John Mitchel and the rejection of the nineteenth century.
Mitchel was one of the key personalities in the Young Ireland movement, becoming the main contributor to the Nation newspaper in 1845 after the death of its founder Thomas Davis. His writing was characterized by a fierce hatred of Britain, and in May 1848 he was sentenced to fourteen years' transportation for attempting to incite armed rebellion. After five years he escaped to America, from where he continued his savage denunciations of British policy in Ireland and around the world. (3)
When Mitchel was not attacking Britain, he was usually attacking the complacency and humbug of the nineteenth century. He dissented strongly from the Victorian cult of progress, for which he admitted having "a diseased and monomaniacal hatred." (4) He believed that notions of moral or social progress were illusory, and he was particularly contemptuous of the smug and self-congratulatory spirit of the day. While many of his contemporaries reveled in their century's achievements, particularly its technological advances, Mitchel poured scorn on the possibility that modern inventions such as railroads, steamships, and the electric telegraph could improve the general quality of life. Instead, he took great pleasure in detailing the devastation caused by accidents involving steamships and locomotives, and maintained that "slaughter by steam, on sea and land, on lake and river, is becoming so familiar to the public mind that it is fast blunting human sensibility. (5) Addressing the University of Virginia in 1854, he observed:
If a man tell a lie at one end of a wire, it will not come out truth at the other end. The railroad carries men very quickly upon their business, such as it is, be their errands good or evil, be their intents wicked or charitable.... The true life of nations, the only well-being of human society, consists not in commerce, not in gas, steam, or electricity, but in simple justice. Where justice is denied or dead ..., the printing press will vomit forth only rubbish ..., the telegraphic wires will whisper more falsehood than truth and make electricity itself an instrument of wrong. (6)
Significantly, Mitchel's first brush with notoriety occurred in response to an article in the Tory Morning Herald, which mentioned the usefulness of the railways to carry troops quickly to potential trouble spots in Ireland. Mitchel responded with an article in the Nation which described how easily troop trains could be ambushed, and suggested that iron rails and wooden sleepers would provide excellent material for the manufacture of pikes. (7)
Just as the nineteenth century deluded itself with dreams of technological advance, so too it did much the same with illusions of social progress. Mitchel regarded the philanthropic schemes of the day as characterized by sentimentality, short-sightedness, and hypocrisy. Such woolly thinking led to social reforms that were misguided and often damaging to society at large. Mitchel argued that "instead of severe, sanguinary, sharp, and decisive punishments, which would repress crime, modern philanthropy so pampers and tenderly entreats the criminal as to put a premium on villainy." (8) He attacked penal reformers who attempted to improve prison conditions and to abolish the death penalty, and claimed that without the gallows and the guillotine "the planet would be uninhabitable." "In criminal jurisprudence," he noted, "as well as in many another thing, the nineteenth century is sadly retrogressive; and your Beccarias, and Howards, and Romillys are genuine apostles of barbarism." Mitchel asked
what to do, then, with all our robbers, burglars, and forgers? Why hang them, bang them. You have no right to make the honest people support the rogues, and support them better than they, the honest people, can support themselves.... Jails ought to be places of discomfort; the "sanitary condition" of miscreants ought not to be better cared for than the honest, industrious people--and for "ventilation" I would ventilate the rascals in front of the county jails at the end of a rope. (9)
In the same way that today's antiglobalization protesters focus their resentment on the USA, opponents of nineteenth-century progress reserved their severest criticism for Britain, the state most clearly identified with the advances of the age. Mitchel's hatred of progress was inextricably bound up with his hatred of Britain. Unimpressed at Britain's accumulation of wealth and power, he scoffed at the Anglo-Saxon preoccupation with money-making, maintaining that Britain's prosperity was built on ruthless exploitation and untold human misery. He also regarded Britain as the exemplar of the hypocrisy of the age. She had despoiled Ireland while all the time proclaiming the benevolence of her motives. (10) "Benevolence" and "philanthropy" were words that Mitchel invariably used with contempt, seeing them as a cloak for exploitation and ruthlessness. In reality Mitchel maintained that the British empire was "a vast, organised imposture; a machine for exploiting nations; an unmixed and unredeemed mischief whose fruits are torture in India, opium in China, famine in Ireland, pauperism in England, disturbance and disorder in Europe, and robbery everywhere." (11)
Such exploitation was carried out under the guise of the liberal doctrines of "free competition" and "free trade." Mitchel dismissed free competition as a system designed to squeeze the maximum amount of labor from workers while rewarding them as little as possible. Similarly, free trade, particularly as it operated in Ireland, filled "the stores of speculating capitalists but leaves those who have sown and reaped the corn without a meal. Free trade unpeoples villages and peoples poorhouses, consolidates farms, and gluts the graveyards with famished corpses. (12) The adoption of the amoral doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism as the "creed and gospel" of England had resulted in the creation of a degraded society in which all justice and social bonds had been swept away until "the sole nexus between man and man has come to be cash payment." (13)
In his fulminations against the evils of unfettered capitalism, Mitchel mirrored contemporary critics of laissez-faire such as William Cobbett and especially Thomas Carlyle, especially in his repeated condemnations of the "cash nexus." Carlyle, with his fervent denunciations of modern liberalism, cant, and hypocrisy, was probably the dominant intellectual influence on Mitchel, and he was also an important figure in introducing Mitchel and many of the other Young Irelanders to the antimodern ideals of German Romanticism. (14) Mitchel's rhetorical style, too, replete as it was with thundering denunciations and heavily stoked moral indignation, owed a major debt to Carlyle.
