On the Anniversary of the Death of Wolfe Tone

On 19 November 1798 the prison surgeon (a French émigré) whispered over the severely weakened body of Wolfe Tone that should he attempt to move or speak, death would arrive instantly. Overhearing the welcome news, Tone thanked the sawbones and replied, having already written farewell to his wife and children, “What should I wish to live for?” and the first, paramount leader of the struggle for an independent Irish republic duly expired, gracious to the last.

The death prepared for the extinction of the name of Ireland as a nation by the Act of Union forming the United Kingdom. His son describes the subsequent mood not unlike that of Israel in our day or the Ohio river valley two hundred years ago. “The next day was passed in a kind of stupor. A cloud or portentous awe seemed to hang over the city of Dublin. The apparatus of military and despotic authority was every where displayed; no man dared to trust his next neighbor, nor one of the pale citizens to betray, by look or word, his feelings or sympathy.” They hid their evil complicity in a debauch of frightened greed.

Wolfe Tone was born in 1763 in St Bride’s Street, just behind Dublin Castle, and thirty-five years later he died in the Provost’s Prison in the same neighborhood. His mother was the daughter of a captain in the West India trade; his father was a coach-maker. He was not a proletarian, but nor was he far from it. He was the oldest of sixteen children. His mother converted to Protestantism when he was eight years old. The children had a ‘wild spirit of adventure.’ Three died taking up arms against England, a fourth served in Dutch navy and later with the Americans in the war of 1812, a fifth dabbled in espionage for the French and died of yellow fever in Santo Domingo. A lazy student he went to a Latin school to prepare him for Trinity College which he entered in 1781 and excelled in the Historical Society, the debating society formed by Edmund Burke.

In August 1791 as the slaves in Haiti revolted, Wolfe Tone published An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, which joined half a dozen others in the age of manifestoes – Paine, Sièyes, Equiano, Wollstonecraft, Spence, Thelwall–expressing a new prose, a new politics, a new class, and new thinking with a lucidity arising from its purpose which was the destruction of an odious regime and iniquitous civilization. Couldn’t they only get rid of capitalism, while they were at it?

In Ireland then the poor people were Catholic by and large, while the powerful were ascendant Protestants. Wolfe Tone therefore addressed the Protestants of Ireland calling for the extension of the franchise. The grounding of the argument for Catholic liberty was this: “Are we not men, as ye are, stamped with the image of our maker, walking erect, beholding the same light, breathing the same air as Protestants. Hath not a Catholic hands; hath not a Catholic eyes, dimensions, organs, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt by the same weapons, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter, as a Protestant is. If ye prick us, do we not bleed? If ye tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if ye injure us, shall we not revenge?” Catholics were not to be excluded from “the communion of our natural rights.”

The main fear of the Protestants was “the resumption of Catholic forfeitures; and of course setting the property of the kingdom afloat.” He argued that the old dispossessed families were “in penury and ignorance at the spade and the plough.” The Catholic middle class, since repeal of Penal Laws, had become tenants and merchants, and would join the Protestant interest against such confusion. Tone replaced Edmund Burke’s son as agent of the Dublin Catholic Committee. “It is wonderful with what zeal, spirit, activity and secrecy all things are conducted,” he wrote of this period of intense, happy organizing.

Inspired by the French Revolution he helped form the United Irishmen, Catholic and Presbyterian alike. With the English declaration of war (1793) against France and its revolutionary principles, the full weight of repression fell on the United Irish–prison, banning of the Volunteers, outlawing of conventions. The United Irish were driven underground, and Wolfe Tone into exile.

He turned flight into a glorious mission to enlist French help, a revolutionary embassy, sponsored by Catholics in Dublin and Presbyterians in Belfast. Before leaving he ascended Cave Hill with spectacular views over Belfast and much of Ulster (on a clear day) and swore with his comrades of the United Irishmen “never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country, and asserted our independence.” This is part of his answer to the question, “what should I wish to live for?”

When Wolfe Tone and his wife and two children and his sister and his younger brother boarded the Cincinnatus in Belfast harbor to share a cabin six foot by eight for a six weeks’ voyage with three hundred other emigrants, they embarked on a central experience of their age. The oppressed were islanders, and so were the oppressors: the ship therefore became the emblem of all rule and the epitome of every exploitation. A week shy of north America their ship was stopped by three frigates of the Royal Navy and boarded by the hated press gang. All the deckhands and 48 of the passengers were then forcibly impressed by the British. Wearing a sailor’s trousers rather than an officer’s breeches (thus a “sans-culottes”) Tone himself would have been impressed too had it not been for the expostulations of his sister Mary and wife Matilda.

