Saturday, January 29, 2011

Fellow's Perspective: Peter Gilmore on William Irvine

 Today's entry begins a new series showcasing the work of David Library Fellows. Every year the Library awards residential research fellowships that include a stipend and one month's lodging on the Library's campus in the Feinstone Residence for Scholars. Dr. Peter Gilmore, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, joined us over the summer to conduct research on western Pennsylvania politics and Presbyterians. 


William Irvine: Distinguished Revolutionary Veteran and Political Moderate Outraged by the Excesses of Conservative Politicians

by Dr. Peter Gilmore

William Irvine (1741-1804), a physician from County Fermanagh in the north of Ireland, emerged a major figure in Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary and Early Republic eras. As a brigadier general, Irvine had responsibility for operations based at Fort Pitt in the latter years of the war, and returned west to the Ohio Country in 1794 in command of the Pennsylvania militia assembled to quell the Whiskey Rebellion. He was a Congressman and trustee of Dickinson College. Irvine is often regarded as a Federalist because of his firm support for ratification of the United States Constitution. However, upon examining the correspondence of General Irvine contained in the Draper Manuscripts, it gradually became clear to me that he might better be described as a moderate, without respect to partisan political designations. While certainly not a radical like some other prominent Irish immigrants (William Findley and John Smilie come to mind), Irvine responded critically, even testily, to the conservative direction of politics in post-war America.

Irvine’s opinions were expressed in a correspondence of many years with Baron Gustavus de Rosenthal—who had been known as “John Rose” when the two men served together at Fort Pitt.

On May 30, 1796, Irvine wrote to his Livonian former comrade-in-arms that the Jay Treaty had been approved. “Perhaps it is best, upon the whole, but there is a growing British influence among us, that unless soon checked will be worse to bear than even war.”

The immigrant Irish Presbyterian questioned the Adams administration’s tilt toward Britain and hostile posture toward revolutionary France. “It grieves me to think of our old friends quarreling with us,” Irvine wrote Rosenthal in April 1798. Regardless of France’s republican government, the interests of the United States must be defended, said the veteran military leader—although he thought it likely that both French and American leaders were at fault.

Irvine’s anger with the Adams administration, particularly over the Alien and Sedition Acts, exploded in a startling letter of September 3, 1800.
His anti-British animus did not incline him toward support of the administration’s foreign policy. “[T]he British may fairly be called Sea ravens or Robbers, they are too powerful in this way,” Irvine wrote to Rosenthal, going on to describe Napoleon Bonaparte and his officers as “fine Enterprising fellows.”
The one-time Federalist attempted to stand above the fray, having difficulty identifying himself with either political party in the contentious election year of 1800. As he described matters to Rosenthal:

“One party, the Federalists, charge the other, the Democrats, or first called Anti-Federals, being opposed to adopting the present plan of government—but these epithets are worn out, & one is called Aristocratical & the other Democrats; Each with a degree of rancor and abuse. The Aristocrats charge the Democrats with a design to prostrate all government and throw things into [a] state of nature or rather confusion. The Democrats, in return, charge the Aristocrats with soaring too high, nay even with a design to establish a monarchy: A few men on each side may possibly have plans in view they are charged with, but I believe they are indeed few on either side , when the people at large become sensible that the leaders on either side really intend the things mentioned…”

What particularly seems to have angered the immigrant Irvine were the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Alien Act, Irvine fumed, “is so ungrateful, as they never could have established their independence by their nation alone.” The shift in possessive adjectives is astounding. Throughout his correspondence Irvine had been writing as a prominent and respected American, whose letters spoke of “Our government,” “we,” “us.” But consumed by the injustice of the political attack on immigrants, Irvine seemed to sharply recall his own status as foreign-born. The likes of John Adams and his associates were (by implication) “them;” this was “their nation”.

“They have passed a Sedition law, too,” Irvine continued, “& although not expressed, it is intended solely for a few wretched Refugee Irish, who meant only to take shelter from British persecution.” This seems for the revolutionary veteran to have been the Federalists’ ultimate betrayal of the revolutionary cause: the United States government taking the side of America’s former British oppressors and against Irvine’s people—the Presbyterians of Ulster—who had fought to create an independent Irish republic.

As if to assure his correspondent that he has not undergone some peculiar metamorphose, Irvine assured Rosenthal that he was not a democrat and that he continued to support the constitutional government of the United States. However, Irvine admitted, he was not “highly pleased” with the Adams administration—and, he added, he was not alone in thinking that the administration’s actions were not in keeping with American republicanism.

But if not a democrat, Irvine nonetheless conceded that he hoped Thomas Jefferson would replace John Adams as president.
William Irvine: revealed by the papers housed at the David Library of the American as not a Federalist so much as a moderate who by 1800 was unhappy with the excesses of conservative politicians.

David Library of the American Revolution, Film 60, Reel 96, Draper, Lyman Copeland. The Draper manuscripts. Series NN, Pittsburgh and the Northwest, Virginia Papers, Vol. 1, pp147, 155-157; 158-166.

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