Political and Economic Impact of the American Revolution on Ireland
The force of the American Revolution was felt throughout western Europe, but in Ireland the political and economic effects were more immediate than in other countries.
Both the American colonies and Ireland presented grave problems for British statesmen in the last half of the eighteenth century. By the end of the Seven Years War, British policy toward the British dependencies became stricter. The result of the war left Britain with a very large war debt that had to be reduced. George Grenville, British Prime Minister 1763-1765, looked to America for partial revenue to help pay the debt. America seemed a safer place to raise further revenue than the tax burdened British. Ireland also feared that the British would also expect them to help pay the war debt.
Grenville, Lord North and other British ministers as well as George III wanted a tighter control over the empire. They felt some areas were becoming too independent acting especially the American colonies. As political controls began to be tightened throughout the empire, friction between the colonies and the mother country became more frequent.
Ireland watched this new imperial policy very closely in America because the Irish felt that they would be next. America was Britains most valuable colony, and Ireland was the colony with the most strategic value.
America had the most varied natural resources of any of the British colonies and had been developed the longest. By the middle of the eighteenth century a considerable interdependence of trade had been developed between America and Britain.
Britain still held to the old mercantilistic views concerning the position of colonies in relation to the mother country. The colonies were supposed to furnish the mother country with the raw materials and then serve as a market for the finished goods of the mother country. None of the colonies should be permitted to rival Britain in trade. It was with this view in mind that the British ministers enacted various restrictive commercial laws that would keep the colonies in a subordinate position to Britain.
Ireland experienced the same restrictive trade laws as America, but these laws could be enforced much easier in Ireland because of the close geographic proximity to the mother country. Irelands proximity to Britain was one of the reasons that Britain had first taken control of Ireland. Because of this strategic reason, Ireland became subject to Britain for almost 800 years.
During the first seventy-five years of the eighteenth century, the Irish bore the British oppressive policies with a silent and mostly inactive opposition. The example of the Americans fanned the flame of Irish opposition and invigorated the Irish patriots to demand concessions from the British.
The influence of the American Revolution can be seen by the following statement of Henry Flood, one of the leaders of the Irish independence movement. In a speech before the Irish parliament, Flood stated, What was the fate of all our constitutional claims, til the voice of people thundered for redress? Majorities---rank---majorities---till a voice from America exhorted you to claim your rights, and the desires of the people prevailed.1
Other Irish leaders made similar statements in reference to America. There was considerable activity on the part of the Irish and the Americans to point out the similarity of the two British dependencies. Leaders of both colonies indicated they were both experiencing the oppressive policies of Britain, and both wanted more independence. 2
The degree of autonomy in America and Ireland was different. As a result of the policy of salutary neglect that was maintained from around 1720 to the Seven Years War, the American colonies had developed a system of government that was subject to little influence from Britain.
It was not until the 1760s that Britain once again formulated an imperial policy that would tighten control of the mother country over the empire. In Ireland, the degree of autonomy was much less than in America. While Britain was engaged in trying to enforce the Stamp Act and the Townshend Duties in America, she was establishing a tighter control over Irish politics.
The Lord-Lieutenant was the chief British executive officer in Ireland. From 1700 to 1767, the men who held the office did not take this position very seriously. During the forty-six years of the reigns of George I and George II, the total time spent in Ireland by the nine Lord-Lieutenants was less than sixteen years. 3 The office holders usually stayed in Ireland during the time the Irish Parliament was in session, which was about six to eight months every two years.
Most of the routine government work was left to Irish politicians who offered to undertake the Kings business. These men became known as undertakers and used patronage to advance the position of their own families.
There were three prominent Irish politicians called the Lord Justices. These men were usually the Primate, the Chancellor, and the Speaker of the House. These individuals were the real ruling force in Ireland during the absence of the viceroy. They were part of what is called the Protestant Ascendency in Ireland. During this time the Irish who maintained allegiance to the Anglican Church were the only ones who could vote in parliamentary elections or hold any government office. Thus the great bulk of the population of Ireland was excluded from participation in government.
The Roman Catholics comprised almost three-fourths of the population with a sizable minority of Presbyterians in the northern county of Ulster. If the franchise were opened up to dissenters, then the Catholic majority of Ireland would quickly take over political power. One of the major policies of the British government was to make sure that Protestant Ascendency was maintained.
While Britain was exercising more control over America in the 1760s, George III, Charles Townshend and others desired to strengthen British domestic control over Ireland. To accomplish this, the power of the undertakers would have to be broken. The only possible way to obtain this objective was to require the Lord-Lieutenant reside in Ireland during his entire term of office, and this change was made in early 1767.
