Irishmen in Civil Service during the Revolutionary Era

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

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Chapter IX.

Irishmen in Civil Service during the Revolutionary Era—Policy of the First Congress towards Ireland—Charles Thompson, of Maghera, Secretary to Congress—The Declaration of Independence—Eight Irish Signers—The Federal Constitution adopted—Six Irish Authors of that Instrument—Early Irish Governors

THE important civil services rendered to the American people abroad, by Edmund Burke, Colonel Barre, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and the then young Henry Grattan, in demonstrating the justice of the colonial cause, and vindicating the character of the early Congress, are but a portion of the part borne by the Irish race in the politics of the Revolution.

So well aware was the first Congress of the importance of separating the sympathies of our nation from George the Third, that one of the first acts of the Congress of 1775 was the adoption of an address to the Irish people, in which they drew a marked distinction between the Irish and English Parliaments. "Your Parliament has done us no wrong," said they. "In defence of our persons and properties, under actual invasion, we have taken up arms. When that violence shall be removed, and hostilities cease on the part of the aggressors, they shall cease on our part also." They conclude by hoping that the extremes to which the colonies have been driven may have the effect of deterring the king's ministers from a continuance of a similar policy in Ireland.

This wise distinction between England and Ireland was first made by Franklin, who, in 1771, made a tour of Ireland, and was the guest of Dr. Lucas, at Dublin. In a letter to Thomas Cushing, of Boston, dated London, January, 1772, he gives the following key to his diplomacy in Dublin:—

"Before leaving Ireland, I must mention that, being desirous of seeing the principal patriots there, I stayed till the opening of their Parliament. I found them disposed to be friends of America, in which I endeavored to confirm them, with the expectation that our growing weight might in time be thrown into their scale, and, by joining our interest with theirs, a more equitable treatment from this nation might be obtained for them as well as for us. There are many brave spirits among them. The gentry are a very sensible, polite, and friendly people. Their Parliament makes a most respectable figure, with a number of very good speakers in both parties, and able men of business. And I must not omit acquainting you that, it being a standing rule to admit members of the English Parliament to sit (though they do not vote) in the House among the members, while others are only admitted into the gallery, my fellow-traveller, being an English member, was accordingly admitted as such. But I supposed I must go to the gallery, when the Speaker stood up and acquainted the House that he understood there was in town an American gentleman of (as he was pleased to say) distinguished character and merit, a member or delegate of some of the parliaments of that country, who was desirous of being present at the debates of the House; that there was a rule of the House for admitting members of English Parliaments, and that he supposed the House would consider the American Assemblies as English Parliaments; but, as this was the first instance, he had chosen not to give any order in it without receiving their directions. On the question, the House gave a loud, unanimous aye, when two members came to me without the bar———"[1]

After the declaration of war, in 1775, Franklin, then at Paris, issued a letter to "the People of Ireland," embodying in more striking terms these private views formed in 1771, and ably enforcing the policy of their refusing to join in the war against the colonies.

One effect followed from the publication of these addresses,—an effect still operating, and likley to continue long,—namely, the thorough identification of Irish feeling with American success. If Ireland, no longer a power in Europe, was unable to respond to these sentiments, by national alliance or subsidies, the hearts and the arms of her individual sons were freely offered, and as freely used, throughout the contest for independence.

Irish intellect, also, volunteered its services, and was employed. Charles Thompson, born in Maghera, county of Derry, in 1730, had reached Pennsylvania at the age of eleven. His father died while the emigrant ship was entering the Delaware, and his children, by a harsh construction of a bad law, were deprived of the property he left. Two elder brothers labored to supply their father's place; and under Dr. Allison, also of Ireland, (by whom, first at New London and afterwards at Philadelphia, several of the revolutionary chiefs were educated,) young Charles received a thorough education. In his youth he became intimate with Benjamin Franklin, with whom he "agreed on all subjects except religion." In 1758, he was one of the agents to the Indian Treaty at Oswego; and so favorably did he impress the red men, that the Delawares adopted him into their tribe, conferring on him an Indian name, which means "one who speaks the truth." In 1774, he was chosen secretary to the first Congress, and continued to fill that onerous office until 1789, when the formal adoption of the Constitution closed its functions. He wrote out the Declaration of Independence, from Jefferson's draft, and was the medium through which Franklin received his instructions, and Washington was informed of his election as first President of the Union. He lived to a patriarchal age, ten miles from Philadelphia. "He was," says a contemporary, "about six feet high, erect in his gait, dignified in his deportment, and interesting in his conversation." He spent his retirement in translating the Septuagint, a work of great learning, which appeared, in four volumes, in 1808. He continued till his death to take great interest in politics, and, in 1824, in relation to the contest about the United States Bank, exclaimed to a friend, "Money, money, is the god of this world!" He died on the 16th of August, in that year.

