Thomas Jefferson never traveled to Ireland. His knowledge of the country and its people came through correspondence, newspaper accounts, governmental trade reports, literature, music, and through personal contact with Irish immigrants to the United States.
He observed Ireland's political struggles with England from a distance, and as might be expected, applauded Irish attempts at independence. Early on, however, he subordinated this support when Britain's troubles in Ireland could become a diversion away from the United States. When trying to gain ratification of a peace treaty to conclude America's revolution with England, Jefferson was pleased to hear that Britain had landed twenty-one regiments in Ireland, "As every circumstance of distress will render her the easier on this point [of ratification]." Two years later, when there was still competition between Great Britain and the United States over continued British occupation of western posts along the Mississippi, Jefferson observed, "I judge that a war with America would be a popular war in England. Perhaps the situation of Ireland may deter the ministry from hastening it on." Then on an occasion he saw the United States and Ireland as dual contenders with England: "I fear France will be drawn into this war; hope Prussia will, and think Great Br. will reserve herself for Ireland and perhaps for us."
Jefferson's hopes for Ireland were tentative as he noted in 1785, "A heavy aristocracy and corruption are two bridles in the mouths of the Irish which will prevent them from making any effectual efforts against their masters." But as Ireland's struggle for political independence continued, he became hopeful of success and wrote in response to the rebellion of 1798 that "Ireland also is considered as more organized in her insurrection and stronger than she has been hitherto," but by mid-year 1799 observed that, "the insurrection of Ireland seems to be reduced low." He viewed the Irish dissidents as fellow republicans and agreed to a letter of recommendation to a member of the United Irishmen who had immigrated to the United States as, "He is of course a good Republican."
As Secretary of State Jefferson dealt with questions of trade with Ireland and received regular reports from United States Consul in Dublin, William Knox. In his Reports of Commerce made to President Washington, however, Ireland was more often combined as a part of Great Britain. His most direct correspondence on the subject was with William Seward, Secretary of the Irish Merchants Association while he was Minister Plenipotentiary to France. Seward approached Jefferson on behalf of the Association as they felt Great Britain was actively restricting Ireland's trade with the United States and in Jefferson, apparently hoped to find a sympathetic ear. Jefferson's response was positive though not effective, as he wrote that, "The freedom of commerce between Ireland and America is undoubtedly very interesting to both countries" and went on to credit this to the excellence of Irish manufactures that correspond to American taste plus their common language, laws, and manners. Yet he admits that, "I am not at present so well acquainted with the trammels of the Irish commerce." Perhaps Jefferson's letter was not as encouraging as Seward had hoped, for it does not appear that the correspondence continued.
However, Jefferson was responsive to Irish agricultural products. While in Paris, Jefferson became interested in beef from Ireland: "Is the Irish beef as good as that of Hamburgh? If I had supposed Irish beef could have been got at Havre I would not have sent to Hamburgh for beef." Plus he was very interested in the abilities of the Irish to preserve beef and felt that the skills of the Irish "packers and picklers" could give new life to the beef trade in the northern United States. Perhaps his greatest agricultural credit went to Ireland for the potato. When requested to respond to Horatio Spafford's "General Geography," Jefferson corrected Spafford on the origin of the potato: "In page 186 you say the potato is a native of the United States. I presume you speak of the Irish potato. I have inquired much into the question, and think I can assure you that plant is not a native of North America." Jefferson goes on to outline the progress of the potato from its native South America with Sir Walter Raleigh to West Ireland. There it was propagated, carried to England as the Irish Potato, then introduced to North America. Thus, per Jefferson, the cultivation of the potato was definitely Irish.
Jefferson was acquainted with the music and poetry of Ireland. The music section of his 1783 catalogue lists "Thumoth's Scotch and Irish airs" and "The Tyrolese Song of Liberty" by poet and composer, Thomas Moore, is contained in the existing Jefferson family music. Thomas Moore and President Jefferson met while Moore was touring the United States in 1804, but Moore was not impressed with the president or the country. His poetry generated by the tour contained scathing innuendos of Jefferson and in one line Moore refers to "The Gallis garbage of philosophy" that resided under the capitol dome. Yet in his library Jefferson had a copy of Moore's Intercepted Letters; or The Twopenny Post Bag and Moore's translation of Odes of Anacreon.