Mitchel argued that it was Ireland that had been the main victim of Britain's inflexible application of the laws of laissezfaire political economy. Ireland was "the most conspicuous example of the utter ruin, desolation, and degradation which sometimes, in this century of 'progress,' comes upon a nation of men, and comes upon them by virtue of that very 'progress' wherein they are told to boast and glory. (15) He argued forcefully that the Great Famine was not a mere consequence of laissez-faire but had been used deliberately by the British government to exploit and subjugate Ireland. (16) The more industrialized Britain became, the more she needed Ireland as her granary. Therefore, her government had decided that Ireland's myriad of small holdings must be consolidated to allow the introduction of large-scale commercial farming. Once Ireland's "surplus population" had been removed from the land, there would be fewer mouths to feed, and even more Irish produce could be sent to England; those uprooted from their homes could choose "America, the poor house, or the grave." The arrival of the potato blight provided the British administration with the opportunity for which they had long been waiting, and though Ireland continued to produce more than enough food to feed her own population, the iron laws of political economy dictated that there should be no interference with the course of trade, and Ireland continued to export food to Britain while her peasantry starved. (17)
The Great Famine was the pivotal event in Mitchel's thinking. On visits to the West of Ireland in 1847 he saw scenes of such misery and wretchedness that "might have driven a wise man mad." (18) As the famine continued, his views and language became ever more extreme, culminating in the bitter polemics of the United Irishman in 1848. He passionately denounced "the system that seeks to make mammon and not God or justice, rule this world," and contended that "the English, or famine system, must be abolished utterly--in farms and workshops, in town and country, abolished utterly; and to do this were worth three revolutions, or three times three." (19) How was it, he asked, that a such a catastrophe could happen under the rule of the most powerful and prosperous state on earth, which boasted of its benevolence and proclaimed itself as the vanguard of nineteenth-century progress? He concluded bitterly that both the British empire and the contemporary progressive ideals that it claimed to represent stood indicted as hypocritical shams, and his mission in life became to reveal them as such.
The fact that many European liberals and nationalists looked to Britain as the model of the nineteenth century's prosperity, liberality, and political stability was for Mitchel simply evidence of the effectiveness and insidiousness of British propaganda. (20) Not only did the British empire abuse and exploit subject peoples, but it did so while always expressing the best of intentions. "When they set their eyes on a province of Hindustan or South Africa or China, it is entirely for the benefit and happiness of the poor people there--to overthrow inhuman rulers and introduce wise and excellent laws and customs." (21) The British empire, therefore, was not just the enemy of Ireland but the enemy of humanity. It "was all one huge and horrible cheat and cried aloud to be exposed, punished, and extinguished amidst the wrath and scorn of mankind." (22) Thus Mitchel's Anglophobia was not simply based on resentment at historic wrongs. It also stemmed from the fact that Britain was the nineteenth century's locomotive of progress--a progress that exploited and despoiled the world while claiming to improve it. His hatred of Britain and his hatred of progress fed off each other.
Mitchel believed that the true beacon of light in the nineteenth century was France rather than Britain. He maintained that "in all marches and countermarches of the human race, France of right leads the van. Your Anglo-Saxon race worships only money.... France recognises a higher national life, aspires forever to a grander national destiny than mere trading." (23) He claimed that the February revolution of i848 in France had done away with competition and free trade and enacted legislation to protect labor, and that when Ireland became a free and democratic republic, she would also enact legislation to allow workmen to combine in order to defend their livelihoods. (24) To prevent the domination of the degrading cash nexus, Mitchel advocated a system of economic regulation and mutual obligation between employer and employee. He looked back with approval on the guilds of the pre-industrial age which, he claimed, had created a secure working environment for their members, fixing wage rates and working hours, and had established mutual rights and duties between master and man. (25) John Newsinger sees Mitchel as a figure torn between conservatism and revolutionary idealism, cherishing an idealized vision of an Arcadian past. (26) Mitchel's idealized social system consisted of sturdily independent artisans in the towns and independent yeomen framers in the countryside, both enjoying the fruits of their own labor:
I have always looked with a sort of veneration upon an independent farmer cultivating his small demesne--a rural pater-familias, who aspires to no lot but labour in his own land, and takes off his hat to no "superior" under God Almighty. Tenant right, fee-farm, call his tenure what you will, only let him be sure that where he sows, he and his shall eat, reap, and be satisfied ..., never troubling his mind about the progress of the species nor knowing in the least what that phrase may mean. (27)
