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Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798)

This article was written by Robert Dunlop and was published in 1898

Theobald Wolfe Tone, United Irishman, eldest son of Peter Tone (d. 1805) and Margaret (d. 1818), daughter of Captain Lamport of the West India merchant service, was born in Stafford Street, Dublin, on 20 June 1763. His grandfather, a small farmer near Naas, was formerly in the service of the family of Wolfe of Castle Warden, co. Kildare (afterwards ennobled by the title of Kilwarden in the person of Arthur Wolfe, viscount Kilwarden). Hence Theobald derived his additional Christian name of Wolfe. Upon the grandfather's death in 1766, his property, consisting of freehold leases, descended to his eldest son, Peter, at that time engaged in successful business as a coachmaker in Dublin; he subsequently was involved in litigation, and became insolvent, but towards the end of his life held a situation under the Dublin corporation.

The intelligence manifested by Tone as a boy led to his removal in 1775 from a ‘commercial’ to a ‘Latin’ school, but soon after this his father met with a serious accident and had to abandon business and retire to his farm at Bodenstown. Left to his own devices, Tone shirked his lessons, and announced his desire to become a soldier. Very much against his will he entered Trinity College, Dublin, as a pensioner in February 1781. At college he was incorrigibly idle, and, becoming mixed up as second to one of his companions in a duel, in which the opposing party was killed, came near to being expelled the university.

Meanwhile he fell in love with Matilda Witherington, who at the time was living with her grandfather, a rich old clergyman of the name of Fanning, in Grafton Street. He persuaded her to elope, married her, and went for the honeymoon to Maynooth. The girl was barely sixteen, he barely twenty-two. But, though much sorrow and privation awaited them, the union proved a happy one. The marriage being irreparable, Tone was forgiven, took lodgings near his wife's grandfather, and in February 1786 graduated B.A. But a fresh disagreement with his wife's family followed, and, having no resources of his own, he went for a time to live with his father. Here a daughter was born to him. With a view to providing for his family, he repaired alone to London in January 1787, entered himself a student-at-law in the Middle Temple, and took chambers on the first floor of No. 4 Hare Court. But this, he confesses, was about all the progress he made in his profession; for after the first month he never opened a law book, nor was he more than three times in his life in Westminster Hall.

In 1788 he was joined by his younger brother, William Henry, who, having run away from home at sixteen and entered the East India service, found himself without employment, after he had spent six years in garrison duty at St. Helena. With him Tone generously shared his lodgings and ill-filled purse. They spent some of their evenings in devising a scheme for the establishment of a military colony on one of the South Sea islands, the object of which was ‘to put a bridle on Spain in time of peace and to annoy her grievously in that quarter in time of war.’ The scheme, drawn up in the form of a regular memorial, was delivered by Tone at Pitt's official residence, but failed to elicit any notice. Tone's indignation was not mollified by a mild rebuke from his father on the misuse of his time, and in a transport of rage he offered to enlist in the East India service. His offer was declined by the company. His brother, William Henry Tone, however, re-entered the company's service in 1792. Subsequently, in 1796, William went to Poona and entered the Mahratta service. He wrote a pamphlet upon ‘Some Institutions of the Mahratta People,’ which has been praised by Grant Duff and other historians. He was killed in 1802 in an action near Choli Mahéswur, while serving with Holkar.

Meanwhile a reconciliation was effected between Wolfe Tone and his wife's family on condition of his immediate return to Ireland. He reached Dublin on Christmas day 1788, and, taking lodgings in Clarendon Street, purchased about £100 worth of law books. In February 1789 he took his degree of LL.B., and, being called to the Irish bar in Trinity term following, joined the Leinster circuit. Despite his ignorance of law, he managed nearly to clear his expenses; but the distaste he had for his profession was insurmountable, and, following the example of some of his friends, he turned his attention to politics. Taking advantage of the general election, he early in 1790 published ‘A Review of the Conduct of Administration, addressed to the Electors and Free People of Ireland.’ The pamphlet, a defence of the opposition in arraigning the administration of the Marquis of Buckingham, attracted the attention of the leaders of the Whig Club. Tone, though holding even at this time views much in advance of theirs, listened to their overtures and was immediately retained in the petition for the borough of Dungarvan, on the part of James Carigee Ponsonby, with a fee of a hundred guineas. But, perceiving that his expectations of obtaining a seat in parliament through the whigs were not likely to be realised, he soon severed his connection with them.

