United Irishmen, United States: Immigrant Radicals in the Early Republic


Among the thousands of political refugees who flooded into the United States during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, none had a greater impact on the early republic than the United Irishmen. They were, according to one Federalist, "the most God-provoking Democrats on this side of Hell." "Every United Irishman," insisted another, "ought to be hunted from the country, as much as a wolf or a tyger." David A. Wilson's lively book is the first to focus specifically on the experiences, attitudes, and...
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Among the thousands of political refugees who flooded into the United States during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, none had a greater impact on the early republic than the United Irishmen. They were, according to one Federalist, "the most God-provoking Democrats on this side of Hell." "Every United Irishman," insisted another, "ought to be hunted from the country, as much as a wolf or a tyger." David A. Wilson's lively book is the first to focus specifically on the experiences, attitudes, and ideas of the United Irishmen in the United States.Wilson argues that America served a powerful symbolic and psychological function for the United Irishmen as a place of wish-fulfillment, where the broken dreams of the failed Irish revolution could be realized. The United Irishmen established themselves on the radical wing of the Republican Party, and contributed to Jefferson's "second American Revolution" of 1800; John Adams counted them among the "foreigners and degraded characters" whom he blamed for his defeat.After Jefferson's victory, the United Irishmen set out to destroy the Federalists and democratize the Republicans. Some of them believed that their work was preparing the way for the millennium in America. Convinced that the example of America could ultimately inspire the movement for a democratic republic back home, they never lost sight of the struggle for Irish independence. It was the United Irishmen, writes Wilson, who originated the persistent and powerful tradition of Irish-American nationalism.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"United Irishmen, United States has much to offer scholars interested in the pre-famine history of Irish America, late eighteenth and early nineteenth century trans-Atlantic radicalism, and the ethnic dimension of urban politics in the early republic. Written in concise, crystalline prose, this modest book contains a wealth of previously untold stories about the flamboyant and fascinating Irish radicals who came to American in the late 1790s and 1800s. . . . This book makes an important contribution to the literature by eloquently narrating a largely overlooked chapter of Irish-American history. . . . A rich, compelling analysis of the complicated nature of Irish-American political life in the early republic."—H-SHEAR, H-Net Reviews

"It is an engagingly told story about the Irish nationalists who came to America after the failure of their cause in Ireland."—Arthur Sheps, Letters in Canada

"This is an excellent book, important for the specialist and of interest to the general reader. . . David Wilson has in this well-organized volume made a substantial contribution to transatlantic studies. It is the definitive work on the United Irish in America."—Canadian Journal of History

"This is a clear, well-focused, and well-organized piece of work that illuminates in narrative and thematic form an aspect of the subject which has not so far been satisfactorily explored by Irish historians: 'the consolidation of the transplanted United Irish network in America.' One of Wilson's strengths is that he writes so well, and when this ability is allied to scholarship that meets the most demanding criteria, the result is impressive."—A. T. Q. Stewart, author of A Deeper Silence: The Hidden Origins of the United Irish Movement

"Sharply conceived and judiciously argued, this book fills a gap in previous scholarship by opening up and directly confronting the whole question of the nature and legacy of United Irish politics in a transatlantic context. Wilson persuasively demonstrates the transmission of specifically Irish experiences and ideas to America, and he establishes an authority over his sources and his subject that should command the attention of both Irish and American readers."—Richard Twomey, Saint Mary's University

"David Wilson's United Irishmen, United States is a thorough and fascinating study of one of the most important groups of radical exiles ever to settle in the United States. Inspired by the ideals and examples of the American and French Revolutions, the United Irishmen aspired to create an independent, non-sectarian Irish republic. Feared by contemporary conservatives and denigrated by pseudo-liberals today, the United Irishmen were, to be sure, neither socialists nor feminists nor color-blind (although many opposed American slavery). They were bourgeois radicals in an era when monarchy and aristocracy were indeed the principal enemies of 'the people,' and had they been successful, arguably Ireland would not have suffered the Great Famine of 1845–50 or the fateful partition of 1920–21 that has produced so much violence during the past thirty years. Bloodily suppressed in Ireland, the United Irishmen transferred their energies and idealism to America, where they discovered to their horror that, only two decades after 1776, the United States government under Federalist rule had embraced reactionary and counter-revolutionary policies that the exiles, in alliance with Jeffersonian Republicans, tried to reverse—to a degree successfully, but at the cost of immersion in the contradictions and corruptions of the emergent American political-party system. Thus, the story of the United Irishmen in the New World is one of triumph and failure, of irony and tragedy, and it is a story that David Wilson, despite his preference for more 'moderate' political goals and means than the United Irishmen adopted, faced as they were by intransigent opponents, has told very, very well."—Kerby Miller, University of Missouri

"A sophisticated absorbing study, pungently written, by an historian with a firm command of Anglo-American radicalism. I found it especially valuable for what these important immigrant radicals brought to the new nation from their 'old world' experiences, how they both shaped American political culture and were themselves transformed."—Alfred Young, Senior Research Fellow, Newberry Library

Library Journal
In this scholarly work, Wilson (Celtic studies, St. Michael's Coll., Univ. of Toronto) examines the role of the United Irishmen in American political history. The United Irishmen Wilson studied were the mostly Protestant Irish leaders fleeing the failed 1798 insurrection. Many came to America and found that the new republic offered unparalleled opportunities for political activism, particularly in making radical changes in political institutions. Their causes included greater freedom of religious belief, civil rights reforms at the state level, and more liberal immigration laws. Most backed Jefferson for president, and their activism is credited with helping the change from federalism to republicanism. As Wilson ably shows, their belief that political repression was to blame for most of society's ills motivated their revolt, their flight to America, and their continued activism. Wilson also explores the impact of United Irishmen on education and culture, noting that they were less influential here than in politics. This interesting and well-written study is best suited for academic collections either in Irish or American history, or in political history.Robert C. Moore, Corp. Lib., Astra USA, Westboro, MA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801477591
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 9/16/2011
  • Pages: 236
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

David A. Wilson is Coordinator of the Celtic Studies Program and Professor of History at the University of Toronto. His most recent work is a two-volume biography of the Irish Canadian politician Thomas D'Arcy McGee.

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