During the latter days of the famine Mitchel's rhetoric became increasingly egalitarian. In militant and forceful language the United Irishman advocated the abolition of landlordism and the right of workers to form trade unions. It proclaimed that since capital was created by the working man, he should therefore be its main beneficiary, but humanity had become so corrupted by "a demonic process called civilisation" that the principles of natural justice had been reversed: those who toiled to create wealth were labeled amen of no property" while "the men who do nothing, who idle the year round--the fools with long, bug-a-boo nicknames and gee-gaws--are held to own everything." (28) Such views, however, stemmed more from Mitchel's hatred of capitalism and landlordism than from any coherent socialist ideology. He explicitly denied preaching "Socialism, Communism, Fourierism, St. Simonism or any system whatever approaching them," and dismissed Louis Blanc's plans for state-sponsored workshops as "centralization in its worst form [which] would interfere in every man's business with a minute despotism more intolerable than that of the old Paris police or the Holy Inquisition. (29) Mitchel scoffed at utopian socialists such as Owen, Fourier, and St. Simon, debunking them as yet more starry-eyed believers in human progress, and denounced their ideals as entirely impractical: "Heaven knows the social problem in modern Europe has come to be a hard one; but Fourier-Owenism is not the solution." He applauded the fact that during the June days in Paris in 1848 left-wing insurrectionists "were swept from the streets with grape and canister--the only way of dealing with such unhappy creatures .... Socialists are something worse than wild beasts." (30)
Steven R. Knowlton has claimed that Mitchel's views are best explained by his "total commitment to individual freedom"--an argument I find unconvincing. (31) Knowlton bases his argument on two aspects of Mitchel's thought taken in isolation--namely, his opposition to big government (a commonplace of nineteenth-century thought) and his idealization of the independent yeoman farmer, but he ignores the antiliberal elements of Mitchel's outlook, such as his bitter opposition to free trade, free competition, and laissez-faire political economy generally, and his support for economic regulation and combination. His attempt to reconcile Mitchel's support for slavery with liberalism by linking his thought with that of Joseph Priestley and Thomas Jefferson is particularly unconvincing: both were actually fierce opponents of the institution of slavery, even if Jefferson owned slaves. Moreover, Priestley and Jefferson were strong proponents of the kind of progressive enlightenment thought that Mitchel despised. Clearly, Mitchel advocated liberty for certain individuals in certain circumstances, but I would argue that, taken in its entirety, his outlook is in fact one of the most illiberal of any nineteenth-century Irish nationalist.
Mitchel was suspicious of all systems that promised to ameliorate human life, be they liberal or socialist. Anything with utopian aspirations was infected with "the blarney of benevolism," the humbug and wishful thinking that he believed characterized his age. Reviewing a work by the French statesman and poet Alphonse de Lamartine, which prophesied the development of Europe into three great powers--England, France, and Russia--which would govern the smaller nations around them in a new, stable, and benevolent concert of nations, Mitchel dismissed Lamartine as "a 'human progress' man, civilization developer, and general benevolist" with "a head fitter for the studio of a poet than the workshop where people make republics." The notion that modernization would result in a new, peaceful, and enlightened world order was for Mitchel typical of the ludicrous self-delusion of the nineteenth century. He outlined his own social philosophy as follows:
For centralization in a state as a means of "human progress" ..., we substitute localization.... For communism of men we substitute entire independence of individual man; and instead of a government that does everything, we desire a government that does as little as possible.... To "fusion" of peoples we oppose the independence of nations; to communism of nations we oppose isolation--the throwing of each nation on its own resources ..., compelling it to limit its wants and appetites to the resources of its own soil and the industry of its own people--thus preventing conquest, making telegraphs, railroads, steamboats, mere accidents to its convenience, instead of necessities to its existence. (32)
Given his idealization of the yeoman farmer, his suspicion of centralized power, and his refusal to grant the benefits of citizenship to criminals, slaves, or corrupt aristocrats, Mitchel's political outlook is more rooted in the classical republican tradition than in any contemporary model. (33) The concept of citizenship was of the utmost importance for Mitchel, and it is no coincidence that the titles of the newspapers he edited included the Citizen, the Southern Citizen, and the Irish Citizen. In the tradition of classical republicanism Mitchel emphasized duties rather than rights. The first lecture that he delivered in the United States was "The Duties of Adopted Citizens," in which he argued that the citizen "belongs absolutely and exclusively to the state.... The community which protects him, which gives him civic privileges, rights and powers ... has a clear title to his sole and undivided allegiance. To the interests, the exigencies, the honor and dignity of that community, his best exertions, his very life and fortune, stand in pledge. (34) One of Mitchel's main reasons for opposing Fenianism in America was that he saw membership of a secret oath-bound organization as inconsistent with the duties of American citizenship. (35)
Mitchel's opposition to the progressive currents of his age is seen most clearly in his attitude to slavery. Like most of the Nation group, he disagreed with Daniel O'Connell's unequivocal condemnations of the institution, but he did so from the pragmatic position that Irishmen should concentrate on their own affairs rather than get caught up in the struggles of others. (36) But by the time of his residence in America in the 1850's Mitchel had moved from this pragmatic position to a wholehearted endorsement of the institution of slavery, stating forthrightly:
We are not abolitionists: no more abolitionists than Moses or Socrates or Jesus Christ. We deny that it is a crime, or a wrong, or even a peccadillo, to hold slaves, to buy slaves, to keep slaves to their work by flogging or other needful coercion ..., and as for being a participator in the wrongs, we, for our part, wish we had a good plantation, well-stocked with healthy negroes, in Alabama. (37)
Indifferent to the storm of protest that this produced, he reiterated that "my position was and is the naked assertion 'that slaveholding is not a crime' and that nobody ever thought it a crime until some time towards the close of the last century." (38)
