The Birth Of A Nation: On 6 February, New Zealanders celebrate not a severance of political ties, but their creation. The Treaty of Waitangi binds together two distinct entities: the indigenous people of New Zealand and the British Crown. It is a statement of undertakings and obligations: a drawing together, not a breaking away.
THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, in 1787, was roughly the size of Whanganui. Its muddy streets, ill-lit and reeking of horse dung, had for five months been thronged by representatives of the thirteen former colonies of King George III. Bewigged gentlemen in swallow-tail coats and silk stockings had laboured through a sweltering summer and on into the milder airs of Autumn to crown their successful war against the British with a constitution to unite the fractious states of America.
There is story, probably apocryphal, but beloved by Americans nonetheless, that one of the principal framers of the American constitution, Benjamin Franklin, upon emerging from the final session of the Convention on 27 September 1787, was accosted by a cluster of his fellow citizens demanding to know whether, after all that talking, Americans had been given a monarchy or a republic. Franklin’s reply was typically terse – and telling. Pausing amidst the jostling spectators, he answered: “A republic – if you can keep it.”
That day marks the true birth of the United States of America. It is not, however, the day upon which Americans celebrate their nationhood. America’s national day is the fourth of July – the day when, in 1776, the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Great Britain.
It is the promises of that declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson: his ringing sentences about all men being created equal; possessing “certain unalienable rights”; specifically, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; that they remember and celebrate. The complicated machinery of their own self-government, the document which begins: “We the People” is honoured, but not with marching bands and fireworks.
How different America’s Independence Day is from our own Waitangi Day.
On 6 February, New Zealanders celebrate not a severance of political ties, but their creation. The Treaty of Waitangi binds together two distinct entities: the indigenous people of New Zealand and the British Crown. It is a statement of undertakings and obligations: a drawing together, not a breaking away.
The Treaty offered the descendants of its signatories’ only the roughest sketch of what a future New Zealand constitution might look like. A document more at odds with the universal pretentions of the American Declaration of Independence could hardly be imagined.
It is the contractual nature of the Treaty: the multiple opportunities for conjecture and dispute that it offers each successive generation; which has determined the manner in which New Zealanders mark the birth of their nation. It is the reason why, year after year, our political leaders are drawn back to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
Those who argue that New Zealanders, like Americans, should celebrate their national day with marching bands, fireworks and other noisy displays of chauvinistic self-congratulation, misunderstand Waitangi Day fundamentally. In moral terms, New Zealand is not an accomplished fact, but an evolving proposition. A proposition concerning which the two parties which came together on 6 February 1840 – the Crown and tangata whenua – still have a lot to say. That’s why Waitangi Day continues to be an argument-in-progress – rather than a celebration.
It is also why the Prime Minister’s absence from this year’s celebrations at Waitangi is so regrettable. Certainly, communications from Te Tii Marae were confused and disrespectful, but Bill English did not need to draw attention to their authors’ foolishness. He could, instead, have made a virtue of the Marae authority’s expectations of silence.
By characterising Waitangi Day as an occasion for the Crown to listen rather than speak, he could have affirmed the unique historical experiment which the Treaty represents. The moot that commenced at Waitangi 177 years ago: Can tangata whenua and the Crown construct a nation in which the claims of the former are not obliterated by the greed of the latter?
"A republic, if you can keep it." - Benjamin Franklin on the US Constitution.
It is a question that America’s founding fathers did not trouble themselves to either ask or answer. The only reference to the indigenous inhabitants of North America in Jefferson’s declaration describes them as “merciless Indian savages”. The United States Constitution, itself, in defiance of the egalitarian promises of 1776, took care to stipulate that, for the purposes of determining the states’ population, slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person.
In 1863, as the argument over the Treaty’s meaning turned bloody in New Zealand, President Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg of “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”.
“Now we are engaged”, he continued, “in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
The United States endured – just. But, in the century-and-a-half since the Civil War, Lincoln’s proposition has been tested repeatedly.
Waitangi Day reminds us that our own proposition of nationhood is still to be resolved.
“A republic, if you can keep it.”
The Treaty, if we’re prepared to honour it.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday 7 February 2017.