As a part of the early history of Virginia, Jefferson once made reference to "The wild Irish who had gotten possession of the valley between the Blueridge and Northmountain," yet he seemed to have no reservation that, of the 50,000 immigrants he projected had entered the U.S. by 1785, "Most of these were Irish." When building Monticello and then the University of Virginia, he worked closely with Irish immigrant workmen and came to think very highly of two master carpenters, James Dinsmore and John Neilson. Jefferson wrote of Dinsmore, "A more faithful, sober, discreet, honest and respectable man I have never known," and gave a similar recommendation of Neilson, "I have found him also an honest, sober, and excellent man. Both are housejoiners of the first order." In the area of horticulture, a favorite correspondent was Irish immigrant Bernard McMahon. Jefferson owned a copy of McMahon's American Gardener's Calendar and many plants at Monticello were shipped from McMahon's nursery in Philadelphia.
Though Jefferson never set foot on Irish soil, he was connected through Ireland's produce, literature, music, and perhaps most lastingly, its people.
1780 January 9. (Philip Mazzei to Jefferson). "The Irish after having made publick rejoicings, in consequence of the Liberty of trade, already obtained, now insist on liberty of Government independent of the british Parliament. The Ministry will be extremely puzzled. I think however, that America has given them a good lesson about the danger of refusing, but in one way or the other I expect no advantage from that quarter to our cause."
1781 January 29. (Jefferson to Benjamin Harrison). "A Trade with vessels reporting themselves as from Neutral Ports but in truth as we believe from Ireland has also been winked at. This is more exceptionable on the Part of the States and their Allies and less advantageous to us. We have indeed received occasional Supplies of Cloathing [sic] from them, but we might have bought on nearly as good terms in America and thereby avoided risking the mischiefs which may attend the Permission of Irish Importations. Should our Commercial Agent be Successful in his endeavours to supply our future Public wants, this powerful reason for tolerating the Trade will be removed. There will then remain no other Inducement to it, but as it will increase the quantity of goods imported into the State, but whether the Advantage be great or small we will willingly place this Commerce on whatever general Footing shall be thought requisite for the Good to the States and their Allies."
1783 December 24. (Jefferson to Benjamin Harrison). "If the ratifications are not offered by the day she will have too much ground for objection to the validity of the treaty, and to ratify or not as she pleases. As every circumstances of distress will render her the easier on this point, we are pleased with the intelligence of the day which is that she has actually landed twenty one regiments in Ireland."
1783 December 31. (Jefferson to Wilson Cary Nicholas). "Just before I left Albemarle a proposition was started for establishing there a grammar school. Your were so kind as to tell me you would write me the progress of the proposition: on my part I was to enquire for a tutor. To this I have not been inattentive...I enquired in Philadelphia for some literary character of the Irish nation in that city. There was none such: and in the course of my enquiries I was informed that learning is but little cultivated there and that few person have ever been known to come from that nation as tutors."
1784 January 1. (Jefferson to James Madison). "If Prussia will join France perhaps it may prevent the war: if he does not, it will be bold for France alone to take the aid of the Turks on herself. Ireland is likely to find employment for England."
1784 January 18. (Jefferson to Edmund Pendleton). "I fear France will be drawn into this war; hope Prussia will, and think Great Br. will reserve herself for Ireland and perhaps for us."
1784 November 11. (Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry). "I should suppose it impossible for Great Britain to take a part [in current European war]; her inability to raise money and the state of affairs in Ireland will prevent it. In this latter kingdom she cannot be said to exercise government now."
1784 November 11. (Jefferson to James Madison). "8 countries only sent deputies to the Congress in Dublin. They came to resolutions on the reform of parliament &c. and adjourned to the 20th. Of Jan. recommending to the other countries to send deputies them."
1785 March 18. (Jefferson to James Madison). "In fact a heavy aristocracy and corruption are two bridles in the mouths of the Irish which will prevent them from making any effectual efforts against their masters."
1785 March 18. (Jefferson to James Monroe). "It is to be considered how far an exception in favor of Ireland in our commercial regulations might embarrass the councils of England on the one hand, and on the other how far it might give room to an evasion of the regulations."
