Managing "self-preservation": Charles Pearson's National Life and Character and the early Australian Commonwealth

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In National Life and Character (1893), Charles Pearson argued that the breakdown in “character” threatening social cohesion in Britain was a phenomenon that was replicated on a global scale in the late nineteenth century. The economic and technological progress that characterised the industrial revolution in Britain had stimulated urbanisation, and unleashed, Pearson claimed, a “bestial element in man”, degrading the quality of civic and economic life, and leading to a rising population of “stunted specimens of humanity”. Most analyses of National Life and Character focus on its fear of non‐white races and influence on policies of racial restriction; we argue that National Life and Character is a more ambitious work of political economy preoccupied, as Pearson observed, with the “self‐preservation” of the white European race, grappling with the tension of managing a potentially degraded population as new forms of state intervention, decline of traditional religious faith, and global expansion transformed white society, leaving it declining into a “stationary state” and vulnerable in the face of the rising non‐European peoples. These concerns were shared by many of the architects of Australian Federation, influencing the policy initiatives of the post‐Federation period.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17-32
Number of pages16
JournalAustralian Journal of Politics and History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2019


  • Charles Pearson
  • Political Economy
  • Federation
  • National Character
  • Australian History


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