John Mitchel (Irish: Seán Mistéil; b.November 3, 1815 – d. March 20, 1875) was an Irish nationalist activist, solicitor and political journalist. Born in Camnish, near Dungiven, County Londonderry, Ireland he became a leading Member of both Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation. He also became a public voice for the Southern American viewpoint in the United States in the 1850s and 1860s before ending up elected to the British House of Commons, only to be disqualified because he was a convicted felon. His Jail Journal is one of Irish nationalism's most famous texts.
According to his biographer William Dillon, Banbridge at this time was in an Orange constituency, and the Orangemen liked to “walk” to their assemblies, to commemorate important historical anniversaries. On their return homeward in the evenings some of them would often insist on walking through some Catholic neighbourhood, and "stop at the doors of Catholic homes to play party tunes." This would lead to confrontation, and would often end in the wrecking of houses, beatings or even killings, on both sides. John Mitchel was often employed by the Catholics in the legal proceedings arising out of these affrays. He had ample opportunity then of observing how these cases were dealt with by a bench of magistrates, many of whom were Orangemen themselves. Dillon suggests that it was this personal experience which was to instil in him a “hatred of injustice,” and this at a time when he was taking a keen interest in politics. Up until the time of his marriage, John Mitchel had by and large taken his politics from his father. Even then there was an aspect in his feeling on political matters which hardly existed in his father’s. He had “begun to comprehend the degradation of his countrymen,” which his biographer said he found traces of in Mitchel’s correspondences at this time. An example of this was given when not long after the granting of the Catholic emancipation in 1829, it was decided by the “popular party” to run a Catholic candidate for Newry. Newry was then regarded by the ascendancy party as one of their strongholds, and they were very resentful "at so insolent a proceeding on the part of the Catholics." Many members of the Rev. Mr. Mitchel’s congregation took an active part in the elections on the side of the ascendancy, and pushed for the Rev. Mitchel to do same, which he resolutely refused to do. Because of this he was nicknamed “Papist Mitchel.”
A further advance in his rising political development is found in a letter, sent by him in October, 1842, to his friend John Martin, with his impression on the The Nation which he sent him, “I think the The Nation will do very well,” and again in October, on the pouring of twenty thousand additional troops into the country, “How do you think the country will take all this?” he asks, “I think I know how it ought to take it; but if I put it on paper, you might inform the Attorney-General, and get me arrested.”
On Mitchel’s frequent trips to Dublin, he came in contact with the Repeal members who gathered about the The Nation Office (later to be known as Young Ireland) and it was in the spring of 1843, that John Mitchel became a member of the Repeal Association, and had also begun to contribute to The Nation. He placed a notice of pamphlet by his uncle, Mr. Haslet, Mayor of Derry, on the estates of the London Societies in Ulster and also had a leading article entitled, "Convicted Criminals", and contributed half of an article on "Anti-Irish Catholics", the first part of which was written by Thomas Davis. In “Convicted Criminals”, which was published in The Nation on 2 March, 1844, Mitchel, responding to a complaint by an English Member of Parliament a Mr. Busfield Ferrand that a “Convicted Conspirator” (Daniel O’Connell) had been cheered in the House of Commons, Mitchel wrote: “History has some examples of Convicted ‘Conspirators’ who were not altogether disreputable characters. Conspirators whose memory all good men revere, and whose conviction is the very thing that has advanced their principles and made their names immortal. “Christ was a convicted conspirator.”… The Son of God was crucified between two thieves, and those who passed by, among whom was some progenitor of Busfield Ferrand, reviled Him, wagging their heads. His degradation and abasement were, ‘in the eyes of those Ferrands, complete. He was a convicted conspirator… And now behold that criminal is the Saviour of the world. Ah! Mr. Busfield Ferrand, those ‘partial juries’ and valiant Chief Justices’ are powerful indeed, but not all-powerful. They positively cannot turn innocence into guilt; and irrespective of all the Sheriffs, Judges and special panels…the essence of crime and virtue is absolutely out of the jurisdiction of the courts of law." It was under Davis’s encouragement, that Mitchel wrote his first book, Life of Hugh O’Neill, which Davis never got to see published. Thomas Davis died on 16 September, 1845, of scarlet fever. His death was entirely unexpected and caused dismay among his friends. William Dillon (Mitchel’s biographer) believed that it was immediately after the publication of “Hugh O’Neil,” that Duffy proposed that he join the staff of the The Nation, a proposal “which he said, had the effect of “changing the whole course” of John Mitchel’s life. According to Dillon, from that time forward, John Mitchel’s life was that of a Public man, and that the next two and a half years of his life form “part of the history of Ireland.”
Mitchel accepted Duffy’s invitation to join the staff of The Nation, in the autumn of 1845. He discarded his profession, and brought his wife and children to live in Dublin, first, for a short time at, George’s Place; then at No.1 Heathfielf, Upper Leeson Street, and finally at No. 8, Ontario Terrace, Charlemont Bridge, where he was arrested in 1848.
