The United Irishmen in America

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

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Appendix VI.

IN Chapter XIII. there is a sketch of the public life of the principal United Irishmen, who, with the consent of the British government, exiled themselves to the United States. Some interesting facts, concerning other members of that party, both before and after the insurrection, may not improperly be added to those already given.

Among those who were obliged to fly Ireland before the year 1798, Archibald Hamilton Rowan was, on many accounts, one of the most remarkable. He inherited a fine fortune, was a graduate of Cambridge, and had led an eventful life, before he joined the United Irishmen; having been, in succession, secretary to the last colonial governor of South Carolina, major in the Irish Volunteers, colonel in the Portuguese army, a devotee of Marie Antoinette, and, lastly, an ally of Wolfe Tone. Having escaped from Newgate, where he had been sent on a charge of seditious writings, he fled from Dublin to France, from whence he emigrated to Philadelphia in 1795. That city was then the seat of government, and Washington was president. Rowan lodged in the same house with John Adams and Andrew Jackson. "It had been my intention." he writes in his Autobiography, "to have waited on the president, but being informed that Washington had refused to receive Talleyrand, I gave up that idea; and, having determined on removing to some country situation, I fixed upon Wilmington, in the state of Delaware." Soon after this removal he was joined by three of his old associates in patriotism, Tone and Tandy, and Dr. Reynolds, the same whose name is mixed up in the federal riots. "It was a singular rencontre," says Tone, "and our several escapes from an ignominious death seemed little short of a miracle. We communicated our adventures since our last interview, which took place in the jail of Newgate, in Dublin, fourteen months before." "Mr. Tone,'' Rowan writes in August, 1795, "has bought an hundred acres of ground. The situation is pleasant, and within two or three miles of Princeton, where there is a college, and some good society. Tandy arrived here about a fortnight or three weeks since; he has got a lodging in the same house with me, and, of course, we mess together." News from Ireland and from France, by the end of the year, induced Tone to devote himself to the design of a French-Irish alliance, with which object he sailed from New York on New Year's day, 1796, and, on arriving in Paris, found a friend and adviser in James Monroe, the American ambassador, and, in after years, president. Tandy followed Tone's example, and returned to France. Both attained rank as general officers in that country, where Tandy died at an old age. Dr. Reynolds remained at Philadelphia. Mr. Rowan resided in America till the year 1800, when he was permitted to return home. During this time, as he could not induce his family to emigrate, he took no steps to become an American citizen. At first he writes his wife—"One wants me to remain in Philadelphia, and another to buy a small farm in a settled country. But I will do neither: I will go to the woods, but I will not kill Indians or keep slaves." He seems to have been thoroughly disgusted with Philadelphia politics, as they then were. In 1796, he writes,. "I assure you, except on general topics, I scarcely open my lips." His familiar associates were tide Butler family, Dickinson, (author of "The Farmer's Letters,") and Caesar Rodney; but, even with them, he seldom talked on American affairs. His prudence, in this respect, was admirable, when we consider his temperament. He speaks, in 1797, of "the imprudent interference of some of my own countrymen in their politics, which it is almost impossible to avoid." In the same year he started a calico printing establishment at Wilmington, which he abandoned the next, as an unfit speculation for one of his habits. In 1798, he was fiercely attacked by Cobbett, then editing the Porcupine Gazette at Philadelphia, on the ground of being an avowed "anti-federalist." This statement Mr. Rowan corrected, declaring, in accordance with all his previous views, that, "not being a citizen, (he) studiously avoided mingling in the politics of the country." The only events of his residence, which had any historical interest, were his acquaintance with Kosciusko, and his participation in the obsequies of Washington. After his return to his native land, he lived in honor and in peace, until February, 1884. During this time he kept up a kindly intercourse with those of his old associates who remained upon this side of the sea. The following letters, given in his AUTOBIOGRAPHY, belong to this part of our subject:—

"New York, January 8th, 1827.

"My Dear Old Friend,—

"For, as I am feeling the advances of age, I presume you have not remained in statu quo for the last five and twenty years,—I received your letter by Mr. Macready, and thank you for it. Many circumstances prevented my answering it until now, which it is impossible to detail on paper; but, be assured, no indifference or coldness of feeling towards you had any share in causing the delay. Mr. Macready is a gentleman whose talents and worth have gained him very high consideration here, and who has entirely justified the warm recommendations he was the bearer of from Europe.