Even like-minded friends of Mitchel, such as John Martin and Father John Kenyon, were shocked by his proposals that the slave trade should be reopened and that an Irish republic would have no difficulty accommodating slave plantations. (39) But Mitchel would not retract a word and maintained that slavery "is good in itself, good in its relations with other countries, good in every way." Like his mentor Carlyle, his reasoning was unashamedly racist: be argued that to enslave African negroes "is impossible, or to set them free either; they are born and bred slaves." (40) He therefore believed that it was right to go to Africa, where most of the population already were "slaves to ignorant and brutal negroes," and to buy there as many people as possible so that they could be raised "out of the most miserable and abject of all possible human conditions, to the comparative happiness and dignity of plantation hands. This is right, just, and humane. The more slaves from Africa, the better for the slaves." (41)
Mitchel was no apologist for slavery but rather its fervent champion; he never argued that it was a necessary evil or something that should be allowed to wither away of its own accord. His sympathy for the southern way of life led him to move from New York to Tennessee in the spring of 1855, and in 1857 he began publishing the Southern Citizen, primarily to defend slavery and argue for a reopening of the slave trade. His commitment to the southern cause was so vehement that he admitted "a great part of the South (besides the whole North) think me mad. (42) During the Civil War he was a strong supporter of the Confederacy: two of his three sons were killed fighting for the South, and the third was badly wounded. When, toward the end of the war, some leading Confederates proposed to offer slaves freedom in return for fighting for the South, Mitchel dismissed the proposal out of hand, arguing that if freedom was a good thing for slaves, then the South had been in the wrong from the start. (43)
Much of his affection for the South stemmed from his belief that it was a haven from the onward march of modern industrial progress. As America moved closer to civil war, he observed: "The South and the North are two nations and cannot go on long together. Every year widens the breach and reveals the incompatibility of the two sections. I prefer the South in every sense. I do really believe its state of society to be more sound, more just, than that of the North." (44) Southern society he regarded as the "best, wholesomest, and most conservative in the world." He was a strong supporter of secession, believing it to be analogous to Ireland's efforts to free herself from her overbearing and selfish master, and admitted that while working for the South, he was "contending for the South as the Ireland of this continent." (45) The very different situations in Ireland and the southern states of America, however, called forth very different responses from Mitchel. Because he saw Ireland as the victim of a callously modernizing political and social system that had produced starvation and misery for millions, he appears at his most revolutionary in his violent opposition to British policy in Ireland. But when he is defending the American South, approving strongly as he did of its paternalistic and agrarian values, he is a solid conservative, denouncing the irresponsible demagoguery of abolitionists and dismissing the introduction of a democratic franchise in the new territories of the United States "as the pernicious doctrine of squatter sovereignty." (46)
Mitchel clearly identified Britain and the northern states as sharing in the same hypocrisy. English evangelicals and American abolitionists flaunted their concern for negro slaves but were indifferent to the appalling conditions of the working classes in their midst, and indeed were often the prime agents of their exploitation. Workers in industrial society might be described as free, but they toiled all day for food, shelter, and clothing, and even then were subject to the vagaries of the market that might render them destitute at any moment.(47) In comparison slaves were well-fed, well-housed, and had no worries for the future. Mitchel regarded the southern slaveholder as "the father of a family" with higher duties and responsibilities than the capitalist employer who simply dispensed money wages. (48) The British government, he claimed, cared little about the plight of slaves but had exploited the issue of slavery to divide and weaken the Repeal Association in the 1840s and similarly had supported abolitionism to encourage the break-up of the United States, fearing it as an economic and political rival. (49) British commercial interests called loudly for the abolition of slavery, merely because they no longer had any need for it, and the Royal Navy's interference with the slave trade simply inflicted more misery on those whom it claimed to help: when pursued by these "humanity pirates," slave traders simply tossed their cargoes overboard. He noted bitterly that Britain had been prepared to spend 20 [pounds sterling] million to emancipate the black slaves of the West Indies (in Mitchel's words, "to turn negroes wild"), because it appealed to sentimental evangelicals, but it was unwilling to spend a fraction of this amount on famine relief in Ireland. (50)
The progressively minded evangelical abolitionist was Mitchel's bete noire. Although he was the son of a Unitarian minister and had in fact trained for the ministry himself, by the time he lived in America, he professed himself "an unworthy member of the pagan persuasion." What little sympathy he had for religion was for the "errors of Romanism" (he was even prepared to consider that miraculous events had occurred at Lourdes), and he regarded Catholicism as a bulwark against the meretricious progressivism of the age. (51) Moreover, the strong anti-Catholic prejudices of many evangelical abolitionists seemed to Mitchel to typify the hypocrisy of the era. In an attack on a leading evangelical abolitionist, the Rev. Henry Ward Beeeher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin), Mitchel observed: "On my side in this controversy everything sounds harsh and looks repulsive.... Yours is the privilege, dear to the enlightened modern heart, of uttering kind-looking sentences. It comes easy to you (for all the prevailing cants are with you) to assume for yourself and your followers the credit of benevolence, and philanthropy, and enlightenment, and "progress," and all the rest of it." (52) Mitchel dismissed Stowe and his ilk as hypocritical cranks, primarily concerned to advertise their benevolence by indulging in crackpot campaigns such as votes for women and vegetarianism. (53)
