David Wilson. United Irishmen, United States: Immigrant Radicals in the Early Republic. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998. x + 223 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-3175-3.
Reviewed by Seth Cotlar (Northwestern University)
Published on H-SHEAR (March, 1999)
David Wilson's United Irishmen, United States has much to offer scholars interested in the pre-famine history of Irish America, late eighteenth and early nineteenth century trans-Atlantic radicalism, and the ethnic dimension of urban politics in the early republic. Written in concise, crystalline prose, this modest book (a brisk 179 pages) contains a wealth of previously untold stories about the flamboyant and fascinating Irish radicals who came to America in the late 1790s and early 1800s. Although readers looking for sweeping, historiographical revisions will not find them here, this book makes an important contribution to the literature by eloquently narrating a largely overlooked chapter of Irish-American history.
Wilson begins with an overview of late eighteenth century Irish politics. Because of the American focus of the book, Wilson places those United Irishmen who would eventually emigrate to America at the center of this Irish story. Those who are very familiar with the Irish historiography of the 1790s may argue that this choice slightly distorts his narrative of the decade, but for the purposes of Americanists, Wilson's is one of the best summaries of this very complicated topic that this reviewer has read. Chapter Two follows the first wave of emigres (1795-97) to America and explores the different ways in which these radicals responded to their new surroundings. While some quickly became disillusioned about the supposed "land of liberty" and retreated into apolitical seclusion or spent their time planning their return to Europe, others threw themselves headlong into the partisan struggles of the 1790s. Wilson demonstrates the importance of this last group (most prominently, James Reynolds, William Duane, and John Daly Burk) in helping to organize and articulate the Jeffersonian opposition in the years between the furor over the Jay Treaty in 1794-5 and the onset of rabid Francophobia during the quasi-war and the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798.
Chapter Three explores the role of Irish emigres (largely of the "second wave" of emigration, post-1798) in "democratizing" American politics in the years following the election of 1800. Wilson describes how Irish emigres shaped the local and state politics in the places where they formed the strongest social and political networks: Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore. Scholars familiar with the Jeffersonian era politics of these localities will find little that is new or surprising, but those who are particularly interested in the Irish role in the urban politics of the early republic will find much useful information, clearly presented here. Chapter Four, the last of the chronologically-organized chapters, narrates the Irish American response to and role in the key political events between the embargo of 1807 and the political realignments of the 1820s and 30s. Wilson convincingly, but not controversially, argues that lingering Anglophobia overdetermined the Irish response to the crisis surrounding the War of 1812. This chapter also develops the argument that the war provoked Irish Americans (most prominently, Mathew Carey) to publicly work out their own, particular variety of economic and cultural nationalism, thus transforming the broader meaning of "Americanism" in the early nineteenth century.
After sketching out an essentially political narrative of the emigres' experiences in America from the 1790s until the 1830s, Wilson devotes the final four chapters to thematically organized investigations of cultural nationalism, religion, the emigres' social vision, and the evolution of Irish-American nationalism. These chapters effectively demonstrate the value of viewing the early American republic through a trans-Atlantic lens. Wilson argues that to understand the actions and writings of Irish emigres in early nineteenth century America, we must take into account the extent to which their "experiences in Ireland provided the conceptual filter" through which they interpreted American society and politics (p. 176). More than this, as the United Irishmen successfully insinuated themselves into American cultural and political life, they transformed both Irishness and Americanness--a process which Wilson evocatively describes as "putting American words to Irish music" (p. 111). It is as such a story of cultural interaction that Wilson's book succeeds most fully.
As a history of the broad phenomenon of trans-Atlantic radicalism, however, Wilson's book has some important limitations. Like his fellow historians of trans-Atlantic radicalism Michael Durey and Richard Twomey, Wilson has chosen to tell the story of trans-Atlantic radicalism in the form of a collective biography. The strength of this biographical approach is that the reader gets a detailed picture of a few, representative radicals. Radicalism is not a disembodied spirit in Wilson's book, it lives and breathes in the experiences and actions of complicated individuals. Wilson has done the historians of the early republic a particular service in providing reliable biographical sketches of important, yet understudied Irish-Americans such as Thomas Ledlie Birch, John Daly Burk, Mathew Carey, Denis Driscol, William Duane, Thomas Addis Emmett, William James MacNevan, James Reynolds, and William Sampson.
