The Fenians and the Anglo-American Naturalization Question
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Through the middle of the nineteenth century, England had long held that a person born under British jurisdiction never ceased to be a British citizen - once an Englishman always an Englishman. The massive migration of the 1800s, however, began to weaken belief in the continued feasibility of this concept. The following study traces how activities of the Fenians helped bring the issue of naturalization to a head in the years immediately following the American Civil War.
An article in the December 16, 1865 issue of the Illustrated London News reported that the American branch of the Fenians, an organization bent on the over - throw of British rule in Ireland, had recently established a headquarters in New York on the north side of Union Square in a "large and commodious mansion" called the Moffat House, next door to the Everett House Hotel. A few months earlier, on August 5, 1865, the organization had issued a "final call" for men and money to fuel a revolution in the old country, an event planned and dreamed about all during the American Civil War. Hundreds of Irish-Americans, many naturalized citizens of the United States, answered the call and returned to Erin. Often, these intended liberators arrived at Irish ports in two's and three's, and moved on to other towns to act as the cadres of rebellion. Charles Francis Adams, the American minister to Great Britain, on a tour of Ireland in the fall of 1865 indicated the effect these returnees were having when he reported wide unrest and the formation of Fenian groups in the south and west of Ireland.
By this time, the British authorities, ner - vous about the activities of the Fenian visitors and of reports that an uprising was to begin before October, decided to strike at the main centers of the Fenian conspiracy. Among their targets was the office of a newspaper called the Irish People. James Stephens, the head of the Fenians in Ireland, had founded the paper in 1863, and it had remained the voice of the movement. On the night of September 15, 1865, the Dublin police raided the newspaper and arrested a number of people, includ - ing one James Murphy, who claimed to be an American from Boston. The raid did not net James Stephens, nor did it quite burst the "Fenian bub - ble," as William West, the American vice-consul in Dublin, suggested it had. The British continued to stiffen their defenses in Ireland, sending a fleet of ships to protect the west coast of the island from an expected assault by a Fenian navy. The authorities in Ireland, finding it impossible to distinguish Fenians from other Irish-Americans who took the opportunity of their discharges from the army to visit relatives and friends in their native country, began to search the baggage of all passengers arriving from America. What the officials found did not add to their peace of mind - guns, military drill books and other "treasonable documents." The British arrested a number of American citi - zens, most of whom were of Irish birth, found carrying such items.
Thus the question of expatriation, which had plagued Anglo-American relations since before the War of 1812, resurfaced at this time. England, as noted above, claimed that a person born under British jurisdiction never ceased to be a British citizen, even if he moved to another country and went through the process of natural - ization; the United States claimed that natural - ization erased all past allegiances.
The Fenians and the Anglo-American Naturalization Question Photo: William Henry Seward was born in Orange County, New York in 1801. After reading law and moving into politics, he was elected Governor of the state at age thirty-three. During his career in Albany, he supported several efforts on behalf of immigrants arriving in New York, including state support for schools operated by their clergy members. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1848 and was appointed Secretary of State by Abraham Lincoln in 1861. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
William Keogan is an associate professor at St. John's University Library in Queens, NY. He is a past board member of the New York Irish History Roundtable and cur - rently does publicity for the Roundtable. He has contributed material to a number of reference works and has written numerous book and media reviews. He holds masters degrees from St. John's University and Queens College (CUNY). ©2008. Published with permission of William Keogan. As the arrests of the Irish-American visitors mounted and William West began to receive requests for assistance, he asked Adams for instructions. The American minister, who had worked diligently to maintain a friendly rela - tionship with England during the Civil War, now did not want those efforts nullified by a small group of Irishmen. He advised West to investigate each case and to make representations only in those instances where innocence seemed likely. Both West and Adams reported their actions to Secretary of State (and former New York Governor) William Seward. When Seward, under pressure to do something for these citizens abroad, urged Adams to take stronger action, the minister avoided an international confrontation only because the British agreed to free the sus - pects on the condition that they leave the coun - try immediately upon being released.