Coming to the conclusion ‘that the influence of England was the radical vice of’ the Irish government, he seized the opportunity of a prospect of war between England and Spain in the matter of Nootka Sound to enunciate his views in a pamphlet signed ‘Hibernicus,’ arguing that Ireland was not bound by any declaration of war on the part of England, but might and ought as an independent nation to stipulate for a neutrality. The pamphlet attracted no notice.

About this time, while listening to the debates in the Irish House of Commons, Tone made the acquaintance of Thomas Russell (1767-1803), who perhaps more than himself deserves to be regarded as the founder of the United Irish Society. The acquaintance speedily ripened into friendship, and the influence of Russell, who held a commission in the army, led to a revival of Tone's plan for establishing a military colony in the South Seas. The memorial, when revised, was forwarded to the Duke of Richmond, master of the ordnance, who returned a polite acknowledgment and suggested that it should be sent to the foreign secretary, Lord Grenville. A civil intimation from the latter to the effect that the scheme would not be forgotten convinced Tone that he had nothing to hope for in that direction, and satisfied him that it only remained for him to make Pitt regret the day he ignored his merits. During the winter of 1790-91 Tone started at Dublin a political club consisting of himself, Whitley Stokes, William Drennan, Peter Burrowes, Joseph Pollock, Thomas Addis Emmet , and several others. But the club, after three or four months' sickly existence, collapsed, leaving behind it a puny offspring of about a dozen essays on different subjects — a convincing proof, in Tone's opinion, ‘that men of genius to be of use must not be collected together in numbers.’

Meanwhile the principles of the French revolution were making great progress, especially among the Scottish presbyterians in the north of Ireland. On 14 July 1791 the anniversary of the capture of the Bastile was celebrated with great enthusiasm at Belfast, and Tone, who was becoming an ardent republican, watched the progress of events with intense interest. He had recently convinced himself that, if Ireland was ever to become free and independent, the first step must be the laying aside of religious dissensions between the protestants and Roman catholics. ‘To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country — these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of protestants, catholics, and dissenters — these were my means.’

He had little hope that the protestants of the established church could be induced to surrender their privileges in the interest of the nation at large; but that the protestant dissenters could be persuaded to unite with the Roman catholics seemed to him not only feasible, but, in the light of the Belfast resolutions, not very difficult to effect. To promote this object he in September published a well-written pamphlet, under the signature of a ‘Northern Whig,’ entitled ‘An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland.’ It was addressed to the dissenters, and its main object was to prove that no serious danger would attend the enfranchisement of the catholics. It is said that ten thousand copies were sold. Besides bringing him into personal contact with the leaders of the catholic party, it obtained for him the honour — an honour he shared with Henry Flood alone — of being elected an honorary member of the first or green company of Belfast volunteers.

Tone, at the suggestion of Russell, paid a visit to Belfast early in October to assist at the formation of ‘a union of Irishmen of every religious persuasion in order to obtain a complete reform of the legislature, founded on the principles of civil, political, and religious liberty.’ This was accomplished during a stay of three weeks, ‘perhaps the pleasantest in my life,’ in Belfast. He returned to Dublin ‘with instructions to cultivate the leaders in the popular interest, being protestants, and, if possible, to form in the capital a club of United Irishmen.’ He met with an ardent ally in James Napper Tandy, who, like himself, had strong leanings towards republicanism, but was content for the present to limit his object to a reform of parliament. With Tandy's assistance a club was started in Dublin; but Tone was surprised, and not a little mortified, to find that he speedily lost all influence in its proceedings. After a little time he drifted out of contact with it. Nevertheless, the rapid growth of the society gratified him, and his firmness, in conjunction with Archibald Hamilton Rowan, in supporting Tandy in his quarrel with the House of Commons, during which time he acted as pro-secretary of the society, strengthened its position.

