Robert Emmet was executed two hundred years ago this day. “Behold, the head of a traitor!” the hangman held up his severed head dripping with blood onto the cobblestones of Thomas Street for the dogs to lap up. On the anniversary of this ignominy let’s pause to consider the project for which he died.
His is an example of revolutionary sacrifice to be compared to the self-stabbing of Kwong Hae Lee last week on top of the fence separating the people from the U.S. and European planners of capitalism at the Cancun meeting of the WTO.
“I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world; it is–THE CHARITY OF ITS SILENCE. Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my name remain uninscribed, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.”
His hands were chained together during the whole speech. He was just found guilty of treason, or to quote the romantic wording of the 1795 statute, guilty of imagining the king’s death. aving HTheTTThe glorious peroration to his speech from the dock answered a precious formality, “what have you now to say why judgment of death and execution shall not be awarded against you according to law?” Emmet was well practiced as an orator from years in college, debating such questions as Was the discovery of America of more advantage than injury to the human race? Was the peasant a more useful member of society than the soldier? Was it a good law of Solon’s which declared neutrality in an insurrection infamous? Ought a soldier to consider the motives of a war before he engages in it? Whether a soldier is bound on all occasions to obey orders of a commanding officer? Interrupted several times by the intimidating hostility of the judges, this seemed only to cause Emmet to take his rhetoric to an even higher pitch.
The years in college were also years of global struggle on the general principles of the rights of man and the French Revolution. His character and justice to his character, cannot be understood apart from the events which coursed around it. The principles that were set into practice by the revolts against slavery (Dessalines and the Haitians were driving out Napoleon’s armies), by the mutiny of the fleets of the Royal Navy, by the revolts of the ‘middle ground’ or the American Indian confederation, by the early Luddites against factory exploitation, by the gross and cruel terror of the British suppression of the United Irish in ’98, and by the struggles in France itself which reached one type of climax with the Babeuf ‘Conspiracy of the Equals’ and another climax in Napoleon’s coup d’état.
Emmet asked for silence, on the grounds that his motives may not be known, and, even if they were known to some, they could not be vindicated. It is this doubt that I feel may permit us to question his project.
“Not yet,” replied Robert Emmet two hundred years ago when the executioner afforded the Irish patriot a last courtesy on the scaffold, asking the 25 year old whether he was ready to be hanged. After a pause he asked again, “are you ready, sir?” and again Emmet replied, “not yet.” The third time and the hangman became impatient and let the weight of the law swing into awful action launching Robert Emmet into eternity and the memory of his countrymen. His cry from the gallows was evidence of the creature in him–the desire to live, the love of life, the refusal to die, unaccepting of the horrid punishment.
Robert Emmet lives in the hearts of his countryman for his last speech at his trial, a model of eloquence, memorized by Abraham Lincoln, for instance. A hundred years ago W.B. Yeats addressed four thousand people at the N.Y. Academy of Music on “Emmet the Apostle of Irish Liberty” and noted that “Ireland has placed him foremost among her saints of nationality.” Within twenty years the project of national liberation was realized, but conservatively with partition, an aspersion of Emmet’s motives and the generosity of his ideals.
As everyone knows, the broad principles of the French Revolution are liberté, égalité, and fraternité, or as we might say solidarity. In light of our own experience with terror, privatization, and war, let’s look again at Emmet’s courage, dignity, audacity as “an apostle of liberty.” In relation to the meanings of liberty he takes us to equality and solidarity rather than to private property and trade because égalité opposes privatization by enclosure or conquest, while solidarity, to use the Irish phrase, is to be united, or unseparated from land, family, country, or religion.
In his speech from the dock he spoke of “the emancipation of my country from the superinhuman oppression under which she has so long and too patiently travailed.” His older brother, Thomas, was a United Irishman, a prisoner in Fort George, later attorney-general of New York. Thomas in a series of Letters from the Mountains for the United Irish press outlined the case for insurrection and described the forces to carry it out. His brother explained that it was written “in the blood of the Irish peasant” and it may be read “by the light of the flames that consume his cottage.” “Our streets have been filled with famished crowds; our ears pierced with cries of starving manufacturers. Multitudes have perished, and are yet perishing in the silent retirement of despair.” Robert composed an allegorical poem of “Two Ships.”
I know I have on board some men, That seem rebellious now and then, But what’s the cause? You know full well–Allowance short–makes men rebel; And you have many a hand of mine That on my crew’s provision dine; Each day on biscuit we must work, Forsooth to send you beef and pork.
Robert Emmet understood that oppression was economic and political. He left Paris, disgusted with Bonaparte, to return to Dublin in November 1802.
Engels in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) says socialism appeared as a logical extension of the French Enlightenment but that it was not given good grounding until the proletariat arose, and that was to be in 1802 when utopian socialism ceased to be adequate response to a new class of proletarians, the veritable storm and stress period of production. Crime, prostitution, and cash payment rose together as twin indications of capitalist advance of industry. Dialectics comprehends ideas, things, and representations in their connection, concatenation, origin and conclusion. Is modern industry and the world market the origin or the conclusion? Is the commons and anti-globalization the solution or the problem? The answer depends, Engels might say, on whether you back the capitalists or the workers.
