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Home Uncategorized A Different Kind of Republic

A Different Kind of Republic

Andreas Hess

Terrorists, Anarchists, and Republicans. The Genevans and the Irish in Time of Revolution, by Richard Whatmore, Princeton University Press, 478 pp, £34, ISBN: 978-0691168777

In Ireland, republican rhetoric has become a victim of its own success. While it is part and parcel of a ritual reaffirmation of identity, it has no practical significance in everyday life whatsoever: it does nothing to alleviate burning problems in areas such as housing, health, transport, environmental pollution or having no pension.

Irish notions of republicanism don’t necessarily have to remain as ritualistic, flat and uninspiring as they appear at present. There are histories of republicanism on offer which provide other perspectives and from which one can learn, some of them even touching base with Irish conditions and experiences, even though they never became part of the history canon of this Republic.

Richard Whatmore’s magnificent account of the New Geneva experiment in Waterford, just published by Princeton University Press, offers such a new vantage point. Whatmore describes a complex macro-historical constellation – the Atlantic Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century ‒ and how it impacted on a micro environment: the small Genevan republic and the fate that awaited it after the attempt of the civic humanist opposition, mainly composed of artisans and watchmakers of republican conviction, to reform and thus save the polity from oligarchical influences. How Ireland got involved in this attempt to save civic humanism is the subject of this fascinating historical study.

The author of the New Geneva study is professor of modern history and co-director of the Institute of Intellectual History at the University of St Andrews. He has published widely on republican traditions and how these relate to the emergence of the political economy of France, Switzerland, Britain and North America. The so-called Cambridge School, with whom Whatmore largely identifies, has contributed significantly to giving the history of ideas a more solid foundation by studying the societal, political and intellectual conditions and contexts under which ideas become meaningful and sometimes even thrive. Today, its pioneering approach is practised in almost every history department around the world, at least in those faculties which still value and teach the history of ideas.

Most people interested in Irish history, and more specifically the history of republicanism on this island, treat the history of New Geneva as a mere footnote. That is somewhat unfortunate because the failed Geneva experiment was, as Whatmore explains, indicative of bigger tectonic shifts that occurred in European history toward the end of the eighteenth century.

From the 1760s onwards an increasingly intense struggle marked the small Republic of Geneva, by then one of the last surviving republics in continental Europe. The struggle was mainly over democratic representation and over the prevention of the Republic’s political elite from becoming too powerful, corrupt or exhibiting other vices. The two forces facing each other were the constitutionnaires and the représentants, the first a powerful group that exercised control over the city’s main offices, the second a radical opposition which fought for more inclusion and challenged what they saw as increasingly oligarchical structures that largely remained unchecked.

In the ever more heated debate between the two opposed forces the name and writings of Geneva’s most important political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, took on symbolic importance. The opposition claimed to follow Rousseau’s recommendation and argued for broader access to, and control over, power. Being subject to criticism and having come under pressure, the beleaguered elite sought diplomatic help in neighbouring France. In its powerful neighbour the constitutionnaires saw a guarantee that offered protection and would prevent the elite from being ousted by the democratic opposition. The représentants had sought help as well; however, other smaller city states and regional governments and powers were apparently no match for France. Britain sympathised with the plight of the Genevan opposition but was not prepared to engage in what would have been a massive armed conflict with France over a very small republic. Size mattered.

By June 1781 the situation had deteriorated further; it was clear by now that diplomatic negotiations to settle the conflict peacefully had failed. In the end France sided with the powers that be, and just a short time later the city found itself surrounded by French troops.

On the other, oppositional side, military help was not forthcoming. However, this didn’t mean that solidarity wasn’t on offer at all. Despite Britain not being a republic herself, some classic republican ideas were still seen as admirable virtues among the British, and particularly the better educated elite. Being industrious and showing a Protestant work ethic, being well-educated, and having demonstrated civility in public affairs – these were all still qualities that mattered. No less a man than Charles James Fox indicated that he sympathised with the fate of the small republican polity.

When the city’s représentants and those who sympathised with them were forced to choose between surrender and continuing fighting, but with the risk of suffering major loss and damage against a powerful enemy, they soon realised that it was futile to prolong the stand-off. The possibility of the destruction of the city was not a price they were willing to pay. Neither was the prospect of a protracted civil war that seemed unwinnable against an enemy who had France on her side. Negotiation of the terms of surrender soon followed. They ended with the exodus of the représentants, most if not all of them of strong republican conviction, including some Rousseauians of even more principled and radical standing.

