President Jefferson, the Refugees of 1798, etc.

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

« Chapter XII. | Contents | Chapter XIV. »

Chapter XIII.

Jefferson, President—The Refugees of 1798—Sampson and MacNevin—T. A. Emmet—The Brothers Binns—Burr and Blennerhassett—The Right of Search—Madison, President—John Smilie, United States Senator—War

IN 1801, Jefferson, as President, and Aaron Burr, as Vice-President, were elected to the seats of Adams and Pinckney. In the ensuing session of Congress, a bill for repealing the Alien and Sedition laws was introduced by John Smilie, passed, and approved. Some other evidences of a total change of policy were had. All the New England states, as they are called, voted for Adams; New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, held the balance, and decided for Jefferson.

The United Irishmen in British prisons, or in European exile, perceiving this change of parties, applied for passports to the new American ministers abroad, and received them. Thomas Addis Emmet and Dr. McNevin came to New York, where they were soon after joined by William Sampson. The son of Wolfe Tone entered the topographical service of the United States. John Caldwell settled on a farm beside the Hudson. Dr. Sweetman made his home in Georgia; and the brothers Binns located at Philadelphia. The influence of these men upon the policy of America, and the fortunes of their poorer countrymen, was, during their time, most salutary.

William Sampson was a barrister of fine attainments, great humor, and unconquerable buoyancy of mind. He was a native of Londonderry, and had reached his fortieth year, when, in 1807, he settled in New York. Here he renewed his professional practice, and soon became distinguished at the Bar. In 1808, he published a collection of his miscellaneous writings, chiefly culled from "The Press" and "Star," the United Irish organs. To these he added, in subsequent editions, some sketches of American society, admirable for their wit and pathos. The book, though a mere collection of disjecta membra, became a great favorite with the public, as did the author, in person, with all those whose acquaintance he made.

M'Nevin, a native of Galway and a Roman Catholic, had represented Gort in the first Catholic Board. He also was in the prime of life, an accomplished chemist and physician. After becoming a citizen, he joined with the Federal, or Whig, party, and continued for nearly half a century to exercise much social influence in New York. He was "President of the Friends of Ireland," which cooperated with the Irish Catholic Association, and, in 1834, he revived the society, to cooperate with the Repeal agitation. He did not live to see the failure of his hopes, in this last respect. His "Pieces of Irish History," is his sole memorial to his race, on this continent; as yet, he has no other monument.[1]

The most distinguished of the refugees was Thomas Addis Emmet, born in 1764, in the city of Cork. Educated at Edinburgh, he had for class-fellows Sir James Mackintosh, afterwards Lord Advocate of Scotland, and Benjamin Constant, who became a tribune under the French Republic. He spent three years in Edinburgh, and his popularity may be imagined from the fact that he was president of no less than five college societies at the same time. Leaving college, he visited the continent, spending two years on his tour. He observed institutions with the eye of a philosopher, and analyzed their conditions with the keenness of a politician.

On his return to Ireland, Mr. Emmet passed through London, where he met his old school-fellow, Mackintosh. In their conversation, that eminent man advised him strongly to choose law as his profession, assuring him that if he did so he was destined to rise. On his return to Dublin, he found his eldest brother, Temple, dead, and soon after entered himself as a law student, and, in 1790, was duly admitted. The succeeding year he prosecuted, on behalf of James Napper Tandy, the lord lieutenant and council, for issuing an illegal proclamation! This bold step reminds one of the old adage, of warring with the devil, and holding the court in his own dominions. Nothing resulted from it favorable to the national cause, except the evidence of Emmet's legal ability. The government were astonished at the boldness, the research and acuteness, of the young advocate; and a proposition was immediately made to him of judicial preferment;—but this he, as immediately, declined.

In 1804, he reached New York, with the prestige of defeat heavy upon him. But he soon made his powers felt at the American bar. Story, Sullivan, Kent, and Jones, his contemporaries, have spoken enthusiastically of his virtues and abilities.

