Robert Stout was born on 28 September 1844 at Lerwick, Shetland, Scotland, the eldest of the six children of Thomas Stout, a merchant, and his wife, Margaret Smith.
His education began at kindergarten at about the age of five. He spent six months at Lerwick Grammar School in 1852, and then attended the parish school. Stout later wrote that the 'most important part' of his education was gained, not at school, but during discussions on literary and theological matters involving a circle of relatives, his father and several uncles: 'No subject was barred in discussion.…each different family got different newspapers and magazines and these were exchanged.…There was variety in our newspaper literature – Whig, Tory and Radical views were represented.' Reading occupied the long winter nights, and there were lectures on a diverse range of subjects at the Literary Institute.
In 1858 Stout sat the teacher's qualifying examinations, specialising in mathematics and science, and was then appointed a pupil-teacher at the parish school in Lerwick. He also studied land and marine surveying and qualified as a surveyor in 1860. In 1863 he decided to emigrate to Otago, New Zealand, and left Lerwick on 26 October. To the end of his life he maintained a strong interest in the Shetlands, encouraging and financially assisting other Shetlanders to migrate to New Zealand.
Stout sailed from London on the Lady Milton on 1 December 1863 and arrived in Dunedin on 8 April 1864. It seemed to him a very primitive place. However, he soon found friends who received the latest reviews and books and shared his love of political, scientific and theological debate. They formed a club, the Symposium, which met to discuss 'Labour, Functions of the State, Provincialism, Factory Legislation, etc.'
Stout's ideas about religion had been shaped by the discussions in the family circle. 'Theological disputation was part of our social life,' he later wrote. At a Bible class Stout 'got acquainted with the differences of doctrine in the various churches.' He learned debating skills from sessions where the pupils were instructed in the positions of the various churches and asked to take sides and debate them. From this experience he had acquired a dislike of sectarianism and dogmatism. As a result the situation in Dunedin in the 1860s was well suited to someone with Stout's predilections. The Presbyterianism of the founding fathers had become diluted by the impact of the goldrushes, but the Kirk still had a major influence in community affairs, and Dunedin was a ferment of theological and moral controversy. Stout, revelling in this atmosphere, became the often controversial leader of freethought in Dunedin, giving particular offence by lectures in which he expressed sceptical views on stories of miracles and the divinity of Christ. He edited The Echo, a freethought paper (1869–73, 1880–83), and was well known for his addresses on subjects connected with freethought, science and humanistic morality at (usually crowded) meetings at the Lyceum Hall.
Stout was an agnostic, whose reputation for being anti-religious was not entirely deserved. Religion, he believed, was a fundamental aspect of humanity but was best understood as morality. Sectarian and dogmatic religion warped the expression of this, substituting hatred and division for what ought to unite all humankind. Some aspects of church life fascinated him: he was very fond of listening to sermons; he admired vigorous debaters, even if they preached from a pulpit; and he had a fascination with the intellectual and controversialist aspects of religion. Stout's own speeches were often a secular form of sermon, with a strong emphasis on the preaching of morality. In later life he was closely associated with Unitarianism and appears to have moderated his views on religion.
In 1864, after failing to get employment as a surveyor on the goldfields, Stout became second master at John Shaw's grammar school in Albany Street, Dunedin, teaching mathematics. Later he was first assistant at the North Dunedin District School. He was active in organising clubs in Dunedin, such as chess, swimming and football. In 1866 he helped to found the Otago Schoolmasters' Association, which later became the Otago branch of the New Zealand Educational Institute. He was its first secretary and was responsible for branch organisation. After failing to become a headmaster at Oamaru – allegedly because he could not teach singing – he took up law.
In 1867 Stout was articled to the legal office of William Downie Stewart. He completed his articles in three years instead of the customary five and was called to the Bar in July 1871. He then entered into partnership with Basil Sievwright. Later he was a partner in the firm of Stout, Mondy, and Sim. He began practising in 1871. As a barrister Stout undertook a remarkably heavy workload. He was particularly well known for his appearances before the Court of Appeal, and became celebrated for his abilities as a 'pleader' and his effectiveness in working on the emotions of juries.
In 1871 Stout was one of the first students – the very first, he later claimed – to enrol at the University of Otago. He gained first-class passes in mental and moral science and in political economy. Between 1873 and 1875 he lectured in law at the university – its first law lecturer – while continuing his legal studies.
Stout was soon drawn into politics. On 19 August 1872 he was elected to the Otago Provincial Council as representative for Caversham, and was nominated Otago provincial solicitor in May 1873. Re-elected to the council in June 1873, he became chairman of the Waste Lands Committee and was provincial solicitor from 6 May 1874 to 25 May 1875. He worked hard and spoke often: 'I have frequently been engaged on matters connected with the public business in my capacity as a member of the Council from 12 noon until 2 a.m.…I insisted on the discussion of some questions, when otherwise there really would have been no discussion'.