On August 12, 1767, George Townshend was appointed as the first resident Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. He was appointed from the Pitt-Grafton ministry mainly to secure the support of his brother Charles, who was the Chancellor of Exchequer. Charles Townshend did not want to see Ireland take the same course that the American colonies were taking. He wanted to strengthen British control in Ireland. To accomplish this objective, he had to form a party in the Irish parliament that would be wholly dependent upon the crown of Britain, and a resident Lord-Lieutenant would facilitate this policy.
The Irish Chief Secretary was also required to reside in Ireland. This office was the viceroys principle aid in political affairs and was required to carry the governments policies through the Irish parliament. By February, 1771Townshend had accomplished his purpose and the Irish parliament was in control of the British administration. This control was maintained by liberal patronage. 4
As a result of the Townshend policies, an Irish political party became established in the 1770s that became known as the friends of the English government. These individuals were generally in some official position and were administrators rather than politicians. They followed the lead of the chief secretary in parliament. What little political power that was held by the Irish consisted of a small group of Protestants. The Catholic population could not vote or hold office and they could see little hope for any voluntary change in the British policy.
What Ireland lacked throughout the country was a responsible middle class that could give leadership to the various towns and villages. Ireland did not possess a strong merchant and professional class that were evident in the American colonies. 5
The Irish and Americans both wanted more independence. The first difference was that the Americans wanted to maintain the degree of autonomy that they had acquired over the years of British neglect while the Irish wanted to gain similar autonomy. The second difference between the Irish and American independence movements was that the Irish did not want to separate from Britain but wanted more autonomy within the empire.
The example and ideas of the American Revolution had a profound effect on Ireland. The next two chapters will explore in detail the political and economic impact on Ireland.
Chapter II Political Impact of the American Revolution
The single greatest impact of the American Revolution on Ireland seemed to be the success that the Americans had in throwing off British rule. The Americans, who had been under British control for less that 180 years, seemed to be in the process of gaining what the Irish had been attempting to gain for 600 years.
The Irish paid close attention to events occurring in America with the idea in mind that the actions the Americans used to pressure the British could also be used in Ireland to gain the same objective. American practices such as arming of citizens, action of city mobs, non-consumption, non-importation, and non-exportation of goods seemed to the Irish as useful tools that they could use against the common foe.
The American conflicts with the British were given extensive newspaper coverage in Ireland. The conflict over the Stamp Act and essays on constitutional liberties attacks on general warrants and proposals for parliamentary reform received much attention from the Irish press. Extracts from John Adams dissertation on the Feudal and the Canon Law emphasized the timidity of British subjects is what led to oppression from the mother country was widely acclaimed by the Irish. 6
When news of the Boston Massacre reached Ireland, the Independent Whigs of Belfast claimed that the soldiers of the Twenty-ninth Regiment who were involved with the Boston affair had a profligate character which had been manifest when they were quartered in Belfast. 7
Benjamin Franklin was active in expressing the common cause of the Irish and the Americans. 8 Franklin was in frequent contact with Charles Lucas, an Irish patriot. After the Boston Massacre, Lucas wrote, What redress do you expect for grievances in America, which are grown in England, and almost the established, the sole mode of government in Ireland. 9
America had the vocal leadership that Ireland lacked. As a result, the opinions of John Adams, Franklin, Otis, Dickensen and others inspired such Irish leaders as Lucas, Flood and Henry Grattan to demand concessions from the British. This American leadership gave direction to the Irish and helped to link together the two independence movements.10
The British act of 1769 that raised the Irish army from 12,000 to 15, 000 was looked upon as enabling Britain to keep more troops in America in order to crush the spirit of the colonies. Americans told the Irish the British oppressive measures taken in America were part of a plan that would include Ireland. The Americans also emphasized to the Irish that a common military action by both countries would be more than Britain could handle.
