This unfortunate young gentleman was the son of Dr. Emmet, a physician, in Ireland, a man of republican principles. At College, he was distinguished as an orator, particularly in the Historical Society; but his bold promulgation of democratic principles raised him many enemies in the University; and at length being suspected of disaffection to the British government, to avoid a prosecution, with which he was threatened, he fled into France, in which country his brother, Thomas Emmet, at that time resided. Early in 1803, Robert Emmet returned to his native land, where he joined a band of conspirators, who had escaped in the rebellion of 1798, and who had determined upon seizing the castle of Dublin, and making the Lord Lieutenant prisoner. On the 23d of July, 1803, this conspiracy broke out into an insurrection about nine at night, and was completely quelled before morning. Lord Kilwarden, the Chief Justice of Ireland, was murdered in his carriage by a banditti, as already stated; and Emmet, to adopt his own expression, instead of finding himself a leader of a formidable insurrection, found himself without any influence or command, in the midst of a ruffianly mob. With a few adherents, he escaped into the mountains, but returned in a few days, was taken near Dublin, tried for high treason, convicted, and executed, being not more than twenty-four years of age.
This unfortunate youth had early imbibed, under the tutelage of his father, those political doctrines, which caused his ruin. The object of his enthusiastic mind was to separate Ireland from Great Britain, and this he hoped to accomplish without any interference or assistance from France, as appears from his address to the Court after his conviction. These are his words:—"God forbid that I should see my country under the hands of a foreign power. The French should come as a foreign enemy, Oh! my countrymen! meet them on the shore with a torch in one hand, a sword in the other—receive them with all the destruction of war; immolate them in their boats before our native soil shall be polluted by a foreign foe! If they proceed in landing, fight them on the strand, burn every blade of grass before them as they advance, raze every house; and if you are driven to the centre of your country; collect your provisions, your property, your wives, and your daughters: form a circle around them—fight while but two men are left; and when but one remains, let that man set fire to the pile, and release himself, and the families of his fallen countrymen, from the tyranny of France!"
As Robert had then recently returned from France, and from communing with his brother, it is but fair to conclude, that on this point, they coincided in political sentiments.
From the conduct of this youth, he appears an enthusiast in politics, heated by a sanguine mind even to a degree of insanity, which, though it may not excuse, must palliate, his offences. His oratorical abilities were considerable; and his conduct at that awful moment, when death stood before him, inexorable and inevitable, proved his courage. He directed the executioner in the preparations necessary to deprive him of life; and did all in his power to impress on the minds of the spectators, that even in the violent manner, in which he was about to lose his life, there was neither fear nor terror—"making a virtue of calamity"—and leaving the world without a tremulous nerve.
Robert Emmet was tried and convicted in Dublin, before Lord Norbury, and a respectable jury, on Monday, September 19, 1803.
After the evidence, the provincial proclamation was read, to show the object of the insurrection, and the resolution proscribing the yeomanry, and other loyal subjects. The prisoner desired, that a part of it should also be read, by which it was decreed, that no man should suffer death, by court-martial, but for mutiny, until the pleasure of the provisional government should be known: it was read accordingly.
The proclamation addressed to the citizens of Dublin was also read. The prisoner's counsel accounted for the intimate knowledge he had of the provisional proclamation, by saying that it had appeared in other publications. The following papers were then read:—
No. I. (found in his lodgings by Major Sirr) was nearly as follows:-"It may seem strange that a person avowing himself to be an enemy of the present government, and engaged in a conspiracy for its overthrow, should undertake to suggest an opinion on its conduct, or expect that advice from such a quarter should be received with attention. The writer of this, however, does not mean to offer an opinion upon a point, in which he feels difficulty-on which his candour might be doubted; his attention is to confine himself to points on which he feels with the merciful, and as an Irishman; with the English part of the present government, he will communicate, in the most precise terms, the line of conduct which he may be hereafter compelled to adopt; and which, however painful, would be doubly so, if he did not try to avoid it by the most explicit notification.