Stout's formidable debating skills stood him in great stead, although he sometimes offended less skilful debaters – in others words, most people with whom he debated – by the scorn with which he treated their faltering efforts. He had a notorious habit of laughing contemptuously at statements made by opponents, a habit initially used in court and subsequently employed in the House and even at meetings of the senate of the University of New Zealand.
Stout's industriousness, intelligence and debating skills made a parliamentary career almost inevitable. Initially he was reluctant to face the associated financial difficulties, but the threat to abolish the provinces changed his mind. On 20 August 1875 he was elected to the House of Representatives as member for Caversham, and on 20 December 1875 was elected on an anti-centralist ticket as a member for City of Dunedin. He took a leading role in the Otago campaign against abolition.
Stout had a sound knowledge of most of the major political theorists of the day. On occasions he spoke in the House with the works of John Stuart Mill piled 'three feet high' in front of him. He regarded Herbert Spencer as the outstanding writer of the century on sociology and psychology. Many of Stout's lectures and pamphlets were not much more than restatements of Spencer's theories. From Spencer he derived the belief that most social and economic problems could be solved if individuals could be encouraged, enabled and even compelled (if need be) to be self-reliant and independent. Like Spencer he blamed poverty on the failings of individuals and saw it as an inevitable, and indeed beneficial, part of the process that led to the 'survival of the fittest'. Poverty was a punishment for 'selfishness, ignorance, wastefulness and imprudence'.
On 13 March 1878 Stout was appointed attorney general in Sir George Grey's government. He drafted many of the government's measures, and was particularly influential in the preparation of electoral, trade union and taxation legislation. From 25 July 1878 Stout was also minister for lands and immigration. He was an ardent land reformer. A lifelong antipathy to the landlord system resulted from witnessing some of its crueller aspects, such as the eviction of crofter tenants. He supported state intervention in the land question, arguing that interference with this form of private property was justified because land, being of strictly limited supply, conferred on its owners a 'monopoly'. To him land was a resource for solving urban problems such as poverty and unemployment. His ideal was a nation of small holdings, secured by the state. He opposed the sale of land by the state, being afraid that before long New Zealand would have the same social problems as the Old World, with a powerful landlord class and the mass of the population landless. He was therefore a strong advocate of state leasing, and frequently advocated taxing the unearned increment.
On 25 June 1879 Stout resigned from both ministry and House, giving as his reason the ill health of his partner, Basil Sievwright. He felt the need to pay more attention to his very active legal career. In 1876 he had pleaded for the payment of MHRs to help men such as himself who 'had a knowledge of politics' but could not afford to 'leave their businesses for many months during the year'. The necessity of supporting a family made his situation more pressing: on 27 December 1876 at Dunedin he had married Anna Paterson Logan. They were to have four sons and two daughters.
Stout's resignation from the ministry was concerted with that of John Ballance, with whom he had formed a close friendship and shared an interest in progressive political ideas, particularly land reform. The two ministers had fallen out with Grey over their involvement in business activities. Stout's law firm acted for a group led by William Larnach which planned to float the New Zealand Agricultural Company in England; it would buy and subdivide estates on the Waimea Plains in Southland. A Waimea Plains railways company was also promoted. Stout played a part – without Grey's knowledge – in helping to lend to these promotions the appearance of endorsement by the New Zealand government, and Grey insisted that Stout and Ballance resign their provisional directorships of the company. He never forgave them for what he regarded as their betrayal of his government and besmirching of the liberal cause.
While out of Parliament Stout maintained a close interest in politics. In December 1881 he was appointed to the Otago Land Board, a position he used to force inquiries into 'dummyism' – the evasion of restrictions on the amount of land any one person could possess. The Otago Daily Times complained that he made these cases 'a contest between rich and poor' and used them as 'a stepping-stone to political popularity'.
An article on 'Political parties in New Zealand' in the Melbourne Review of January 1880 made clear Stout's preference for a party system based on a division between 'Conservatives' and 'Liberals'. By 1882, however, he had become convinced that the opposition was incapable of turning itself into a cohesive liberal party. In July 1884 he was returned to the House as member for Dunedin East, and in August he formed a ministry with Julius Vogel as colonial treasurer. Almost at once the ministry lost a vote of confidence, and H. A. Atkinson then tried and failed to form a government. Stout and Vogel returned to office in September.
The alliance caused much surprise as Stout had been a strong opponent of Vogel and Vogelism in the 1870s. Furthermore, it was made clear at the outset that Stout was premier only because Vogel's physical infirmities made it impossible for him to assume that role. Vogel was perceived as the dominant personality. Only Grey suspected the truth behind the incongruous partnership – that both men intended to use legislation to rescue themselves and the New Zealand Agricultural Company from serious financial difficulties by shifting the burden to the taxpayer. Grey's efforts to expose the plan were largely unsuccessful.