Granting asylum to such a highly skilled community of educators, artisans, goldsmiths and watchmakers would make any receiving state richer, not poorer. An interim arrangement came in handy: a good number of répresentants and their families found temporary exile in Neuchatel while further exploration and negotiations continued. Eventually Ireland emerged as the best possible option for the Genevan refugees.

Why Ireland? Through a group of Britons who had known the small Genevan republic well and who also had personal contacts with some of the représentants, the news about the republican opposition and their plight quickly reached the British Isles. However, despite evincing some sympathy for the plight of those forced to flee, Britain showed no interest in establishing a successful emigrant community in England, Scotland or Wales. This would have been objectionable to many who represented business and comercial interests in these three regions. Only Ireland was regarded as being in need of some “controlled reform”. Perhaps a less brutal experiment, when compared with that of the Munster and Ulster plantations, could be introduced to improve Ireland’s economic performance. Early advocates for a resettlement included the Earl of Shelburne and the new lord lieutenant of Ireland, Earl Temple. The latter two were enlightened figures who understood that Adam Smith, Richard Price and others had been right in arguing for more enlightened policies and efforts by governments in order to change political economy for the better. In their view this applied especially to Ireland.

A British-Irish network evolved – Shelburne most prominently heading the initiative ‒ that worked toward a settlement for the exiled Genevan community, preferably in the southeast of Ireland. After various alternatives had been discussed plans soon became reality, at least so it seemed. Locally, the resettlement project was supported by the chief secretary of Ireland, William Wyndham Grenville, the Irish Privy Council and William Robert FitzGerald, the Duke of Leinster, a leading figure of the Volunteer movement. The package included direct payments to the refugees and immediate measures to set up an entire town in the parish of Crook, opposite Duncannon Fort and in proximity to Waterford. Waterford and its environs seemed the perfect location: accessible through a harbour and a waterway, the settlement was not too far from other towns in the southeast. Dublin was reachable in reasonable time, and so were England and the Continent. The selected location was also en route to America. Last but not least, Waterford also had a thriving Protestant community which would make it easier for the exiled Genevans to get used to the new environment.

The new colony was supposed to be quite different from other colonisation projects in Ireland. It was made clear by the Genevan republicans, and also understood by the British-Irish network who supported the resettlement, that this was to be a New Geneva without magistrates and aristocrats. It would not be a place for a rich exiled elite who would not mingle or share space with the common people. The historical documents and correspondence which have survived speak of considerable autonomy for the exiled, among them the right to regulate their own affairs (as long, of course, as this did not openly contradict the laws of the kingdom).

Other projects were to accompany the new settlement. A new Genevan academy which would boost the local economy was also in the offing. It would help the locals to get a better education and might even put the region on the map by attracting scholars and students from abroad. In the long run the local Catholic population would realise that there were long-term benefits. Learning by example seemed a better, more liberal option than enforcing and imposing change from above.

However, two years later New Geneva ran into serious problems. The most important factor that impacted negatively was governmental change in both Westminster and Ireland. The original alliance which had offered the Genevan republicans refuge and that had supported the building work for the project, had fallen apart. Internationally things had changed as well: the United States had declared independence from Britain. In Ireland that process was observed with much interest.

Change was also on the horizon in Ireland itself, and not just a simple change of government. The Volunteer movement and supporters of an independent Irish parliament had gained strength and could now count on considerable support that went beyond the old ascendancy. The Enlightenment had also gained traction in Ireland and helped to sow seeds that went far beyond the traditional defence of the Protestant establishment. Just a look over the Irish Sea to Scotland made it clear that not all was well with the Irish governance structures of the day. Scotland had improved after having entered the Union with England, so why could similar things not happen in Ireland? In other words, the colonial elite, economic relations and the governance structures of the polity were no longer in sync  ̶  if they had ever been. More meaningful representation was clearly lacking. Prohibition of free trade for Ireland posed a particularly serious problem. As it turned out the two were actually entwined, and thus the language of civic, political and social rights was never far away from questions of political economy.