For the next two years Mitchel wrote both political and historical articles and reviews for The Nation. He covered a wide range of subjects, including the Famine, on which he contributed some influential articles which attracted significant attention. On 25 October, 1845 he wrote on "The People’s Food", pointing to the failure of the potato crop, and warning landlords against pursuing their tenants for rents forcing them to sell their other crops to meet their demands, and therefore starve.
He reviewed such things as Curran’s Speeches, Carlyle’s Life of Cromwell, a pamphlet by Isaac Butt on The Protection of Home Industry, The Age of Pitt and Fox, and later on The Poets and Dramatists of Ireland, edited by Denis Florence MacCarthy (4 April, 1846); The Industrial History of Free Nations, by Torrens McCullagh, and on Father Meehan’s The Confederation of Killkenny (8 August, 1846).
But it was to Mitchel’s political writings in The Nation that would show how strongly Mitchel felt with regard to English rule in Ireland.
On 1 November his article was on "Foreign Relations", and was titled, "England’s Difficulty is Ireland’s Opportunity". In this edition also he raised the issue on "Potato Disease", he pointed out how powerful an agent hunger had been in certain revolutions.
On 8 November, in an article titled "The Detectives", he says, “The people are beginning to fear that the Irish Government is merely a, machinery for their destruction; that, for all the usual functions of Government, this Castle-nuisance is altogether powerless; that it is unable, or unwilling, to take a single step for the prevention of famine, for the encouragement of manufactures, or providing fields of industry, and is only active in promoting, by high premiums and bounties, the horrible manufacture of crimes!”
He followed this up on 22 November, with an article titled "Threats of Coercion", it was one in which he advocated the attack on railways if they were used against the people by the Government, and was in response to an article in the London journal The Standard, which outlined how the railroads could be used for troops in Ireland, this led to the failed prosecution against the paper in the following year. In this trial, Mitchel acted as solicitor for Gavan Duffy, the editor of the paper.
On 6 December, Mitchel had an article entitled "Oregon—Ireland", in reference to the dispute then pending between England and America about Oregon. He wrote, “If there is to be a war between England and the United States, tis impossible for us to pretend sympathy with the former. We shall have allies, not enemies, on the banks of the Columbia, and distant and desolate as are those tracts beyond the Rocky Mountains, even there may arise an opportunity for demanding and regaining our place among the nations.”
On 20 December Mitchel made an appeal to the Protestants of Ireland, to join their fellow countrymen. The article titled "The Protestant Interest", in it he was pointing to the efforts of the Whig leaders to win support in Ireland by the promise of gratuity and places. In it he says, “But, Protestants of Ireland, shall it be so? Is it not time for all to rise above such vile influences as these? Does not our national interest, our national honour (for, after all, we are a nation), demand that we spurn the mean practice of both these foreign factions! that we shuffle off the coil of filthy place-hunting politics, that has kept us so long grovelling in the dust!... Ah! if you would hearken to us—and a hope dawns upon us that you will—if the Protestant magnates of the land would even now place themselves at the head of our national Confederacy, and, in this inter-regnum of foreign rule, would meet us as brothers.”
In an article on "The Administration of Justice", on 7 February, 1846, Mitchel pointed out that the Englishman made his own laws, that they were not imported, that “no stranger,” or “slave of a stranger, sat upon his judgment seats,” that English men had grown “to love and honour their native land, and expected no premium upon its betrayal.”
He wrote another article on the Famine on 14 February, in which he illustrated the wretched way in which the famine was being trifled with, and asked, had not the Government even yet any conception that there might be soon “millions of human beings in Ireland having nothing to eat.”
On 28 February, he noted his observation on the Coercion Bill which was then going through the House of Lords, “This is the only kind of legislation for Ireland that is sure to meet with no obstruction in that House. However they may differ about feeding the Irish people, they agree most cordially in the policy of taxing, prosecuting and ruining them.”
In an article on "English Rule" on 7 March, he wrote: “The Irish People are expecting famine day by day... and they ascribe it unanimously, not so much to the rule of heaven as to the greedy and cruel policy of England. Be that right or wrong, that is their feeling. They believe that the season as they roll are but ministers of England’s rapacity; that their starving children cannot sit down to their scanty meal but they see the harpy claw of England in their dish. They behold their own wretched food melting in rottenness off the face of the earth, and they see heavy-laden ships, freighted with the yellow corn their own hands have sown and reaped, spreading all sail for England; they see it and with every grain of that corn goes a heavy curse. Again the people believe—no matter whether truly or falsely— that if they should escape the hunger and the fever their lives are not safe from judges and juries. They do not look upon the law of the land as a terror to evil-doers, and a praise to those who do well; they scowl on it as an engine of foreign rule, ill-omened harbinger of doom.”
Mitchel made the acquaintance of Thomas Carlyle during his connection with The Nation. Carlyle described a dinner at Mitchel’s house in 1846, Carlyle said of Mitchel that he was “a fine elastic-spirited young fellow, whom I grieved to see rushing to destruction palpable by attack of windmills, but upon whom all my persuasions were thrown away. Carlyle was to go on to say of Mitchel when he was on trial, “Irish Mitchel, poor fellow …I told him he would most likely be hanged, but I told him, too, that they could not hang the immortal part of him.”