It’s good to remember these facts this week. If you can’t attend the Bush-Blair meeting in London you can go to the movies – The Master and Commander just opened – and meditate on styles of the anglo ruling class in the midst of noisy, soft-focus maritime violence. It is an exciting, counter-revolutionary movie. Wolfe Tone acted as ship’s physician, and despite overcrowding and lack of fresh water, he lost only one. We could thus compare Tone to the fictional Irish ship’s surgeon, Maturin, who plays the scientist and healer in against “Lucky Jack” Aubrey, the belligerent ship’s captain. In September 1795 a leading United Irishman noted that 25,000 of the best men of Ireland were sent to the West Indies, and with the inherent, unintended irony of political economy observed that such a loss will make provisions more plentiful in Ireland and the demand for boots and shoes put more to work.

In Ireland Wolfe Tone had written favorably of the American bill of rights. Classical republicanism provided the rhetoric of opposition–the good of the commonweal, restraint on private interest, civic virtue. The republic was a dispensation to replace monarchy, as one mode of production might replace another to “establish a system of just and rational liberty on the ruins of the thrones and despots of Europe.” He saw the struggle in America as the same as that in Ireland, aristocracy of wealth against democracy of the people. He associated with the Irish around the democratic newspaper, Aurora.

In August 1795 he landed in Wilmington with six hundred books. He lived in West Chester whose Ancient Order of Hibernians division still carries his name. It is the hometown of Bayard Rustin, the gay Afro Am quaker who organized the 1963 March on Washington (“my activism [sprang] from the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal”), as well as the outstanding Marine Corps general, Smedley Butler–“I was a racketeer for capitalism.” Westchester had fifty houses, court house, gaol, and Catholic Church. Then they moved to Downingstown. It was a sweltering summer. Yellow fever had carried off a tenth of the Philadelphia population a year or two earlier.

His first impression of the people of Philadelphia, “a churlish, unsocial race, totally absorbed in making money,” was unimproved by further impressions. “I do believe from my very soul that Washington is a very honest man But he is a high-flying aristocrat.” Washington and his allies pursued policies “to bring in more dollars to the chests of the Mercantile Peerage of America.” He wrote his friend, Thomas Russell, that “the directors of the banks went round and insinuated pretty plainly that those who refused [to heed their wishes] should remember their discounts,” and Washington did. Tone loathed America, and its “abominable selfishness of spirit.” Americans were “the most disgusting race, eaten up with all the vice of commerce and that vilest of all pride, the pride of the purse.”

His strictures against America are all but all omitted in the Life which his son published in two volumes in Washington D.C. in 1826. This deprived Irish Americans with the important hesitations, if not warnings, to the American embrace. “I bless God I am no American,” he wrote to Russell. (Bayard Rustin said something similar:”I fought for many years against being Americ an–in my speech, in my manners, everything.”) Poor Tone was tormented by the thought that his daughter might have to marry one.

Thus, American capitalism was not to live for. What about the multiculture? As for the middle ground or frontier where red, white, and black mixed, he called it “the back.” He was given an introduction to judge Edwards of Philadelphia who possessed of huge tracts of land requiring settlers, and was recruiting Irish. He wrote Russell after his banker dissuaded him from his first idea, “As I have no great talent for the tomahawk, I have therefore given up going into the woods.” In Armagh the Orange Order led a campaign of terror which succeeded in large-scale dispossession of Catholic peasants, comparable to Sharon’s action on the West Bank and the dispossession of the Palestinians or to the militia in the Ohio River valley responsible for the massacres of the Shawnee. The ‘frontier’ is a terror zone. Wolfe Tone saw this clearly in Ireland, as with bated breath he studied the rise of the Defenders, but not in Pennsylvania. No evidence has yet been found of his relations with Volney, or Cobbett, or exiles from Haiti.

On New Year’s 1796 he sailed from New York for le Havre where he disembarked a month later under the nom de guerre “James Smith.” He wrote a novel and journals where we find his irony, fondness for self-mockery, impatience with anything that looks like humbug or pretentiousness; his sense of fun and gaiety; his love of opera, ballet, theatre; his gift for friendship. His embassy was to agitate from bureau to bureau. A small force ready to land in Belfast. This he called the revolutionary plan, “that is to say I reckon only on the Sans-culottes.” He refused to act the part of the subaltern. Tone proposed landing at a point near in England and then dashing to London. What Tone wants from the French is a point d’appui, a starting-point, that Archimedian fulcrum simple in itself but able to move mountains, or give the Brits the toss.