1785 September 26. (Jefferson Ralph Izard). "England shews no dispositions to enter into friendly connections with us. On the contrary their detention of our posts seems to be the speck which is to produce a storm. I judge that a war with America would be a popular war in England. Perhaps the situation of Ireland may deter the ministry from hastening it on."
1785 October 25. (William Wenman Seward to Jefferson). "By direction of an Associated company of Irish merchants here [London], who have honour'd me with the Office of their Secretary, I am to congratulate you in their Names, on your appointment to the honourable Station you now hold under the United-states of America, at the Court of France."
1785 November 12. (Jefferson to William Wenman Seward). "The freedom of commerce between Ireland and America is undoubtedly very interesting to both countries. If fair play be given to the natural advantages of Ireland she must come in for a distinguished share of that commerce. She is entitled to it for the excellence of some of her manufactures, the cheapness of most of them, their correspondence with the American taste, a sameness of language, laws and manners, a reciprocal affection between the people, and the singular circumstances of her being the nearest European land to the United States. I am not at present so well acquainted with the trammels of the Irish commerce as to know what they are particularly which obstruct the intercourse between Ireland and America, nor therefore what can be the object of a fleet stationed in the Western ocean to intercept that intercourse. Experience however has taught us to infer that the fact is probable because it is impolitic."
1786 January 24. (Jefferson-Answers to questions for the article on the United States in the Encyclopedie Methodique). "By the close of the year 1785, there had probably passed over about 50,000 emigrants. Most of these were Irish. The greatest number of the residue were Germans. Philadelphia receives most of them, and next to that, Baltimore and New York."
1788 March 9. (Angelica Schuyler Church to Jefferson). "I send by Mr. Rutledge some views in Ireland for Miss Jefferson. They are wild and Romantic. I should like to see them, but prefer seeing those of my own country first..."
1788 July 30. (Jefferson to Andre Limozin). "I own I wish to see the beef trade with America taken up by solid hands, because it will give new life to our Northern stats. In general they do not know how to cure it. But some person in Massachusets have not very long ago brought over packers and picklers from Ireland, and the beef cured and paceked [sic] by them has been sent tot he East Indies and brought back again, and perfectly sound. We may expect the art will spread. Is the Irish beef as good as that of Hamburgh? If I had supposed Irish beef could have been got at Harve I would not have sent to Hamburgh for beef."
1789 March 16. (Thomas Lee Shippen to Jefferson). "I am upon the point of setting out for Ireland, but am as yet quite undetermined whether to embark at Dublin for America or return here and take my passage in a Packet. As I take with me letters from Lord Landsdown Mr. Burke and several other people whose characteristics are highly respected in that Country I flatter myself that I shall experience my share of that hospitality which has so long distinguished Ireland. I only fear its excess. Lord Landsdown advises me to return by the way of Waterford and Milford Haven to pass some weeks with him at Bowood, and so embark in June for New York. By this means I shall have an opportunity of seeing some part of Ireland and a good deal of South Wales."
1790 November 2. (David Humphreys to Jefferson). "The Irish are apprehensive that an Embargo will be laid on the exportation of salted Provisions: in which case, they foretell that the U.S. will supply those Markets where they have been accustomed to vend that Staple Article, and that, the U.S. having once taken the grade from Ireland, will forever keep possession of it, to the utter ruin of that devoted Country. Indeed, it appears to me, if our Countrymen could once gain the point, by Contract or otherwise, of supplying the French and other Navies with salted Provisions, they would not easily, or, by an ordinary competition, lose that advantage. Such a market, well-opened, would be a great resource of wealth to the eastern and middle States. Some of which produce no other article, by any means, equal in its extent or value. Even the Western Settlements might hereafter profit by driving their Beef-Cattle to Sea-ports for exportation. In general, I have said nothing of the Irish, because their Politics, notwithstanding the independent Spirit that reigns among individuals, follow exactly those of the English Cabinet."