It is not the intention of the undersigned, to do more than state what the government must acknowledge, that of the conspiracy he knows nothing; and instead of creating terror in its enemies, and confidence in its friends, it will serve, by the scantiness of its information, to furnish new grounds of conviction, to those who are too ready to accuse it for the want of that intelligence which no sagacity could enable it to maintain. If then, it is unable by a display of its discoveries, to evince its strength and vigilance, it cannot hope to crush the conspiracy by the weight of its power. It is only now that men have to learn, that entering into a conspiracy, exposes them to be hanged. . . . . . Can it hope to injure the body of the conspiracy, so imperceptibly woven as the present, by merely cutting off a few of the threads? . . . . . . . . . . No system can change the conduct which the U[nited] I[rishmen] will adopt for effecting the emancipation of their country."
No. II. found on the prisoner's person.—"I wish particularly to know how matters stand, if you are not afraid. What hopes there are from abroad, and what they mean to do; and whether, if they pay us a visit, we shall not be worse off than we are? . . . . . . He is very desponding, and says the people are incapable of redress, and unworthy of liberty; that he is confirmed in this by the late transaction, which must have succeeded but for their barbarous desertion and want of unanimity. He thinks that the invasion will not take place at all, but that it is the plan to wear down the English by the expense of frequent preparation."
No. III found in the desk in Thomas-street.—"I have but little time to look at the thousand difficulties between me and the completion of my wishes; that they would succeed I have ardent, and I trust, rational hopes; but if that should not be the case, I thank God for having gifted me with a sanguine disposition, so that I run from reflection; and if my hopes are without foundation—if a precipice be opening under my feet, from which duty will not suffer me to depart, I am thankful for that disposition, which leads me on to it, and hurls me down, while my eyes are raised to the visions of happiness which my fancy has formed in the air."
No. IV. was the manuscript of the Proclamation of the Provisional Government, found in the desk in Thomas Street.
When this unfortunate young man was called upon to know if he had anything to say why sentence of death should not be passed upon him, he addressed the Court and Jury nearly in the following terms:
"I am asked if I have anything to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced upon me. Was I to suffer only death, after being adjudged guilty, I should bow in silence; but a man in my situation has not only to combat with the difficulties of fortune, but also the difficulties of prejudice; the sentence of the law which delivers over his body to the executioner, consigns his character to obloquy. The man dies, but his memory lives; and that mine may not forfeit ail claim to the respect of my countrymen, I use this occasion to vindicate myself from some of the charges advanced against me.
"I am charged with being an emissary of France-'tis false! I am no emissary-I did not wish to deliver up my country to a foreign power, and least of all, to France.—No, never did I entertain the idea of establishing French power in Ireland—God forbid! On the contrary, it is evident from the introductory paragraph of the Address of the Provisional Government, that every hazard attending an independent effort was deemed preferable to the more fatal risk of introducing a French army into the country. Small would be our claims to patriotism and to sense, and palpable our affectation of the love of liberty, if we were to encourage the profanation of our shores by a people who are slaves themselves, and the unprincipled and abandoned instruments of imposing slavery on others.
"If such an inference be drawn from any part of the proclamation of the Provisional Government, it calumniates their views, and is not warranted by the fact. How could they speak of freedom to their countrymen? How assume such an exalted motive, and meditate the introduction of a power which has been the enemy of freedom in every part of the globe; Reviewing the conduct of France to other countries, could we expect better towards us? No! Let not, then, any man attaint my memory by believing that I could have hoped freedom through the aid of France, and betrayed the sacred cause: of liberty by committing it to the power of her most determined foe: had I done so, I had not deserved to live; and dying with such a weight upon my character, I had merited the honest execration of that country which gave me birth, and to which I would have given freedom.
"Had I been in Switzerland, I would have fought against the French—in the dignity of freedom, I would have expired on the threshold of that country, and they should have entered it only by passing over my lifeless corpse. Is it then to be supposed, that I would be slow to make the same sacrifice to my native land? Am I, who lived, but to be of service to my country, and who would subject myself to the bondage of the grave to give her independence—am I to be loaded with the foul and grievous calumny of being an emissary of France?