The problem with such a biographical approach, however, is that it tends to collapse the history of trans-Atlantic radicalism into the history of the most prominent trans-Atlantic radicals, those few who happened to have left a large paper trail behind. Wilson is well aware of this problem. In the introduction he criticizes Durey and Twomey for ignoring the fact that "for every United Irishman who crossed the Atlantic as a cabin passenger, there were scores who traveled by steerage" (p. 4). With only a few exceptions, however, Wilson's analytical focus remains fixed on a handful of Irish-American leaders. More problematically, Wilson seems to suggest that these leaders spoke for their constituents, that there were few significant differences in outlook or interest which separated wealthy lawyers and merchants from artisans and tenant farmers. This may indeed be a valid assumption, but it would have helped his case had Wilson taken on this methodological and interpretive problem in a more substantive way than he did.
Indeed, much of Wilson's own evidence suggests that the United Irishmen were more internally divided than his interpretive statements let on. For example, Wilson argues that "the radical egalitarianism of the United Irishmen" was of a quite limited variety. In the minds of most United Irishmen, "Black slaves, Native Americans, and women remained beyond the political pale, and white males who organized themselves into trade unions were regarded as a threat to the ideal of individualism" (p. 134). Yet, twenty-five pages later we discover that a large number of "highly politicized artisans ... fled Ireland during the 1790s and 1800s" and that these people brought to America "a tough and durable tradition of working-class Irish-American republicanism" (p. 159). Likewise, Wilson himself admits that most United Irishmen would have brought with them the reflexive anti-slavery and anti-racist stance which was shared by virtually all Irish and British Painites in the 1790s. The story of how the American "United Irishmen" became more invested in their whiteness and middle class position over time, in other words, is not explored in this book. Instead, Wilson seems to suggest that the highly racialized, gendered, and class-specific persuasion of prominent United Irish leaders in the 1810s and 20s was embedded in the ideology of this diverse movement from the start. His evidence, however, does not fully support this assertion.
Wilson's tendency to collapse the history of radicalism into the history of specific radicals creates other problems for his analysis. He devotes virtually the entire chapter on cultural nationalism, for example, to John Daly Burk, a figure for whom Wilson has clearly developed a deep dislike. According to Wilson, Burk wrote "dreadful" (p. 100) poetry, "unspeakably bad" and "silly" (pp. 105, 108) plays, and an utterly partisan history of Virginia which made no "attempt at analytical detachment" (p. 101). On top of these failings as a writer, Burk was also a deeply intolerant ideologue who thought that "the United Irishmen were Good and their enemies were Evil, and that was the end of it" (p. 109). (As an aside, this reviewer is led to wonder just how much this Manichean understanding of the world differed from that of the Federalists in the late 1790s.) Wilson grants that Burk occasionally "stumbled across important insights about the human condition," but he always left them undeveloped, thus overlooking "their deeper significance" (p. 109).
All of these normative evaluations of Burk's life work evoke for the twentieth century reader a vivid picture of the man. What they fail to capture, however, is what Burk's highly effective and popular writings meant to his contemporary readers. Indeed, throughout this book Wilson presents the leading United Irishmen as they saw themselves and as he sees them, but we get little sense of how ordinary emigres and Americans (aside from the Federalists who denounced them as "Wild Irishmen") read the newspapers, pamphlets, plays, and histories written by people like Burk. Wilson may be right in his assessment of Burk's unsavory character, but this biographical information has little to tell us about the nature of Irish and American radicalism in the 1790s. Just because Burk may have been an intolerant, narcissistic ideologue, this does not mean that those who read his works with a sympathetic eye shared Burk's reasons for identifying as "democrats" or "United Irishmen," yet Wilson seems to intimate as such. Besides, most of Burk's contemporaries encountered him in print, not in person, and Wilson's analysis leaves us unable to explain how so many people could have found Burk's "bad writing" so meaningful and even inspirational.
