A Giant Among Men: Daniel O’Connell’s philosophical influences

 Alarmed at the progress of a Giant of their own Creation
Alarmed at the progress of a Giant of their own Creation.
© National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The satirical picture above (1831) from the National Portrait Gallery London depicts Daniel O’Connell approaching the Irish Channel, with Anglesey (Lord Lieutenant of Ireland) and Stanley (Chief Secretary of Ireland) attempting to restrain him by a large document headed PROCLAMATION. O’Connell holds a paper on which is written “Repeal of the Union”, in his other hand a paper bearing “Agitation within the letter of the law”.The implication is that O’Connell “is a monster produced by human machinations” (more details available from the British Museum).

Depicting O’Connell as Frankenstein’s Monster is appropriate, philosophically speaking: the DoIP notes that in his early life O’Connell had been “receptive to the leading radical philosophies of the day, including the revolutionary humanism and egalitarianism of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft” (p. 255).  These two philosophers were, of course, the parents of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

Godwin’s Political Justice greatly influenced the young O’Connell regarding the nature and purpose of government. Godwin confirmed O’Connell’s abhorrence of political violence. O’Connell came to see the end of government as the happiness of the many, and since everyone was governed, everyone should participate in governing. O’Connell’s political path was set during his law training in Dublin and London from 1794-7: “in the spring of 1797 he was already a democrat in politics and a Deist in religion” (Thomas E. Hachey, Lawrence J. McCaffrey (eds) Perspectives On Irish Nationalism, University Press of Kentuckyp. 105.)

O’Connell had been converted to Deism by his reading of Paine’s Age of Reason. He rejected it after a decade as a “miserable philosophy” and returned to Catholicism. He remained radical however, seeking Catholic Emancipation from the Penal Laws (successfully, in 1829), and then repeal of the 1801 Act of Union. He insisted however that “no political change whatsoever is worth the shedding of a single drop of human blood”.

He carried on a mutually complimentary correspondence for over two years with Jeremy Bentham.  He shared beliefs with Bentham, being committed to judicial and legal reform and freedom of conscience, deeply hating slavery and arguing against prejudice against women (Crimmins, JSTOR). In a letter to Bentham he wrote, “My device is yours:— ‘The greatest possible good to the greatest possible number’…I sincerely wish I could devote the rest of my life to assist in realising this project” (quoted in DoIP, 256). The historian J. J. Lee suggests that O’Connell was influenced by four sources: Gaelic, patriot, Benthanite and Catholic (DoIP, 256).

In the end it seems O’Connell’s Catholicism became an obstacle to Bentham and O’Connell working together (Crimmins, JSTOR). His Catholicism did not stop O’Connell remaining a liberal: his children attended the school in Hume Street, Dublin run by Mary Wollstonecraft’s sister Everina (see History of Parliament Online and embedded Jenny McAuley tweet below).

Detail of "The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840" by Benjamin Robert, depicting O'Connell Wikimedia, Public Domain
Detail of “The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840” by Benjamin Robert, depicting O’Connell
Wikimedia, Public Domain

O’Connell made a large contribution to the anti-slavery movement (Christine Kinealy, History Today), with some in the US taking the Repeal movement as a model for their own call for repeal of “the union between Northern Liberty and Southern Slavery” (W. Caleb McDaniel). O’Connell also is credited with inspiring Frederick Douglass.

In a recent review, Michael Saler said, “[Frankenstein] raised questions about social justice and reciprocal obligations in a modern, secular age, in the process also condemning slavery” (Michael Saler, Enlightened Monsters, TLS). Though meant as an insult in the satirical print above, perhaps there was no better metaphor than Frankenstein for Daniel O’Connell, a man who had seen the terrors of revolution, the man Bentham called “the Liberator of Liberators”.

O’Connell died on 15th May, 1847.

For more (and non-satirical) portraits of The Liberator, see this pdf from Irish Arts Review (2006).

For an outline of the Bentham-O’Connell correspondence, including quotes from the letters see:
James E. Crimmins 1997. “Jeremy Bentham and Daniel O’Connell: Their Correspondence and Radical Alliance, 1828-1831” in The Historical Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2 , pp. 359-387 (on JSTOR, limited access on reg)

Christine Kinealy 2007. “The Liberator: Daniel O’Connell and Anti-Slavery”, History Today, Volume: 57 Issue: 12 2007 ((online))

Patrick M. Geoghegan (2010) “‘A consistent advocate of nigger emancipation’:Daniel O’Connell and the campaign against slavery”, History Ireland, Vol 8, Issue 5. (online).

The Frederick Douglass/Daniel O’Connell Project 

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