[Analysis] 1791 Declaration of the United Irishmen

My comments and quotes of other material are in italics; Declaration of the United Irishmen is indented; bolded emphasis is mine. I am not aware of anyone else who has tried to analyse the intellectual parallels between the US Declaration of Independence and the United Irishmen Declaration – If you are aware of any such material, please let me know:

In the present great era of reform, when unjust Governments are falling in every quarter of Europe;

This was during what is now referred to as the “Age of Revolution“: from the last decades of the 18th Century, to the first decades of the 19th, revolts, revolutions and national independence movements occurred in the Americas and in Europe – often prompted by Enlightenment ideas – and challenging monarchical, aristocratic, and imperial states and institutions – including slavery, and state-enforced religious discrimination.

when religious persecution is compelled to abjure her tyranny over conscience;

when the rights of man are ascertained in theory, and that theory substantiated by practice;

The “Rights of Man” was a treatise written in 1791 by American founding father and patriot, Thomas Paine, in response to Edmund Burke‘s attack on the French Revolution of 1789 – “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (it was also in the later 1793 title of a 1775 pamphlet – “The Real Rights of Man” – by British radical, Thomas Spense).

Paine was the Paris roommate of (Declaration author) Wolfe Tone‘s fellow patriot and confidante, “Citizen” Lord Edward Fitzgerald (himself a veteran of the British Army in North America); Paine was also declared an honorary United Irishman as a result of his influence and esteem – consider also the parallel between “United States of America” (a phrase coined by Paine) and the “Society of United Irishmen“;

Paine was – as were other prominent US Founding Fathers such as Jefferson and Franklin – a Deist, who promoted freedom of conscience and religious tolerance in his other great work: “The Age of Reason”.

when antiquity can no longer defend absurd and oppressive forms against the common sense and common interests of mankind;

Common Sense” was one the titles of a series of pamphlets written by Paine, that George Washington acknowledged as helping inspire many Americans into open revolution. “Common interest” may also be a synonym for the latin “res publica“, which can be translated or read as “the public thing”, “the public matter”, and is further developed as “the public interest”, common good”, “commonwealth”, or as a form of government: “republic”;

when all Government is acknowledged to originate from the people, and to be so far only obligatory as it protects their rights and promotes their welfare;

Consider the parallel with the US version:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

“Government by the people, for the people, and of the people” is the famous American dictum; the American Declaration of Independence bases its moral and philosophical force on what might be regarded as the breach of social-contract (a theory of political legitimacy propounded by John Locke, and which influenced American Founding Fathers) by the British Crown.

The United States’ Declaration was primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, who would later (while the second President under the US Constitution) make very important and influential allies of Irish radicals who had escaped after the 1798 and 1803 rebellions, in a major political realignment known as “the Second American Revolution” of the 1800 election (see “United Irishmen, United States: Immigrant Radicals in the Early Republic” by Donald A. Wilson, Cornell University Press (May 1998), ISBN-10: 0801431751, ISBN-13: 978-0801431753);

we think it our duty, as Irishmen, to come forward, and state what we feel to be our heavy grievance, and what we know to be its effectual remedy.

This parallels the American Declaration, which also laid out a schedule of grievances (as justification for total popular revocation of unjust rule – whereas the Irish at the time were not yet declaring complete independence, but rather a schedule of necessary remedies); Consider:

…But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security…

…Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world…

We have no national Government— we are ruled by Englishmen, and the servants of Englishmen whose object is the interest of another country, whose instrument is corruption, and whose strength is the weakness of Ireland; and these men have the whole of the power and patronage of the country as means to seduce and subdue the honesty and spirit of her representatives in the legislature.

Such an extreme power, acting with uniform force, in a direction too frequently opposite to the true line of our obvious interests, can be resisted with effect solely by unanimity, decision and spirit in the people — qualities which may be exerted most legally, constitutionally, and efficaciously by that great measure essential to the prosperity, and freedom of Ireland — an equal representation of all the people in Parliament. We do not here mention as grievances the rejection of a place-bill, of a pension bill, of a responsibility-bill, the sale of peerages in one house, the corruption publicly avowed in the other, nor the notorious infamy of borough traffic between both, not that we are insensible to their enormity, but that we consider them as but symptoms of that mortal disease which corrodes the vitals of our constitution, and leaves to the people in their own government but the shadow of a name.

Impressed with these sentiments, we have agreed to form an association to be called “The Society of United Irishmen,” and we do pledge ourselves to our country, and mutually to each other, that we will steadily support and endeavour, by all due means, to carry into effect the following resolutions:

FIRST RESOLVED: That the weight of English influence on the Government of this country is so great as to require a cordial union among all the people of Ireland to maintain that balance which is essential to the preservation of our liberties and the extension of our commerce.

SECOND: That the sole constitutional mode by which this influence can be opposed is by a complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in Parliament.

THIRD: That no reform is practicable, efficacious, or just, which shall not include Irishmen of every religious persuasion. Satisfied, as we are, that the intestine divisions among Irishmen have too often given encouragement and impunity to profligate, audacious and corrupt administrations, in measure which, but for these divisions, they durst not have attempted, we submit our resolutions to the nation as the basis of our political faith. We have gone to what we conceive to be the root of the evil. We have stated what we conceive to be the remedy. With a Parliament thus reformed, everything is easy; without it, nothing can be done. And we do call on, and most earnestly exhort, our countrymen in general to follow our example, and to form similar societies in every quarter of the kingdom for the promotion of constitutional knowledge, the abolition of bigotry in religion and politics, and the equal distribution of the rights of men through all sects and denominations of Irishmen. The people, when thus collected, will feel their own weight, and secure that power which theory has already admitted to be their portion, and to which, if they be not aroused by their present provocation to vindicate it, they deserve to forfeit their pretensions for ever.


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