Irish sailors in the Royal Navy were to be offered increased pay and the right to elect their own officers, under proclamations issued by the United Irish, argued Tone. He considered abandoning corporal punishment. The arguments were confirmed by the mutinies of 1797. The militia in Ireland would be offered a provision of land. The “immediate confiscation of every shilling of English property in Ireland.” He wrote the French ambassador “for the first time in six hundred years united among themselves and all sects and parties save the aristocracy and the rich join in the utmost hatred and abhorrence of England.” “It is evident from the general sentiment of the lower classes of the people that it will be impossible Ireland can long remain in her present situation. They all look to the French, and consider them as fighting their battles.”

Already in 1794 he understood the revolutionary dynamic to the left and the enlistment in the process of ever increasing numbers of people. This social movement was reflected in the revolutionary’s thinking. In 1794 he wrote, “the power of these people being founded on property, the first convulsion would level it with the dust.” In 1796 he told the French that “the revolution was not to be made for the people of property.” He was fully aware of the military necessity of making requisitions on the one hand and the gallows on the other, and nevertheless concluded, “If the men of property will not support us, they must fall; we can support ourselves by the aid of that numerous and respectable class of the community, the men of no property.”

He comprehended the class war. “The Irish aristocracy are putting themselves in a state of nature with the people, and let them take the consequences. They show no mercy, and they deserve none.” “Our unfortunate and misguided peasantry have become more outrageous; neither the gaol nor the gibbet deter them; they even meet death with firmness.” Two regiments mutinied in Ireland against service in the West Indies.

The story of the mutinies aboard these violent vectors of globalization is kept quiet in The Master and Commander where the voice of the mastered and commanded is provided by decrepit old geezer who leads the crew with a mangled Old Testament version of Jonah and Satan, as far from Blake or C.L.R. James as you could imagine. Indeed neither Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, nor Melville, whether in White Jacket, or Moby Dick, or Billy Budd, finds even an echo in this movie. Melville referred to the crews as an Anacharsis Clootz delegation, referring to the hippie-like episode in the French Revolution when the author of The Republic of Mankind invaded the constituent assembly with a cosmopolitan crew of Russians, Poles, Indians, Arabs, Chaldeans, &c. In the age of the birth of nations the ship was also the midwife of cosmopolitanism. The bas-relief at the foot of the Nelson plinth in Trafalgar Square represents more ethnic diversity than this movie whose range of human hue about equals that found in the massive, heroic, history paintings in the Queen’s Dressing Room of the Houses of Parliament–where the sailors are all white, and none Irish. We know that a fifth of Nelson’s fleet was black.

To make the contempt of the people absolutely clear, the old man had recently a frontal lobotomy, and part of his brain replaced with a large coin. The person with money on the brain, however, is “Lucky Jack” Aubrey, the captain–‘the prize’ is his last word on boarding the enemy. The film of global counter-revolution in the week of the FTAA in Miami. It is a far cry from la république universelle advocated by the ambassador of the human race, as Clootz called himself, who actually gave a testimony to a man from Mesopotamia as “a free man of the earth.”

Let me not flog a dead horse. Wolfe Tone enjoyed a sea yarn as well as any. Indeed he wrote on the subject. “Battles and victories are fine things to read and hear tell of, and, for my own part, I like stories of that kind as well as another, but never could learn what good came to the poor people by a battle or a victory.” It was a brilliant essay in navalist deconstruction written as “A Liberty Weaver” in 1793. “Many of us formerly, he continued, “could take a turn aboard a privateer or man of war for a year or two and then we had a chance of picking up a little prize money but [now] there is no such thing–all wooden legs and no gold chains.”

Wolfe Tone deliberated with the French Directory over the readiness of the sailors of the Royal Navy to mutiny. Tone learned that on one of the frigates 210 of the 220 men on board were Irish. Tone saws coffles of chained and handcuffed recruits dragged from their homes through the countryside. Wolfe Tone did not build from the sailors’ patriotism but from his passions and interests. He did not deceive himself in thinking that brutalization was sufficient preparation for leadership. The idea of “debauching the Irish seamen in the British navy is in my mind flat nonsense” though often proposed by the French. Within a year the fleet was flying the red flag of the floating republic at the Nore. Three score hangings put an end to the mutiny, with the great and long-lasting victory that sixteen, not fourteen ounces shall comprise the pursers’ pound.