But an intimacy with John Keogh, the actual leader at the time of the catholic party and himself a prominent United Irishman, had given a new turn to his thoughts, and, in consequence of the mismanagement of the catholic affairs by Richard Burke, he was early in 1792 offered the post of assistant secretary to the general committee at an annual salary of £200. The offer was accepted, and his discreet behaviour won him the general respect of the whole body. After the concession of Langrishe's relief bill (February 1792), and the rejection of their petition praying for ‘some share of the elective franchise,’ the catholics set about reorganising their committee with a view to making it more thoroughly representative. A circular letter was prepared inviting the catholics in every county to choose delegates to the general committee sitting in Dublin, who were, however, only to be summoned on extraordinary occasions, leaving the common routine of business to the original members. The publication of this plan alarmed the government, and at the ensuing assizes the grand juries were prompted to pass strong resolutions condemning it as illegal. Tone, at the request of the committee, drew up a statement of the case for the catholics, and submitted it to two eminent lawyers, who pronounced in its favour. Defeated on this point, the government, as Grattan said, ‘took the lead in fomenting a religious war ... in the mongrel capacity of country gentlemen and ministers.’

The catholics themselves were not united on the propriety of the step they were taking. In itself, indeed, the secession of the aristocracy, headed by Lord Kenmare, had strengthened rather than weakened the body. But the seceders had found sympathisers among the higher clergy, and of the episcopate there were several exercising considerable influence in the west of Ireland who regarded the present plan with disapproval. Tone paid several visits to the west of Ireland and to Ulster with a view to restoring harmony to the divergent parties that were concerned in the agitation. During the autumn of 1792 he was busily preparing for the great catholic convention which assembled in Tailors' Hall in Back Lane on 3 December. Of the proceedings of this convention he left a very valuable account, and as secretary he accompanied the delegation appointed to present the catholic petition to the king in London. Hitherto he had managed to work in harmony with Keogh. But in 1793 Keogh (who had ‘a sneaking kindness for catholic bishops’) allowed himself to be outmaneuvred by secretary Hobart and, instead of insisting on ‘complete restitution,’ acquiesced in a bill giving the catholics merely the elective franchise, and consented to a suspension of the agitation. Before terminating its existence, the catholic convention voted Tone £1,500 and a gold medal in recognition of his services. But he was bitterly disappointed, and more than ever inclined to look for the accomplishment of his plans to the co-operation of France.

Hitherto, notwithstanding his position as founder of the United Irish Society, he had avoided compromising himself in any openly unconstitutional proceedings. It was an accident that drew him within the meshes spread for him by government. Early in 1794 William Jackson (1737?-1795) visited Dublin with the object of procuring information for the French government relative to the position of affairs in Ireland. Hearing of Jackson's arrival from Leonard MacNally, with whom (unsuspecting his real character) he was on intimate terms, Tone obtained an interview with Jackson and consented to draw up the memorial he wanted, tending to show that circumstances in Ireland were favourable to a French invasion. This document he handed over to Jackson, but, fearing that he had committed an indiscretion in confiding it to one who, for all he knew, might be a spy, he transferred it to MacNally, by whom it was betrayed to government.

The arrest of Jackson (24 April 1794), followed by the flight of Hamilton Rowan, alarmed him so effectually that he revealed his position to a gentleman, probably Marcus Beresford, ‘high in confidence with the then administration.’ He admitted that it was in the power of government to ruin him, and offered, if he were allowed and could possibly effect it, to go to America. The only stipulation he made was that he should not be required to give evidence against either Rowan or Jackson. The government acceded to his terms. But the prospect which just then presented itself of a radical change in the system of administration, in consequence of the appointment of Earl Fitzwilliam, induced him to delay his departure, and it was only after the collapse of Fitzwilliam's government in March 1795 that he began seriously to prepare to leave the country. That he might not be charged with slinking away, he exhibited himself publicly in Dublin on the day of Jackson's trial, and, having deliberately completed his arrangements, he sailed, with his wife, children, and sister, on board the Cincinnatus from Belfast on 13 June, just a month after the United Irish Society had been reorganised on a professedly rebellious basis. Prior to his departure he had an interview with Emmet and Russell at Rathfarnham, in which he unfolded his projects for the future. His compact with government he regarded as extending no further than to the banks of the Delaware. Arrived in America, he was, in his opinion, perfectly free ‘to begin again on a fresh score.’ His intention was immediately on reaching Philadelphia to set off for Paris, ‘and apply in the name of my country for the assistance of France to enable us to assert our independence.’ His plan was warmly approved by Emmet and Russell, and the assent of Simms, Neilson, and Teeling having been obtained, he regarded himself as competent to speak for the catholics, the dissenters, and the defenders.

