May 18, 2011
The Timeless Revolution
We have been mutually pledged to each other, to look only to our own strength, and that the first introduction of a system of terror, the first attempt to execute an individual in one country, should be the signal of insurrection in all.
The Proclamation of Independence, 1803
One of the most vexing challenges to humanity in the past, present, and future is the incessant corruption of power that creates tyranny and oppression. Thomas Jefferson stated, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” The silence of those of good conscience permits the oppression of people in many lands. Nevertheless, in various times throughout the world, leaders have risen to the task of speaking out in favor of the downtrodden. One of these great individuals of conviction was the Irish patriot, Robert Emmet.
Robert Emmet came from a background of comfort and wealth, as most Protestant families in Ireland enjoyed. Robert’s privileged station gave him access to education, fine clothing, servants, and land. Simultaneously, the primarily Catholic working class of the same country was denied the right to education or land ownership, and lived in squalor as they endured poverty and oppression. The inhumanity of this treatment of people was plain to see, but the British rulers of the country at the turn of the 19th century were determined to uphold the existing order that enriched their native land.
Robert Emmet identified the tyrannical thought of these leaders and the injustices enacted against his fellow countrymen and knew that he must stand up to the oppressors of his land (O’Donnell 2-7), (O’Bradaigh 1-3).
Robert Emmet was a likeable and determined young man who was loyal to his cause and compatriots. He was commonly reserved in manner, but used his words wisely when required and proved brave in the face of adversity. His idealism was bolstered by the naivety of his youth and was strengthened by his ethics and principles. Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, and Ghandi are other examples of idealistic individuals who were not afraid to make a stand for their beliefs. Fearless, idealistic, and charismatic, Emmet was born into privilege in a country shadowed by oppression, but he was destined to become a leader of revolution.
From a young age, Robert Emmet was a trusted member of the United Irishmen. Established in 1791, the United Irishmen were an anti-crown patriotic union that sought unification and reformation in Parliament for equal representation of the Irish people. The primary leaders of this and other pro-reform groups in Ireland were upper-class Protestants. Robert’s father, Dr. Robert Emmet, was in favor of reform in Ireland as well as the revolution in America. His brother, Thomas, was active in the United Irishmen from its inception, including the enactment of the 1798 Rebellion (O’Donnell 13).
These ties laid the groundwork for Robert Emmet to form political views that radically departed from those of the oppressive rulers of his native land. In the end, “idealism cost the Emmet family greatly” (O’Bradaigh 3).
The struggle in Ireland dated back to the 1100s when Henry II landed on her shores with 400 ships and enough men to conquer the native people. In those days, it was common courtesy for the kings of the clans of Ireland to greet and pay tribute to a more powerful king, even one from outside Ireland – and they did. If only these naïve tribesmen knew what was to come from this newly formed relationship! It took eight centuries of strife for the Irish to regain their independence (MacManus 319-327).
A similar battle had taken place upon our own soil, beginning when European settlers first encountered the first settlers of North America. The “Indians” greeted the settlers, provided guides, demonstrated farming techniques, traded with them, and aided in their survival for the first years in the New World. As more white men arrived and began to encroach upon original territories and customs, the Native Americans realized that “if allowed to continue, (this) meant disruption of the native manner of living and eventual extermination of the Indian” (Stirling, 52). War was declared against the “white man” by many native leaders such as Metacom of the Wampanoag (known to the English as King Philip) in 1675, the Mohawk chief Thayendanegea, and Tecumseh the Shawnee warrior in the 18th and 19th centuries. The failure of these uprisings resulted in the loss of tradition and spirit through centuries of oppression (Stirling, 52-57).
African Americans, Tibetans, and Arabs are examples of groups that are currently enduring oppression around the world because of mere differences in culture or skin color; it is only a matter of time before a revolt occurs. Today we are dealing with the (often-subtle) repercussions of a history of poor treatment of groups of people. Popular culture reveals the lack of education, depression, substance abuse, and various diseases that occur within cultural groups who have been exploited. The impact of such suffering leads to disparity and contempt between people of a nation as well as potentially violent backlash in the form of rebellion.
Differences in ethos or color are no justification for brazen inequality that leads to the disgracing segregation and genocide that has occurred throughout history. Every human is just that – human – each with the same basic needs as the next. There is no singular path of correctness because no culture triumphs over another, even if the illusion of triumph is achieved by conquest.
Most governments operate through a cycle of fear – as John Adams noted when he said, “Fear is the foundation of most governments.” Those in power obtain an abundance of wealth and control bestowed upon them by (or taken from) their followers. Authorities continually fear an uprising of their citizens, therefore, the people of such lands are caused to fear for their safety, livelihood, and freedom to ensure their dependency on the establishment. Followers provide work force and money to their leaders who use these resources in reaction to their fear of other governments – perpetuating fear, hate, and the “war machine.” As George Orwell wrote as the mantra of the government in his novel, 1984, “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” Many governments attempt to keep their people in a state of helplessness that often gives way to complacency – which is the explanation of many unjust policies that have lasted for any span of time throughout history such as slavery in America, the holocaust in Germany, and the long oppression in Ireland of the native Irish people.