The very fact that after the Civil War he was imprisoned for criticizing the North only highlighted the hypocrisy that he opposed. Musing on his imprisonment, he noted:
I suppose that I am the only person who has ever been a prisoner of state to the British and American government one after the other.... And these two governments, we are told, are the very highest expression and grandest hope of the civilisation of the nineteenth century. Here is the very point, I suspect. I despise the civilisation of the nineteenth century, and its two highest expressions and grandest hopes, most especially--the said century sees nothing that can be done with me except to tie me up.... They are both in the wrong: but then, if I am able to put them in the wrong, they are able to put me into dungeons. (54)
Mitchel scoffed at the pieties and high-blown rhetoric used by abolitionists and others who continually proclaimed their good intentions. "Men have no business to speculate about 'destinies' and 'missions,' but should just do the best they can in their generation." (55) He claimed that in the past people "enacted more upon genuine feeling; that instead of puny sentimentalism they had vehement passion, wherein words meant things, and the fiery thought forever strove to grow into a strenuous act." (56) Mitchel often harked back to the days before the eighteenth-century Enlightenment as an age of greater honesty and virtue. He believed that it was simply rank arrogance for any era to think itself more enlightened than its predecessor, and he dismissed many of the fundamental ideals of the Enlightenment. (57) Confronted by an abolitionist with that classic distillation of Enlightenment thought, the opening lines of the American Declaration of Independence, Mitchel retorted: "I am not aware that every human being, or any one, has 'an inalienable right to life, liberty, and happiness.' People often forfeit life and liberty, and as to 'happiness,' I do not even know what it is. On the whole, I fear this is jargon.' (58) The modern emphasis on the happiness of the individual struck him as deeply suspect: "We are not in this world for the purpose of getting ourselves made 'happy,' but for the purpose of doing and suffering what it is our duty to do and suffer." (59) Mitchel's philosophy owed more to classical stoicism than to any contemporary trends. During his imprisonment he contemplated suicide, and although he decided against it, he admitted that he was not opposed to it in principle. He denied the notion that the individual had a duty to become a good and useful member of society. He maintained that "nobody is obliged 'to benefit his species'; the notion of man being able to benefit his species, or bound to do it, if able, is a mere modern humbug--not more, as I calculate, than ninety or a hundred years old." (60)
Mitchel found more modern humbug in contemporary attitudes to war. The nineteenth century prided itself on being an age of peace and progress, and the accepted political view was to deprecate war and bloodshed, claiming that in this civilized age such barbarity had been consigned to the past. Mitchel, however, did not merely accept the inevitability of war, but rather rejoiced in it:
Peace indeed is sometimes beautiful but is often ignoble, corrupt, and ignominious. Not peace but war has called forth the grandest, finest, tenderest, most generous qualities of manhood and womanhood. What made America and breathed into her nostrils a fiery life? War.... War is as needful to agitate and purify the moral atmosphere as thunderstorms to stir and cleanse the material air we breathe.... Let wars be miraculously abolished and the "canker of long peace" will kill the soul of nations and of men; in the foul air of that corruption will grow monsters enough and the progress of the species will be backward indeed. (61)
The devastation of the Great Famine convinced Mitchel of the folly of "moral force," and he burned with anger that even in these conditions the Irish people had refused to rise up. "Which is the more hideous evil--three seasons of famine-slaughter in the midst of heaven's abundance, at the point of foreign bayonets, with all its train of debasing diseases and more debasing vices, or a thirty years' war to scourge the stranger from your soil, though it leave that soil a smoking wilderness?" (62) He believed O'Connell's constant warnings to the people--that no political advance was worth a single drop of blood--had degraded and emasculated a once brave people: O'Connell was "the worst enemy that Ireland ever had--or rather the most fatal friend." (63) While most Irish nationalists looked back with pride on the fact that legislative independence had been achieved peacefully in 1782, Mitchel regretted Ireland's bloodless revolution:
The blood of fighting men for freedom is never shed in vain.... If Ireland in '82, instead of winning her independence from the coward by the mere flash of unbloody swords, had, like America, waded through carnage to her freedom, like America, she had been free this day. A disastrous war even, had been better than a triumphant parade. (64)
For Mitchel there could be no question of accommodating to nineteenth-century civilization--far better to destroy it and start again. When revolution erupted in France in 1848, he was overjoyed. It "proved at last that the man of the nineteenth century, with all his ignorant enlightenment and sleek civilisation, has not yet lost his manhood. And truly it needed proof. The nations had lain in a trance too long, and the virtue seemed to have gone out of them." (65) Though the revolutions of 1848 proved to be a false dawn, Mitchel never gave up hope of a great European war--"that a spark, caught at some happy moment, may give life to masses of comatose humanity.... Give us war in our time, O Lord!" (66)
