John Mitchel met the crisis of 1848 with a policy. Practical Posterity, from its easy chair, has pronounced the policy extravagant and impossible: even, in unctuous moments, reprehensible. Let the Censor stand in the Censured’s place and declare what its wisdom would have counselled a people whose life was assailed. For two years Mitchel had trod the round of Resolution and Protest, Protest and Resolution against the drafting out from Ireland of the food of twenty millions of people to the famishing of eight millions. A third year dawned on the same programme of calculated destruction and futile remonstrance. Mitchel withdrew his name from the second part of the programme and bade his countrymen defend their lives from attack by the ultimate methods of self-preservation.
Mitchel made one miscalculation when he amazed all and scandalised many by introducing the element of reality into the Irish politics of his time. He believed there was hidden in his countrymen a sympathy with his own haughty manhood which he could kindle to devouring flame. He allowed too little for the weight of two centuries of direct oppression, for the senile teaching of a great leader in his dotage, and for the chilling effect of extreme misery on the people whom his masculinity addressed. He told them that the settled policy of England was to reduce the population of this country to easy governable limits, and he bade each man defend his house, his food, his life against that policy. He preached to Ireland a passive resistance reinforced at strategic points by aggressive action, and the Ireland he preached to shrank from the preacher, preferring to sow its fields for foreigners to reap their harvests, and die of hunger on its hearthstone – but in Peace. In a land so lost to reason, the voice of sanity was deemed mad. Ireland failed Mitchel because it failed in manhood. Our shamed consciousness of this is the impulse of our anxiety to explain Mitchel as a good man crazed by oppression.
Thirty years later, Mitchel’s policy, interpreted and applied in a stronger generation by the man whose career Mitchel’s writings moulded – Charles Stewart Parnell – brought the stoutest bulwark of English power in Ireland to the ground. When Parnell bade the farmers of Ireland “Keep a firm grip on their holdings,” he crystallised into a phrase the policy Mitchel urged unsuccessfully in 1848. Mitchel’s generation failed him, his sacrifice seemed vain – but, sixty years after, we can look back to the Ireland of slavish resignation – the land of carcases and ruins – the Finis Hiberniae of the cheering auditors to a British Minister and the leader writers of the English press, and, seeing out of that degradation and misery and ruin new forces grow to encounter and defeat English policy in Ireland, realise that the haughty spirit of a great Irishman though baffled in its own generation may set the feet of our country in the way of triumph in the next. Fifty years passed ere the voice of Swift in the “Drapier’s Letters” spoke winningly to England through the cannon of the Volunteers. Thirty years after Mitchel was borne a shackled prisoner from a cowed country, two strong fortresses of England’s power in Ireland perished in the fires of resistance to oppression he had rekindled in an abject land.
Nature gifted Mitchel with the genius, and more than the strength of Swift. No party prejudices or personal animosities distracted or marred his treatment of his country’s enemies. Few men have possessed his intellectual courage in following out unshrinkingly a thought, an opinion, a conviction to its logical conclusion, however terrible the conclusion might be. Other men weighing the trend of English Legislation in Ireland from 1829, recalling the incautious public statement of an English Minister that the growth of Irish population was a menace, and observing the attitude of the Government in 1846 and 1847 – its refusal to close our ports to the export of food, its alleged relief measures which steadily forced the comparatively well-off farmer to the choice of emigration or starvation – had come to the same conclusion as Mitchel – that the English Government was deliberately using the pretext of the failure of the potato crop to reduce the Celtic population by famine and exile. The logic of events compelled the conclusion. All but Mitchel shrank from proclaiming the fact, not through a cowardly fear of personal consequences, but through a common intellectual timidity.