After a wearisome voyage, during which he narrowly escaped being pressed on board an English man-of-war, he and his family landed safely at Wilmington on the Delaware on 1 August. Proceeding at once to Philadelphia, he waited on the French minister, Adet, and at his request drew up a memorial on the state of Ireland for transmission to France. Having little expectation that the French government would pay any attention to it, but satisfied with having discharged his duty, he began to think of settling down as a farmer, and was actually in negotiation for the purchase of a small property near Princeton in New Jersey when letters reached him from Keogh, Russell, and Simms, the last with a draft for £200, advising him of the progress Ireland was making towards republicanism, and imploring him ‘to move heaven and earth to force his way to the French government in order to supplicate their assistance.’ Repairing to Philadelphia, and meeting with every encouragement from Adet, who had received instructions to send him over, Tone sailed from New York on 1 January 1796 on board the Jersey, and, after a rough winter passage, landed at Havre a month later. With no other credentials than a letter in cipher from Adet to the Committee of Public Safety, with only a small sum of money necessary for his own personal expenses, without a single acquaintance in France, and with hardly any knowledge of the language, Tone, alias citizen James Smith, arrived at Paris on 12 February and took up his residence at the Hôtel des étrangers in the Rue Vivienne. Within a fortnight after his arrival he had discussed the question of an invasion of Ireland with the minister of foreign affairs, De la Croix, and been admitted to an interview with Carnot. He was soon at work preparing fresh memorials on the subject. His statements as to the strength of the revolutionary party in Ireland were doubtless exaggerated, but in the main he tried to delude neither himself nor the French government.

Every encouragement was given him to believe that an expedition on a considerable scale would be undertaken; but weeks lengthened out into months, and, seeing nothing done, he found it at times hard to believe in the sincerity of the government. Although his loneliness and his scanty resources depressed him, he liked Paris and the French people, and looked forward, if nothing came of the expedition, to settling down there with his wife. Money, for which he reluctantly applied, was not forthcoming, but a commission in the army, which he trusted would save him in the event of being captured from a traitor's death, was readily granted, and on 19 June he was breveted chef de brigade. With the appointment about the same time of Hoche to the command of the projected expedition matters assumed a brighter aspect. For Hoche, whom he inspired with a genuine interest in Ireland, Tone conceived an intense admiration, and on his side Hoche felt a kindly regard for Tone, whom he created adjutant-general. But even Hoche's enthusiasm was unable to bring order into the French marine department, and it was not until 15 December that the expedition, consisting of seventeen ships of the line, thirteen frigates, and a number of corvettes and transports, making in all forty-three sail, and carrying about fifteen thousand soldiers, together with a large supply of arms and ammunition for distribution, weighed anchor from Brest harbour. Disaster, for which bad seamanship and bad weather were responsible, attended the fleet from the beginning. Four times it parted company, and when the Indomptable, with Tone on board, arrived off the coast of Kerry, the Fraternité, carrying Hoche, was nowhere to be seen. Grouchy, upon whom the command devolved, had still between six and seven thousand men, and in spite of the absence of money and supplies (for the troops had nothing but the arms in their hands), he would have risked an invasion. But before a landing could be effected a storm sprang up, and, after a vain attempt to weather it out at anchor, the ships were compelled to seek the open sea.

