Isaac Earl Featherston was born at Newcastle upon Tyne, England, on 21 March 1813, the son of Thomas Featherston, a wealthy retail grocer and his wife, Jane Earl. He was educated at a private school at Tamworth and at Edinburgh University from which he graduated MD in 1836. He married Bethia Campbell Scott at Edinburgh on 10 December 1839. After travelling in search of a restoration of health (he suffered from tuberculosis), Featherston took a position as surgeon superintendent on board a New Zealand Company ship, the Olympus, which left England in December 1840 and arrived at Wellington in May 1841.
During the 1840s Featherston practised medicine in Wellington and became involved in the new town's various associations. He helped in community-building initiatives, such as the founding of the Wellington Savings Bank in 1846, and took a leading part in deputations and public meetings. He became the first editor of the Wellington Independent in 1845. In 1848 Judge H. S. Chapman referred to him as 'a man of unimpeached character, of ability and very popular among the settlers, to whose interests he is devoted. Indeed he may be said to be the leader of the settlers.'
Featherston's first reaction on arriving at Wellington was one of shock. 'Did those mud hovels scattered along the beach, or those wooden huts which appeared every here and there…represent the City of Wellington?' He saw the New Zealand Company as having deceived its migrants, especially over the hundreds of acres of 'fine fertile land which shall produce such astounding crops'. He himself was said by Chapman to have turned against the company because 'he invested money in land in 1840 and has got a useless swamp worth nothing'. Featherston fought to secure compensation for the company's land purchasers. When a scheme finally was worked out, he received much of the credit and a service of silver plate was presented to him at a function at Barrett's Hotel on 28 June 1852. He was shocked at the smallness of the attendance: many stayed away because they suspected that the compensation was aimed at creating a class of rich landowners. This was the first of many public controversies in which he was to be involved.
In 1851 Featherston was one of the leaders of the Wellington Settlers' Constitutional Association and a critic of Governor George Grey's constitutional proposals. He caused a stir, therefore, when in 1852 and 1853 he did a volte-face and came out in support of Grey's new constitution, even defending Grey's failure to convene the General Assembly. Featherston's actions arose from his political views: an extreme provincialist, he favoured the maximum possible devolution of functions and powers to the provincial councils. Some observers, however, attributed his actions to personal ambition. Henry Sewell, calling Featherston a 'fallen angel', said that Grey had seduced him by handing over so much power to the superintendents of the new provinces. Sewell was referring to the fact that in 1853 Featherston had been elected unopposed as the first superintendent of Wellington province.
A feature of Featherston's early career was his antagonism to the Wakefields. It was said that he had intended to emigrate to Australia but was persuaded by Edward Gibbon Wakefield to go to New Zealand instead. His animosity towards the Wakefields may have stemmed from this experience of their 'sales talk'. In 1847, soon after publishing an attack on New Zealand Company land policy in the Independent, Featherston fought a duel with Colonel William Wakefield, the company's principal agent. When Edward Gibbon Wakefield arrived in Wellington in 1853, Featherston clearly saw him as a serious rival for leadership: one report had him wanting to 'drive [Wakefield] out of the colony'. Sewell believed that he was jealous of Wakefield and took an 'implacable and inflexible' attitude to his offers of co-operation. One major issue at stake was the price at which land should be sold: Wakefield tried unsuccessfully to convert Featherston to the 'high' or 'sufficient price' policy. Wakefield took up the promotion of 'small' settlement and obliged Featherston to appear to be in favour of it – until ill health removed Wakefield from political activity in 1854. A few years later his son, Edward Jerningham Wakefield, became one of Featherston's chief antagonists in Wellington's constitutional crisis.
Featherston tried to adopt a form of responsible government for Wellington province by choosing executive officers acceptable to the provincial council. One effect of this was to foster party politics. But Featherston had no intention of acting as a mere constitutional monarch and adopting policies that were acceptable to a majority composed of his and his 'party's' opponents. Such a majority was elected in 1857, and in May 1858 Featherston resigned as superintendent, apparently intending to return to England. Instead, almost immediately, he stood for and secured re-election. Three years of stalemate ensued as he had no power to dissolve the council. Government was paralysed, and, when Wellington's representatives were too preoccupied to attend the 1858 session of the General Assembly, the New Provinces Act was passed which enabled Hawke's Bay to secede from Wellington province. In 1859 he resumed full powers as superintendent and spent money without the authority of the council. The crisis was not broken until the 1861 election when he once more had a majority.
Featherston continued to hold the position of superintendent for Wellington province until 1870. He was also a member of the House of Representatives from 1853 until 1870, representing first Wanganui and then from 1855 the City of Wellington. Only twice did he hold office in the general government – as colonial secretary for a month in 1861 and minister without portfolio from 1869 to 1871. After failing to form a government in 1856, he concentrated on a career at the provincial level where he was able to enjoy a continuous hold on power such as he would have been most unlikely to have achieved at the national level. It is open to debate whether his concentration on provincial politics was a consequence of his ultra-provincialism or a cause of it.
C. R. Carter, writing in 1863, described Featherston as having 'an intellectual head, a pale face, and "sparse" hair and whiskers fast turning grey'. He was regarded as an eloquent speaker, although his voice was weak and so quiet as sometimes to be inaudible. A listener might think that he was on the verge of breaking down; naturally this characteristic added to the impact. He gave the impression of struggling to draw words from his heart. According to one observer, 'the man's fine moral nature is apparent and gives dignity to all he says'.
