s he worked out several technical devices such as mechanical irrigation. However, his strongest point was a knowledge of the international wool industry, gained in England before 1817 but particularly in 1828-30 in England and Germany. He knew the strength of the Saxon flocks that were the principal competitors of Australian wool, he understood the financial basis of wool-selling, and he imported overseas sheep which he crossbred to improve the quality. Under him Macarthur wool usually brought the best prices in the colony. A broad vision and rigorous standards were the striking features of his estate management.

Macarthur's major importance was the political role he played in New South Wales with varying intensity until his death. The significance of his influence is often under-estimated because he preferred to work behind the scenes, seldom appealing to the public but depending on personal contacts and negotiation. Thus he presents an interesting contrast with William Charles Wentworth, his famous contemporary, because the two differed greatly as individuals and used different methods, although in the 1840s and 1850s both often worked to the same end. Macarthur's influence depended on his powerful economic position in a colony relying heavily on the capitalistic expansion of pastoral activity, on his great personal ability and shrewdness, on his widespread British and colonial contacts, and on his consistent and frequently anguished concern for the welfare of New South Wales.

His political theories were expressed throughout his life in letters and occasional public statements. Those theories usually coincided with his economic interests, yet they were also connected with idealistic and rational motives. The core of his belief was social stability: change ought to be sanely and coolly considered. His views derived from certain features of eighteenth-century English aristocratic Whiggism and the classical virtues of discipline and order. His fear of social violence and upheaval may have been imparted by Huon de Kerilleau, a refugee from the French revolution, while the religious tolerance of the Enlightenment had influenced him strongly, especially through his old headmaster, Lindsay. He believed that in New South Wales political privilege should be given to those who by their wealth and respectability had a moral ascendancy over the lower classes. He believed that economic and social chaos would prevail if a hierarchy of respect were not preserved; on the purely economic level the colony's advancement was seriously hindered by the absence of an 'honest, industrious and orderly labouring class', for the colonial labour shortage allowed workmen to grow lazy and contemptuous of their betters. New settlers should be 'persons of respectability'. To him this key phrase implied important things: respect for society, for the effort that built it, for the tenuous bonds holding it together which 'wild democracy' could imperil. Constitutional safeguards should be maintained to prevent rash or sudden change, for liberty could only exist in a framework of order. These beliefs were held with great consistency all through his life. But the methods and tactics by which he tried to bring such beliefs to fruition were often deliberately veiled, and they altered greatly as the structure of colonial society and imperial policies changed dynamically from the 1820s to the 1860s. His conservative beliefs accorded with a conservative character: rational, steady, sane and often calculating. He became gloomy and disillusioned as he saw his ideal being undermined by an aggressive lower middle class.

Macarthur was appointed to his first important public office in 1824: senior member of the local committee of the Australian Agricultural Co. It occupied his attention for several years. The company failed in 1827 and Macarthur with others of his family attempted to keep this a secret. He went to London to explain matters to the directors, and in spite of much criticism be managed to escape any smear on his character. In London he gave evidence to the select committee on colonial expenditure; he broadened his knowledge of the world wool industry by travel in Europe; he continued or established family interests there, a process his father had begun and which his brother John, who had lived in England since 1802, had continued; on 15 December 1828 James visited 'the celebrated Gôthe', some of whose works he had read in Sydney. In April 1831 he returned to New South Wales. After his father's insanity in 1832 and death in 1834 he became the acknowledged head of the exclusive party and in 1836 he was entrusted with the presentation in England of the exclusive petition on transportation and immigration drawn up by a 'Committee of Merchants, Landowners and Free Inhabitants of New South Wales'. From this time he had great influence in public life.

In England Macarthur was very active. He supervised the publication of New South Wales, its Present State and Future Prospects, which was ghosted for a fee of £80 by the author and librarian, Edward Edwards (1812-1886). Macarthur's extensive evidence in 1837-38 to the select committee on transportation was heard with great respect by Molesworth, Howick and Sir George Grey. He argued that convict transportation had been a demoralizing influence and had created in England a very unfavourable feeling towards New South Wales. However, the colony was now advancing and the time had come for a change: transportation and the use of assigned convict labour could now be decreased if Asian immigration were permitted and colonial land revenue were applied to free immigration. This direct method of attempting to influence colonial policy in London was continued in association with Charles Buller, the representative of the Australian Patriotic Association. They struck up a mutual liking; Macarthur was aware that representative government must come, but he managed to obtain Buller's agreement to far less radical changes than Buller's supporters in New South Wales wanted.

The most spectacular feat of his visit to England was his unromantic but most useful marriage to Emily Stone, daughter of a Lombard Street banker. Through her he became related to the Normans and the Barings. He was thus able to return to Australia with assurances of a greatly increased overdraft, and in the 1840s to lend money profitably at high interest, to complete his programme on the Camden estates, and to save the Macarthur interests from the depression which left his cousin Hannibal Macarthur and many others bankrupt. Political contacts were also made; the old Macarthur interests had been Tory, but now the family had access to a circle of rich, middle-class Liberals and aristocratic Whigs: the Bonham-Carters, the Cavendish-Bentincks, the Croziers, the Rices and Labouchere, a future secretary of state.