"I dare not write to you about Ireland, though probably, if we were together, we should talk of little else. I remember the day when I fancied letters might be intercepted; if such a thing could happen now, a letter from T. A. E. to A. H. R., filled with Irish politics, would be a bonne bouche for a secretary. America is not what you saw it, nor what even your sanguine mind could anticipate; it has shot up in strength and prosperity beyond the most visionary calculation. It has great destinies, and I have no doubt will ameliorate the condition of man throughout the world. When you were here, party raged with a fiend-like violence, which may lead you to misjudge of what you may occasionally meet with in an American newspaper, should you ever look in one. Whether the demon be absolutely and forever laid, I cannot undertake to say; but there is at present no more party controversy than ought to be expected, and perhaps ought to exist in so free a country; and sure I am it does not interfere with the general welfare and happiness; indeed, I think it never can, their roots are struck so deep. Of myself and family I need only say we are all extremely well. I have succeeded better than I thought possible, when I set foot on this shore. I still enjoy my health and faculties. The companion of my youth and of my sufferings does the same. We are surrounded by eight children and twelve grand-children, with the prospect of steady and progressive increase in the American ratio.

"I pray God you have had your share of the happiness of this life.

"Your sincere and affectionate friend,



Mr. Emmet did not long survive the date of this letter. In 1829 Mr. Rowan received from William Sampson, the well-known Irish exile, an epistle, in which, after expatiating on Mr. Rowan's "honorable principles," on Mrs. Rowan's kindness to his wife, and on the state of Irish politics, he continues thus:—

"You have, I presume, heard of the death of Thomas Addis Emmet, and probably of the extraordinary honors paid to his memory; how a monument was voted by the bar of New York, which has since been established in the court-room where he fell. A eulogy was also voted, which De Witt Clinton, governor of this state, had undertaken to deliver; and by the same resolutions I was requested, as an incentive to the younger members of the profession, and as a model for their imitation, to write a history of his life. I could not refuse a task so honorable, and I accepted of it. But I was soon after seized with an aguish complaint, which returned from time to time, and so far debilitated me that I was unable to make any strenuous exertion. I had besides the affliction of losing my son-in-law, Captain Tone, son of one that you knew well, and husband of my daughter, now my only surviving child. This obliged me to lay aside the work, but, with returning health, I have now resumed it.

"I was greatly disappointed, also, in applying to the family of my deceased friend, in finding that I could have not the least assistance from any of them. Mrs. Emmet, who loved her husband most tenderly, and did him honor whilst he lived, was affected by his death in such a manner that she cannot speak upon the subject of his early life, and his children were too young to know anything of it; several of them, indeed, were born here. That portion of Emmet's life past in this city affords little incident. It was entirely absorbed in the duties of his profession, and in a course of unexampled industry. He was looked upon with admiration for his abilities, learning, and eloquence, and universally beloved for his virtues and his manner of living; and. great as was the tribute paid to him, he deserved it all. He was a shining honor to his country. There exists amongst all here the greatest curiosity to know the particulars of his former life, and, indeed, everything concerning him. I have been trying to make arrangements for the publication of the work in London. You were one of the men Emmet most esteemed, and now that the events of those days are matters of past and useful history, I should request of you to assist me with some account of him and his family, his father, his brother Temple, his early studies, travels, first entry into public life, and to point me out where such details are to be looked for. You, it is true, had nothing to do with the rebellion in Ireland, nor do I expect anything of that kind from you; but any letters of his, however trivial or familiar the subject, may go to satisfy the friends under whose commission I act. I shall, if I can find one, send you a copy of a eulogy upon him by Dr. Mitchell, whose name, probably whose person, you must know. Mr. De Witt Clinton, late governor of this state, one of the most distinguished of our statesmen, had undertaken to fulfil the vote of the bar, and would have delivered a eulogy upon him, but he was called upon to pay his great debt before the day appointed; and it is urgent with me to discharge this duty before a similar casualty should put a bar to my performance forever. I owe much on my own account to my professional brethren here, as you will see by an article which I forward to you, containing their kind and affectionate adieus when, some years ago, after the marriage of my daughter, I went to reside in Georgetown, D. C. Since my son-in-law's death I have again fixed my residence in this city. I have seen a book advertised, called the History of the Leaders of the Rebellion in 1798. Is there anything in it that could help me in the biography of Emmet? There never yet was fair play nor justice shown to the sufferers in that unhappy struggle. I often wonder how I myself, and other men given to peace entirely, should have been driven from less to more, by mere feeling for others, to desperation, and almost to self-devotion; for I was always among the least sanguine and backward, till no neutrality was left, and then, even then, there was nothing to warrant any part of what was done to me latterly.