His style of pleading is well described by Charles Gliddon Haines, of New Hampshire—himself an eminent lawyer—in his biographical sketch of Mr. Emmet:—

"Helvetius remarks," says Haines, "that the sun of glory only shines upon the tomb of greatness. His observation is too often true, but facts and living proofs sometimes contradict it. Mr. Emmet walks on in life, amid the eulogiums, the admiration, and the enthusiastic regard of a great and enlightened community. Without the glare and influence of public office, without titles and dignities, who fills a wider space, who commands more respect, than Thomas Addis Emmet ? Like a noble and simple column, he stands among us proudly preeminent,—destitute of pretensions, destitute of vanity, and destitute of envy. In a letter which I recently received from a friend who resides in the western part of the Union, a lawyer of eminence, he speaks of the New York bar. 'Thomas Addis Emmet,' says he, 'is the great luminary, whose light even crosses the western mountains.

His name rings down the valley of the Mississippi, and we hail his efforts with a kind of local pride.'

"If to draw the character of Homer needs the genius of the immortal bard himself; if to portray the powers of Demosthenes requires the gigantic intellect of the great Athenian orator, Mr. Emmet has nothing to expect from me. In presenting the features of his mind, I shall describe them from the impressions they make on me. I paint from the original. I catch the lineaments of the subject as living nature presents them.

"The mind of Thomas Addis Emmet is of the highest order. His penetration is deep, his views comprehensive, his distinctions remarkably nice. His powers of investigation are vigorous and irresistible. If there be anything in a subject, he will go to the bottom. He probes boldly, reaches the lowest depths by his researches, analyzes everything, and embraces the whole ground. He may be said to have a mind well adapted to profound and powerful investigation. In the next place, he has great comprehension. He sees a subject in all its bearings and relations. He traces out all its various operations. He begins at the centre, and diverges until it becomes necessary again to return to the centre. As a reasoner,—a bare, strict reasoner,—Mr. Emmet would always be placed in an elevated rank. No matter how dry, how difficult, how repulsive, the topic; no matter what may be its intricacies and perplexities, if any man can unfold and amplify it, he is equal to the task.

"I have spoken of his talent for deep and rigid investigation. I will now again recur to another feature of his mind,—his talent for reasoning on whatever data or premises he relies on. All the illustrations, and all the analogies, which can well occur to the mind, are readily and adroitly arranged in his arguments. He makes the most of his cause, and often makes too much,—giving a front that is so palpably over-formidable, that men of the plainest sense perceive the fruits of a powerful mind, without being at all convinced."

Thus spoke an American of his mind. Hear now an Irishman, on the qualities of his heart:—

"In men who are 'fit for treason, stratagem, and spoils,' the passions and mental qualities we expect to find are ambition, vanity, malignity, restlessness, or recklessness of mind. Were these the characteristics of T. A. Emmet? The question, with perfect safety to the memory of Emmet, might be put to any surviving political opponent of his, of common honesty, who was acquainted with those times, and the men who were prominent actors in them. Emmet's ambition was to see his country well governed, and its people treated like human beings, destined and capacitated for the enjoyment of civil and religious freedom. For himself he sought no preeminence, no popular applause; he shrunk from observation where his merits, in spite of his retiring habits, forced them into notice. No man could say that Emmet was ambitious.

"Emmet's vanity was of a peculiar kind. He was vain of nothing but his name; it was associated with the brightest of the by-gone hopes of Irish genius, and with the fairest promises of the revival of the latter in the dawning powers of a singularly gifted brother. No man could say, with truth, that vanity or selfishness was the mental infirmity of Emmet.

"No malignant act was ever imputed to him. The natural kindness of his disposition was manifested in his looks, in his tone of voice. Those who came in contact with him felt that his benignity of disposition, his purity of heart and mind were such, 'and the elements so mixed in him, that nature might stand up and say to all the world, this was a man.' Malignity and Emmet were as dissimilar in nature as in name."[2]

He died of paralysis, which seized him in court, in 1826, and, amid the universal respect of all his fellow-citizens, he was interred in Saint Paul's churchyard, New York. Montgomery's ashes repose in the same ground.