Unfortunately for Macarthur these interests were not to be as politically useful as he thought. In the 1820s, by personal contacts with the old Colonial Office, the Macarthurs had done very well in land grants and in opposition to the emancipists. But the politicians Macarthur knew had less influence with the new Colonial Office, for it was run by men of great independence: Merivale, Hawes, Elliot and especially James Stephen. Also it had increased in size and was more bureaucratic than in the days of personal patronage. In the next two decades the British government was to show increasingly less desire and ability to interfere in colonial affairs. The essential struggles affecting the colony were now fought in the colony, and there, as in England, Macarthur had many close contacts with the leading exclusive families, notably the McLeays, Kings and Bowmans. These ties helped to give the conservatives great unity in the 1840s and 1850s.

Macarthur's policies for the rest of his life can only be understood on the basis of the radical change that developed in the family's landholding policy. Ever since John Macarthur had arrived in New South Wales the family's wealth had increased; by the period of James Macarthur's greatest activity, it was very considerable. By the early 1840s Camden Park was worth £200,000; James and William had 18,000 (7284 ha) freehold acres at Taralga and other interests in the Nineteen Counties; they directed companies and they owned sixty valuable freehold acres (24 ha) in Sydney. Originally the Macarthur intention was to be a landowning family with consolidated and improved freehold estates after the aristocratic European model. Thus in the 1820s John Macarthur junior had battled in England for land grants near Camden, while at the same time James eagerly occupied and developed his own and the family's grants and purchases. After the Ripon regulations James and his brother continued to seek freehold estates by buying thousands of acres each year at the minimum upset price.

In London James spoke contemptuously of squatters to the Molesworth committee, but on his return in 1838 he found that William had begun a radical new policy of grazing on leased land, although the leases were still in the 'settled' Nineteen Counties. In 1839 James himself leased 9100 acres (3683 ha) near existing Macarthur holdings, and from 1840 the two brothers had an annual licence to squat beyond the boundaries of settlement. As James Macarthur became sympathetic to the squatter point of view, other factors were forcing him into uneasy alliance with Wentworth, who had posed as a tribune of the people to gain political aggrandizement but in the late 1830s was also becoming sympathetic to squatting. The coming together of these two men was the epitome of a larger process: men of similar capitalistic interests settled personal differences, and the long-standing emancipist-exclusive struggle changed into an alliance against, on the one hand, imperial policies on land, transportation, coolie labour and responsible government, and on the other, popular demands for more representative government. The Macarthurs and McLeays joined the Lords, Wentworth, Sir John Jamison and men of that kind in a conservative alliance.

The process was gradual. It was assisted by the increase of free immigration and the pastoral boom in the late 1830s, by the cessation of transportation in 1840, by the removal of emancipist disabilities for service on juries, by the grave depression and by the 1842 Act granting the colony a measure of representative government. Macarthur ran for Cumberland in the stormy 1843 elections to the Legislative Council but was beaten by Charles Cowper. He then refused to enter the council as a nominee and did not return to official public life until 1848, but continued to intrigue and agitate in the conservative and squatting cause. In 1848 he was elected to the Legislative Council for Camden and retained his seat until the old Legislative Council was dissolved in 1856. The important part of his political life in these years was his growing alliance with Wentworth and the evolution of strong beliefs in a Constitution granting responsible government.

In 1842 Macarthur announced that he no longer opposed the constitutional aspirations of those emancipists whose industry had won them wealth and respectability. He and Wentworth gradually moved together because of common interests, but each generally disliked the other and the rapprochement was occasionally interrupted. For example, in the 1843 elections Macarthur did not run for the safe Camden seat; he left that to a conservative Roman Catholic, Roger Therry, and contested Cumberland, evidently so as to increase the number of conservatives in the council. Therry was aided by the votes of Macarthur's servants and narrowly beat Cowper, of the popular party. Cowper then beat Macarthur, partly because Wentworth, seemingly to work off old personal grudges and resentments at Macarthur's greater social status, persuaded William Lawson, who had been favouring Macarthur, to give his support to Cowper. The incident is most illuminating; it shows Macarthur's tolerance of Catholics, his devious methods and his ambition, his arrogance in risking defeat and his use of his servants to swing the voting. A similar incident in 1849 showed petty spite freely flowing: connexions of Macarthur's successfully stopped Wentworth from obtaining the council Speakership for his friend Stuart Donaldson.

In spite of confused and personal politics Wentworth and Macarthur were brought together by the public events of the period. In the depression land sales were negligible, migration could not be financed, and an acute labour shortage developed. Wentworth and Macarthur both demanded a solution to this labour problem and both were condemned for inconsistency in supporting Earl Grey's proposal to send equal numbers of free immigrants and ticket-of-leave 'exiles' to the colony. In 1850 Macarthur vehemently denied any inconsistency, maintaining rightly that in 1838 he had not advocated the entire cessation of convict transportation, and defending Grey's proposal partly on humanitarian grounds and partly because any ascendancy of a convict population was no longer a danger.

