(The Irish Citizen, January 7, 1871.)
At a meeting in the Cooper Institute, New York, on Thursday evening the 5th of January, 1871, John Mitchel said:
Americans, Frenchmen, Irishmen, if there be any here – I do not know who has a better right to speak for France than an Irishman. It is very true that France sent to this country in its trouble some of her greatest warriors and statesmen to aid in the establishment of your independence against British domination – Lafayette, Rochambeau, D’Estaing – and they had the good fortune and happiness to triumph in your triumph. But do not forget – Irishmen will not forget – that when France was a Republic before – that is to say in ’98 – France sent to the shores of Ireland a larger expedition in ships and soldiers than ever she sent to America. And she sent them to aid in the same purpose – to throw off British dominion. The weather was against them, however; the weather turned out to be English weather, and the splendid fleet was four of five days beating about in Bantry Bay, and at last was driven off entirely by the easterly winds. Another time a second expedition landed in Killala Bay, and another expedition came to Lough Swilly, with Theobald Wolfe Tone on board, and this, too, to aid a small nation to win its liberty.
Now, what nation has ever done such things except France? Yet it is not altogether for these efforts that France has made in our behalf that I am so enthusiastic tonight on behalf of Frenchmen. Neither is it for the blood shed by my people on behalf of France, though 450,000 have fallen fighting her battles in the last hundred and fifty years. Neither is it for that, that I speak for her tonight. No; it is because France this day stands up in Europe the representative champion of a great principle – and that principle is the right of self-government.
Gentlemen, the man who most personifies, who resumes within his own person the whole of the German cause, is that mighty person the Count von Bismarck. You may receive his name with displeasure – it is a name I hate. Nevertheless, I cannot deny to him the most potent intellect, the most indomitable will, the greatest intrepidity that any man in Europe now possesses. If it were not for that he could not have done the actions which he has done. Now, do you know the whole character of that man’s life? He is a man six feet high – a man of fine presence, a soldier, a lawyer, a statesman. Well, that man avows that his highest pride and honour, his greatest distinction in the world, is to be a vassal – literally a vassal. I tell you truly, Count von Bismarck says that he belongs to the class of small proprietors that they call Junkers – Brandenburg vassals to the Margrave of that Principality; and he has always declared that his sphere in life, his whole social and political status, and duty and existence, are summed up in being a faithful vassal to his Margrave. This Margrave happens to be the King of Prussia; so he is a subject by accident of the King of Prussia, but still he has the honour to be a vassal of the House of Brandenburg; and if he is a vassal himself he must have vassals under him, because there never was a vassal that had not a serf. If you were to say to this statesman, “Why, Count, you are after all a man; you have the rights and duties of manhood, and are fit to be a free citizen,” the Count would spurn you with both his heels. A Junker he; nothing else; and the maxim and policy of his life, ever since he entered political life in 1847, has been to induce and force the Prussian monarchy to trample upon and extinguish all civil rights in Germany. If you consult his biography, lately published by his devoted friend, Hezekeel, of Berlin, you will find that the Count has uniformly denied the right of a King of Prussia to yield to Constitutionalism or Parliamentarianism, because this would be an invasion of his status and privileges as a Brandenburg vassal. He maintains that all the world has no right to make a free man of him against his will.
And thus to-day we find him trying to trample under foot the liberties of France; for it was France, by her great Revolution, that destroyed vassals, and serfs, and nobles, and margraves, and landgraves. Since that Revolution there has not been in France a single nobleman, nor a single vassal, nor a single serf. One man may be rich and another poor, but they are all equal before the law, and one man’s son is as good as another. It is for that that the great Prussian monarch is precipitating his forces upon France, under the lead of his vassal, Bismarck.
I think that I describe the situation pretty exactly in its general view. But let us take one example; the Prussians say that they have conquered France – not that it is all over yet – but they say that they have conquered; they say that they intend to take possession of two great counties – Alsace and Lorraine. I mention this as between the German theory of government on the one hand and French freedom on the other.
Alsace is one of the most fertile counties, one of the best counties in France, with the grand old city of Strassburg for its capital. But Alsace is not only a very fertile and prosperous county – it is the most intensely French province in all France. It is true that many of the inhabitants can speak German; they learned that long ago. Sometimes Alsace was a fief of the German Empire, and sometimes of the French Kingdom; but over two hundred years ago all Alsace became French, and French it has remained until this day. All their national memories, all their proud recollections are French. Their soldiers, their young men for generations – for two hundred years – have served the French cause in the armies and in the highest places. Then came the French Revolution, which gave to every man in France his own farm. Well, Alsace got rid of all these Landgraves and Margraves from that moment. Every farmer in Alsace owns his own farm, and they feel that it was France that made men of them. Ask one of these Alsacians whether he is a German or a Frenchman, and he will look at you with astonishment. Why, it was Alsacians that were foremost to meet these Germans when Prussia came across the Rhine seventy years ago, met their assault, and flung them back. Who did this? Kellerman and the men of Alsace. Another Alsacian was Kleber, one of the greatest of French Marshals, and Napoleon’s successor as commander of the French armies in Egypt. In short, when an Alsacian thinks of military glory it is always in connection with the old Tricolour, with the eagles of the Empire, or of the Republic – Empire is a word that we must, perhaps, forget for the present.
It is because France is standing up as the great champion of human freedom and the right of the population to dispose of their own destinies and to order their own government, that we sympathise with her. It is not many years ago since a statesman of England – Lord John Russell, I think – avowed the same principle. There was only one country that he excepted from this principle, and that was Ireland. Now, it is expressly to crush down that French aspiration for self-government that all Germany is united today to conquer France, and to crush her down by mere weight.
I do not deny that it was the Emperor of the French who commenced this war. I do not excuse him. He was bound, before commencing, to see that he had an army fit to do the work. He was the sole governor of France, and he ought to have known what was in the arsenals of his dominions. He ought to have had confidence in his Marshals. Well, if he commenced this war rashly, he has paid the penalty.
But France is not the Emperor. France is grander than all emperors, and before long she will appeal so loudly to all lovers of freedom that even our German citizens themselves must respond. There are vast numbers of excellent German citizens in this country; they came here for self-government, or else what brought them here – and the fully participate in the free exercise of the rights of citizenship and of manhood. They naturally feel some degree of pride that the black and white flag should soar high, amid the glare of the battle-smoke, above the banners of France. There is something in the idea that intoxicates them, but when they see that it is a conspiracy of a feudal oligarchy, why then I believe that even our German friends will unite with us in sending over words of cheer, and say with all their hearts, as we do, Vive la France.