President Washington

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

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Chapter XII.

Washington, President—Party Organization into Federalists and Republicans—Influence of Jefferson over the Irish Community—The United Irish Organization in America—Adams, President—The Alien and Sedition Laws—The Federal Riots—Hon. Rufus King

ON the 30th of April, 1789, Washington opened the first Congress, by an address, delivered in person, which was the custom, until President Jefferson adopted the form of the written "Message," still adhered to.

During the second term of Washington's presidency, the fact that there were two parties radically opposed to each other became apparent. John Adams, vice-president, and Alexander Hamilton, secretary of state, headed the one which was in favor of a national bank, a high tariif, and strong powers of central control. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and their friends, were utterly opposed to these principles of government. The republicans accused the federalists of British predilections, and the federalists accused them of "French principles." Washington was believed to be inclined to the former, but, with excellent temper and feeling, he maintained in office an unbiassed and equable tone, preserving, till the last act of his life, the respectful confidence of all parties.

Jefferson's principles exercised an early and a permanent influence on the Irish citizens. He was strongly anti-British, so were they; he favored the largest toleration, so did they; he was master of a laconic, powerful style, which they intuitively admired. He practised in his own person great republican simplicity, unlike the official reserve of Washington and Adams. He had a bold tongue, a warm heart, and a strong head,—qualities which the children of Ireland have always respected and confided in.

The great majority of the Irish settlers and their descendants were, therefore, Jeffersonian Democrats. But the chiefs of their communities were by no means unanimous. The Carrolls, Harpers, and Rutledges were Federalists, the Sullivans and Butlers, Democrats. The numbers inclined to the Oracle of Monticello, and, after the administration of John Adams, became the warmest partisans of democracy.

The administration of John Adams began in 1797, and is remarkable to us, in the first place, for the events connected with "the United Irishmen," which happened in his time. Soon after the formation of the society in Ireland, a similar one sprung up in America. Its head quarters were at Philadelphia, where Matthew Carey, and other good men, gave it aid and impulse. The publications of the Irish society were reprinted there so early as 1794, funds were collected, and arms promised. Wolfe Tone, flying in despair from Ireland, returned from his "New Jersey farm" to Paris, to make an effort for French aid. The "French party," as the Democrats were called, and the friends of Ireland, were identical here, and, in 1797, "the American Society of United Irishmen" was a very formidable body.

In 1798, on pretence of danger from this and other sources, President Adams suggested and obtained the famous "Alien Law." By this law, the president could order any alien he deemed "dangerous" to quit the country; others were to be licensed to remain during his pleasure, and the neglect to get licensed was an offence punishable by three years' imprisonment, and perpetual disqualification for citizenship. Fourteen years' residence was also the time fixed as necessary to naturalization. This law having been severely commented on by the press, the President procured the passage of "the Sedition Law," making it a seditious libel to reflect on the conduct or motives of the Congress or President. These measures violently inflamed the country, and, more that any other cause, organized the two antagonist parties. The Federalists adhered to Mr. Adams, the Democrats to Mr. Jefferson. The adopted citizens generally joined the latter, whose principles, indeed, were those most favorable to the new-comer and the settler.

Among the first arrests under the sedition law were Dr. James Smith and Mr. Burk, of New York, the one a citizen, the other "an alien." They were publishers of an opposition paper called "The Time-Piece;" but so violent was the spirit of proscription, that Burk thought it advisable to escape from the country, after which the prosecution against Smith was dropped.[1]

Mr. Duane, Dr. Reynolds, and other naturalized citizens of Philadelphia, vigorously agitated a repeal of these objectionable laws. The former was frequently in personal clanger from his opponents, and the doctor was removed from his situation as physician to the Dispensary. In 1798, "The Alien Riot," or "Federal Riot," occurred at Saint Mary's Church, in Philadelphia. The opponents of the law, having brought a petition to the church doors, soliciting the signatures of the congregation, were attacked and badly beaten by the Federalists, headed by a citizen named Gallagher. A trial of the rioters was had, but the jury disagreed, and the case was dismissed.

At this time Sir Robert Liston, the British minister, was considered to be on more intimate terms with Mr. Adams than was consistent with a sound American policy. The minister's letters, so far as published, certainly countenance the charge. He seems to have been less an ambassador to, than an adviser of, the government. In one of his letters to the governor general of Canada, (dated May 23, 1799,) he says, in reference to the Federal riots, "The conduct of some of these gentlemen, (the "Federalists,) being shamefully calumniated by some of the popular newspapers, they have ventured to take the law into their own hands, and to punish one or two of the printers, (by a smart flogging,) a circumstance which has given rise to much animosity, to threats, and to a commencement of armed associations on the side of the Democrats, (particularly the United Irishmen,) and some apprehend that the affair may lead to civil war."[2] The wish, perhaps, "was father to the thought" of the British minister.

The Irish democratic feeling was further influenced against Mr. Adams' administration by the following circumstances. The elder Emmet, Dr. McNevin, and several of their companions in the Irish revolt of 1798, having been arrested, by surprise, at Bond's, in Dublin, were consigned close prisoners to Fort George, in Scotland. In 1799 and 1800, the British government agreed to let them go, provided they agreed to quit the British dominions forever. Having, at length, arranged the terms, Thomas Addis Emmet, for himself and his com patriots, applied to Rufus King, our minister at London, for passports, but was inhospitably refused by that personage, who added that "there were republicans enough in America." Emmet and McNevin were forced to spend three years in France; Sampson was imprisoned in Hamburgh, on British suggestion, and Robert Emmet returned from his brother's side, to make an ineffectual attempt at insurrection, and to perish, at the age of twenty-five, on the scaffold. A few years afterwards, Thomas Addis Emmet, then the leader of the New York Bar, by a striking narration of this circumstance, raised a feeling in America, against Mr. King, (then a candidate for the vice-presidency,) which politically extinguished that able, but aristocratic, statesman.[3]

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[1] History of the Adams Administration, p. 225.

[2] Administration of Adams, p. 382.

[3] These letters, from the New York Evening Post, are reprinted in Madden's "Memoir of T. A. Emmet."

* See Appendix No. VI.