Between 1769 and 1774, 7,000 Irish had immigrated to America taking with them their anger over British oppression. When the actual fighting broke out in America, the Irish proved to be avid defenders of the independence of their new home. 11
Edmund Burke, an Irishman and a member of the Rockingham party that was in opposition to the British North ministry, was of the opinion that Ireland should act as a friendly mediator between America and England. Ireland should also refuse to vote supplies for the Irish troops that were serving in America. Burke stated in a letter to an Irish friend, our conduct to America thought wicked and foolish, yet is natural wickedness and folly; yours is a species of Turpitude not decent to name you were in the situation, which you might act as the Guardian Angels of the whole Empire. 12
Burke later wrote to the Earl of Charlemont, That Ireland had lost the most glorious opportunity ever indulged by heaven to a subordinate state, that of being the safe and certain mediatriz in the quarrels of a great empire and the thing that made it all the more deplorable was that the war was one which was being fought against the principle of her own liberties. 13
Burke saw how the American Revolution could be used to Irelands advantage. He worked to aid the Catholics in voiding the penal laws against them, and to try to obtain for the Protestant trading towns of Ireland a better treatment from Britain.14
The Irish saw very clearly their chance once open warfare had broken out between the Americans and the British. They realized that the British could not contend with two rebellions at the same time, and they started a series of demands upon the mother country that eventually culminated in legislative independence. The two political grievances that the Irish had were against Poynings Law of 1495 and the Declaratory Act of 1719. Both of these acts of the British parliament placed the Irish parliament in a subordinate position to the British parliament. Judicial review was exercised by the British House of Lords over Irish court decisions, the British privy council had the power to reject or amend all bills passed by the Irish parliament, and the Lord-Lieutenant had to present to the privy council an outline of what was to be discussed in each parliament before the council would give permission for the Irish parliament to meet.15
Slightly over one year had passed from the outbreak of war in the American colonies when Henry Flood presented a proposal in the Irish parliament to repeal the right of the British Privy Council to review Irish bills should be repealed.16
The Irish realized that Englands distress was Irelands opportunity, and they wasted no time in pressing their advantage. The Irish had been given an momentum from the Americans to pressure the British for more autonomy. They had a small group of leaders and a growing number of the Irish population behind them. What they lacked was a military force to back up their demands upon the British crown and parliament. Curiously, the so-called father of the American Navy, John Paul Jones, gave the momentum to form an Irish military association. There was a widespread fear among the Irish concerning a possible invasion of the island, which became intensified once France entered the war on the side of the Americans. On April 24, 1778, John Paul Jones in command of the Ranger, captured HMS Drake right outside the harbor of Belfast in plain sight of a large number of the citizens of that city.17
This touched off an explosion of invasion fears and frantic appeals to the Lord-Lieutenant for help. The Irish chief secretary, Richard Heron, replied to Stewart Burke, the Sovereign of Belfast, telling him that all that could be spared for the defense of the city was a few troop of horse and a partial company of invalids. By 1778, almost 11,000 of the regular 15,000 Irish army had been sent to America to help the British. This left the island in a rather precarious position and was practically defenseless against any well-organized invasion attempt. Belfast was outraged with the reply of the chief secretary and began to form their own volunteer military companies. Arms were purchased, uniforms were made, officers were chosen, and drills were conducted. This activity quickly spread through Ulster and eventually over the entire country. Lord Charlemont, later commander of the volunteers, stated that many wise and strong governments had fallen from such a force, and he claimed that the present government was neither wise nor strong.18
John Beresford, an ally of the British government, wrote to John Robinson in Britain, advising him that the country of Ireland was arming, and that unless the British administration did something about it, the consequences would be fatal.19
The Irish government was in a bad situation as the treasury was empty, and they could not raise more troops themselves nor could Britain afford to send military aid to Ireland. The policy of the administration was not to legally recognize the volunteers, but the ministers were powerless to halt the surprising growth of the organization. The armed associations were capable of protecting the country from foreign invasion, but the ministers haunting fear was how to do away with them once the dance was over. The Lord-Lieutenant at this time was John Hobart, the second Earl of Buckinghamshire. He wrote to Britain that, Discouragement has, however, been given (to the volunteers) on my part as far as might be without offence, at a crisis when the arm and goodwill of every individual might have been wanting. 20
By May of 1779, the Volunteers had grown to a force estimated by the Lord-Lieutenant at almost 8,000.21 This force conservatively outnumbered the regular Irish army be over two to one. Several commanders of the volunteer companies offered their services to the Lord-Lieutenant. The usual governmental reply stated that associations of numbers of armed men formed under their own regulations in different parts of the kingdom, could not be justified by law, nor would it be proper for his Excellency to give any encouragement or sanction to them. 22
An attempt was made by the government to adjust to the volunteers by trying to get their officers to accept commissions from the king, under the pretence that if taken prisoner by the enemy, the commission would protect them and ensure their exchange. This idea was brought up by the Earl of Shannon, but failed. On September 16, 1779, Shannon wrote to the Lord-Lieutenant stating that the plan to make the volunteers a legal and regular force was not successful. He said an alarm had been spread and opposition was stirred up against the plan. The plan was received with every symptom of jealousy and distrust, and seemed to be condemned by almost all, before it had been well explained to any. 23
In October, Buckinghamshire wrote to George Germain concerning the Volunteers stating, I have been assured that in different parts of Ireland, several have taken the oaths and that more are inclined to it, but also that there are some companies whose principles are determinedly republican. One very serious regulation is introducing in some of them, that of appointing their officers by rotation. 24
The government, however, was forced to rely on the Volunteers for defense and had to disperse 16,000 arms from the arsenal and divide them up among the counties. At this time, the threat of invasion was greater than the fear of the aftermath of the situation and the possible results of the armed force. The Volunteers did pledge, no measure of insurrectionary violence or agrarian tumult would be supported by the Army of the People. 25
The Volunteers quickly turned into an active political force that could be used to pressure the North government into granting concessions to Ireland. The Irish leaders saw the Volunteers as a means to obtain concessions and more importantly, a force to maintain the concessions, once granted. They foresaw that if America was defeated, then Ireland would be next, or if America won, Ireland would then be exposed to the full force of the mother country. The Volunteers would be a good instrument to ward off any British attempts to crush the Irish independence drive.