Tone received a commission in the French army, “Citoyen Wolfe Tone, Chef de Brigade in the service of the republic” and he sailed on the Hoche with the expedition to invade Ireland in 1798. His ship “was soon surrounded by four sail of the line and a frigate, and began one of the most obstinate and desperate engagements which have ever been fought on the ocean. During six hours, she sustained the fire of the whole fleet, till her masts and rigging were swept away, her scuppers flowed with blood, her wounded filled the cock pit, her shattered ribs yawned at each new stroke and let in five feet of water in the hold, her rudder was carried off, and she floated a dismantled wreck on the waters; her sails and cordage hung in shreds, nor could she reply with a single gun from her dismantled batteries to the unabating cannonade of the enemy.” Tone commanded one of the batteries and fought with utmost desperation. He was unrecognized until a leader of the Derry Orangemen a college fellow student saw him at dinner. When he was placed in shackles, he defiantly said “I feel prouder to wear these chains than if I was decorated with the star and garter of England.”

His plea was to be shot by firing squad, a soldier’s death with honor. The request was denied; he was to die the death of a traitor. Cornwallis, however, somewhat mitigated the punishment: his skull was not to be piked in a public place. Wolfe Tone took a knife to his own throat, perhaps to gain time for a legal appeal. Friends or family were not permitted to visit him. There was no coroner’s inquest. The authorities were reluctant to acknowledge that he was wounded. “As for what passed within the Provost’s Prison, it must remain forever among the guilty and bloody mysteries of that pandemonium,” wrote his son who did not consider it suicide: “it was merely the resolution of a noble mind to disappoint, by his own act, the brutal ferocity of his enemies, and avoid the indignity of their touch.” Tom Bartlett considers it an open question whether he intended to commit suicide, in contrast to Marianne Elliott who says it’s indisputable. Bartlett argues that had Tone intended to kill himself the time to have done so was aboard the furious action on the Hoche. Tone’s mistake was that he cut too deeply, hence his remark, “I am sorry I have been so bad an anatomist.”

Wolfe Tone accepted the chances of war, he “braved the terrors of the ocean covered as I knew it to be with the triumphant fleets of that power which it was my glory and my duty to oppose” “I have courted poverty; I have left a beloved wife, unprotected, and children whom I adored, fatherless. After such sacrifices, in a cause which I have always conscientiously considered as the cause of justice and freedom–it is no great effort, at this day, to add ‘the sacrifice of life.’

Before setting sail for his last attempt at liberating Ireland, twice Tone expressed his wish to cheat the British gallows with the simple prayer, “please God, they should never have his poor bones to pick.” Yeats picked up the theme in his poem, “Sixteen Dead Men,” about those shot in the Easter Rising of 1916.

How could you dream they’d listen That have an ear alone For those new comrades they have found, Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone, Or meddle with our give and take That converse bone to bone?

What is the conversation bone to bone? It refers to unfinished business: the Chaldeans, the independent republic, Mesopotamia, the election of officers, the “back,” American capitalism. It is a conversation between this and the past generations. The dead are unquiet, not silent sentries to immortality or nullity. As pertains to unfinished business, whether those in the conversation are alive or dead is the least of it. The pith and marrow of the conversation arises from recognition, choice, and courage. “What should I wish to live for?” indeed!

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. 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: plineba@yahoo.com


Jervis Anderson, Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen (HarperCollins: New York, 1997)

Thomas Bartlett (ed.), The Life of Wolfe Tone Compiled and arranged by William Theobald Wolfe Tone (Lilliput Press: Dublin, 1998)

Thomas Bartlett, David Dickson, Dáire Keogh, Kevin Whelan, (eds.), 1798–a Bicentenary Perspective (Four Courts: Dublin, 2003)

Smedley D. Butler, War is a Racket (Feral House: Los Angeles, 1935 and 2003)

Marianne Elliott, Wolfe Tone: Prophet of Irish Independence (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1989)

C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (Allison & Busby: London, 1985)

James Smyth, The Men of No Property: Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the late 18th century (St Martin’s: New York, 1992)

Albert Soboul, “Preface” to Anacharsis Cloots Oeuvres, 3 vols. (Munich: Kraus, 1980)



Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: plineba@gmail.com