The Poor and Politics

Great pains have been taken to prevent the mass of mankind from interfering in political pursuits; force, and argument, and wit, and ridicule, and invective, have been used by the governing party, and with such success, that any of the lower, or even middle rank of society who engage in politics, have been, and are, considered not only as ridiculous, but in some degree culpable; even those who are called moral writers, employed their talents on the same side, so that at last it became an indisputed maxim that the poor were not to concern themselves in what related to the government of the country in which they lived, nevertheless it is an error of the most pernicious nature, as will appear from considering the subject. […]

Now on what foundation do these arrogant claims rest; it is not superior virtue, for in such hands power should be vested; on a fair comparison it will be found, that the aristocracy have not a superiority in that respect. Power, long continued in any mortal hands, has a tendency to corrupt; ans when that power is derived from birth or fortune, and held independent of the people, it is still more likely to be abused; it is not that they contribute more to the support of the state, for that is manifestly not the case. […]

It is not here intended to question the right of landed property; but merely to show, as if evident from these considerations, that even in a pecuniary view, the mass of the people are entitled to a share in the government as well as the rich.

From Thomas Russell (1796) A letter to the people of Ireland, on the present situation of the country, by Thomas Russell, -an United Irishman, Belfast.

Russell (21 November 1767-21 October 1803) was openly radical, as the above extract shows. The Dictionary of Irish Biography outlines his position – he “proclaimed the right of the poor to participate in politics…and believed that radical measures should be taken to alleviate inequalities between rich and poor. He was appalled by harsh conditions in textile mills and encouraged workers to form trade unions. Fervently opposed to the African slave trade, he denounced it repeatedly in his writings as one of the great evils of the age and refused to consume sugar or rum.”

Further Reading

James Quinn (2009) “Russell, Thomas”. in James McGuire, James Quinn (eds) Dictionary of Irish Biography, Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

James Quinn (2002) “Thomas Russell: United Irishman.” History Ireland.

God-Provoking Democrat: Archibald Hamilton Rowan


God Provoking CoverGuest Post: Fergus Whelan

This is the address given by Fergus Whelan at the launch of his new book, God-Provoking Democrat: The Remarkable Life of Archibald Hamilton Rowanpublished by New Island Press. The launch was held at The Church, Dublin – originally St Mary’s Church of Ireland, where Hamilton Rowan is buried.

My subject Archibald Hamilton Rowan the United Irishman was conceived in Ireland but was born and grew up in England in wealth and privilege. His mother contrived to keep him out of Ireland. She feared that her son would develop passions there which might lead to his ruin. Her fears came close to being realised in the great tumult in Ireland at the close of the eighteenth century.

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The Tree of Liberty

A stone bearing the image of a tree and the "United Irishmen Catechism"
Monument to the 1798 Rebellion, Maynooth.
(c) Irish Philosophy

What is that in your hand?
It is a branch.
Of what?
Of the tree of liberty.
Where did it first grow?
In America.
Where does it bloom?
In France.
Where did the seeds fall?
In Ireland.

The philosophical background of the French Revolution (up to 1799) was to be found in Montesquieu, Rousseau and Locke. Rousseau and Locke were already popular in Ireland, with the United Irishman Edward Fitzgerald educated along principles laid out by the two philosophers. William Drennan, who first formulated the idea of the United Irishmen, was a great admirer of Rousseau.

In 1789, the month before the Bastille fell, a Whig Club was founded in Dublin, and in the following year in Belfast. These Whig Clubs held commemorations of the Fall of the Bastille in 1791, the same year Thomas Paine wrote his Rights of Man in answer to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Wolfe Tone published his An argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland and the United Irishmen was founded (chronology, A concise history of Ireland (1909).

There were further commemorations of Bastille Day in 1792, and in France that November Edward Fitzgerald renounced his title. France acted as inspiration for the revolt of 1798, both politically and philosophically, and (Wolfe Tone hoped) as a source of support. Ultimately it ushered in over half a century of civil insurrection in Ireland, Europe and around the world.

A last Irish link – one of the seven prisoners in the Bastille the day it fell was Irish: Chevalier James F.X. Whyte, born in Dublin in 1730.

(Images of the French Revolution here and here)

Thomas Drennan Remembered

I am the son of an honest man, a minister of that gospel which breathes peace and good will among men; a Protestant Dissenting minister, in the town of Belfast; whose spirit I am accustomed to look up, in every trying situation, as my mediator and intercessor with Heaven. He was the friend and associate of good, I may say, great men; of Abernethy, of Bruce, of Duchal, and of Hucheson; and his character of mild and tender benevolence is still remembered by many in the North of Ireland, and by not a few in this city.

I may be imprudent in mentioning, that he was, and that I glory to be, a Protestant Dissenter, […] one of that division of Protestants who regard no authority on earth, in matters of religion, save the words and the works of its author, and whose fundamental principle it is, that every person has a right, and in proportion to his abilities, is under an obligation, to judge for himself in matters of religion; a right, subservient to God alone, not a favour to be derived from the gratuitous lenity of government; a right, the resignation of which produces slavery on the one hand, persecution on the other.

Thomas Drennan (1696–14 Feb 1768) as described by his son William Drennan, in An Intended Defence in a Trial for Sedition, in the year 1794. William links his adherence to religious freedom and toleration to his father, and his father’s friends Francis Hutcheson, William Bruce, John Abernathy and John Duchal. The Latin footnote in the text is a further eulogy to Thomas Drennan.

Benevolent conspiracy

I should much desire that a society were instituted in this city having much of the secresy and somewhat of the ceremonial of Free-Masonry. … A benevolent conspiracy—A Plot for the People—No Whig Club—no party Title—The Brotherhood its name—the right of Man and the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers its End. Its general end Real Independence of Ireland, and republicanism its particular purpose. Its business, every means to accomplish these ends as the prejudices and bigotry of the Land we live in would permit. . . .

Extract from a letter sent by William Drennan to Samuel McTier, 21st May 1791 (Agnew, Drennan-McTier Letters, vol. 1, p. 357). A few months later the Society of United Irishmen was formed. William Drennan’s aim of “the right of Man and the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers its End” echoes the philosophy of Francis Hutcheson. Drennan’s father, Thomas Drennan was a close friend of Hutcheson and had been his assistant teaching in Dublin.

Wolfe Tone’s Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland

Theobald Wolfe Tone and the frontispiece of "Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland"
Theobald Wolfe Tone and the frontispiece of “Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland”

In 1724 Swift asked in the Drapier Letters, “Were not the People of Ireland born as Free as those of England?”  In 1791 Theobald Wolfe Tone answered, “We are free in theory, but slaves in fact.”

Theobald Wolfe Tone was born in Dublin 250 years ago (on 20th June, 1763). He is not an original thinker, nor a systematic one. But he does act as a “lightning conductor” (as Thomas Duddy puts it), bringing together ideas about liberty, independence and popular sovereignty and applying them to the Irish situation. These ideas picked up over time were incorporated in pamphlets, writings and finally in Wolfe Tone’s actions. He died in prison in Dublin, after arrest for his part in the failed 1798 Rising, on 19th November, 1798.

Tone’s best argued piece is probably Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, published in 1791. It is an argument based on justice, liberty and the rights of man. In the preface To the Reader he appeals directly to the work of Thomas Paine. Tone does not, he says, make an argument about “the abstract right of the people to reform their legislature; for after PAINE, who will, or who need, be heard on the subject?”

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