The conditions under which Mitchel resigned his position as leader writer on The Nation, he himself outlined, writing years afterwards, Mitchel explained how he came to regard as "absolutely necessary a more vigorous policy against the English Government than that which William Smith O'Brien, Charles Gavan Duffy and other Young Ireland leaders were willing to pursue" in 1847, when he severed his connection with The Nation, he says, “I had watched the progress of the famine policy of the Government, and could see nothing in it but a machinery, deliberately devised, and skillfully worked, for the entire subjugation of the island—the slaughter of portion of the people, and the pauperization of the rest,” and he had therefore “come to the conclusion that the whole system ought to be met with resistance at every point, and the means for this would be extremely simple, namely, a combination among the people to obstruct and render impossible the transport and shipment of Irish provisions; to refuse all aid to its removal; to destroy the highways; to prevent everyone, by intimidation, from daring to bid for grain and cattle if brought to auction under ‘distress’ (a method of obstruction which put an end to Church tithes before); in short, to offer a passive resistance universally; but occasionally, when opportunity served, to try the steel. To recommend such a course would be extremely hazardous, and was besides in advance of the revolutionary progress made up to that time by Mr. Duffy, the proprietor of The Nation, Mitchel as a result resigned from the journal, and started his own paper, The United Irishman.
Mitchel through his paper called for resistance against British rule in Ireland, through the non-payment of rents, and preventing the export of food from the country and became the most vocal in highlighting how the British, in his opinion, deliberately exasperated and mismanaged the Irish Potato Famine to reduce the population (which the British Government considered to have a surplus) to more manageable levels.
The doctrine on which the United Irishman were to be conducted were stated to be: “that the Irish people had a distinct and indefeasible right to their country, and to all the moral and material wealth and resources thereof, to possess, to govern the same, for their own use, maintenance, comfort and honour, as a distinct Sovereign State; that it was within their power and their manifest duty to make good and exercise that right; that the life of one peasant was as precious as the life of one nobleman or gentleman; that the property of the farmers and labourers of Ireland was as sacred as the property of all the noblemen and gentlemen in Ireland, and also immeasurably more valuable; that the Tenant Right custom should be extended to all Ulster, and adopted and enforced by common consent in the other three provinces; that every man who paid taxes should have an equal voice with every other man in the government of the State and the outlay of those taxes; that no man at present had any “legal” rights or claim to the protection of any law and that all “legal” and constitutional agitation “in Ireland was a delusion; that every freeman, and every man who desired to become free, ought to have arms, and to practise the use of them; that no “combination of classes” in Ireland was desirable, just, or possible save on the terms of the rights of the industrious classes being acknowledged and secured; and that no good thing could come from the English Parliament or the English Government”.
In the first editorial, addressed to “The Right Hon. the Earl of Clarendon, Englishman, calling himself Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant — General and General Governor of Ireland,” Mitchel stated that the purpose of the journal was to resume the struggle which had been waged by Tone and Emmet, the Holy War to sweep this Island clear of the English name and nation.” Lord Clarendon was also addressed as “Her Majesty’s Executioner-General and General Butcher of Ireland”.
The paper had a big circulation and began to exercise a great influence on the masses of the people. In Mitchel’s Letters to “The Protestant Farmers, Labourers and Artisans of the North of Ireland,” Mitchel demonstrated how England did not care about any religion and plundered Protestants as well as Catholics. “The Pope,” he wrote, “we know is the ‘Man of Sin,’ and the ‘Antichrist,’ and also, if you like, the ‘Mystery of Iniquity,’ and all that; but he brings no ejectments in Ireland. The Seven Sacraments are, to be sure, very dangerous, but the quarter-acre clause touches you more nearly. In short, our vicious system of Government, and especially the infamous land laws, are the machinery that brought you to this pass”.
Commenting on this first edition of the United Irishman, Lord Stanley in the House of Commons, on 24 February 1848, outlined his concerns, "My Lords, with the permission of the noble lord on the woolsack, whose notice of motion stands before mine upon the paper, I now rise for the purpose of calling your attention to the publication of a paper in Ireland, of which I gave notice a few evenings ago; and in doing so, I shall trouble your lordships with a very few observations of my own, because the whole of my case depends on the extracts from the paper itself, and on the result of the questions which I shall have to put to her Majesty’s Government in connection with them…
"The first article in this paper I shall now direct your attention to. I am not seeking to call the attention of Government to a casual article, or to bring these gentlemen within the scope of the law for a hasty or ill-considered expression. No, my lords, this is a different case. These facts are contained in the programme of the course to be pursued, and of the object intended to be carried out, and for the purpose of exciting sedition and rebellion among her Majesty’s subjects in Ireland (hear, hear)…
"Now, my lords, I think that whatever may be your opinions as to the expediency of language of this kind, you will see it is language used in no common way, and for this reason I have called the attention of her Majesty’s Government to it. This is not a mere casual article in a newspaper—it is the declaration of the aim and object for which it is established, and of the design with which its promoters have set out; that object being to do everything possible to drive the people of Ireland to sedition, to urge them into open rebellion, and to promote civil war for the purpose of exterminating every Englishman in Ireland (hear, hear). I hope, my lords, her Majesty’s Government will not say that this is a matter quite in theory—that it is below contempt, and that we should allow it to pass by in silence. If such a publication had appeared in England, I should have been very much inclined to think the good sense and sound judgment of the people would have rejected the article at once as a seditious invective, whose very violence, like an overdose of poison, prevented its effect.