1790 November 20. (John Rutledge, Jr. to Jefferson). "I am very happy to observe, by some irish papers received by them, that the people of that Country are again shewing their uneasiness, and declaring their determination to attempt a political reformation. I wish to god they may be successful, and certainly they will, if there is any truth in Mr. Hume's observation that there is an ultimate point of depression from which human affairs naturally return in a contrary progress, and beyond which they never decline. The irish appeared to me, when I was amongst them, to have got to this ultimate point and I never was in a country where the people seemed more depress'd by the yoke of servitude. Altho I am glad the spirit of liberty began in france, because I am more partial to that Country than any in Europe, yet I rejoice to hear that other countries shew a disposition to cherish it."
1791 August 30. (Jefferson to Delamotte). "Tho the difference of dialect between Irish and Scotch and the Americans is sensible to the ear of a native, it is not to that of a foreigner, however well he understands the language, and between the American and English (unless of particular provinces) there is no difference sensible even to a native."
1793 July 29. (Jefferson to Henry Remsen). "We have no late arrivals either from Europe or the West Indies, except a brig from Ireland in ten weeks with 300 passengers, who are destined to go on a settlement in the North western parts of this State."
1797 June 24. (Jefferson to Edward Rutledge). "The events in Europe coming to us in astonishing and rapid succession, to wit, the public bankruptcy of England, Buonaparte's successes, the successes in the Rhine, the Austrian peace, mutiny of the British fleet, Irish insurrection..."
1799 January 16. (Jefferson to James Madison). "Notwithstanding the pretensions of the papers of the danger & destruction of Buonaparte, nothing of that is believed. It seems probable that he will establish himself in Egypt, and that that is, at present at least, his ultimate object. Ireland also is considered as more organized in her insurrection and stronger than she has been hitherto."
1799 January 23. (Jefferson to James Monroe). "Nothing is believed of the stories of Buonaparte. Those about Ireland have a more serious aspect."
1799 June 30. (Jefferson to Nicholas Lewis). "The English and German papers are killing and eating Buonaparte every day. he is however safe, has effected a peaceable establishment of government in Egypt, the inhabitants of which have preferred him to their Mameluke governors, and the expectation is renewed of his march to India. in that country great preparations are made for the overthrow of the English power.--the insurrection of Ireland seems to be reduced low."
1800 February 16. (Jefferson to James Monroe). "As Mr. Robinson proposing to go to Richmond with a view to establish an academy there, I have been desired to State to you his character and qualifications...He is a person of a regular collegiate education, of Trinity College...He is an United Irishman and therefore was obliged to leave Ireland. he is of course a good Republican."
1805 August 31. (Jefferson to Messrs. McDowell, Roger, Finley & Patterson). "...I now enclose you a small parcel of the Jerusalem wheat I received from a gentleman in Ireland..."
1808 April 24. (Jefferson to Wilson Cary Nicholas). "It is very evident that our embargo, added to the exclusions from the continent will be most easily felt in England and Ireland."
1809 May 14. (Jefferson to Horatio G. Spafford). "In page 186. you say the potato is a native of the United States. I presume you speak of the Irish potato. I have inquired much into the question, and think I can assure you that plant is not a native of North America. Zimmerman, in his 'Geographical Zoology,' says it is a native of Guiana; & Clavigero, that the Mexicans got it from South America, its native country. The most probably account I have been able to collect is, that a vessel of Sir Walter Raleigh's, returning from Guiana, put into the west of Ireland in distress, having on board some potatoes which they called earth-apples. that the season of the year, & circumstance of their being already sprouted, induced them to give them all out there, and they were no more heard or thought of, till they had been spread considerably into that island, whence they were carried over into England, and therefore called the Irish potato. From England they came to the United States, bringing their name with them."
1811 September 30. (Jefferson to J. Chambers). "I pray you to accept my thanks for the trouble you have been so kind as to take in fulfilling my request to Mr. Warden. I had been impressed with the value of the fiorin grass described in the papers of the Belfast Agricultural society, and hoped it might answer good purposes here."
1812 March 10. (Jefferson to George Divers). "We have now got the famous Irish grass, Fiorin, ensured and growing. They make hay from it in December, January, February. I received the plants from Ireland about a month ago."
↑ This article is based on G. Wilson, "Jefferson's Views on Ireland and the Irish," Monticello Research Department, April 2003.