Hopes that Vogel would succeed in conjuring away the depression were soon dashed. The ministry survived, in the first place thanks to the disunited character of the opposition, and secondly because of the determination of ministers to complete the purchase of railway companies and the construction of the railway linking Westland and Canterbury, the promise of which kept Canterbury members loyal to the government. Initially Vogel wished to promote a borrowing programme reminiscent of the scheme of 1870. But Stout, who never endorsed Vogelism as the solution to the country's economic problems, was more cautious and acted as a moderating brake on Vogel's plans. As Vogel's prestige waned, Stout gained greater influence. Although claiming to be a liberal, he was not backed by any liberal party. Such reforms as he promoted were personal measures. These included the Civil Service Reform Bill, intended to eliminate political patronage from appointments to the civil service. Stout also advocated the development of secondary education, which he was particularly anxious to see fostered in country districts, and was a strong supporter of technical education.
In the general election of September 1887 Stout lost his seat to James Allen by 29 votes and decided that he could be of more use to the liberal cause outside Parliament. His attempts to maintain his legal business, including appearances in court, while premier had severely strained even his remarkably robust constitution.
Stout played an important role in the industrial crisis of 1890 and in its political consequences. He was appalled at the appearance in New Zealand of Old World social evils such as sweated labour, strikes and poverty. In contrast to his early doctrinaire opposition to state intervention in economic life, he now believed that decisive political action was required to remedy this state of affairs. He did much to forge a reconciliation of labour and middle-class liberal interests in Dunedin on a common platform of labour reform.
Ballance, the Liberal premier since 1891, fell seriously ill and died in early 1893 before Stout, his preferred successor, could secure a seat in Parliament. On 8 June 1893 Stout was returned at the Inangahua by-election. He had much support in cabinet, especially from ministers such as William Pember Reeves and John McKenzie, who believed that he would be more sympathetic to the continuation of a radical reform agenda than Richard Seddon. Seddon, who had been Ballance's deputy, took charge, but it was understood that when Parliament reconvened he would give the Liberal caucus a free choice as to whom they wanted for their leader. This did not happen.
Stout then tried to out-manoeuvre Seddon on the liquor licensing question, an issue with appeal to a substantial section of the Liberal party. But Seddon retained his hold over the broad centre of the party who looked for a moderate measure to neutralise the issue for the coming election. Stout, president of the New Zealand Alliance from 1895 to 1898, became too closely identified with the radical prohibitionists.
From November 1893 to 1898 Stout was one of the members for City of Wellington. He was increasingly alienated from the development of party politics, which offended against his strong individualism. The new regime allowed minimal scope for the influence which Stout believed needed to be exerted by those who kept in touch with the latest trends in political and social theorising. He had seemed able to maintain this kind of relationship with the world of practical politics as long as Ballance was premier. With Seddon in power, Liberal politics seemed to be dangerously lacking in contact with political theory and principle. Stout objected to 'Seddonism': autocratic control by the party leader, rigid discipline enforced by caucus and use of patronage for party purposes. Stout was able to exert little influence over politics and became frustrated at being forced into the role of carping and ineffectual critic. He was damaged by the constant suggestion that his criticisms were motivated principally by animosity towards Seddon.
In 1895 Stout and his family moved from Dunedin to Wellington, where he started the firm of Stout, Findlay and Company. In 1898 he retired from politics, citing financial pressures and family responsibilities. On 22 June 1899 he was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court, a position which he held until his retirement on 31 January 1926. His appointment was convenient politically for Seddon, but it was not seen as a mere act of political expediency since Stout was regarded as one of the country's outstanding legal practitioners.
As chief justice Stout decided over 1,400 cases, 450 of them as a member of the Court of Appeal. He consistently applied a liberal construction of statutes. His liberalism survived his translation to the Bench and manifested itself particularly in his pronouncements on social questions. He was opposed to extensive government regulation but saw a need to regulate private enterprise to protect the public interest against the effects of monopolies. His judgements show great confidence in the correctness of his opinions, enormous industry and wide general knowledge; but they were seldom the product of prolonged deliberation, often being written in haste and lacking literary quality. One in three cases taken on appeal from his decisions was successful. He did important work on the consolidation of statutes and showed particular strength in three areas: criminal law, procedure, and cases involving the Family Protection Act. Apart from co-authoring The practice of the Supreme Court & Court of Appeal of New Zealand (1892) with his partner, William Alexander Sim, Stout wrote little on legal matters.
Stout was renowned for the quality of his conduct of cases in the courtroom. Some thought that he was inclined to show too much sympathy to wrongdoers. He was a strong supporter of the probation system, while often making abstention from smoking and alcohol a condition of granting probation. He also took a keen interest in the rehabilitation of discharged prisoners.