He scoffed at the optimistic vision of advocates of commercial liberalism such as John Bright and Richard Cobden, who believed that free trade would bind nations together and thus make war impossible. To Mitchel the nineteenth-century Pax Britannica was a fraud that simply allowed Britain to dominate the globe through her commerce and trade. (67) Such commerce, he argued, had "nothing elevating, refining, or purifying in it," but was a ruthless force that had mercilessly killed more innocent people than any war, its victims "more miserably and ignominiously slain than war at its worst and wickedest could ever slay." (68) Moreover, he believed that states whose power rested on trade and commerce stood on shaky foundations. Mitchel's derisory term for Britain was Carthage, a commercial empire obsessed with money and trading, whose martial spirit was ebbing away and, like the Carthage of old, would one day be destroyed. (69) The seeds of her destruction lay in her insatiable greed: "British policy must drain the blood and suck the marrow of all the nations it can fasten its desperate claws upon: and by the very nature of a bankrupt concern sustaining itself on false credit, its exertions must grow more desperate, its exactions more ruthless day by day, until the mighty smash come." (70)
In Mitchel's view of history such a crash was inevitable. He rejected the grand historical narratives of the nineteenth century, which traced the onward march of human progress and perfectibility, and he dismissed Macaulay's History of England as "clever, base, ingenious, able, and shallow," and its author as a sycophant with "the right, omniscient tone and air and the true knack of administering reverential flattery to British civilization, British prowess, honour, enlightenment, and all that, especially to the great nineteenth century and its astounding civilisation. (71) In opposition to Whig history Mitchel took a cyclical view of world events, believing that the powerful would inevitably one day be brought to earth, and that their place would be taken by nations which were now weak or oppressed. But they too in turn would repeat "the same crimes and suffer the same penalties. For the progress of the species is circular." (72)
Mitchel's rejection of his age is seen starkly when he is compared with Daniel O'Connell, a quintessential nineteenth-century liberal who subscribed wholeheartedly to the idea of progress. (73) While O'Connell favored gradual political and social reform, Mitchel put his trust in violent revolution and ridiculed practical politics and piecemeal reform. Whereas O'Connell believed that no political advance was worth a single drop of blood, Mitchel glorified in war and destruction. O'Connell's was the skilled politics of brinksmanship; Mitchel despised the ambivalence of O'Connell's language, seeing it as characteristic of the hypocrisy of the era. Whereas O'Connell was a Benthamite liberal, a strong advocate of free trade and free competition, Mitchel derided Bentham's pleasure-versus-pain calculus and regarded classical political economy as a rationale for plunder and conquest. O'Connell was passionately committed to maintaining the link with Britain so that Ireland could share in the advances and progress of the empire; Mitchel believed that only by complete separation could Ireland avoid contamination from Britain's rapacity and hypocrisy. O'Connell was an outspoken critic of slavery, Mitchel one of its most fervent supporters. (74) In short, Mitchel and O'Connell represented diametrically opposing views of nationalism. O'Connell's nationalism was very much a fruit of the Enlightenment, based on the universal ideal of a common future of freedom and fraternity for humankind. (75) Mitchel's nationalism derived from more Romantic roots: it stressed the power of instinct rather than reason, the destructive potential of human nature rather than its capacity for progress, and the historical differences between nations rather than their common aspirations.
In his own lifetime (he died in 1875) Mitchel's antimodern and antiliberal views had limited impact. He spelled out little in the way of a practical political program for followers, and in any case his irascibility and self-righteousness ensured that these would usually be in short supply. His tendency to regard himself as the lone champion of clear thinking, plain speaking, and rectitude, boldly unmasking the endemic hypocrisy of the nineteenth century, left scant room to work with those who disagreed with him in any way. It was something he recognized himself, joking that "I have long felt myself to be a party of one member--a party whose basis of action is to think and act for itself, whose one fundamental rule is to speak its mind ..., and in its proceedings, I assure you, there reigns the most unbroken unanimity." (76) This stance often condemned Mitchel to political ineffectiveness, and one has the impression of a quixotic figure bellowing in vain at the nineteenth century as its waves of progress roll in and threaten to submerge him. The very vehemence of his language--the constant railing, the repetition, the violently provocative rhetoric--often seems born out of frustration at his own political impotence.
In the longer term, however, Mitchel proved to be a highly influential figure. In spurning the prevailing nineteenth-century values of progress and liberalism so vehemently, he may have placed himself on the margins of political life, but in doing so, he positioned himself to be an important influence in shaping an Irish nationalism that rejected many of the assumptions of nineteenth-century liberalism. After the onset of the "great depression" in 1873, classic liberalism increasingly had its critics, and Mitchel's views often found a more receptive audience. Patrick Maume has noted his "pervasive influence" on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century nationalism, and such figures as William Redmond, Tim Healy, Eoin MacNeill, Constance Markievicz, Arthur Griffith, and Patrick Pearse came under his sway in various ways. (77) In particular, Mitchel's view of the Great Famine etched itself into the mind of militant nationalists in Ireland and abroad. While his accusations of premeditated genocide on the part of the British government may not stand up to close scrutiny, there was sufficient truth in what he said for his arguments to sound plausible to those who harbored resentment against Britain. Many important figures in the British government (especially those with evangelical leanings) did indeed pass off the sufferings of the famine as part of the grand design of Providence and the price that had to be paid for progress. (78) It is hardly surprising, therefore, that liberal and individualistic interpretations of progress would be repudiated by many later nationalists.