On New Year's day 1797 Tone, after a perilous voyage, found himself back again at Brest, whence he bore Grouchy's despatches to the directory and the minister of war. Reaching Paris on the 12th, he heard of his wife's arrival at Hamburg, but being ordered to join the army of the Sambre and Meuse under Hoche, it was not till 7 May that he obtained a short leave of absence, and joined his family at Groningen.

Meanwhile another expedition against Ireland was planning, in which the Dutch fleet was to play an important part. Tone was allowed by Hoche to accompany the expedition. He received a friendly reception from General Daendels, and on 8 July embarked on board the admiral's ship, the Vryheid, of 74 guns. But the wind, which up to the point of embarkation had stood favourable to them, veered round and kept them pent up in the Texel till the expedition, owing to shortness of provisions and the overwhelming strength of the British fleet under Admiral Duncan, had to be abandoned. Other plans were formed, and at the beginning of September Tone was despatched to Wetzlar to consult Hoche. Here a fresh disappointment awaited him. Five days after his arrival Hoche died.

Hoche's death broke Tone's connection with the army of the Sambre and Meuse, and he proceeded to Paris. He had lost much of his old enthusiasm, while the intrigues of Tandy and Thomas Muir against him and Edward John Lewins gave him a disgust for the agitation which it required a strong sense of duty to overcome. On 25 March 1798 he received letters of service as adjutant-general in the Armée d'Angleterre, and, having settled his family in Paris, he set out for headquarters at Rouen on 4 April. But as the spring wore on his scepticism as to Bonaparte's interest in Ireland increased. His doubts were justified, for when the news of the rebellion in Ireland reached France, Bonaparte was on his way to Egypt. He himself, when he heard of the rising in Wexford, hastened to Paris to urge the directory to equip an expedition before it was too late. His efforts were warmly supported by Lewins, but, owing to the disorganised state of the French navy, an expedition on a large scale was out of the question, and all that could be done was to arrange that a number of small expeditions should be directed simultaneously to different points on the Irish coast. Inadequate as this might seem to accomplish the object in hand, Tone had no doubt as to his own course of conduct. He had all along protested that if only a corporal's guard was sent he would accompany it. The first French officer to sail, on 6 August, was General Humbert, with a thousand men and several Irishmen, including Tone's brother Matthew.

On 16 September Napper Tandy, with the bulk of the Irish refugees, effected a landing on Rutland Island. Tone joined General Hardy's division, consisting of the Hoche and eight small frigates and a fast sailing schooner, La Biche. Three thousand men were on board, and they set sail from Brest on 20 September. Making a large sweep to the west with the intention of bearing down on Ireland from the north, but encountering contrary winds, Admiral Bompard arrived off the entrance to Lough Swilly on 10 October. Before he could land the troops a powerful English squadron, under Sir John Borlase, hove in sight. The brunt of the action was borne by the Hoche, and Tone, who had refused to escape in La Biche, commanded one of the batteries. After a determined resistance of four hours the Hoche struck, and two days later Tone and the rest of the prisoners were landed and marched to Letterkenny. On landing he was recognised by Sir George Hill, and, being placed in irons, was sent to Dublin, where he was confined in the provost's prison. On 10 November he was brought before a court-martial, presided over by General Loftus. He made no attempt to deny the charge of treason preferred against him, but he pleaded his rights as a French officer. He had prepared a statement setting forth his object in trying to subvert the government of Ireland; but the court, deeming it calculated to inflame the public mind, allowed him to read only portions of it.