Featherston was troubled by constant ill health, at times severe and debilitating. Carter once found him in bed suffering simultaneously from asthma, bronchitis and sciatica. It is doubtful whether his illness had any seriously inhibiting effect on his political activity and it sometimes furnished an excuse for courses of action or modes of behaviour which he wished to adopt. The antidote to ill health was action. His approach to politics was characterised by concentrated exertion of energy, courage and boldness in seeking solutions. Such traits he described as typical of men engaged in the heroic work of founding 'a great future nation'.
In 1860 the Waitara dispute culminated in war between Maori and Pakeha. Featherston was a strong critic of the Stafford government's handling of the affair, and his speech on 7 August, denouncing the official policy, attracted widespread acclaim. It has been argued that among his reasons for taking this stand were gratitude to Wiremu Kingi Te Rangitake for his assistance in averting attack on the Wellington settlement in the 1840s, and anger over the Stafford government's New Provinces Act 1858. As conflict intensified, he became anxious about policies promoting a more vigorous prosecution of the war, fearing their unsettling effect on race relations, especially in Wellington province, and the consequence of increasing the power of the general government.
In this period Featherston became renowned for his diplomacy. Whenever trouble threatened, he intervened personally and worked to persuade Maori tribes not to join the Kingites, using his stand over Waitara as proof of his even-handedness. He acquired mana, perhaps as much as anything because of his courage and boldness.
Featherston used his new-found skills as a negotiator with particular effect in facilitating the acquisition of Maori land. In 1862 he was appointed land purchase commissioner in Wellington province. Most celebrated was his role over seven years in negotiations for the Rangitikei block, culminating in a great meeting in 1867 witnessed by Sir Charles Dilke, who was very impressed by Featherston's cunning and powers of persuasion.
During the war crisis of 1865–66 Featherston raised auxiliaries of pro-government Maori but they refused to fight unless he led them himself. Although so ill that at times he could hardly sit on his horse, he accompanied Major General Trevor Chute on his west coast campaign and led a Maori contingent in several engagements, notably at Otapawa. This episode fuelled the Featherston legend: he was described leading the men into battle 'in his dressing gown, with a cigar in his mouth, having no weapon whatever with which to defend himself'. He was subsequently awarded the New Zealand Cross for bravery. Other honours were accorded him in recognition of his services: the Wairarapa town of Featherston and Featherston Street in Wellington were named after him.
Throughout his political career Featherston followed a policy of selling land in Wellington province at a low price. It was widely argued that this favoured pastoralists by enabling them to acquire large estates at moderate expense. Whatever the truth of this, Featherston's avowed aim was to maintain a substantial revenue from land sales. He saw the province's over-riding need as revenue for the promotion of public works and immigration. He never promoted closer settlement with great vigour or enthusiasm, but on the other hand he did everything possible to encourage pastoral development. He himself owned and leased considerable areas of land in the province. In particular, he acquired land in Wairarapa and established a sheep farm there.
Featherston had eight daughters and four sons. Much of the work of raising this family was inevitably left to his wife, Bethia. She once remarked that, 'if I had no children I fancy my chief pleasure wd lie in acting as Secretary to my Husband'. But she went on to observe that Featherston 'has rather antiquated ideas abt. the Rights of Women' and 'seems to have a leaning towards the opinion that the less a wife is seen or heard of in public the more admirable is she in private'. C. W. Richmond found 'the Featherston Ménage…dreary & uncomfortable' and concluded that 'home is not Featherston's centre'. While this judgement seems blunt, it is probably fair to say that public rather than personal concerns engaged Featherston's attention, especially after the death of Bethia on 16 March 1864.
From the mid 1860s Featherston worried about trends that he believed were undermining the provincial system; for example, the consolidation of loans in 1867. In 1866 he predicted the rise of a great provincial party to defend the provinces. So inflexible did he become and so formidable a leader of provincialism was he that it is not surprising that the Fox–Vogel government devised various ways to detach him from national politics after 1869. He was sent to the United Kingdom to negotiate, unsuccessfully, for the retention of two British regiments in New Zealand. While there, however, he secured a British government guarantee of a £1 million loan for roading.
In 1871 Featherston took up appointment as New Zealand's first agent general in London. Much of his work in this position involved recruiting migrants under Vogel's immigration programme. He disliked office work and failed to develop efficient business habits. No doubt this was because of his age and the very different style in which he had hitherto exercised authority. Someone as accustomed as he was to near autocratic power could not adjust to being the servant of the government. If he thought that his instructions were wrong, he ignored or disobeyed them. He left correspondence unanswered and failed to keep the government informed. As a result, he was frequently rebuked. Increasingly his performance was affected by a deterioration in health which culminated in his death on 19 June 1876 at Hove in Sussex, England.
Complex and forceful, Featherston was regarded with awe by his peers. C. W. Richmond said that he was the only one of his political opponents whom he feared. 'He is very persuasive, very resolute, very deep.' Yet in personal relations he was described as being very genial and fond of a joke. Featherston's personality was undoubtedly an asset to him in his career: he was one of the earliest New Zealand politicians to have a popular image. Affection is reflected in the name by which he was commonly known: to the people he helped govern he was 'The Little Doctor'.