"I had, indeed, taken my ground; but if law was to be had, and I was willing to chicane, I should have as good actions of false imprisonment as ever man had. But now I am for truth, and no other revenge. It is so long since I have encountered any hostility or ill office, or envious or angry words from any man, that I may truly say I live in charity with all mankind, in which blessed spirit, &c., as they say at the end of all sermons, may we all live.

"Your sincere and obliged friend,


"New York, April 29th, 1829."[1]

Unfortunately Sampson's health never entirely recovered, and the projected biography never appeared. Of the accomplishments and vivacity of this excellent man, the daughter of his dearest friend, Dr. McNeven, has given a pleasant sketch. Writing to Dr. Madden, she says:—

"At the period of Mr. Emmet's death I was too young to have many personal recollections of him; but of Mr. Sampson I have the most vivid and affectionate remembrance. His family and ours have ever been united in the warmest friendship, and when I look back, the pleasantest of our past recollections are connected with him. He possessed, more than any one I ever knew, the power of creating enjoyment; it was impossible that any company could be dull of which he was a part. His brilliant wit and pleasant fancy enlivened and adorned the conversation, whether grave or gay. I wish it were in my power to describe, as I remember it, the delightful social intercourse between our families.

"My grandfather, Mr. Riker, a descendant of the early Dutch settlers, resided on his farm, on the shore of a beautiful bay, about eight miles from the city. He had served his country through her revolutionary struggle, and afterwards as a representative in Congress; and had a mind and heart to appreciate and understand men like my father and Mr. Sampson, whose society he greatly enjoyed. Mr. Sampson, to the great qualities of his mind, added a refinement, I may say a poetry of feeling, which enabled him to relish keenly the beauties of nature, and to tinge even the commonplace realities of life with a bright and pleasing coloring. He had always great delight in boating, and, during his years of health and vigor, was never without a boat large enough to hold himself, his friends and their families; and it was one of his greatest pleasures to collect them together, and make excursions up the river, to visit the Rikers, his friends at Bowery Bay. The sail from New York up the East river is one of much variety and beauty, with just sufficient peril in passing through the narrow passage, called Hellgate, to give it a romantic interest; but Mr. Sampson was a master of boat-craft, and used safely to conduct his little vessel through all dangers, until it entered the smooth waters of the bay, when he would give notice of his approach, by playing an air on his flute, always his companion, and he was greeted by a hearty welcome before his boat could reach the shore. Sometimes the sound of his flute might be heard at the quiet farm-house, of a moonlight night, as late as eleven or twelve o'clock. The doors were immediately thrown open to receive the party, and after passing an hour or two in cheerful conversation, he and his friends would take the turn of the tide and sail gayly back to the city. I have often, in thinking of these scenes, contrasted the peaceful serenity and pure pleasures of the exiled lives of my father and his friends, with the stormy and painful ordeal they had encountered in their native land."[2]

Sampson died in 1836, and McNeven so recently as 1841. A recent writer thus gracefully closes the best notice of their lives that has appeared in America:—

"A few miles from New York, in a small grave-yard, overlooking the waters of the Sound, rest Sampson and McNeven, two as brave hearts as ever lived or died for any country. The Protestant and the Catholic sleep side by side, as if to carry out even in the grave the principles of the United Irishmen. 'They were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in death they were not divided.' A rose-bush, planted on this spot, has grown till it now covers it with beauty and fragrance. Not many months ago an Irish heart, led by sympathy to the spot, discovered that a little bird had built its nest over the graves. Was this the spirit of some Irish exile, which had come to pour its lament over the dust of the benefactors of his country?"[3]

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[1] Autobiography of Archibald H. Rowan, p. 469. Dublin: Tegg & Co., 1840.

[2] The Irish Confederates and the Rebellion of 1798, by Henry M. Field, pp. 344. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1851.

[3] Ibid., p. 347.