"But this language is addressed, not to the sober-minded and calm-thinking people of England, but to a people, hasty, excitable, enthusiastic and easily stimulated, smarting under great manifold distresses, and who have been for years excited to the utmost pitch to which they could go consistently with their own safety, by the harangues of democrats and revolutionists (hear, hear).
"This paper was published at five pence, but, as I am informed, when the first number appeared, so much was it sought after, that, on its first appearance, it was eagerly bought in the streets of Dublin at one shilling and sixpence and two shillings a number. With the people of Ireland, my lords, this language will tell (hear, hear); and I say it is not safe for you to disregard it. These men are honest; they are not the kind of men who make their patriotism the means of barter for place or pension. They are not to be bought of by the Government of the day for a colonial place, or by a snug situation in the customs or excise (hear, hear). No; they honestly repudiate this course; they are rebels at heart, and they are rebels avowed, who are in earnest in what they say and propose to do.
"My lords, this is not a fit subject, at all events, for contempt. My belief is, that these men are dangerous—my belief is, that they are traitors in intent already, and if occasion offers, they will be traitors in fact. You may prosecute them—you may convict them; but depend upon it, my lords, it is neither just to them, nor safe for yourselves, to allow such language to be indulged in. I believe, because I have this strong persuasion of the earnestness and honesty of these men, that it is my duty to call your lordships’ attention to the first number of this paper, called the United Irishman, which is intended to produce an excitement leading to rebellion, for the purpose of showing you the language held forth, and the object avowed by these men, to whom a large portion of the people of Ireland look up with confidence, and for the purpose of asking her Majesty’s Government if this paper has come under their consideration, and if so, whether the Law Officers in Ireland have been consulted, and if it is the intention of the Government to take any notice of it I (hear, hear)”.
Only sixteen editions of the United Irishman had been produced when Mitchel was arrested, and the paper suppressed. Mitchel concluded his last article in the United Irishman, from Newgate prison, entitled “A Letter to Farmers”, “For me, I abide my fate joyfully; for I know that whatever betide me, my work is nearly done. Yes; Moral Force and ‘Patience and Perseverance’ are scattered to the wild winds of heaven. The music my countrymen now love best to hear is the rattle of arms and the ring of the rifle. As I sit here, and write in my lonely cell, I hear, just dying away, the measured tramp of ten thousand marching men—my gallant Confederates, unarmed and silent, but with hearts like bended bow, waiting till the time comes. They have marched past my prison windows to let me know that there are ten thousand fighting men in Dublin— ‘felons’ in heart and soul. I thank God for it. The game is afoot, at last. The liberty of Ireland may come sooner or come later, by peaceful negotiation or bloody conflict— but it is sure; and wherever between the poles I may chance to be, I will hear the crash of the down fall of the thrice-accursed British Empire”.
Mitchel preached passive resistance to English law. It was Mitchel’s opinion, that the great mass of the Irish People were hostile to the law and the law makers of England, and that it was possible through passive resistance to bring English law into contempt, in effect, to abolish English law. It was with this object that he urged the people to oppose the payment of rent, to defy the payment of poor rates, and to resist in every way possible short of insurrection the attempt by the Government to carry off the food they raised and having to sell it for payment of rent. The policy of Mitchel has since come to be known as “boycotting.”
Mitchel summed up his policy thus “Therefore, I had come to the conclusion that the whole system ought to be met with resistance at every point; and the means for this would be extremely simple; namely, a combination amongst the people to obstruct and render impossible the transport and shipment of Irish provisions; to refuse, all aid in its removal; to destroy the highways, to prevent every one, by intimidation, from daring to bid for grain or cattle if brought to auction under distress (a method of obstruction which had put an end to tithes before) — in short, to offer a passive resistance universally, but occasionally, when opportunity served, to try the steel”.
In a further attempt to undermine “English law” in Ireland, Mitchel, writing in the United Irishman, on February 12, outlined what the Governments response would be, in his open letter to Lord Clarendon, and how the Government would use the law against him, “Yes, of course you will prosecute before long; in self-defence, I hope, you must; — that you will bid the sheriff to bid Mr. Ponder (that, I think, is the gentleman’s name) not to pack the jury. A high-minded English nobleman, a conciliatory and ameliorative nobleman, so gracious at Lord Mayor’s feasts, so condescending at Ancient Concerts, so blandly benignant at reunions of literary persons,— surely such a nobleman as this will not play with loaded dice, or with marked cards, to juggle away an accused man’s liberty or life. No, I feel that I have only to mention the circumstance in order to make you hasten to arrange this point with the worthy sheriff.