Mr. John Dunlap, a native of Strabane, who, in 1771, issued the "Pennsylvania Packet," (the first daily paper published in America,) was printer to the Convention of 1774, and to the first Congress, and the first who printed the Declaration of Independence. That august document, copied by Charles Thompson, was also first read to the people, from the centre window of the hall in which Congress met, by Colonel John Nixon, an Irishman. In 1815, Alderman John Binns, of Philadelphia, another Irishman, published the document, for the first time, with fac similes of the signers' signatures. This he had proposed to do by subscription, but that mode not succeeding, he issued, at his own expense, the most perfect engraving of a state paper ever given to the American public.[2]

Mr. Dunlap was captain of the first troop of Philadelphia horse, and when asked, in 1799, when he could be ready to march against the rioters in Northampton County, replied, "When the laws and government of this happy country require defence, the Philadelphia Cavalry need but one hour's notice."

The Declaration of Independence was signed by fifty-six names, of whom nine (including Secretary Thompson) were of Irish origin. Mathew Thornton, born in Ireland in 1714, signed it for New Hampshire. He was afterwards Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and died June 24th, 1803. James Smith, who signed for Pennsylvania, was born in Ireland in 1713, and died in 1806. George Taylor, a signer from the same state, was born in Ireland, in 1716, so poor that his services were sold on his arrival to pay the expense of his passage out. He died at Easton, (Pa.,) February 23, 1781. George Read, of Delaware, was the son of Irish parents, one of the authors of the Constitution of Delaware, and afterwards of the Federal Constitution. It was he who answered the British tempters—"I am a poor man, but, poor as I am, the King of England is not rich enough to purchase me." He died in 1798. Charles Carroll, of Carrollton, was of Irish descent, and very wealthy. He affixed his address after his name, that the pledge of his "fortune" might be beyond doubt. He was the last survivor of the signers, and died Nov. 14, 1832. Thomas Lynch, Jr., of South Carolina, succeeded his father, who died, while at Congress, in 1776, and signed the Declaration. He went abroad soon after for his health, but was lost at sea. Thomas McKean, a signer for Pennsylvania, was also of Irish parentage. He was successively, senator, chief justice, governor of Pennsylvania, and president of Congress. After fifty years of public life, he died, on the 24th of June, 1817. Edward Rutledge, of South Carolina, was also "a signer," fought in the southern campaign, and was for three years kept prisoner in Florida. He became governor of South Carolina in 1799, and died in January, 1800.[3] Of these illustrious names, destined to live forever on the New Charter of Human Freedom, Ireland should be wisely jealous, for the world's revolutions will never present such another tablet of glory to the children of men.

After the peace of Paris, six years elapsed before the Constitution of the Federal Union could be definitely fixed and adopted. Many thought the old articles of confederation sufficient—many thought a regular Capital and Congress dangerous to liberty—many overstated the value of centrality, and alarmed ardent and ill-balanced minds into the opposite extreme. In this interim, while all the fruits of the hard-fought war of independence were in danger of being forever lost, the true patriots of the country had heavy cares and labors to undergo. To George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, of Virginia, to Alexander Hamilton, of New York, and John Rutledge, of Carolina, the fortunate establishment of the present Constitution is directly attributable.

John Rutledge, elder brother of Edward, was born in 1739, and commenced the practice of the law at Charleston, in his twenty-first year. While yet a youth he was at the head of his profession. "He burst forth at once the able lawyer and accomplished orator;" "the client in whose service he engaged was supposed to be in a fair way of gaining his cause."[4] His exertions, mainly, carried South Carolina into the Revolution. In 1775 and 1776, he sat in Congress; in 1777 and 1778, he was governor of his native state; and in 1781 and 1782, he was a commissioner from Congress to induce states south of Philadelphia to form a Federal Constitution. He was appointed, under Washington's administration, first associate judge of the Supreme Court, and survived his brother only a few months. His services in the founding of the Constitution are justly considered the crowning glory of his life.

In the Convention for ascertaining the Constitution, some of the Irish race bore part, though they were not so numerous here as in the field.

Of the thirty-six delegates, by whom the Constitution of the United States was, in 1787, promulgated, six, at least, were Irish. Read, McKean, and John Rutledge are already known. The other Irish delegates at the adoption of the Constitution, were Pierce Butler, of South Carolina, another descendant of the Kilkenny clan, Daniel Carroll, of Maryland, cousin to Charles, "the signer," and Thomas Fitzsimons, of Pennsylvania. The latter had commanded a volunteer company during the war, and represented his adopted city in Congress during several sessions. He was much consulted on affairs of commerce, by Washington and Jefferson; he was president of the Insurance Company of North America till his death, which occurred about the year 1820. These venerable men had the pleasure to see their Constitution adopted by all the thirteen original states, almost as soon as it was promulgated. Immediately after, George Washington, as President, and John Adams, as Vice-President, were elected to execute its provisions and administer its powers.

