A few weeks later he landed in America to begin a new chapter in his life that involved a continued commitment to the cause of Irish freedom and, regrettably, the defense of southern slavery.
John Mitchel was born in 1815 in Camnish, County Derry. His father was a Unitarian minister and former activist in the United Irishmen movement of the 1790s. Mitchel attended Trinity College in Dublin, studied law, and became a solicitor. He came to embrace the nonsectarian nationalism of his father and enthusiastically supported Daniel O’Connell’s campaign in the 1830s and 1840s to repeal the Act of Union and restore a greater measure of independence to Ireland (starting with its own parliament). In 1840 he began writing for the Nation, the leading newspaper of the nationalist organization known as Young Ireland. He took over as editor in 1845 and soon broke with O’Connell over the latter’s adherence to a policy of non-violence. Increasingly Mitchel and other zealous members of Young Ireland had come to believe that Irish freedom would be won only by physical force.
By early 1848, as the Famine ravaged the Irish countryside, Mitchel founded a new newspaper, The United Irishmen, and called for open rebellion against British rule. He was convinced that the suffering of the Famine would produce a mass peasant uprising. But with revolutions breaking out all across Europe that year, British authorities staged a pre-emptive strike, arresting Mitchel and several other Young Ireland leaders. Convicted of treason, Mitchel and the others were sentenced to a prison colony on Van Dieman’s Island (modern-day Tasmania, near Australia). In June, as they sailed for the south Pacific, the remaining Young Irelanders staged an ill-planned and quickly snuffed insurrection.
Mitchel spent five years in the prison colony before fellow nationalists engineered a sensational rescue in 1853. Mitchel secured a horse and galloped to the shore where a waiting ship took him to America. He settled in New York and, to no one’s surprise, took up the nationalist cause once again, publishing a seething anti-British memoir, “The Jail Journal, Or Five Years in British Prisons,” in 1854.
Over the next few years Mitchel founded a series of unsuccessful newspapers in New York. His poor record in this area reflected not only the highly competitive nature of the newspaper business in this era, but also Mitchel’s seemingly inexplicable development into a passionate defender of southern slavery. How did a man who had dedicated his life to denouncing the British denial of Irish freedom and human rights come to support the perpetual denial of freedom and human rights to African Americans? After all, several of his nationalist counterparts, most notably Daniel O’Connell, were staunch abolitionists who saw a clear connection to the cause of freedom in Ireland and America. Why did Mitchel reject this connection?
Three possible answers exist. Historian Cecil Woodham-Smith, for example, argued that Mitchel was not a true defender of freedom. Rather, he “was inspired not by love of liberty but by hatred of England.” There may be some truth in this explanation, but it inadequate. Another historian, Noel Ignatiev, has posited that Irish immigrants like John Mitchel embraced American racism as a means of proving their worth (their “whiteness”) to a hostile native-born population. It is also likely that Mitchel, a romantic nationalist if there ever was one, was captivated by the romanticism of southern nationalism and its self-depiction of the South as a besieged underdog. To him the powerful, industrial American North looked a lot like the imposing industrial superpower Great Britain.
When it became clear that proslavery editorials would not sell in New York, Mitchell moved to Knoxville, TN and in 1857 established the Southern Citizen. The paper’s vociferous defense of slavery (he advocated the re-opening of the African slave trade, for example) and promotion of southern nationalism soon earned it a wide reputation. Mitchel also renewed ties with nationalists in Ireland who had recently founded a new organization known as the Fenians. In 1859 he moved his paper to Washington, DC but it failed six months later.
The Civil War broke out in April 1861 and Mitchel volunteered for military service with the Confederate Army but was rejected on account of his poor eyesight. He would spend the war in Richmond, VA editing the Richmond Enquirer and later the Examiner, while occasionally serving in the Ambulance Corps. His three sons donned the Confederate gray and two were killed in action.
Mitchel’s outspoken editorials during the war earned him several months in prison following the Confederacy’s defeat in 1865. Upon his release he returned to New York to edit a succession of newspapers and play a role in the Fenian movement which was headquartered in the city. As always, he proved both an inspiring and divisive figure.
Eight years later, at the age of 60 and in declining health, he returned to Ireland to stand for election to Parliament. He won but was declared ineligible on account of his 1848 conviction for treason. A second election was held and Mitchel won again. But he died before being able to press his case to be seated. In death he was lionized by the nationalist press as a victim of British brutality and a true patriot in the cause of Irish freedom.
Note: Mitchel’s grandson, John Purroy Mitchel, served as Mayor of New York City from 1913-1917.
Sources: Thomas Keneally, The Great Shame, and the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World (1998) and Seamus MacCall, John Mitchel: A Biography (1938).
Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
June 13, 1795: Theobald Wolfe Tone sets sail for America to raise money and support for the United Irishmen cause.
June 14, 1794: Commodore John Barry receives a commission from George Washington to train the first cadets at the U. S. Naval Academy.
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