But lest there should be any mistake, I will tell you what I shall do — there shall be no secrets from you. I intend, then, to pay special regard to the jury lists, to excite public attention continually to the jury arrangements of this city; and, above all, to publish a series of interesting lectures on “the office and duty of jurors,” more especially in cases of sedition, where the “law” is at one side, and the liberty of their country at the other.
I need say no more. You must now perceive that this same anticipated prosecution is one of the chief weapons wherewith we mean to storm and sack the enchanted Castle. For be it known to you, that in such a case you shall either publicly, boldly, notoriously, pack a jury, or else see the accused rebel walk a free man out of the Court of Queen’s Bench — which will be a victory only less than the rout of your Lordship’s redcoats in the open field. And think you that in case of such a victory, I will not repeat the blow? and again repeat it,— until all the world shall see that England’s law does not govern this nation ?
But you will pack? You will bravely defy threats and bullying, and insolent public opinion, and do your duty? You will have up The United Irishman before twelve of your Lordship’s lion-and-unicorn tradesmen who are privileged to supply some minor matters for the vice regal establishment ? Will you do this, and carry your conviction with a high hand? I think you will, nay, I think you must, if you and your nation mean to go on making even a show of governing here, this was another part of the same plan the object always being to discredit English law and to bring the administration of that law into contempt.
Mitchel thought the sort of policy that in the last resort would not do anything worse than attend meetings and pass resolutions had had a fair trial. This had been tried by O’Connell in the repeal agitation with conditions more encouraging to its success than were ever likely to occur again, its failure had been complete and decisive.
As to Parliamentary action, Mitchel outlined his opinions on this “For my part, I admit that I am weary of constitutional agitation, and will never lift a finger to help it more. I believe we have not the materials for it, and that the show of constitutional power we possess was exactly devised by our enemies to delude us into an endless and drift agitation. We have miserable franchises, and every day makes them worse. We have a government that first makes us poor, and then tempts our poverty with bribes and promises. We have few men of public virtue and national spirit, and in a sinking and debased province we cannot hope to rear such men more abundantly”.
The only opinion that Mitchel felt that the Government would respond to was “armed opinion”, and he outlined it thus “must the force of opinion always be legal? — always be peaceful? Does opinion then mean law? Does opinion cease to be opinion the moment it steps out of the trenches of the constitution? Why, sir, I hold that there is no opinion in Ireland worth a farthing which is not illegal. I hold that armed opinion is a thousand times stronger than unarmed — and further, that in a national struggle that opinion is the most potent whose sword is sharpest, and whose aim is surest. We are told it was opinion and sympathy, and other metaphysical entities that rescued Italy, and scared Austria back from Ferrara without a blow. Yes, but it was opinion with the helmet of a national guard on his head, and a long sword by his side; it was opinion, standing, match in hand, at the breech of a gun charged to the muzzle. Now, I say all this, not to vindicate myself, for I have nowhere recommended the Irish nation to attain legislative independence by force of arms in their present broken and divided condition (as Mr. O'Connell resolution imputes to me), not to vindicate myself, but to vindicate the original free constitution of our confederacy”.
The last of Mitchel’s policies was on the question of secret conspiracy, Mitchel made the following observations in the oft-quoted Letter to Lord Clarendon,” “we differ from the illustrious conspirators of Ninety-Eight, not in principle — no, not an iota — but, as I shall presently show you, materially as to the mode of action. Theirs was a secret conspiracy — ours is a public one. They had not learned the charm of open, honest, outspoken resistance to oppression and through their secret organization you wrought their ruin — we defy you, and all the informers and detectives that British corruption ever bred. No espionage can tell you more than we will proclaim once a week on the house-tops. If you desire to have a Castle detective employed about the United Irishman office in Trinity Street I shall make no objection, provided the man be sober and honest. If Sir George Grey or Sir William Somerville would like to read our correspondence, we make him welcome for the present — only let the letters be forwarded without losing a post. So that you see we get rid of the whole crew of informers at once.
Upon the question of Mitchel desired to bring about a conflict, and bring it into the open, between the Irish people and the English soldiers, Mitchel has made clear. He knew open war was the end to which his policy must ultimately lead, but he did no wish to “precipitate a general collision; on the contrary, he wished to wait for a favourable opportunity.” He also knew that this policy of passive resistance to “so-called law” could not be effectively carried out without occasional outbreaks between the people and the police or soldiers. Mitchel knew that any fighting that there was, should be street-fighting in cities rather than in the open fields. In the field the police and soldiers had superior arms and were better trained but this advantage could be countered in the cities and towns. Opportunities for such conditions would arise, in particular, whenever the Government attempted to arrest any of the popular leaders and the Government “went through the farce of trying him with a packed jury.”