His influence was most keenly felt by Griffith and Pearse. Many of Mitchel's views were taken up in 190s by the newly founded Sinn Fein, which strongly proclaimed its opposition to the individualism and competitiveness of liberal political economy and denounced free trade as an extension of British imperialism. (79) Griffith readily acknowledged his debt to Mitchel, describing him as "the proud, fiery-hearted, electric-brained, giant-souled Irishman who stood up to the might of the whole British empire" and "the greatest figure we have amongst us." (80) He accepted (indeed probably shared) Mitchel's racism, and in language that could have been transcribed from Mitchel, he denounced the "flabby doctrine that has gained some vogue in Ireland--mortally afraid of being esteemed behind 'the age,' or limping in the rear of 'progressive thought'--that an Irish nationalist must by very virtue of being a nationalist subscribe to and swallow all the isms of sentimentalism." For Griffith, Mitchel "was a sane Nietzsche in his view of man, but his sanity was a century out of date back and forward." (81)
For Pearse, Mitchel was one of the four great nationalist evangelists, his Jail Journal "the last gospel of the New Testament of Irish nationality." (82) Pearse thrilled to Mitchel's bloodthirsty rhetoric, seeing him as a prophet who delivered "God's word to man, delivered it fiery-tongued." He lauded Mitchel's hate of "the English empire, of English commercialism supported by English militarism, a thing wholly evil, perhaps the most evil thing there has ever been in the world," and he maintained that "such hate is not only a good thing, but it is a duty. (83) In particular, Mitchel's praise of the power of blood sacrifice to redeem the soul of a nation struck a special chord with Pearse. (84)
Twentieth-century Irish nationalism was often characterized by an introspective and backward-looking romanticism that saw little of value in contemporary industrial society and despised the modern preoccupation with material comfort and prosperity. It did not balk at bloodshed-indeed, it welcomed it--if this was the price to be paid to awaken modern society from its complacency and materialism. Mitchel's was not the only voice that gave vent to such a vision, but it was certainly the fiercest and probably the most influential.
(1) Mitchel to John Dillon, c. 25 March 1866, in William Dillon, Life of John Mitchel (London, 2 vols., 1888), II, 243.
(2) John Mitchel, Jail Journal (Dublin, 1918), 20.
(3) The best biography of Mitchel is still William Dillon's Life of John Mitchel.
(4) Mitchel to Mary Thomson, Tucaleechee Cove, Tennessee, 1 Nov. 1855 (Public Record Office of Northern Ireland [PRONI], D/249/1).
(5) Citizen (New York), II Nov. 1854, 713
(6) "The Nineteenth Century Wise and Happy," ibid., 15 July 1854, 441-42.
(7) Nation, 22 Nov. 1845, 88.
(8) Citizen, 15 July 1854, 442.
(9) Mitchel, Jail Journal, 124-25; Citizen, 11 Feb. 1853, 89.
(10) John Mitchel, The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) (Dublin, 1861), 62.
(11) John Mitchel, An Apology for the British Government in Ireland (Dublin, 1920), 3.
(12) United Irishman, 11, 18 March 1848, 73, 88.
(13) Citizen, 15 July 1854, 441-42.
(14) Carlyle had a strong influence on the Young Irelanders generally, though most of them had some reservations about his ideas. Gavan Duffy noted, "We all loved [Carlyle] for having thought so well to scorn pretence and hold by truth and duty, without sharing one in twenty of his opinions on men and events" (Charles Gavan Duffy, Young Ireland. A Fragment of Irish History [London, 1880], 736). Mitchel, however, agreed with Carlyle on most things, except of course for his views on Ireland (Jail Journal, 204n.).
(15) Citizen, 15 July 1854, 441-42.
(16) Mitchel, Apology for British Government, 8.
(17) Mitchel, Last Conquest, 72;Mitchel, Jail Journal, xxxvi-xxxvii; Mitchel, Apology for British Government, vi.
(18) Mitchel, Jail Journal, xxxix.
(19) United Irishman, 11 March 1848, 73.
(20) Mitchel, Apology for British Government, 3. See also "Mazzini and British Philanthropy," Citizen, 24 June 1854, 392.
(21) United Irishman, 22 April 1848, 170. See also Mitchel, Apology for British Government, 89.
(22) United Irishman, 20 May 1848.
(23) Mitchel, Jail Journal, 81.
(24) United Irishman, 11, 18 March 1848, 73, 88.
(25) Ibid., 18 March 1848, 88.
(26) John Newsinger, "John Mitchel and Irish Nationalism," Literature and History 6 (1980), 182-200.
(27) Mitchel, Jail Journal, 69-70.
(28) "Educational Police," United Irishman, 15 April 1848, 155.
(29) Ibid., 29 April, 1848, 185.
(30) Mitchel, Jail Journal, 147-48, 78-79.
(31) Steven R. Knowlton, "The Politics of John Mitchel: A Reappraisal, Eire-Ireland 22:2 (Summer 1987), 38-55.
(32) United Irishman, 29 April 1848, 185.
(33) See Patrick Maume, "Young Ireland, Arthur Griffith, and Republican Ideology: The Question of Continuity," Eire-Ireland 34:2 (Summer 1999), 161.
(34) Citizen, 7 Jan. 1854.
(35) Dillon, Mitchel, II, 256.
(36) Nation, 6 Feb. 1847. See especially Maurice O'Connell, "O'Connell, Young Ireland, and Negro Slavery: An Exercise in Romantic Nationalism," Thought 64:253 (June 1989), 132-33.
(37) Citizen, 14 Jan. 1854, 25.
(38) Ibid., 28 Jan. 1854, 56-57.
(39) Douglas C. Riach, "Daniel O'Connell and American Anti-Slavery," Irish Historical Studies 20:77 (March 1976), 23n.