This book's focus on the limitations of the United Irishmen's political vision raises some important questions about the nature of 1790s radicalism. Wilson convincingly demonstrates the personal and political ambitions which motivated United Irish leaders, but he gives readers little sense of the hopeful utopianism, the sense of unbounded transformative possibilities which marked the fluid political discourse of the age of democratic revolutions. Instead, Wilson consistently portrays 1790s radicals as uncompromising, "vindictive" hypocrites who displayed an "ideologically driven intolerance" (p. 72). At times it seems like Irish American political leaders did not seek to substantially change the political world at all, rather they merely sought to dislodge their powerful enemies and put themselves in their place. Radicalism, in other words, often appears to be little more than a particularly potent variety of crass, power politics. Strong stuff, and perhaps accurate, but only up to a point.
Such accounts leave me wondering why the United Irishmen and thousands of their compatriots throughout the Atlantic world risked social ostracism and in some cases their lives for a bundle of ideas? What motivated their actions aside from a desire for honor, glory, money, and political power? And what sorts of transformative visions did rank-and-file United Irishmen and other ordinary radicals produce during their readings of and discussions about the radical texts of the era? To answer these questions, I think Wilson needed to take more seriously the ideas which people like William Duane and John Daly Burk articulated in their newspapers. Why did their "democratic" audience find them so compelling? Although many United Irishmen were politically ambitious, this does not mean that they or their non-elite compatriots were not honestly committed to a set of political principles which they regarded as more just than those held by their opponents. Duane and Burk were engaged in a dialog with their readers about the shape of the nation's political future, but because Wilson focuses exclusively on the producers (as opposed to the consumers) of radical print, the aspirations and interpretations of these less visible (but no less important) radicals get merged with those of their more vocal and prominent compatriots.
Although Wilson generally understates the pervasiveness and transformative potential of "democratic" radicalism in the 1790s, in one key section of his argument he exaggerates it. For years, historians of the Irish-American 1790s have danced around the question of whether there really was a functioning, American Society of United Irishmen (ASUI). Wilson, on the other hand, confidently asserts that the ASUI was "formed in the summer of 1797" (p. 43) and was composed of members throughout the United States who met to coordinate their political efforts and "read and discuss political works" (p. 44). These smaller sections reported to a central, executive committee based in Philadelphia. Wilson's authoritative account of this group and its actions in America is seductive, but the evidence is as shaky as it ever was. For the most part, Wilson's sources for his account of the ASUI are the ever-unreliable Federalist propagandists William Cobbett and John Fenno. Trusting them is akin to trusting Joe McCarthy's account of Communists on Capitol Hill. Wilson's most compelling piece of evidence for the existence of the ASUI is a Nov. 20, 1798 [Philadelphia] Aurora ad calling for a meeting of the group. Unfortunately for Wilson's case, this is the only such ad that I could find in a search of the Auroras from 1798-9. Further, Albrecht Koschnik, who has thoroughly scoured the Philadelphia archives for his study of voluntary societies in the early republic, has found no evidence of the existence of the ASUI. Granted, the United Irishmen were a secretive bunch who intentionally left little written evidence of their activities. Nonetheless, Wilson writes about them with a confidence that exceeds his limited evidence of their existence.
These criticisms of Wilson's treatment of 1790s radicalism aside, this book provides a rich, compelling analysis of the complicated nature of Irish-American political life in the early republic. Wilson addresses many issues which I have not sufficiently discussed here--religion, nationalism, divisions within the Irish-American community, race, and gender. As this list suggests, Wilson has given historians of the early republic much to think about, and hopefully, much to talk about over the course of the next few weeks.
. Michael Durey, Trans-Atlantic Radicals in the Early American Republic (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1997) and Richard Twomey, Jacobins and Jeffersonians: Anglo-American Radicalism in the United States, 1790-1820 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1989). In the Preface, Wilson says that he decided to take a thematic rather than a biographical approach in writing this book. Although many of the chapters are thematic and tell the stories of more than one person, Wilson's narrative is still firmly centered around the experiences and writings of a discrete group of prominent radicals.
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Seth Cotlar. Review of Wilson, David, United Irishmen, United States: Immigrant Radicals in the Early Republic.
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