"If the cause do come to be tried before a jury, there is one stipulation I would make: — your lordship already guesses it; need I repeat it? Why should you pack a jury against us? Remember, my lord, you belong to that liberal and truly enlightened party called ‘Whigs;’ it is only a ‘Tory,’ you know, who packs;—and remember, also, that although I deny the lawfulness of your ‘law’ and your law-courts altogether, and hold a trial for sedition before a packed jury in Ireland quite as constitutional a proceeding as a trial before an unpacked one, yet your lordship cannot take this view of the matter. Your case is that there is law in the land—that we have broken that law, and are to be tried by that law. Remember, therefore, all the fine things that your jurists and statesmen have said and written about the great palladium of British liberty and so forth: remember how the learned Sir William Blackstone hath delivered himself on this point;—how that ‘the founders of the English laws have with excellent forecast contrived that the truth of every accusation, whether preferred in the shape of indictment, information, or appeal, should be confirmed by the unanimous suffrage of twelve of his (the accused person’s) equals and neighbours, indifferently chosen, and superior to all suspicion.’ A trial for ‘sedition’ here is a mere political voting, and as your faction (that is, the English faction,) have held the sole appointment of all the officers and clerks employed in that business, they have always been able by stealing lists, or juggling and falsifying cards, and numbers, to secure twelve men who will vote for the Castle, and find anyone guilty whom the Castle does not love..."
"...First, then, you are to suppose that the list of names has been delivered safely by the Recorder to the Sheriff, and been by him duly numbered, and the number of each name written on a separate card—that the list, in fact, the whole list, and nothing but the list, is now actually in the ballot-box, faithfully numbered to correspond with the Sheriff’s book—you must suppose all this, albeit I know a rather violent supposition;—and then, in presence of the attorneys for the Crown and for the accused criminal, forty-eight cards are to be taken out of the box. On one side of a table stands a grave-looking elderly gentleman with the ballot-box before him; on the other side sits a second still more grave, with an open book; in the book is written, each several number, on the margin, and opposite the number the name of the juror thereby denoted. The first grave gentleman shakes the box, puts in his hand, and takes out a card, from which he reads the number—then the other grave gentleman turns to that number in the book, and pronounces the name of the juror so numbered, whose name and address are then taken down as one of the forty-eight; and this process is repeated forty-eight times."
"Now it is painful to harbour any suspicions of such grave-looking elderly gentlemen: but you know juries are packed; that is an absolute truth; and somebody must be the villain. Well, then, it is said—I say nothing, but it is said—that those two gentlemen know each juror just as well by his number as by his name: and so, when the first takes out a card and finds 253, for example, written on it—if he knows that 253 would vote for the people, and against the Crown, it is said he gives out (as solemn as he looks), not 253, but, say, 255, or some loyal number; and thus a safe man is put on the list. Or, if anyone is standing by, and has an opportunity of seeing the card, he cries 253, and winks, or otherwise telegraphs to this other grave gentleman. Then the onus is upon the man with the book, who has nothing to do but call out a loyal man for the disloyal number, and so you have safe voters still. They never make the mistake, these elderly gentlemen, of turning out the whole forty-eight all of the right sort there is no need: there is a margin to the extent of twelve: and so they generally leave about nine or ten dubious names amongst the forty-eight. The Crown has afterwards the right to strike off twelve peremptorily, without reason assigned, and always gets rid of the men who would vote for the people. Thus, my lord, your jury is safely packed, and your verdict, or rather vote, is sure. They poll to a man for the Crown."
The Spectator (an English Journal) referring to the approaching trial of John Mitchel and addressing the issue of Jury Packing thus wrote: “Ministers were bound to take that course [Packing the Jury]. We see its inconvenience and risks,—the additional inflation of the notoriety-hunting men in buckram; the chances of an adverse verdict from an Irish Jury; the possible tarnish on Whig popularity.” P. A. Sillard, one of Mitchel’s biographers says that “In its burning hatred against the Irish the grave Spectator let out its fears of an acquittal, its fears that the jury might not be sufficiently well packed; but it might depend on Lord Clarendon that this latter all important point would not be forgotten.” Freeman’s Journal (an Irish Newspaper) which advocated the cause of Repeal, commenting itself on the pending trial wrote: “The bar has been absolutely gutted of all its professional worth, and every popular man has been tempted with the bribe—and all this before a single information was sworn! All the distinguished men who defended the State prisoners in ‘43 have been gained over to the side of the Crown. Even the junior men were sought to be drawn off from the accused, which proves the malicious littleness of the entire transaction.” "The sneer about the “notoriety-hunting men” was also in English good taste, Sillard suggests commenting on the Spectator; “so accustomed are they to the like that they imagine everyone as base as themselves.”Charles Gavan Duffy described the introduction of this new law. To justify his proposal for a fundamental alteration in the right of free meeting and free publication of opinion, the Home Secretary read only extracts from two or three articles and speeches, but the House found them sufficient. On its third reading, on the 18 April, 1848, the Prime minister Lord John Russell, said “as long as he had any breath in him he would oppose the Repeal of the Legislative Union”, which clearly shows the motivation behind the new act. John Mitchel in a published letter to Lord John Russell made the following observation,
“My Lord,—The Crown and Government of your Gracious Sovereign Lady are, it seems, in danger, and want ‘further security.’ Security against her own beloved, highly-favoured, too-indulgently used, but ungrateful subjects! What is more wonderful, the danger arises not in the administration of those wicked Tories—wretches obstructive of ‘human progress,’ enemies of the human race—but while you, even you, rule her Majesty’s Councils; you the very high-priest of Liberality and Concession; you, who were to have ruled by justice, not coercion—opinion, not bayonets; whose thoughts were for ever intent on commercial reform, or municipal reform, or sanitary reform. What could a conciliatory Premier do (or promise) that you have not done (or promised)?
