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MacPherson, John Alexander (1833–1894)

by Dorothy Fitzpatrick

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

John Alexander MacPherson (1833-1894), by unknown photographer, c1868

John Alexander MacPherson (1833-1894), by unknown photographer, c1868

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H29425

John Alexander MacPherson (1833-1894), politician, was born on 10 October 1833 at Springbank, Limestone Plains, second son of John MacPherson (1798-1875), landowner and squatter, and his wife Helen, née Watson. His grandfather, Peter MacPherson (1760-1844) of Skye, had brought his family in the Triton to Sydney in 1825 and settled near Bathurst.

John Alexander was probably the first European boy born on the site of Canberra. About 1840 he moved with his family to Melbourne, where he went to school. His early experience was mostly pastoral but in 1853-54 he attended the University of Edinburgh for a term, and after 1861 studied law at the University of Melbourne. In 1866 he was admitted to the Victorian Bar, but unlike his brother James (1842-1891) he did not practise, although he was treated as a 'learned' member of parliament and sat on the royal commission on intercolonial legislation in 1870.

For some time before 1861 MacPherson lived in the Western District and for four years managed Croxton, one of his father's stations. On 8 July 1858 he married Louisa Elizabeth, daughter of Cuthbert Fetherstonhaugh, police magistrate at Hamilton. In 1861 he nominated for Dundas, a large electorate round Hamilton, opposing 'the mobocracy of Melbourne, Geelong and the goldfields' as a local candidate in favour of planned land settlement, but withdrew in favour of W. Mollison and returned to Melbourne. 'Not wealthy' in 1864, and 'with no personal interest in squatting' in 1869, he owned some 2000 acres (809 ha) of the Croxton estate by 1877 and shared in Nerrin-Nerrin, a station of 62,000 acres (25,091 ha) which was managed by his brother William (1837-1901). He joined the Melbourne Club in 1871, the Australian Club in 1878 and in 1870-80 was a trustee of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery.

MacPherson entered the Legislative Assembly in November 1864 for Portland, defeating W. Haines. From February 1866 to July 1878 he was member for Dundas. An independent with liberal sympathies, he accepted the need for some form of tariff and land selection, and for most of his career followed Sir James McCulloch. Although some resented the 'Roman virtue' which failed to win Hamilton an early railway or to organize its land sales well, his seat was one of the safest.

His ministry from 20 September 1869 to 8 April 1870 falls somewhat outside this pattern. Five years of increasingly assiduous parliamentary work left him frustrated at being judged by McCulloch 'no fit companion for a Casey, a Sullivan and a pair of Smiths' and he helped defeat him on Robert Byrne's motion condemning the appointment of an outside party organizer to the ministry. The new mixed majority would accept no established leader and MacPherson at 35 became chief secretary. His ministry, more dissident Liberal than Constitutionalist, had no clear policy and was weakened by two defeats in ministerial elections yet it completed such important outstanding business as the lands bill, already before council, which became law after some concessions to squatters. Much business was done in the short recess but new appointments, particularly that of Graham Berry as treasurer, made his cabinet more radical and harder to control, and most Constitutionalist support was lost. After rejecting an adverse vote against Berry's largely protectionist budget MacPherson could not ignore the majority assembled against him on 29 March 1870. Distrusting his more radical colleagues he did not seek a dissolution but resigned on 8 April.

MacPherson's acceptance of the lands portfolio in McCulloch's succeeding ministry was approved in Dundas but brought him a storm of recrimination from his ex-colleagues and the press, leaving him shaken, half-convinced of his unfitness for high office and dependent on McCulloch, then attacked as a squatter monopolist. He strove to make his lands administration exemplary, and with some success, but was no match for Berry, Duffy and the Age. Under fire, after McCulloch lost office in June 1871, MacPherson's reputation remained dubious at least till 1872 when his main critics lost power and were themselves subjected to acrimonious criticism.

When Francis became premier MacPherson supported the Education Act in 1872 but grew more critical, specially after McCulloch returned from London in 1874. He voted against the Constitution bill on which Francis resigned and, after supporting Kerferd's reconstruction, joined McCulloch and Berry in destroying it. Though laid up by a hunting accident for the early weeks of Berry's first ministry he helped McCulloch to destroy that government in 1875.

Under McCulloch as premier, MacPherson was chief secretary and administered with care his department's lepers, lunatics, police, prisons, culture and Aboriginals. When Berry, denied his dissolution, obstructed parliamentary business, MacPherson acted as deputy to his leader, seconding the gag and sending police against demonstrations.

After Berry's landslide victory in 1877 a conservative improver of MacPherson's type was without honour in the new radical-dominated parliament. His arguments against the land tax and its discrimination against joint estates and criticism of Berry's crisis measures went unheeded. In October MacPherson said his day of usefulness was over and foreshadowed his retirement, in practice from 19 February 1878, technically from July. He embarked later that year on a long tour and settled in England, where his son was educated at Harrow and Cambridge, and his six daughters married. He died on 17 February 1894 at Thorpe, Chertsey, Surrey, still part-owner of Nerrin-Nerrin, but almost forgotten in Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • C. G. Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, vol 2 (Lond, 1898)
  • A. Henderson (ed), Australian Families, vol 1 (Melb, 1941)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 29 Nov 1864–8 Aug 1878
  • I. P. MacPherson, ‘MacPherson family history’, Canberra and District Historical Society, Journal, Dec 1969
  • Hamilton Spectator, 10, 17 Aug 1861, 13-22 Sept 1864, 22 Sept 1869, 1 Jan, 13-20 Apr, 6 July 1870, 1 May, 11 Aug, 14, 18 Oct, 3 Nov 1875, 20 June 1, 9, 11 July 1878
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Sept–19 Oct 1869
  • 21 Feb 1894
  • Illustrated Australian News, 1 Nov 1869
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Mar 1879, 21 Feb 1894
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria, 1877-1881 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951)
  • G. A. Bartlett, Political Organization and Society in Victoria 1864-1883 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1964).

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Citation details

Dorothy Fitzpatrick, 'MacPherson, John Alexander (1833–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/macpherson-john-alexander-4135/text6621, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 20 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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