The choice of a Federal Capital being by courtesy left to Washington, he examined with that view the Potomac, then the central fiver of the republic. A farm held by Daniel Carroll was freely tendered to him, and upon that farm the plan of the Federal City was laid. The original proprietor lived to see ten Presidents inhabiting "the White House," where once the smoke of his chimney ascended in solitude over the waters of the calm Potomac.[5]

Under the administration of John Adams, at the beginning of the century, Congress finally removed from Philadelphia to the new capital, which, in honor of the illustrious man, then lately deceased, was solemnly baptized WASHINGTON.

The adoption of the Federal Constitution was not the only labor, of the kind, devolving on those who had carried the colonies through the Revolution. Each state had to be legally organized under a republican constitution, and a body of fundamental laws and precedents were to be shaped and established. Then it was that the wise and able of America found how much easier it is to tear down than to build up, to agitate than to organize. During the presidency of Washington and Adams, nearly all the colonial charters were expanded into constitutions, or substituted by more liberal instruments, and in all such changes the Irish race had hand and part.

The state and national offices, for nearly thirty years, were chiefly filled from the revolutionary ranks. Thus Henry Knox became Washington's minister of war, and Anthony Wayne, Adams' commander-in-chief of the army. Governorships, embassies, and judgeships, were chiefly (and properly) bestowed on these venerable men.

The first governor of Pennsylvania, after the adoption of the Federal Constitution, was George Bryan, a native of Dublin. In 1789 and 1790, he was mainly instrumental in procuring the passage of a law for the gradual abolition of slavery in his adopted state. He died in January, 1791, at an advanced age.

Among the senators of the first Congress were Charles Carroll, and Thomas Fitzsimmon; and among the representatives John Sullivan and George Read. The latter retired from the Legislature, to be chief justice of his own state, and the other three to enjoy the repose of private life.

In New Hampshire, the Hon. Mathew Patten, born in Ireland, May 19th, 1719, was "the first judge of probate after the Revolution." He was appointed in 1776, and continued to hold that and other judicial offices until his death, August 27th, 1795. The Hon. John Orr, of the same state, who died in 1823, was for many years a state senator, and the oldest magistrate of Hillsborough county. After the war of Independence, General Sullivan was elected senator to Congress, and remained two sessions. From 1786 to 1789, he was president (that is, "governor") of the state, which he resigned, to accept the office of judge of the Federal Court. In this situation he died in 1795, in the 54th year of his age.

Even Massachusetts partially forgot its ancient prejudices against the Irish race, and, in 1788, sent James Sullivan, the second son of the Limerick schoolmaster, as one of its representatives to Congress. In 1790, he was made attorney general of the state, about which time he projected the Middlesex Canal, and aided in forming the State Historical Society; in 1794, the Legislature ordered his "History of the District of Maine" to be published; in 1807, he was elected governor, and re-elected in 1808. He died in the latter year, after having assisted in the settlement of Maine and written its history; after governing Massachusetts and defining its boundaries; after having studied under the British officials, and beat them with their own weapons. The son of this eminent statesman was the Hon. Willian Sullivan, for many years a state senator and United States representative for Boston, whose biography has already fallen into very competent hands.[6]

Other states, unconscious of minor distinctions, were equally anxious to reward past services, and employ the best talents of all classes of men in the public service.

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[1] The remainder of the letter is lost,—vide Franklin's Correspondence, vol. i.

[2] It is worthy of remark, that before the publication of Mr. Binns, there never had been a correct copy of the Declaration printed—not even on the Journals of Congress. In all preceding copies, the caption ran, "A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled." Whereas, on the original parchment, signed by the members of the Congress which adopted it, it is as follows:—"In Congress, July 4th, 1776—The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America." This is a remarkable fact, and a strong proof of the necessity of consulting, in such cases, original documents. For this splendid publication, Mr. Binns received at the time the special thanks of General Lafayette, John Quincy Adams, and other eminent friends and citizens of this republic.

[3] "Lives of the Signers."

[4] Ramsay's South Carolina, vol. ii., p. 217

[5] The site of Baltimore was also purchased from the Carroll family, in 1729; Daniel Carroll died at Washington city, in 1849, at an extreme old age.

[6] Public Men of the Revolution, by the Hon. Wm. Sullivan, LL. D. (Sketch of the author, by John T. S. Sullivan.) Philadelpha: Carey & Hart, 1847.