He requested that he might be awarded a soldier's death and spared the ignominy of the gallows. To this end he put in his brevet of chef de brigade in the French army. His bearing during the trial was modest and manly. He was condemned to be executed within forty-eight hours, and, being taken back to prison, he wrote to the directory, commending his wife and family to the care of the republic; to his wife, bidding her a tender farewell; and to his father, declining a visit from him. His request to be shot was refused by Lord Cornwallis. Strenuous efforts were made by Curran to remove his cause to the civil courts. On the morning of the day appointed for the execution application was made in his behalf for an immediate writ of habeas corpus, and his application was granted by Lord Kilwarden. But the military officials, pleading the orders of Lord Cornwallis, refused to obey the writ, and the chief justice at once ordered them into custody. It was then that it was discovered that Tone had taken his fate in his own hands, having on the previous evening cut his throat with a penknife he had secreted about him. All that it remained for the chief justice to do was to issue an order for the suspension of the execution. The wound, though dangerous, had not proved immediately fatal. It had been dressed, but only, it is asserted, to prolong life till the hour appointed for the execution. After lingering for more than a week in great agony, Tone expired on 19 November. His remains, together with his sword and uniform, were given up to his relatives, and two days afterwards he was quietly buried in Bodenstown churchyard. A monument, erected by Thomas Osborne Davisin 1843, was chipped away by his admirers, and had to be replaced by a more substantial one, surrounded by ironwork.

His brother Matthew was taken prisoner at Ballinamuck and hanged at Arbour Hill, Dublin, 29 September. 1798.

Tone's widow survived him many years. On the motion of Lucien Bonaparte, the conseil des cinq-cents made her a small grant, and she continued to live at Chaillot, near Paris, till the downfall of the first empire. In September 1816 she married a Mr. Wilson, an old and highly esteemed friend of Tone, and, after a visit to Scotland, emigrated to America. She survived her second husband twenty-two years, dying at Georgetown on 18 March 1849, aged 81.

Wolfe Tone's ‘Journals’ (which begin properly in October 1791, but are of most interest during the period of his residence in France) supply us with a vivid picture of the man. At the same time it must not be forgotten that these journals were written expressly for the amusement of his wife and his friend Thomas Russell, neither of whom was likely to be misled into treating them too seriously. For Tone was a humourist as well as a rebel. Otherwise one might easily be induced, like the Duke of Argyll, into regarding him as an unprincipled adventurer of a very common type, whose only redeeming quality was that he was devoid of cant. That he had a weakness for good liquor and bad language is patent; but at bottom he was a sober, modest, brave man, whose proper sphere of action was the army, and whom circumstances rather than predilection turned into a rebel. He has no claim to rank as a statesman. His object was the complete separation of Ireland from England with the assistance of France, and the establishment of Ireland as an independent kingdom or republic. ‘I, for one,’ he wrote in the thick of the preparations for the invasion, ‘will never be accessory to subjugating my country to the control of France merely to get rid of that of England.’ After the suppression of the rebellion and the rise of O'Connell and constitutional agitation, his schemes as well as himself fell into disrepute; but when later on the ideas of the Young Ireland party gained the upper hand, he was elevated into the position of a national hero and his methods applauded as the only ones likely to succeed.

Of Tone's three children, only one attained a mature age, William Theobald Wolfe Tone 1791-1828, born in Dublin on 29 April 1791. After his father's death he was declared an adopted child of the French republic, and educated at the national expense in the Prytaneum and Lyceum. He was appointed a cadet in the imperial school of cavalry on 3 November 1810, and in January 1813 promoted sub-lieutenant in the 8th regiment of chasseurs. He took an active part in the campaigns of that year — at Gross Görschen, Bautzen, and Leipzig, where he was severely wounded. Being made lieutenant on the staff, aide-de-camp to General Bagnères, and a member of the legion of honour, he retired from military service on the abdication of Napoleon, but returned to his standard after his escape from Elba, and was entrusted with the organisation of a defensive force on the Rhine and the Spanish frontiers. He quitted France after the battle of Waterloo, and in 1816 settled down in New York, where for some time he studied law. On 12 July 1820 he was appointed second lieutenant of light artillery, and was transferred to the 1st artillery on 1 June 1821, but resigned on 31 December 1826. He married Catherine, daughter of his father's friend, William Sampson, in 1825, but died of consumption on 10 October 1828, and was buried on Long Island. Besides a juvenile work, entitled ‘L'état civil et politique de l'Italie sous la domination des Goths’ (Paris, 1813), he was the author of ‘School of Cavalry, or a System for Instruction ..., proposed for the Cavalry of the United States’ (Georgetown, 1824). Shortly before his death he published his father's journals and political writings, to which he appended an account of Tone's last days under the title ‘Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone’.

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