Great Britain demonstrated its use of the fear factor during Robert Emmet’s time. Laws against the natives of Ireland had been in place for centuries – and their abolishment would mean an undermining of the longstanding authority of The Crown. When revolutionaries in Ireland stood to act for the rights of man, the government viewed them as a grave threat to their Empire. The reaction to the undermining of their power was fear and panic. An example of the fear cycle is the threat and implementation of executions to keep those who would defy their power in fear and hiding (O’Donnell 135, 154-159), (Emmet, “Speech from the Dock”).
Due to his seditious activities, Robert Emmet was expelled from his studies at Trinity College in 1798 (O’Bradaigh 6). However, the young man was of single-minded determination to abolish the oppression of the Irish people. The least of his worries were the petty opinions of his upper-class brethren, and his future in a professional career held no value if it meant living in a country of exclusion. Emmet stood to eliminate the separation of classes that gave him the right to education yet deprived the children of Catholic tradesmen this same opportunity.
It is still the responsibility of every country’s influential citizens to maintain such freedoms. We must remember that it is not the leisure class, but the working class, that pushes a country forward. Tyrannical governments may, at times, believe that they can harness the strength of the poor without feeding their spirit, but the human mind cannot – and will not – remain under tyranny forever. History proves this repeatedly. If the inhabitants of a country are equally educated, her policies have a better chance of balance. As the wise Thomas Jefferson stated, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”
Jefferson also wrote the American Declaration of Independence and proved to be an inspiration to Robert Emmet who drafted the Manifesto of the Provisional Government in 1803 (O’Bradaigh 16). Such documents and independent infrastructures are essential if a group desires to replace an existing government. Both of these documents declare the right of liberty and freedom from England, but do not declare that the generations to follow are automatically granted such freedom. The Declaration of Independence states:
…Whenever any form of government starts to be destructive to the goals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the people have a right to change or even destroy that form of government; and the people have a right then to create a new form of government – one that is founded upon the kind of principles, and that takes the kind of shape, that seems to them to be the most likely to guarantee their safety and good fortune.
In the book, Give Me Liberty: a Handbook for American Revolutionaries, Naomi Wolf posits that the Declaration is a timeless call for solidarity amongst people in resistance to the force of tyranny. The Manifesto of the Provisional Government written by Emmet and others was designed as a temporary document, calling for the effort of all able-bodied men of Ireland in their duty to defend her. In it, Emmet declares:
Go forth then with confidence, conquer the foreign enemies of your country, and leave to us the care of preserving its internal tranquility; recollect that not only the victory, but also the honour of your country, is placed in your hands…
Liberty is a full-time job for the people who strive for it, because the hunger for supreme power persists. It may be as Eugene Hütz sings in the band Gogol Bordello, “revolution is eternal.”
Robert Emmet demonstrated that it does not take a boisterous person to lead a revolution. The African folk saying tells us to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Today, people revere often-irresponsible celebrities and politicians for leadership – they provide an image for the masses to trust or a scapegoat when things go wrong. I challenge my peers to look not to foolhardy individuals of persuasive talent, but to become those of true wisdom and principle, themselves. The power lies in the common people; Egypt and Syria are demonstrating this power in our world today. Wolf declares that We the People are the “stewards, crafters, and defenders” of American liberty – we are meant to be the leaders, not the led (Wolf 7). The alternative to enlightened awareness is a dangerous path of ignorance – effortlessly achieving the task for which oppressors have strived over centuries.
Robert Emmet’s famous (and disasterous) uprising in July of 1803 attempted to reclaim the rights of the Irish from the British Crown. Various mishaps and bad timing prevented the success of the bold revolt. Robert was captured in August. After a day of courtroom deliberation in September, the Court sentenced Emmet to death with the charge of High Treason. His willingness for this sacrifice was pledged in the Manifesto, “our object is to establish a free and independent republic in Ireland: that the pursuit of this object we will relinquish only with our lives.” As a final statement to the courtroom, Emmet delivered what is justly the famous as the “Speech from the Dock.” It was here that he pronounced:
Let no man write my epitaph! For as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character; when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not til then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.
Robert Emmet’s execution took place on September 20, 1803 – he was 25 years old. He died with the same strength and dignity with which he lived causing a reporter to state that he “never saw a man die like him” (O’Bradaigh 58).
Although the noble, soft-spoken man seemed to be harmless at first glance, the standing government viewed Robert Emmet as a threat to be reckoned with because he would not stray from the path that he viewed as right, and no lines of class or law could stand in his way. Robert Emmet challenged his government – therefore, his government feared him. In its haste to extinguish revolution and blind faith in the use of power, Dublin Castle destroyed one of the great minds of their land in his prime because he knew and spoke the truth without hesitation.
It is the obligation of the common people to keep their government in check – by any means necessary. Publishing these words here without fear proves that – as a white, middle-class American – I am a child of privilege. This belief is eloquently stated in Civil Disobedience, where Thoreau writes:
There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.
Those in control during Robert Emmet’s time were not worthy of writing a deserved epitaph for him because they were submersed in the corrupting world of power – far away from the lives of the ordinary people who dominate the landscape and give Ireland her character. My own voice, and every other common person who understands the need to uphold liberty – now and forever – vindicates the short, but influential life of Robert Emmet. As Jefferson put it, “every generation needs a new revolution.”