Emmet was in the middle of this dialectics of ideal and actuality. He did not have a proletarian revolution in mind. However, the insurrection he led counted on the proletarians of Dublin. The international character of the insurrection reflected the diaspora of Irish labor to the factories of England. Despard was supposed to have initiated an insurrectionary campaign in London earlier in the year. In Dublin itself, the wonderful James Hope, the Belfast weaver, was to lead the workers of the south Dublin “liberties.” He had a long talk with Robert Emmet, saying that there could be no peace in Ireland until “the rights of the people in relation to the soil were recognized.” Emmet’s answer in effect was “not yet.” He did not want to initiate the civil war as a reversal of the land settlement would surely cause. Consequently, the proclamation of the provisional government, while containing powerful clauses on the expropriation of church tithes and the cessation of commerce in land until the stability of the republic was achieved, also contained explicit assurances to property holders. ope, the Belfast weaver
He was twenty-five years old when he was hanged. His heart throbbed for Sarah Curran, the daughter of Philip Curran, the eloquent Dublin lawyer, the Clarence Darrow of his time. After he fled the bungled insurrection he found temporary protection in the Wicklow mountains by a “bandit,” Michael Dwyer. The masterful and wicked English spymaster, William Wickham, was haunted by remorse for the rest of his life for his part in the death of Emmet. Robert Emmet was served with cunning and silence by Anne Devlin who refused to betray him even though the Yeomany put her neck in the noose and hoisted her up. Who were the men who lived in the house? thundered the magistrate. She was only a servant maid and “so long as her wages were paid she cared to know nothing else about them.” Her materialist emphasis on wages may indicate mere “trade union consciousness” yet it was an economistic mask to conceal her comrade.
I want to raise two aspects of Emmet’s attempt which are certainly not central to the story in its usual tellings. One concerns the commons, or utopian thinking and the ideal of égalité. Free trade, free labor, had not yet totally perverted the ideal of liberty. Privatization and its sacred position in the higher reaches of human thinking, or as the single solution to human welfare, had not yet silenced all else, such as the clachan in Ireland, the English commons, the ‘dish with one spoon’ of the Iroquois, or the wild woods of the whole world. Thus, equality was tied to the actualities of production and human subsistence against the fencing out of the enclosure movement or the expropriations of conquest or the kidnappings of the children.
The other aspect of the Emmet revolt which comes to the surface of historical consciousness after the death of Kwong Hae Lee is its internationalism. I am not referring to the diaspora that followed the revolt, the migrations from the emerald isle, as a result of terrorism of the Empire; I refer to the presence of insurgents with international experience preceding the “business”. Matthew Doyle, who took charge of the training of the Dublin men, had served in the British Army in Egypt; Hugh Boyd McGuckian, after the ’98 went to Jamaica, where he entered the French service and conspired to take over the island. Several had served in India. The leading technician at the lab in St Patrick street was Johnstone, a former soldier in the East India Company who learned his rocketry in India. Tipu Sultan, or the “Tiger of Mysore,” employed five thousand rocket men in 1799 against the British invasion of southern India. After the battle of Seringapatam that year the British captured rockets to send back to England. In 23 September 1803 Wellesley defeated the Mahratta confederation whose leader, Scindia, allied with the French and employed the most advanced rocket designs. Emmet, fascinated by mathematics and chemistry since childhood, had brought rocket designs with him from Paris. The defeats in India and in Ireland were incidents of conquest and appropriations of knowledge. The”indigenous peoples” possessed superior rocket scientists. The cosmopolitanism was not abstract; the internationalism was hatched in the British army and navy. When Americans sing of “the rockets’ red glare” they thus allude to Irish and Indian independence as well.
Thomas Emmet sent Robert from Paris in November 1802 a copy of Volney’s Ruins as just translated by Joel Barlow and Thomas Jefferson. Robert so valued it he kept it safe at the St. Patrick street arms depot, where it was found with fifty musket balls, a number of bayonets and handles up the chimney, and the equipment of a rocket lab. This was the basic text of European materialism and freethought. In his account religion was “nothing more than a political engine to conduct the credulous vulgar.” More to the point, Volney imagined the common classes of people, the “untaught men of all countries and of every nation, without prophets, without doctors, and without doctrine” assembling in a circle questioned the religious leaders.” “We ask you whether it be gospel charity which has made you exterminate whole nations in America, to annihilate the empires of Mexico and Peru; which makes you continue to dispeople Africa and sell its inhabitants like cattle, notwithstanding your abolition of slavery; which makes you ravage India and usurp its dominions?”
“Not yet”, then, are words that apply both to the creature and to the realization of the project immanent in the historical conjuncture which Emmet sought to bring to birth. The ideals of equality and solidarity have earthy roots and high loft. They combine abstraction and actuality.
PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at Bard. He is the author of two of CounterPunch’s favorite books, The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org