As mentioned, at first the situation had looked very favourable for the New Genevans. However, two years into the resettlement things began to fall apart. The disintegration of the supportive liberal network, consisting of Temple, Shelburne and others, led to a slowdown. The new administration under Lord Northington showed no initiative and when pressured apparently simply preferred to ignore all previous arrangements. By 1784 between a hundred and 250 émigrés had arrived, expecting to move into their new homes. However, on arrival they found that nothing was ready. Most of the new arrivals decided to stay temporarily in Waterford; other prospective emigrants simply never arrived. Also, some of the leading contacts on the Genevan side had found temporary refuge and had settled into new, more welcoming homes in London, Brussels and even Paris.

It diddn’t help that James Cuffe of Dublin, a member of the privy council, who had originally been charged with constructing and overseeing the New Geneva project, had some alternative ideas: what seemed good enough for revolutionary Genevans was surely good enough for housing soldiers who were fighting the imminent threat of revolution in the region. To sum up, what first appeared to have been just a slowdown in terms of the building effort soon turned into open reluctance to make any progress – at least not for the purpose of housing radical republicans from the Continent, Protestant or not. By 1798, after the completion of some of the buildings, the entire project was redesigned and repurposed to house troops to fight the insurgent United Irishmen, who had become a force to reckon with, particularly in the southeast.

New Geneva turned out to be an early example of Irish corruption. This bitter irony is not lost on Whatmore: the idea of providing refuge for the civic humanism of Geneva’s defeated opposition ended up providing, first, barracks for those soldiers whose task it was to fight the United Irishmen before finally being repurposed again and turned into a prison and place of execution. In short, an experiment designed to show that civility and progress were possible had become a brutal dystopia of counterrevolution and slaughter. Today, the eerie place that is the Geneva Barracks is a reminder of an experiment in civic humanism, a republicanism with a humanist face, that turned into its opposite.

What first had started out as a fight against injustice and for social improvement, however small, had soon met with indifference and neglect. It finally ended in oblivion. To be sure, it is a story of defeat that Whatmore tells but it is a story worth telling, not least because it shows that while the victors might write history but learn nothing or very little from it, the defeated understand history better and might even use those insights whenever another opportunity presents itself. If that is true, can this be of any importance to present day republicanism? Or was the episode just another futile effort, like so many in history?

The recent election results have thrown the presuppositions of Ireland’s political class again into relief. With the three largest parties claiming to stem from the same republican roots, it is at the same time truly troubling to see what an empty gesture republicanism has become. What does it mean to be a republican or to pursue republican politics today? As the centennial of the Irish civil war approaches it may be time no longer to ignore such questions and to remain, epistemologically and methodologically, a nationalist.

Where and how does the story of the aborted New Geneva experiment fit into the somewhat uneven history of republicanism on this island?

The first attempt came via imposition from England. Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army left a bloody trail in every part of Ireland they set foot on. The victims of that ruthless republican campaign, the majority of whom were people of Catholic faith, were either killed, dispossessed, or severely traumatised by the violence. It would take decades to grow liberty’s tree again. In short, the legacy that Cromwell and his followers left behind not only created lasting oppressive conditions but also a considerable political vacuum, preventing any serious political alternative from arising, never mind opposition in republican form.

The traumatic experiences of the past might explain why republican ideas in Ireland didn’t constitute a real political force that the powers that be had to reckon with ‒ until the late eighteenth century. What was different at this time was that republican ideas were not imposed from abroad but emerged from within, supported by some intellectual imports that resonated with the more educated part of the native population. In other words, the Enlightenment had finally also taken hold of Ireland, albeit due to the island’s historical, social and political circumstances in slightly different fashion than on the Continent. (Obviously, on the Continent, and particularly in France, uncritical faith in God was more radically questioned than it was in either Protestant or Catholic Ireland.)

In any case what happened was that eventually more radical ideas for political and social reform were taken up by enlightened native reformers and movements. Some of the political debates touched on older ideas of more inclusive forms of governance, including republican ideas that could range from classic Roman authors and texts to more modern advocates such as Rousseau. Ideas of English oppositional thought and the influences of the Scottish Enlightenment were also noticeable. In Ireland, the Volunteers were the most prominent movement to emerge from this period. Initially it was largely of Protestant and Ulster origins; but soon the Volunteers’ demands fell also on sympathetic ears and gained strength in other parts of Ireland.