The arrests, however, did not end Fenian activity - they only made the insurgents more cautious. In January, 1866, the New York Times reported increasing agitation in Ireland, the dis - covery of stores of weapons and further arrests. William West's dispatch to Seward dated January 14 confirmed the Times report. The vice-consul added that, as new conspirators were being found every day, his work load grew more arduous. By February, the British felt the need for stronger measures to prevent a revolt that seemed likely in the spring. On February 14, Lord Wodehouse, lord lieutenant of Ireland, in a letter to Sir George Grey, the British home secretary, called for suspension of habeas corpus in Ireland, a possibility mentioned in recent press reports. Some days later on February 17, the British Parliament voted to suspend the right. Lord John Russell's speech to Parliament that day clearly indicated that the bill had as its target the approximately five-hundred Irish-born, naturalized citizens who had returned to Ireland to engage in, what he called, treasonable practices. Lord Wodehouse, alerted that Parliament planned to act on the sev - enteenth, initiated preparations on the sixteenth. The Dublin police, under Superintendent Daniel Ryan, made their move in the early morning hours of the seventeenth, and by noon upwards of one-hundred men had been taken into cus - tody. Thirty-eight of those arrested immediately claimed American citizenship. As in fall of the previous year Adams tried avoid giving the cur-rent difficulties the aura of crisis. Growth of the Fenian Movement & Influence The Fenian movement had grown out of the ashes of the unsuccessful Young Ireland Revolt of 1848, and carried on the rebellious tradition that had sparked the sporadic revolts which mark the centuries of English domination in Ireland. In 1857, a group of Irish-Americans in New York, including Michael Doheny and John O'Mahony, two leaders of the 1848 revolt, sent a letter to James Stephens, a former comrade living in Dublin, encouraging him to start an organization in Ireland that would take up the struggle for Irish freedom. On St. Patrick's Day, 1858, Stephens formed the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood. Later in the same year Stephens named O'Mahony "supreme organizer and Director of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood in America." O'Mahony started to refer to the organization as the "Fenians." He derived the name "Fenian" from the story of Fion McCuol, a heroic character who was supposed to have led an Irish militia, the Feonin Erin , in pre-Christian Ireland.
The Fenian movement in America grew slowly in the period before 1861, but the Civil War years saw a marked increase in its develop - ment. At first, the Irish-American press viewed the war in a negative light. The Phoenix, in an article reprinted in the Boston Pilot of May 4, 1861, suggested that the first Southern troops that the New York's Irish-American Sixty-Ninth Regiment would encounter might be Irishmen, some even friends and relatives. How tragic, the article continued for Irishmen to be fighting thousands of miles from Ireland, "the land which it would be their common pride to defend, and their honor to die for." Gradually, many Fenians began to adopt a different view. Noting the sharp deteriora - tion in diplomatic relations between the United States and England due to British support of the Southern cause, Fenians came to believe that after the struggle for union the United States would go to war with Britain, a conflict, they hoped, that would lead to freedom for Ireland. Vol.21, 2007 At the very least, the Fenians saw the Union army as a good training opportunity for Irish-Americans, who would return to their native country after the war and form the backbone of a new revolution. Union recruiting officers, anxious to fill the ranks of the Northern armies, played upon Irish hopes, often promising American aid for the Fenian cause after the war.