In his years out of office Macarthur had consistently opposed the popular demand for representative government based on a wide suffrage. He had been thinking for years of an ideal conservative Constitution, but by the end of the 1840s had seen that the popular tumult could not be ignored; responsible government was inevitable. Accordingly he tried, together with Wentworth and other squatter leaders, to draft a Constitution which would be quickly effected by the British parliament before the popular party could object too much.

In the confused years after 1848 proposal after proposal was considered and the whole colony was in ferment. In 1852 the Legislative Councils of each colony were invited to draft new Constitutions and submit them to London for approval. Wentworth has received most credit for the draft sent from New South Wales, but Macarthur also played an important part. Both wanted conservative political institutions which could exist within the colony as permanent safeguards, unalterable either by the whim of any new administration at the Colonial Office or by popular local agitation. Macarthur shared in the proposal that made Wentworth notorious: a hereditary colonial aristocracy to sit in an upper House. Macarthur had been toying with this idea since the late 1830s, and Wentworth's letters from London in 1854 make frequent references to 'our bill'. The draft Constitution did not provide for the much ridiculed colonial aristocracy, but instead for a Legislative Council of members nominated for life, an elective Legislative Assembly with a suffrage based on property qualifications, and a requirement of a two-thirds majority to change the Constitution. But it was still conservative, reflecting Macarthur's ideas of checks and balances. He showed his love of secrecy in 1850 when he publicly stated in the colony that he did not favour an upper House, yet wrote a memorial to Grey upholding the idea of a non-representative upper House. This memorial was sent without Wentworth's knowledge, and it suggests that Macarthur should receive more of the responsibility for the conservative Constitution.

The gold rushes had accentuated the trend to increase the power of the popular party. Macarthur was becoming increasingly disillusioned: in 1854 he felt like selling all his assets except Camden Park and going to England. He displayed some interest in education, supporting the foundation of the University of Sydney and becoming a member of its first senate. He continued his political activities, albeit with gloom. In 1856 he was elected to the new Legislative Assembly for Camden. To enable Donaldson to form a cabinet, Macarthur agreed to serve briefly as colonial treasurer, for certain conflicts could not otherwise be resolved. When Donaldson had the support he needed, Macarthur resigned his seat and the portfolio and was re-elected for West Camden. In 1859 his unhappiness reached its peak: he retired and refused Governor Sir William Denison's offer of a knighthood. In 1860 he returned to England, his whole life seeming wasted. In the 1820s he had opposed representative government. In the late 1830s he adopted delaying and compromising tactics so as to make the constitutional change of 1842 as moderate as possible. In the early 1840s his economic affairs were suddenly changed when he began squatting, and he found that imperial control of immigration and land policy conflicted with his new interests; he began to work with desperate hopefulness for a conservative Constitution, partly to obtain independence from Britain, partly to forestall the liberals. But his constitutional checks and balances had been reduced and the nightmare of his whole life, popular anarchy, appeared imminent.

In England on his fourth visit he represented New South Wales at an International Statistical Congress in 1860 and was a commissioner for New South Wales at the London Exhibition of 1862. Eventually he was attracted back to New South Wales partly by reports that extreme liberal opinions were in decline and that the Cowper-Robertson land legislation which appeared to endanger squatters' rights had led to far fewer selections of squatters' land than expected. However, the chief reason for his return in 1864 was that his daughter wanted to go back; he had also lost some of his revulsion for the revised Constitution. In June 1866 he accepted nomination to the Legislative Council and next March became president of the New South Wales Agricultural Society. He died, still a member of the Legislative Council, on 21 April 1867.

His career had been unsuccessful judged by the standards he set himself: his remarkable political talents had left nothing lasting behind them and his major policies had failed. Yet in the colony's sudden spurt towards political maturity his tenaciously held views and his leadership of the conservative squatters provided a reminder of the need for social stability and somewhat extreme methods in developing a primitive country. As an agriculturist and pastoralist he set an exacting standard in obtaining the best results from the land. His conservatism helped to temper the ideas of emancipists and liberals so that their views became more acceptable to the British government. Although his influence has been much underrated it contained a real truth, rarely noted and unpalatable: that society, especially in a rapidly changing colony, is a fragile thing and that few men are really properly equipped to hold political power. He was such a man; he often used his power for his own ends but he was also conscious that these ends coincided with the best interests of the colony.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 10-16, 18, 20-25
  • A. C. V. Melbourne, Early Constitutional Development in Australia (Oxford, 1934)
  • M. H. Ellis, John Macarthur (Syd, 1955)
  • manuscript catalogue under J. Macarthur (State Library of New South Wales)
  • V. R. de V. Voss, notes (History Dept, University of Sydney).

Citation details

J. D. Heydon, 'Macarthur, James (1798–1867)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 14 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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