A real political breakthrough occurred as a new constellation emerged in which the American Revolution, France’s continued search for allies against Britain, and then, particularly after 1789, the French Revolution would have major impact. The Atlantic democratic revolutions, as the historian RR Palmer has called these seismic political and social shifts, also left an important mark on Irish oppositional thought, partly popularised and radicalised through available pamphlets of English political dissenters and radicals such as Thomas Paine and Richard Price. Yet, as historians of ideas have pointed out, such revolutionary literature was often either a popularised or a heavily digested version of older ideas expressed by pre-revolutionary Enlightenment thinkers; thus, the new popularised version more often than not made no allusions to the past at all. Price or Paine for example never saw any great need to refer to older notions or experiences since the idea was “to begin the world anew”.

Still, the available literature provided the Irish Volunteers with much intellectual and political ammunition. Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, who emerged as a radical prolongation of the Volunteers, became the main actors. There were, however, also other voices, voices that became submerged in the great ideological battle between insurrection and subsequent counter-revolution and that were soon obliterated because they never fully qualified for either side.

In any case, the first proper republican movement on the island of Ireland suffered a brutal defeat, due partly to circumstances the movement and its leaders were not able to control, due partly to other unfortunate influences (lack of communication, co-ordination and transportation problems; the right timing in terms of mobilising and concentrating and using the revolutionary troops to potentially greater effect; the choice of terrain, the weather, etc – all contributed to the negative outcome).

It was in this crucial time period that the New Geneva project first took off  ̶  and then was soon abandoned. History is also the history of possibilities and missed opportunities; it is about roads not taken and alternatives not pursued. Yet the fact that something did not happen or wasn’t realised doesn’t mean history amounts to the survival of the fittest, far from it. However, what is important to realise is that the tragedy of the defeat of both New Geneva and the United Irishmen considerably narrowed republican options at a later stage.

Modern Irish republicanism often sees itself as a continuation of that pioneering native republicanism, keeping the dream alive through much of the long nineteenth century. It wasn’t without some political competition. For a considerable part of the late nineteenth century the Home Rule movement provided an influential parliamentary alternative to the revolutionary rhetoric of republicanism. A complex new situation, partly brought on by the moral duties of empire, most noticeable during World War I, created a new constellation which eventually culminated in the Easter insurrection. The British government’s punitive reaction to the Easter Rising gave way to a kind of guerrilla-style struggle for independence, which eventually led to the birth of the Free State in 1922. However, different interpretations of what it meant to be a true republican, especially after the compromise agreement with the British government, enforced the already under-way separation of six of the nine Ulster counties from the Free State even more, and then led to further political tensions and eventually to civil war. What republicanism meant at each of these events varied largely, but it would be fair to say that being virtuous, civil and industrious as envisioned by the civic humanism of the Genevans’ republicanism wasn’t part of the Irish republican dream. Both Catholicism and nationalism had “crowded out” that alternative early on  ̶  and probably necessarily so.

The price was high. Today, republican ideology in Ireland is maintained by mainly referring to what it is not (not reliant on the British Crown, Empire, the Commonwealth or part of the UK; this or that side of the treaty and/or Irish civil war party etc). Such ideological presuppositions are not made more meaningful by cohorts of younger citizens who only read about classic republicanism or historical variants from other parts of the world in political theory textbooks, if at all. At the same time politicians and activists who claim to stand in the republican tradition seem to have given up completely on any attempt to familiarise themselves with the wider history of republican ideas beyond this island. In fact, most of those who hold the republican tradition dear seem to favour an oral history from below, handed down from past generations for almost a century now. Not that there is anything wrong with being proud of the achievements of a Griffith, a Pearse, a Collins or a de Valera. The problem is rather that these names and the political branches they stand for are not all there might be to republicanism. This is why Whatmore’s book about the failed New Geneva experiment is so important and so timely, as timely as Benjamin Franklin’s famous remark made in 1787 after the Philadelphia Convention. When asked whether the deliberations had resulted in favouring a monarchy or a republic he replied: “A republic, if you can keep it …”

Postscript (April 28th, 2020): Whether an appeal to a new civic humanism under the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will have a major and long-term impact remains to be seen. We are in new and uncharted territory which might also change our notions of what republicanism means.


Andreas Hess is professor in sociology at University College Dublin. His latest publication (as editor, with Samantha Ashenden) is Between Utopia and Realism. The Political Thought of Judith N. Shklar, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.



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