In the five-year period after the Civil War, Fenianism had more influence in America than the number of its adherents might have warranted. Poor diplomatic relations between the United States and England caused the Fenians' anti-British pronouncements to be met with a receptive audience in America. Anglo-American diplomacy in the period immediately following the Civil War reflected the iciness that had built up during the war due to what the Americans believed was British sympathy for the Confederacy. Relations between the two countries were strained on a number of levels. Both British and the Americans had outstanding claims resulting from the damage done to each country's shipping during the war. American claims arose because British neutrality law allowed the South to have ships built in England; after leaving England these ships would be equipped for war. Such cruisers as the Alabama inflicted great damage to American commercial vessels. The government of the United States held Britain to blame for these and associated damages. Some Americans connected the settlement of these claims with the possibility of acquiring British North America, which many believed should naturally be part of the United States. Aside from the Alabama claims, the United States also disputed British claims to the ownership of San Juan Island, in the waters near Victoria, British Columbia, and was angry at the cancellation of American fishing rights in Canadian waters.In Fenianism, Americans saw an opportunity to twist the British lion's tail. The bravery shown by the Irish during the Civil War did much to negate earlier nativist objections to this new hoard of immigrants who brought their Papist religion with them from the old country. Also, during the nineteenth century, American public opinion tended to be sympathetic toward foreign revolu - tions. For such reasons, there grew up a popular sentiment in America favoring the cause of Irish freedom. The administration of Andrew Johnson, following the let - ter of the law, allowed the Fenians to operate freely and to buy guns and ammunition from Federal arsenals, only stepping in when some Fenians actually attacked Canada in 1866. Practical politics mixed with American Anglophobia in regard to the Fenians. Since the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s, more than a million and a half Irish immigrants had arrived in America. The vast majority of these newcomers stayed in urban centers in the East. And since these immigrants were more likely to be men of or near voting age, the Irish formed an impor - tant political force in such cities as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The Irish had tradi - tionally favored the Democrats, but after the Johnson administration helped put down the Fenian raids into Canada in 1866, the Radical Republicans saw a chance to change Irish voting habits. The English took note of the new impor - tance of the Irish vote. The London Times of October 3, 1865 commented that universal suf - frage in America gave "ignorant and prejudiced" Irishmen great power. The article also accused American newspapers and politicians of pander - ing to the "weaknesses and delusions" of groups such as the Fenians who influenced this block of votes. Despite its anti-Irish bias, the Times analyzed the American political scene correctly. Vol.21, 2007 Illustration: Born in 1805 in Fethard, Co. Tipperary, Michael Doheny became a writer and participant in the Young Ireland Movement during the 1840s. Eluding arrest for his participation in the failed uprising of 1848, he escaped to New York. Early in the 1850s, he was one of the moving forces behind creation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland and the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States. Courtesy of Project Gutenberg. A few days later, Seward received a report from William West in which the consul reported that the Irish authorities would not let him visit with any of the arrested men other than American-born citizens. In response, Seward asked Sir Frederick Bruce to use his influence to get permission for American consuls to see both native and naturalized citizens. Seward informed Bruce that the United States could not ignore the rights of naturalized citizens, but that the government wanted to avoid an impasse. Seward suggested that a compromise be arranged in which American consuls be allowed to visit any of the prisoners, with the under - standing that this did not mean that Britain conceded its doctrine of inalien - able allegiance. Bruce agreed to do what he could. In a letter to Adams on March 22, Seward suggested that the minister make the same argument with British Foreign Secretary Lord Clarendon and urged Adams to point out that a crisis would only increase the likelihood of further agitation in Ireland. On the same day, unknown to Seward because of the twoto three-week delay in com - munication, the attorney general of Ireland announced the acceptance of a proposal made earlier by Adams that those arrested on weak evidence be released on condition that they leave the country. The British official avoided the question of citizenship, but, in practice, the English maintained only a façade of inalien-able citizenship. On April 11, Adams met with Clarendon and passed on to him Seward's letter of March 22. Clarendon agreed that it was folly to allow the American consuls in Ireland to com-municate by writing, while forbidding them to see the prisoners. Clarendon said that he would contact the Irish authorities about the matter. Seward remained less than satisfied. On April 30, he wrote Adams that, while he was gratified for British