Yet the very Crown and Constitution are in danger. May God be between us and harm!
And, what is strangest than all, it seems to be from the Irish that you fear this danger most; the people whom you have been nourishing, cherishing and spoon-feeding, by means of so many kind and well-paid British nurses, for two years—on whom you have lavished so many tons of printed paper, so many millions of cooked rations—these are the people who plot ‘treason,’ and eagerly flock to hear ‘open and advised speaking,’ eagerly devour ‘published, printed, and written’ language all urging them to arm for the overthrow of British rule in Ireland! It is a bad world! But you, the ‘Government’ will not endure this! You will check it at all hazards—if it cannot be stopped as a misdemeanor, [sic] you will make it ‘felony.’...
On the 13 May, while having dinner with his family, Mitchel was served a warrant for his arrest upon two charges of “felony” under this new Act of Parliament. He was accompanied to the Police office by both his brother William and Thomas Devin Reilly. As if by previous arraignment, the chief Police Magistrate Mr. Porter, Mr. Kemmis the crown solicitor and Mr. Perrin, the crown council were in attendance. Mr. Porter handed Mitchel the following warrant for his committal,
Police District of Dublin Metropolis, To wit.
By Frank Thorpe Porter, Esq.,
one of the Magistrates of the Head Police-Office, in said district.
You are here by required to detain in your custody the body of John Mitchel, of no.12 Trinity-street, in the said district, who stands charged before me, upon Oath, for that the said John Mitchel, on the sixth (day of May, instant, at Trinity-street, aforesaid, did wilfully and feloniously compass, imagine, invent, devise, and intend to deprive and depose our most Gracious Lady the Queen, from the style, honour, and royal name of the imperial crown of the United Kingdom, and levy war against her Majesty, in order, by force and constraint, to compel her to change her measures and counsels ; and such compassings, imaginations, inventions, devices, and intentions, did, at such times respectively, at the place last-aforesaid, express, utter and declare, by publishing certain printings in a certain news paper called The United Irishman, of which said newspaper, the said John Mitchel was, at the time aforesaid, and at the place last-aforesaid, the sole and only proprietor, contrary to the form of the statute in each case, made and provided. “Therefore, the said John Mitchel, you are in safe custody to keep until legally discharged; and for so doing this shall be your sufficient warrant. “Given under my hand and seal, this 13th day of May, 1848. “F. T. PORTER. (Seal.)
“To the Keeper of Newgate, Dublin, at City of Dublin Commission.
“ (Keeper’s seal.) ”
The Commission Court opened on 20 May, and Baron Lefroy proceeded to charge the grand jury. On Monday the foreman handed down a true bill against Mitchel. The Clerk of the Crown asked for what the bill was. To illustrate the rapidity with which the whole case was despatched; and the absolute indifference “whether there was justice done or not,” P.A Sillard one of Mitchel’s biographers quoted from the speech of Mitchel’s defence Council Robert Holms, “The foreman of the Grand Jury, gentlemen, having been asked if the jury had found bills against the prisoner—replied— ‘Oh yes, we find him guilty of sedition.’ ‘Gentlemen,’ said the officer of the court, ‘he is not indicted for sedition.’ ‘Well,’ said the fore man, ‘we find him guilty of treason.’ ‘But, gentlemen,’ again interrupted the officer, ‘the charge against Mr. Mitchel is for felony.’ ‘Oh, no matter!’ said the foreman, ‘sedition, treason, or felony, it is all the same to us.” Sillard concluded, “Justice! the thing is not to be had in British law courts. The petty jury having been sworn, the remaining portion of this awful scene was very quickly gone through.”
The Attorney-General stated the case and endeavoured to defend himself against the accusation of having tampered with the jury-list. The witnesses were then examined, and at a 12.15pm, Robert Holmes, a veteran Republican of ‘98, and the brother-in-law of Robert Emmet, rose to address the jury on behalf of the prisoner. This was to be his last ever speech, and in it took the views of the prisoner and made them his own. It was according to Sillard “the grand old Republican of ‘98 resolved to attest the justice of the Republican of a later day, and hurl defiance in the face of English “law.”