"My lords, it may be part of the system of angry justice, to bow a man's mind, by humiliation, to meet the ignominy of the scaffold; but worse to me than the scaffold's shame, or the scaffold's terrors, would be the imputation of having been the agent of French despotism and ambition; and while I have breath, I will call upon my countrymen not to believe the guilty of so foul a crime against their liberties and their happiness.
"Though you, my lord, sit there a judge, and I stand here a culprit, yet you are but a man, and I am another. I have a right, therefore, to vindicate my character and motives from the aspersions of calumny; and, as a man, to whom fame is dearer than life, I will make the last use of that life in rescuing my name and my memory from the afflicting imputation of having been an emissary of France, proclamation of the Provisional Government, it calumniates their views, and is not warranted by the fact. How could they speak of freedom to their countrymen? How assume such an exalted motive, and meditate the introduction of a power which has been the enemy of freedom in every part of the globe? Reviewing the conduct of France to other countries, could we expect better towards us? No! Let not, then, any man attaint my memory by believing that I could have hoped freedom through the aid of France, and betrayed the sacred cause of liberty by committing it to the power of her most determined foe: had I done so, I had not deserved to live; and dying with such a weight upon my character, I had merited the honest execration of that country which gave me birth, and to which I would have given freedom.
"Did I live to see a French army approach this country, I would meet it on the shore, with a torch in one hand, and a sword in the other—I would receive them with all the destruction of war! I would animate my countrymen to immolate them in their very boats; and before our native soil should be polluted by a foreign foe, if they succeeded in landing, I would burn every blade of grass before them, raze every house, contend to the last for every inch of ground; and the last spot on which the hope of freedom should desert me, that spot I would make my grave! What I cannot do, I leave a legacy to my country, because I feel conscious that my death were unprofitable, and all hopes of liberty extinct, the moment a French army obtained a footing in this land."
After some farther matter, he concluded thus:—"My lamp of life is nearly expired—my race is finished: the grave opens to receive me, and I sink into its bosom. All I request, then, at parting from the world, is the charity of its silence. Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man, who knows my motives, dare vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them; let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain undescribed, till other times and other men can do justice to my character."
The foregoing is a faithful report of this unfortunate young man's exculpation of himself from the charge of co-operating with the French in any design to invade this country; and whether voluntary or involuntary, it is an evidence against the character of the common enemy, which, coming from such authority, ought, and we trust, will have the most salutary effect upon all who may have participated in his principles or his treasons.
Whether the sincere conviction of his mind, or the imposition of pride, anxious to rescue his memory from the foul shame of having sought to deliver his country up to a foreign and a cruel enemy, he is entitled to equal credit; and if anything were inscribed on his tomb, most honourable to himself, and atoning to his country, it is the character which he has given of the arch foe to the peace and liberty of mankind.
The court listened to him with a great deal of patience; and although indignation was visible in the countenance of every person in court, at this public avowal of his guilt, yet not a murmur was heard. Lord Norbury, after a salutary remonstrance to the prisoner, and paying a handsome compliment to some of the respectable members of the family to which he belonged, pronounced the awful sentence of the law in cases of high treason.
Mr. Emmet, after his trial, was taken to Newgate, where dinner had been prepared for him. He there requested to see Mr. MacNally, one of his counsellors in his defence. To him, it is generally rumoured, he made a full disclosure of all the means he had used to effect the late insurrection, and authorised him to make it known to government. He declared himself the chief mover and instigator of that attempt to effect a revolution, and solemnly denied having any associates in this country of either property or respectability. He accounted for the expenses incurred in preparations for rebellion, by stating that he had received, on the death of his father, 3,500l. and that he had expended of that sum 2,500l. in purchasing the arms found in the depot in Marshalsea-lane.
He also denied having solicited or received any assistance from the French government, and protested, were this country invaded by Frenchmen, from his information of their principles and conduct wherever they went, that he would be one of the most zealous in the expulsion of such treacherous, rapacious, and sanguinary miscreants, At the place of execution he expressed the same sentiments.