assurances that American con - suls would be able to visit the prisoners, he would like to see a more definite settle - ment about how the British would treat naturalized American prisoners. On May 29, again Adams met with Clarendon and presented Seward's request for a defi - nite statement that American consuls would be allowed to visit with and intercede for natural - ized American citizens. Clarendon reacted with some astonishment because he had assumed that this question had been settled. He now reluc - tantly agreed to the American demand with the understanding that this did not effect the British position on naturalization. All during the spring and summer of 1866 Seward passed on petitions to Adams requesting help in securing the release of various prisoners. These petitions from friends and relatives of those arrested usually included testimonials to the effect that the suspect had never been a Fenian, and that he had been visit- Vol.21, 2007 Illustration: In April, 1867 Fenians in New York City acquired a ship seized by the U.S. Collector of Customs. Refitted and re-named Erin's Hope , it sailed to attack British forces in Ireland. Filled with thirty-eight men, five-thousand firearms, ammunition and three field pieces, it reached the bay of Sligo on May 23 of the same year. Courtesy of University College Cork. appeared to England an example of the tendencies of the American government. In March 1867, John Smythe, the collector of customs at New York had seized a ship named the Jacmel Packet . Although Smythe was neither Irish nor a Fenian, by April 12 the Fenian brotherhood had acquired the ship. Because of the poor con - dition of the Fenian treasury, they most likely did not pay for the Jacmel Packet. In any case, the ship sailed from New York on April 13 with a military force of thirty-eight men along with five-thousand firearms, ammunition, and three small field pieces. At sea on Easter Sunday, April twenty-one, the Fenians re-christened the ship Erin's Hope . The vessel reached the bay of Sligo on May 23, and two days later, Richard O'S. Burke, who was to guide the landing party, came aboard. Burke advised against attacking Sligo, where an uprising had been crushed more than two months before. He suggested Cork instead. At this time strong disagreement arose as to what plan of action to follow. With water and food running low, the Fenians voted twenty-one to ten to return to the United States. The captain of the vessel, however, insisted that the bulk of the force be put ashore. On June 1, thirty-one men landed at Helvick Head, near Dungarvan Bay in view of a coast guard station. Within a day's time, twenty-eight had been taken prisoner. Despite the failure of the Erin's Hope, the British government could not have been happy about the United States government having transferred a ship to the Fenians and then having allowed it to sail with a cargo of arms for Ireland.
In April, the British began to try those arrested in the uprisings of February and March. Seward responded quickly to the early convic - tions, sending a telegram of some length via the newly laid transatlantic telegraph cable. In this dispatch, the secretary of state ordered Adams to "protect against any irregular or doubtful conviction" of an American citizen and to ask for clemency in all cases involving Americans. Seward advised Adams to make the British gov - ernment aware that the "sanguinary sentences" imposed upon three prisoners, Thomas Burke, John McCafferty, and Patrick Doran, "shock the public sense" in America. Seward warned that carrying out the executions "would leave a painful impression" in the United States, but he left to the imagination what measures Congress might take. Despite the urgency of Seward's words, Adams' response indicated an increasing reluc - tance to act. He wrote to Seward on May 18 that he had not been an "inattentive observer" of the cases but "must candidly admit" that he had found no reason to interfere in trials "conducted with liberality and fairness." He said further that, as of yet, he had not received any evidence that either Burke or Doran were citizens. In a more positive vein Adams informed Seward that the imposition of the death sentences was "one of the relics of the habits of a past age," but that it had been fifty years since such a sentence had been carried out. He noted that Doran's sentence had already been changed. On this subject Adams enclosed an article from the London Times of May 15 which said that, while the convicted Fenians deserved death sentences, the troubles now seemed to be over, and it might be better not "to give their memory the dignity of death in a political cause." The article went on to advocate that England should rather follow the example of leniency set by America after the Civil War. When the lord lieutenant of Ireland unequivocal - ly refused a petition to commute the sentences, Adams realized that quick action would be neces - sary. On May 25, he wrote to Stanley asking for his help in the matter of the executions. The next day Stanley notified the American minister that the sentences of Burke and McCafferty had been commuted. On June 4, Adams notified Seward that all the death sentences imposed upon Americans in connection with the uprisings of 1867 had been commuted. It seems safe to say that the British gov - ernment realized that, had they accepted the American position on the validity of expatria - tion and naturalization, much of the tension that developed between the two countries dur - ing these months would have been avoided. The cases of John Warren and Patrick Nagle cap - tured in the Erin's Hope fiasco reinforced such a Vol.21, 2007