Stout was held in high esteem as chief justice. He was very ready to defend the status of the office and of the judiciary. In 1903 he engaged in a bitter and prolonged dispute with the government over a new order of precedence which relegated the chief justice from third to fifth place below ministers of the Crown and privy counsellors. He saw this as an affront to the dignity of the judiciary.
Throughout his career Stout maintained a strong practical interest in social and educational issues. He was an influential champion of equal rights for women, and in 1878 introduced the Electoral Bill which made woman ratepayers eligible to vote and to stand for Parliament. In 1887 he supported Vogel's Women's Suffrage Bill. He won for women the right to vote for licensing committees, and was largely responsible for the Married Women's Property Act 1884, which declared a married woman capable of acquiring, holding and disposing of property in her own right. Stout later worked, in close association with his wife, to limit the testamentary freedom of husbands so that property could not be willed away from wives. In 1896 he introduced a Limitation of the Power of Disposition by Will Bill. The Testator's Family Maintenance Act 1900 was a modified form of this proposal.
Stout had long had a strong interest in education. From 1873 to 1876 he served as a member of the Otago Education Board, and was minister of education from 1885 to 1887. Initially opposed to state education, he later altered his opinion and defended the secular system established by the Education Act 1877. A new country, such as New Zealand, lacking in traditions and national sources of social cohesion, could not afford sectarian strife. Stout therefore opposed the teaching of religion in schools and was an enemy of the Bible in schools movement. He argued that morality could and should be inculcated through the medium of basic subjects. Teachers could set an example of moral conduct and insist on the observance of moral standards far more effectively than priests, whose position was compromised and distorted by the influences of denominationalism.
The development of the New Zealand university system probably owed more to Stout than to any other single individual. From 1885 to 1930 he was a member of the senate of the University of New Zealand. From 1891 to 1898 he was a member of the council of the University of Otago. He was the principal founder of Victoria College, Wellington, fighting for its establishment against the opposition of ministers such as Seddon and McKenzie. The result was a close relationship between the university college (which became Victoria University of Wellington) and the Stout family, a relationship which lasted for many decades and is perpetuated in the name and endowment of the Stout Research Centre for the Study of New Zealand Society, History and Culture. From 1900 to 1915 he was a member of the Victoria College council. From 1903 to 1923 he was the chancellor of the University of New Zealand and became notorious for his handling of rowdy students at university ceremonies. At the University of Otago on 24 August 1886 he threatened to call in the police. Students were only further encouraged to heckle him by his over-readiness to rise to their provocation.
In his early years Stout was a university reformer, working to give university councils exclusive powers to appoint and dismiss professors. This reflected his opposition to denominational influence in universities – which led him, for instance, to vote against permitting the awarding of a degree in divinity. He opposed the Presbyterian church's attempt to maintain an influence over appointments to chairs at the University of Otago in the 1870s. In his later career he became a strong antagonist of the university reform movement. He emphasised university teaching at the expense of research, opposed either professorial or bureaucratic control of the universities, and was a strong supporter of external examinations. To gain his ends he engaged in highly partisan tactics and was far from neutral as chancellor.
Stout was appointed a KCMG in 1886, and made a privy counsellor in 1921. He was appointed to the Legislative Council in August 1926. In 1929 his health began to fail and he died in Wellington on 19 July 1930; he was survived by Lady Stout and their six children.
Few individuals have equalled the range and duration of Stout's contributions to New Zealand public life. He gained the foremost position in politics, the law and university education. In later life he filled the role of eminent public figure to perfection. His fondness for pronouncing and moralising on almost every public and intellectual issue of the day contributed to the development of his public image.
Stout never became established as a politician. Every spell in Parliament left him adversely affected financially and obliged to retire to the law in order to recoup his finances. He found increasing difficulty in pursuing this dual career, and usually the law prevailed when he had to make a choice. The dilemma was not to be resolved until he accepted the chief justiceship which, while being the top legal position in the country, also gave him a platform for continued influence in public affairs.
Stout was that rarity in New Zealand life: an intellectual in politics. He read widely in social and political theory and was passionately interested in ideas, although he had no original political ideas of his own. He constantly invoked theory to justify a political position and was ever ready to condemn the politician who appeared to be guided merely by expediency. He was very cautious as a politician, placing strong emphasis on educating public opinion to accept change; indeed, he saw this as the most important role which he himself could play. There was a strong moralising tone to his liberalism. It was to the inculcation of new morality rather than to legislation that he looked for the improvement of society. In the gradual evolution of his political views he was guided by his opposition to a class society. His many-sided interests and the immense energy with which he pursued them made Stout one of the most influential architects of a democratic New Zealand.