(40) Mitchel to Fr. John Kenyon, c. Nov. 1857 (Dillon, Mitchel, II, 106). See especially Carlyle's Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question (1849).
(41) Citizen, 23 Sept. 1854, 600-1 (Mitchel's italics).
(42) Mitchel to Matilda Mitchel, Washington, D.C., to April 1859 (PRONI, D/1078/M/7).
(43) Dillon, Mitchel, H, 109.
(44) Mitchel to Mary Thomson, c. Dec. 1857 (ibid., 107-8).
(45) Ibid., 101. See also Mitchel's remarks in Southern Citizen, i8 March 1858, cited in David T. Gleeson, "Parallel Struggles: Irish Republicanism in the American South, 1798-1876," Eire-Ireland 34:2 (Summer 1999), 110.
(46) Dillon, Mitchel, II, 100.
(47) Ibid., 110-11.
(48) Citizen, 28 Jan. 1854, 57.
(49) Mitchel, Last Conquest, 79-80; Citizen, II, 25 Feb., 5 Aug. 1854, 89, 121, 488.
(50) Mitchel, Apology for British Government, 21; Mitchel, Last Conquest, 94; Citizen, 23 Sept. 1854, 600-1. See also Mitchel, Jail Journal, 159-60.
(51) Mitchel to Mary Thomson, 3 May 1857 (Dillon, Mitchel, II, 96); Mitchel to Adelaide Dillon, 22 Dec. 1859 (ibid., 137). See also the review of "Our Lady of Lourdes" in Irish Citizen, c. Jan. 1871 (ibid., 264).
(52) Citizen, 28 Jan, 1854, 56-57.
(53) Ibid., II, 18 Feb., 7 Oct., 25 Nov., 16 Dec. 1854, 87, 104, 632, 749, 797.
(54) Mitchel's Journal, c. June 1865 (Dillon, Mitchel, II, 218).
(55) Citizen, 23 Sept. 1854.
(56) Ibid., 15 July 1854, 442.
(57) For the influence of anti-Enlightenment ideas on Mitchel's writings, see Christopher Morash, Writing the Irish Famine (Oxford, 1995), 59-61.
(58) Citizen, II Feb. 1854, 89.
(59) Mitchel to Matilda Mitchel, 5 March 1849 (PRONI, D/1078/M/4). See also Mitchel, Jail Journal, 81.
(60) Mitchel, Jail Journal, 50.
(61) Citizen, 15 July 1854, 442.
(62) Mitchel, Jail Journal, 87.
(63) Mitchel, Last Conquest, 136.
(64) Mitchel, Jail Journal, 205.
(65) United Irishman, 25 March 1848, 99.
(66) Mitchel, Jail Journal, 357-58; Citizen, 25 March 1854, 84.
(67) Citizen, 15 July 1854, 442.
(68) Ibid., 441.
(69) Mitchel to Fr. Kenyon, c. Nov. 1857 (Dillon, Mitchel, II, 106).
(70) Mitchel, Jail Journal, 86-87.
(71) Ibid., 20, 128n.
(72) Ibid., 28-29. See also Citizen, 15 July 1854, 442.
(73) Joseph Lee, "The Social and Economic Ideas of O'Connell," in K.B. Nowlan and M.R. O'Connell, eds., Daniel O'Connell: Portrait of a Radical (Dublin, 1984), 72.
(74) Riach, "Daniel O'Connell and American Anti-Slavery," 3-27.
(75) Jacqueline R. Hill, "The Intelligentsia and Irish Nationalism in the 1840s," Studia Hibernica 20 (1980), 104-5.
(76) United Irishman, 6 May 1848, 195.
(77) Maume, "Young Ireland, Arthur Griffith, and Republican Ideology," 161; G. Kearns, "'Educate That Holy Hatred': Place, Trauma, and Identity in the Irish Nationalism of John Mitchel," Political Geography 20:7 (Sept. 2001), 906.
(78) See, for example, James S. Donnelly, Jr., "The Great Famine and Its Interpreters, Old and New," History Ireland 1:3 (Autumn 1993), 27-33; Peter Gray, "Potatoes and Providence: British Government Responses to the Great Famine," Bullan 1:1 (Spring 1994), 75-90; J.M. Hernon, "A Victorian Cromwell: Sir Charles Trevelyan, the Famine, and the Age of Improvement," Eire-Ireland 22:3 (Fall 1987), 15-29.
(79) Arthur Griffith, The Sinn Fein Policy (Dublin, 1906), 8-11. See also Richard Davis, Arthur Griffith and Non-Violent Sinn Fein (Dublin, 1974), 107, 127, 151.
(80) National Library of Ireland, MS 22,293, cited in Brian Maye, Arthur Griffith (Dublin, 1997), 52.
(81) Mitchel, Jail Journal, xiv.
(82) P.H. Pearse, From a Hermitage (Dublin, 1915), 12; P.H. Pearse, Ghosts (Dublin, 1916), 12.
(83) P.H. Pearse, The Sovereign People (Dublin, 1916), 17-18.
(84) Pearse, Ghosts, 20.
JAMES QUINN is executive editor of the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography. He is the author of a biography of the United Irishman Thomas Russell--Soul on Fire: A Life of Thomas Russell (2002), and of several articles on radicalism and republicanism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland. He is currently working on a biography of John Mitchel.
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|Publication:||Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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