The volunteers were very active in placing their military strength behind Irish demands for economic concessions from Britain. This will be discussed in the next chapter. The Volunteers placed their greatest emphasis on the movement for legislative independence. The Carlisle-Eden mission that the North ministry sent to America in 1778 gave rise to further Irish demands. The Irish felt that the British should be more than willing to grant concessions to the Irish, since they were so willing to grant concessions to the Americans whom the king had called rebels.26 As the war worsened for the British, the Irish demands increased.
Franklin was very active in sending American propaganda to Ireland from France. He linked the positions of the Irish and Americans together in their quest for independence from Britain. Franklin continually pointed out all the oppressions that Britain had placed upon Ireland in hopes of further stirring up the Irish, which might result in a loosening of the strain on the Americans, as the British might concentrate more on Ireland.27
Lord Stormont, Norths Secretary of State, wrote to the king telling him that Franklin was involved in an attempt of the Irish to gain French help to establish an independent kingdom of Ireland. 28 This plan was short-lived and amounted to nothing, but shows the activity of Franklin with the Irish.
After the British defeat at Yorktown, the Irish created intense pressure on the British government to grant political concessions. Grattan stated, the American war was the Irish harvest. By this time, numbers of Irish who had fought in America, returned to Ireland and told their countrymen of the success that the Americans were having. They told of the activity of the Americans in maintaining military action against the more experienced British. The soldiers were full of stories of American independence, and this further served to ignite the demands for independence. 29
The Volunteers once again led the fight for the repeal of the Declaratory Act and the modification of Poynings Law. On February 15, 1782, 242 delegates representing 143 corps met at Dungannon. Among the resolutions that were passed at the meeting, the second resolution stated that only the king, Lords, and Commons of Ireland had the authority to pass laws that would bind Ireland.30
Grattan stated that he would introduce a declaration of rights when the Irish parliament resumed on April 16th. By the time the Irish parliament met, the North ministry had fallen in Britain and had been replaced by the Rockingham ministry. The new ministry had supported concessions to both America and Ireland. Burke, who was their main spokesman, stated that they were against the old illiberal policy of strong political subordination of the dependencies because this was what had led the American colonies to revolt and Ireland to be in a state of turmoil. The new ministry was willing to concede to the demands of the Irish, while maintaining imperial links between Ireland and Britain. 31
Thus the Rockingham government in 1782 conceded the demands of the Irish for legislative independence as the Declaratory Act was repealed and Britain gave up her claim to legislate for Ireland. The ministry could, no doubt, have been influenced by the resolution of the Volunteers, who stated that they would support the Irish demands for legislative independence with their lives and fortunes. 32
The Irish were suspicious and distrustful of the British as the Americans were, and they did not feel that the simple repeal of the Declaratory Act was sufficient. In 1783, they forced England to pass a Renunciation Act that formerly renounced any claim that Britain had to legislate either internally or externally for Ireland. 33
Thus a spark from America ignited Irish resistance to British rule and culminated in legislative independence for Ireland. There is no doubt that the American Revolution had a profound effect on the Irish. The mere fact that Britain was in armed conflict with America gave the Irish a chance to demand concessions from Britain and obtain them. If Britain had not been so engrossed in America, there is a good possibility that the Irish demands would not have been met and the Irish independence movement crushed. The Americans set an example for the Irish to follow, and the independence movements that were occurring simultaneously was advantageous to both Ireland and America. Thus Grattan could indeed say, the American war was the Irish harvest.
Chapter III Economic Impact of the American Revolution
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