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  • “The Grandest Battle Ever Fought for the Rights of Human Beings”:Radical Republicanism and the Universalization of the Land War*
  • Andrew Phemister (bio)

That American who understands the Irish cause and does not sympathize with it is a rascal and a traitor to the principles upon which his government is founded.1

As much scholarly effort has previously demonstrated, during the nineteenth century Irish Americans made great use of the tradition of American republicanism to highlight the connections between the ideals of the American Revolution and Ireland’s cause.2 The political and social upheaval of the Irish Land War, however, escaped these national limitations and served a more substantive and extensive purpose within the ideological genealogy that Irish Americans had promoted. To many American radicals the crisis in Ireland appeared as the frontline of a third great political revolution, forming a symbolic triptych with those inaugurated by Washington and Lincoln. In framing the conflict as a defense of natural rights, the Land League’s [End Page 192] rhetoric helped to place the question of Irish land on an international stage at a critical ideological juncture when these familiar political and philosophical assumptions were dissolving. The fight over Irish land added vigor and tangible purpose to a long-established but threatened republican political tradition. In tapping into a deep well of popular moralism, the conflict released latent frustrations shared by the dispossessed and disenchanted on both sides of the Atlantic.

Irish historians have long seen the Land War as a formative or transformative experience for Ireland as a political entity.3 By taking a transnational perspective, however, we can observe the interplay of American and Irish political discourses and see its international importance more clearly. In this cross-pollination the powerful voice of the New York Irish World played a prominent role in constructing the ideological contours of the conflict in a language of republican exceptionalism. This process of ideological exchange was aided by the internationalism of Irish leaders like Michael Davitt and the global ambition of the American land reformer Henry George. In equating British imperial force with the worst depredations of industrial capitalism, Irish Americans tapped into a powerful seam in American political culture that allowed them to universalize the struggle of the Irish tenant farmers. In doing so, they were able to elevate Ireland as both the offspring and the consummation of the ideals of the American republic. It is only through understanding the Land War in this context that it is possible to explain why former abolitionists such as James Redpath and Wendell Phillips adopted the Irish cause as a new moral crusade and, through the discourse of natural rights, framed the Irish land question as part of a global struggle.

From the beginning of the agitation the Land War was an international event whose causes and consequences were not confined to Ireland. It was precipitated as much by the effect of economic globalization as by a succession of poor harvests, and it was fueled by the transfer of both money and ideas from the United States and from Britain. More so than the Famine a generation earlier, the crisis of 1877–79 involved an economic depression that generated a different kind of threat to [End Page 193] political stability.4 It was, as George had observed firsthand during his initial visit to Ireland in 1881, “a financial famine. In any part of Ireland the man who has money in his pocket can get all he wants to eat.”5 A more extensive credit network, significant increases in land rents, and rising expectations over the preceding decade were signals of economic growth, but all of these factors would contribute to the severity of the crisis. Developing communication and interaction with Irish America in particular had also broadened popular horizons somewhat. “The spread of education and general intercourse with America” had, in T. M. Healy’s assessment, “made the people conscious that their lot was paralleled by that of no other nation in the world.”6

Increasing mechanization in British agriculture had led to a reduction in seasonal remittances, and competition from American agriculture added further pressures to certain sectors of the Irish economy.7 It...


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