For many significant figures, the historical spotlight is focused on their public accomplishments but being able to appreciate the aspect of their lives outside the public sphere often presents an important context for those accomplishments. An excellent example is a cache of letters by famed early nineteenth century Irish-American revolutionary and lawyer Thomas Addis Emmet to his daughter, Jane Erin Emmet.
Composed of eight letters in all, they span the years 1816 to 1826, from Jane’s teenage years into her adulthood. With the exception of the last letter from Washington, D.C., Emmet writes from Albany while tending to the legal practice to which he devoted considerable energy. His letters encourage his daughter in her studies while offering healthy doses of fatherly advice. The latter is of predictably nineteenth century vintage, however, emphasizing the importance of her conduct and bearing, specifically with regard to her prospects of finding a husband.
Despite the abundant “guidance”, Emmet leaves no doubt that this was a loving relationship, with several moving statements affirming his fatherly affection. And, like every teenage girl’s father, he even manages to present a curious analogy regarding her social “debut”:
I suppose she must feel something like a General after his first victory, a little frightened at the heaps of slain; but still proud of their number; + tranquillising her conscience, if it should feel troubled at the ravage she has made, by the glory of her maiden triumph.
We can only imagine fit of eye rolling this provoked by his then seventeen-year-old daughter!
Perhaps the most memorable letter though is dated March 2, 1818. In it, Emmet is reduced to an emphatic apology to Jane whom he believes he has offended, guessing it may have been something he wrote about her “Scotch partialities.”
Perhaps it was. And perhaps not unjustly; for my wish to have you entirely Irish (except so far as you ought to be American) may have made me treat those partialities without mercy. I meant to make you Irish, in spite of your birth place, when I gave you the name of Erin, I meant to give you the feeling which little John Bradstreet once expressed with infantile naivete to a gentleman who asked where he was born — ” I was born in America, but I am to be brought up an Irishman.” However, be you Scotch or Irish, I shall always love you. And assure you that altho’ I have predelictions for Ireland, I have no prejudices against Scotland, so that if any harshness consisted in that, we can easily make friends.
Far from a passing comment, Emmet’s comments connect deeply with his life experiences. Despite being a lawyer of immense fame in America, his legacy is firmly rooted in his part in the United
Irishmen, a non-sectarian political movement in late eighteenth century Ireland that failed in its 1798 bid to bring a revolution and republican principles to Ireland. Imprisoned for his part, Emmet spent several years in Glasgow, Scotland before settling for a life of exile in the United States in 1804. This he did with a heavy heart after the execution of his brother, Robert, in the previous year for his own failed uprising.
In this context, identity has considerable meaning to a man like Emmet. As you might infer, Jane was born during his time in Scotland which explains why she would have certain affinity towards the land of her birth. And yet Emmet, a man who achieved so much in his adopted land, had also sacrificed a great deal for his own native country and clearly remained very much attached to it. Interestingly, while he was unique in so many ways from the enormous waves of Irish immigrants that would follow him, in this private letter, even he faced the shared immigrant dilemma of identity.