This Saturday is Constitution Day. Every July 9, Australia celebrates the date that our Constitution became law in the year 1900. Well, not so much “celebrates”, as “ignores”. Unlike in many other countries, Constitution Day is not a public holiday here, and if you took a poll, I’m sure only a tiny minority of people would know of its existence.
This ignorance is not completely our fault. Constitution Day was only brought into being in 2000, and seems to be have been imagined as a one-off event for the Centenary of the Constitution. However, someone or other must have decided this was a bit slack, and it was revived in 2007, so technically we’ve only had a Constitution Day for four years.
It is the National Archives of Australia in Canberra who organises events for Constitution Day, because they hold the original Constitution documents.
This year they are holding a family fun day for Constitution Day, where you can do the types of activities that families might have enjoyed in 1900. They’re not letting on what they are, but the photo on the website gives a sneak peek of some children doing colouring-in. There are also tours to see the original Constitution, which I’m sure the kids will see as a real treat. The following day (you can indulge in a whole weekend of Constitutional events), an expert in law will host a discussion on the history and significance of the Constitution in plain English.
Meanwhile, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship will be holding citizenship ceremonies in all state capitals, and Canberra will welcome 60 new citizens from 25 countries in a ceremony held at the National Museum of Australia.
Sir Samuel Walker Griffith is accepted as the principal author of the Australian Constitution. Born in Wales in 1845, his family emigrated to Queensland when he was eight years old. A lawyer and politician, he became Premier of Queensland, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland. Always a supporter of Federation, he headed the Queensland delegation to the 1891 Sydney Constitutional Convention, where he was appointed vice-president and took a leading role.
“It fell to my lot to draw the Constitution,” he wrote, “after presiding for several days on a Committee, and endeavouring to ascertain the general consensus of opinion.”
Naturally there were several drafts to be submitted to committees, approved in referendums by the Australian people, and finally given royal assent by Queen Victoria on July 9 1900. The Australian Constitution is often praised internationally, because it isn’t the product of war or revolution, but came out of a democratic process of public debate and agreement. Unfortunately, although commendable, this distinct lack of bloodshed doesn’t make for very exciting history.
Sir Samuel Griffith saw the Constitution he helped write enshrined in law, and the Federation he’d worked toward come into being. He was the obvious choice to be the first Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, where he served admirably and was awarded several honours. In his spare time, he became the first Australian translator of Dante’s Inferno. After his death in 1920, his name was commemorated by the naming of a suburb of Canberra after him; as well as Griffith University in Queensland. The Samuel Griffith Society is a conservative organisation dedicated to defending the principles of the Constitution.
Australia doesn’t have a strong tradition of naming children after our political heroes, unlike in the United States where Lincoln and Kennedy are fairly popular names. Nor can it be said that Sir Griffith is particularly famous here, as Constitutional history is considered such a snooze-fest that his notable deeds have largely gone unsung. However, if you were inclined to choose a name from our Federation history, Griffith could make a worthy choice.
His surname is an anglicised form of the Welsh name Gruffudd, the meaning of which is not certain, but is thought to mean something like “lord with a strong grip”, or “strong lord”. The name was commonly used amongst medieval Welsh royalty. Gruffudd ap Llywelyn was an 11th-century Welsh ruler who fought against England – this may explain why Samuel Griffith called his son Llewellyn.
It’s a strong name with a pleasantly soft sound in the middle, it stands out from the crowd, and provides few opportunities for name-related teasing (I can only think of Gryffindor from Harry Potter, which doesn’t seem too emotionally scarring).
I think Griffith is an unusual but cool name for a boy. It looks distinguished and sounds smart, yet doesn’t seem elitist or nerdy. I must admit it’s a tiny bit awkward to say, which means Griff as a nickname is almost certain to be used on an everyday basis.
Welsh: Griffith Bryn, Griffith Ivor, Griffith Owen
Queensland Premiers: Griffith Cooper, Griffith Morgan, Griffith Theodore
Chief Justices: Griffith Brennan, Griffith Knox, Griffith Mason
The Inferno: Griffith Dante, Griffith Julius, Griffith Tristan
Popular: Griffith Alexander, Griffith Liam, Griffith Marcus
If you would like a very clear explanation of where the Australian Constitution differs from the American one, and where they are the same, you can read all about it here.