To the end of his days Mitchel remained the fearless speaker of truth as he conceived it, regardless of personal consequences, and the foe of humbug no matter what its garb. Necessarily he raised up hosts of enemies and spent a stormy life. The United States received him with fulsome welcome on his escape from the hands of the English. He passed its honours when, alarmed by his manner of receiving them, it hinted that they should be taken as a personal compliment to John Mitchel, not as an expression of sympathy with Ireland in her efforts against English Government. Vanity was absent from his composition. Later, when Mitchel avowed his approval of slave-holding and the Northern States which had but a few months before banquetted, bouquetted and brass-banded him to weariness, shrieked threat and insult, he was genuinely astonished to find that in a Land of Liberty” a man was supposed to conceal unpopular opinions. His demolition of the “moral basis” of the Abolitionist case in his trenchant letters to the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, who unluckily for himself crossed swords with Mitchel, was avenged later on by the subjection of Mitchel to harsh treatment and attempted personal indignities when he fell a prisoner into Yankee hands at the close of the Civil War. In the midst of the blizzard of abuse that raged around him when in the heart of Abolitionism, he opposed the Coercion of the Southern States, Mitchel remained as cool as when week by week in Dublin he fought the English Government into the dilemma of either “openly and notoriously” packing the jury before which it would arraign him or letting him go free. Had humanity not enough crimes already to its charge, he inquired, that the Benevolists and Human-progress people should invent another? Were they to write “criminal” across the civilisations and the wise and noble men of all ages because some Benevolists at the end of the eighteenth century had decided for the first time that slaveholding was immoral.
“Would you sell a being with an immortal soul?” the Abolitionists asked Mitchel furiously.
“Certainly, Moses and the Prophets did the same.”
“Would you send back a fugitive slave to his master?”
“Assuredly – Paul, the Apostle, very honestly sent back the absconding Onesimus.” “Slave-holding,” he declared, “is not a crime and nobody ever thought it a crime until near the close of the eighteenth century.”
“Are you who would have us believe it is,” he asked the dumbfounded Benevolists, “better Christians than Him who founded Christianity, better lovers of liberty than the Greeks who invented it, better republicans than Washington and Jefferson and all the republicans of old?”
When his hysterical opponents inquired did he not stand on the principle of the inalienable right of every human being to life, liberty, and happiness, Mitchel pointed out to the dupes of this cant that no human being ever had or could have such inalienable right. When they attempted to confuse the issue of National Liberty with the social institution of slave-holding, Mitchel silenced them by inquiring whether George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were inconsistent in asserting American liberties while buying and using slaves. The liberty he fought for for Ireland, he wrote, was just the sort of liberty the slave-holding Corcyraeans asserted against Corinth, the liberty the slave-holding Corinthians fought for against Rome, and the slave-holding Americans wrung from England.
To “What was your principle,” he replied in a memorable sentence –
“My principle was simply that Irishmen were fitted for a higher destiny and sphere, and that they all ought to feel British dominion as intolerable as I did – My principle was that even if all other Irishmen chose to submit to that mean tyranny, I for my part would choose rather to die.”
When, overthrown in controversy, the “Benevolists,” and “Human Progressmen,” as Mitchel contemptuously styled those who pretended that human equality existed, invited Mitchel “to come back to them,” his scornful reply was, “Come back to you! Why, when was I ever amongst you?”
In the essential work of dissevering the case for Irish independence from theories of humanitarianism and universalism, Mitchel raised additional enemies to those which his resolute opposition to the anti-Catholic fanaticism of the Know-Nothings and his conflict with the writers who partly served the Know-Nothings with an excuse for existence, had provided him. It is doubtful if any man before had ever arrayed in enmity to him so many elements of a great community mutually detesting each other, but for the time detesting more the man who impartially unmasked and whipped their various impositions on honest living. Allied humbug was no match for Mitchel’s genius and strength in controversy, but it was strong enough to injure his material fortunes – a result he bore with cheerful fortitude. In after years he suffered in his fortunes by his condemnation of the bombast and “sunburstery” which encrusted the Fenian movement in its decadent stage. The fact did not affect his attitude by a hairs breadth. Humbug in green labelling itself Patriotism was equally to be stripped with humbug in ermine labelled Law and Government. The spirit of Fenianism – which was indeed his own – and its object, had his support but he declined to assume its leadership. He doubted the efficacy of secret conspiracy to serve Ireland, and he had no illusion as to the relative, strength of England and Ireland whilst England was at peace with the Great Powers.
Mitchel died as he lived, in battle with his country’s enemies. Gifted with all the qualities of greatness, but lacking personal ambition, passionate love of his country and fierce indignation at her oppression impelled him into her public life, and in all her public life no character stronger and purer can be found. He strove to breathe the fire of his own soul into his country-men, and his spirit redeems the most humiliating page of Irish History in the nineteenth century. The imagination travels back to the days of chivalry at the spectacle of this gallant gentleman in a forlorn land breasting its mighty oppressors – measuring himself singly against an Empire – in no intoxication of vanity or blinded rage but because nobility compelled.