The brothers, John and Benjamin Binns, settled at Philadelphia. They were natives of Dublin, of the Moravian Church. Both were educated men, and early devoted their talents to the cause of human liberty. In 1798, John was tried at Maidstone, with Arthur O'Connor and Father Coigley, for treason. The evidence against all but Coigley being deemed insufficient, he was executed, and the rest escaped. Soon after, John Binns was rearrested for treasonable practices, and confined to Gloucester jail. Here he remained for nearly three years, and, in 1801, was permitted to come to this country. In March, 1802, we find him publishing the "Republican Argus," at Northumberland, Pa., and, in 1807, he issued, in Philadelphia, "The Democratic Press," for several years the most influential party organ in the Union. For twenty years he has filled the office of alderman of that city, where he survives at a patriarchal age, in the enjoyment of all his fine mental powers.[3]

Aaron Burr, failing of a reflection in 1805, engaged in the conspiracy to separate the Southern States from the Union, which has made his name so peculiarly memorable. In this attempt, he deeply compromised Mr. Herman Blennerhassett, a native of Kerry, Ireland, who had purchased an island in the Ohio, and there retired with an elegant and lovely lady, led the life of an uxorious philosopher. Burr, gifted beyond most men with the fascinating powers of persuasion, not only seduced the citizen from his duty, but the wife from her continence. In the memorable state trial of 1807, Blennerhassett, though true bills were found against him, was acquitted; but he returned to a desolate and dishonored home. She, who had given the enchantment to his island, was fled; fled with the very "friend" for whom he had risked life and forfeited fortune.

"The trail of the serpent was over it all."

The experience of Herman Blennerhassett should be forever a warning to those who are tempted by plausible speculators, to violate the laws of their country or the duties of their citizenship.[4]

Under Jefferson's second presidency, George Clinton, of New York, was Vice-President. The Tripoli War ended in a satisfactory peace, Ohio was admitted as a state, and Louisiana, lately purchased from the French, taken into the Union. Towards the close of Jefferson's second term, "the right of search," in a few instances exercised by French, and in many by English, ships, became the great foreign question; but it was reserved for his predecessor to settle that dispute.

In 1808, Madison succeeded to the presidency, and for three years exhausted negotiation in attempts at a peaceable solution. Between 1803 and 1810 nine hundred American ships had been seized, searched, or detained. In 1811, Madison sent his "war message" to Congress, the army was raised to 35,000 men, the navy equipped for active service, and a loan of $11,000,000 raised for the purposes of the war. In February, 1812, John Henry communicated to the President that, in 1809, he had been employed, by the governor of Canada, in a secret intrigue to separate New England from the Union. The documents connected with Henry's disclosure stimulated the war spirit, and in February, 1812, hostilities actually commenced. General Dearborn, of Massachusetts, was appointed commander-in-chief; Pinckney, major general; and Wilkinson, Hull, Hampton, and Bloomfield, the first brigadiers.

The chairman of the Senate committee on foreign affairs, at this time, was John Smilie, a native of Ireland. He was born in Newtownards, County Down, and had fought in the Revolutionary War. From that time, "he had never been out of the public service," until the hour of his death. In 1802, he had brought in the bill repealing the Adams Alien Law, and, in 1812, he reported a bill empowering the President to raise a temporary army for the war with Great Britain. On the last day of that year, at the age of seventy-four, he died at Washington, leaving a character, second to none of his contemporaries, for fidelity and usefulness in the public service.

The successor of John Smilie was John Caldwell Calhoun, whose province it was to vindicate the report of his venerable predecessor. Mr. Calhoun was the son of Patrick Calhoun, an emigrant from Donegal, in Ireland, to South Carolina, born March 18th, 1782. At that time Mr. Calhoun was in the meridian of his fame, and of his whole powers of mind. His defence of the war, in reply to John Randolph, placed him among the first men of his generation, a position which he justly held till the close of his long public life.

The war now declared should necessarily be a naval, as well as a military, struggle, and a natural anxiety for the result thrilled the hearts of all Americans, on receiving the "war message" of Madison.[5]

« Chapter XII. | Contents | Chapter XIV. »


[1] Some funds were collected in New York, several years ago, for the put pose of erecting a monument to his memory, and placed in the hands of Mr. Robert Emmet. Probably they were insufficient.

[2] Haines' Sketch of Thomas Addis Emmet. Madden's United Irishmen.

[3] For details of the eventful and interesting life of Mr Binns, see American Celt, vol. ii., No. 12. (Boston, 1851.)

[4] Burr was discharged on the ground that the evidence was insufficient Mrs. Blennerhassett, his victim, died some short time since, in New York, in great poverty, and was buried by the charity of some former Irish friends.

[5] National Intelligencer, Dec. 31st, 1812.