Holmes having concluded his speech, the counsel for the Crown, Mr. Henn, replied. Judge Moore then charged the jury, who retired to consider their verdict, which after some time they brought in and handed down to the clerk of the Crown. That verdict was “Guilty.”
On the following morning at the sitting of the court, the clerk of the Crown went through formality of asking if Mitchel had anything to say why sentence should not be passed upon him? “I have,” answered Mitchel, and continued, “I have to say that I have been found guilty by a packed jury—by the jury of a partisan sheriff—by a jury not empannelled even according to the law of England. That is the reason I object to the sentence being passed upon me.”
Baron Lefroy then proceeded to pass sentence. He commenced by denying that the jury had been packed, reiterate all the offences mentioned in the indictment, and concluded by saying:— “I wish you to understand [addressing Mitchel] that we have, with the utmost anxiety, and with a view to come to a decision upon the measure of punishment which it would be our duty to impose, postponed the passing of sentence upon you till this morning. We have with the utmost deliberation, examined the matter, with an anxiety to duly discharge the duty which we owe on all hands— the duty which we owe the prisoner of not meting out punishment beyond the just measure of the offence, and the duty we owe to the public that the degree of punishment will be such as to carry out the object of all punishment, which is not the mere infliction of the penalty upon the person convicted, but the prevention of crime—that that punishment should carry with it a security to the country, as far as possible, that one who has offended so perseveringly—that so deliberate a violator of the law shall not be permitted to continue his course of conduct to the disturbance of its peace and prosperity. We had to consider all this—to look at the magnitude of the crime, and to look also at the consideration that if this were not the first case brought under the Act, our duty might have obliged us to carry out the penalty it awards to the utmost extent; but taking into consideration that this is the first conviction under the Act—though the offence has been as clearly proved as any offence of the kind could be—the sentence of the court is that you, John Mitchel, be transported beyond the seas for the term of fourteen years.”
There was an eruption of indignation followed upon the delivering of this sentence and as soon as silence had been restored, Mitchel delivered his opinion.
According to Mitchel’s biographers, an outburst of passion followed this speech, and several voices exclaimed, “Yes, Mitchel, for thousands.” “And promise for me,” as Mitchel was lead away.
Mitchel, with aid from Patrick James Smyth, escaped from the colony in 1853 and settled in America where he edited the collections of the poetry of Mangan and Davis, He established the radical Irish nationalist newspaper The Citizen in New York, as an expression of radical Irish-American anti-British opinion. The paper was controversial for its defence of slavery by highlighting the hypocrisy of the abolitionists in the debate. Mitchel felt that slaves in the Southern USA were better cared for and fed than Irish cottiers, or industrial workers in English cities like Manchester.
Mitchel was a critic of international capitalism, which he blamed for both the pending Civil War and the Great Hunger. Mitchel resigned from the paper and toured as a spokesman for the South, founding a new paper, the Southern Citizen. As a spokesman for the cause of the South, he was the first to claim that slavery and abolition were not the cause of the conflict but simply used as a pretence. Two of his sons died in the war, and a third lost an arm. He equated the Confederacy with Ireland, as both were agricultural economies tied into an unjust union. The Union States and England were:"..the commercial, manufacturing and money-broking power ... greedy, grabbing, griping and groveling".
Mitchel fell out with Jefferson Davis, whom he regarded as too moderate. Abraham Lincoln was described as follows: "...he was an ignoramus and a boor; not an apostle at all; no grand reformer, not so much as an abolitionist, except by accident – a man of very small account in every way.
Mitchel ended up back in prison, for a short time, after the Civil War, but was released with the assistance of the Fenians in 1865. The war ended as a victory for the Union side and Mitchel returned his focus to the issue of Ireland. He founded his third American newspaper, the Irish Citizen but the paper failed to attract readers and folded in 1872. In part this was because he used it to criticize the Irish-born Catholic archbishop of New York, John Hughes. Mitchel worked for a time in Paris as financial agent for the Fenians before again returning to the States.
Mitchel returned to Ireland where in 1875 he was elected in a by-election to be an MP in the British parliament representing the Tipperary constituency. However his election was invalidated on the grounds that he was a convicted felon. He contested the seat again in the resulting by-election, again being elected, this time with an increased vote. However his sudden death avoided a constitutional crisis, with his opponent being returned unopposed in the third by-election.
A statue to Mitchel was also erected by the people of Newry, County Down and is located at John Mitchel Place, an extension of Newry's main street, Hill Street.
Mitchel Park in Dungiven is named after him.
Mitchell County, Iowa, is named in his honor.
Mitchel remains an important figure in Irish history for his involvement in radical nationalism, and in particular for writings such as Jail Journal, "The Last Conquest Of Ireland (Perhaps)", "The History of Ireland", "An Apology for the British Government in Ireland", and the less well known "The Life of Hugh O'Neill". He was described by Charles Gavin Duffy as "a trumpet to awake the slothful to the call of duty; and the Irish people".