It is the fate of four great Irishmen – Sean O’Neill, Jonathan Swift, John Mitchel and Charles Parnell to have an inky tribe of small Irishmen in every generation explaining and apologising for them. Mitchel has been explained as one who merely hated England, and apologised for as a good man unbalanced by the horrors he witnessed. Even his views on negro-slavery have been deprecatingly excused, as if excuse were needed for an Irish Nationalist declining to hold the negro his peer in right. When the Irish Nation needs explanation or apology for John Mitchel the Irish Nation will need its shroud. His was no nature to be ruled by negatives. His hatred of England was the legitimate child of the love of Ireland that glowed in the heart of the man who spent his leisure scaling her hills, tramping her ways and communing with her kindly peasantry. Out of the love he bore to all things animate and inanimate in that Ireland was born the fierce hatred of the insolent oppression that struck in his time its deadliest blow against her life. The flabby doctrine that has gained some vogue in Ireland – mortally afraid of being esteemed behind “The Age,” or limping in the rear of “Progressive Thought” – that an Irish Nationalist must by very virtue of being a Nationalist subscribe to and swallow all the Isms of Sentimentalism, has presumed to apologise for Mitchel – even sometimes to chide his memory – because he laughed at theories of human perfectability and equality, and despised the altruism which sees in the criminal a brother to be coaxed, not a rogue to be lashed. In a century which loaded the shoulders of Honesty with the burden of “reforming” those who picked its pockets and dubbed the tyranny Enlightenment, Benevolence, Philanthropy, and Progress, Mitchel was largely out of place. He was a sane Nietzsche in his view of man, but this sanity was a century out of date back and forward. Cant and Humbug were the ruling gods of his time, which he shocked by his blasphemies against them. They are not dead gods yet. But had his views been as wrong on other questions as the apologists believe or affect to believe them to have been, no need or right exists to offer excuse for them. The right of an Irish Nationalist to hold and champion any view he pleases, extraneous to Irish Nationalism, is absolute. The right of the Irish to political independence never was, is not, and never can be dependent upon the admission of equal right in all other peoples. It is based on no theory of, and dependable in no wise for its existence or justification on the “Rights of Man,” it is independent of theories of government and doctrines of philanthropy and Universalism. He who holds Ireland a nation and all means lawful to restore her the full and free exercise of national liberties thereby no more commits himself to the theory that black equals white, that kingship is immoral, or that society has a duty to reform its enemies than he commits himself to the belief that sunshine is extractable from cucumbers.
Against all effort to limit the liberty of the Irish Nationalist to think for himself – to sew on to the doctrine of Ireland’s national independence a tale of obligation to the world at large – or rather the sentimentalist world at large – John Mitchel is the superb protest.
Between John Mitchel and Louis Kossuth there is an obvious comparison. Both were lawyers who relinquished their profession and adopted journalism for the single purpose of helping their country to independence. Both, when calamity fell upon their countries and its leaders stood bewildered and appalled, sprang at the imminent risk of personal destruction to the tribunes and called their nations to action. Here the comparison begins to fail. Kossuth’s country responded to the call, Mitchel’s country shrank back. But the personal likeness between the men was not great – Kossuth was an enthusiastic republican; Mitchel, a nationalist, “cared not twopence” for republicanism in the abstract. Kossuth was a writer of ability – Mitchel a man of the first literary genius. Finally, Kossuth’s great virtues were clouded by his vanity; Mitchel, like all proud men, had no vanity. As he was Kossuth’s predecessor, not his imitator, in 1848, so he was Kossuth’s superior save in fortune. Fortune has confined the fame of John Mitchel to the country he served, while it has given the name of Louis Kossuth a world significance.
Of Mitchel’s writings it can be said that he never wrote a paragraph which there is not an intellectual pleasure in reading, but the bulk of what he wrote still remains uncollected. A quality rare, and growing rarer, marks Mitchel’s fiercest polemics – his scrupulous exactness in quotation. He never misquoted an opponent, suppressed an adverse argument, explicitly or implicitly misused an authority. His inimitable “Jail Journal” is the compensation for Ireland recreant to the call of the manliest man who summoned her to action in generations. In the political literature of Ireland it has no peer outside Swift. In the literature of the prison it has no equal. Silvio Pellico’s “Mei Prigione” alone approaches its fascination. Here a great character pours itself out, exalting the spirit in the best of us, banishing from us the thought of pity for the prisoner, and replacing it by exultation in him whose free soul no prison may confine – no fate can daunt. It is a book none who has read once will not read again and again, and say of its author – This was a Man.