Matilda Tone & the American legacy of 1798

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 4 (Winter 1996), News, The United Irishmen, Volume 4

Despite the enormous wealth of sources, and much superb ethnic historiography over the course of two centuries, the story of 1798 and the United Irish diaspora has consistently escaped the attention of mainstream political historians. One obvious example was the prodigious nineteenth-century biographer R.R. Madden who invariably concluded his memoirs of numerous United Irish exiles with a laconic mention of their departure from Irish soil and settlement overseas. By leaving these United Irish lives in exile unexamined—in sharp contrast to the astonishing energy he devoted to tracing their earlier exploits in Ireland—Madden unwittingly held back the vital diaspora studies that must now be considered critical to understanding the political and cultural origins and consequences of 1798.
In recent years, however, new research has begun to construct a more complete picture of the United Irish movement. These works emphasise the movement’s strong international, republican and democratic origins, and show the complex and reciprocal ways in which the exodus of 1798 changed the history of the United States, Canada, Australia, and France, to mention just a few destinations.
A significant cadre of United Irish exiles—including Thomas Addis Emmet, William James MacNeven, William Sampson, Thomas O’Conor, John Chambers, and Samuel Neilson—formed the nucleus of the earliest Irish community in New York. It was their generation who created the organisations and structures that eased the way for Irish emigrants to the city for the rest of the century. In these circumstances, the United States soon emerged as the only environment in which the exiles of ‘98 could realistically continue their effort to create a United Irish community governed by republican, egalitarian and democratic principles.
For Ireland, 1798 is what 1776 is to America: it is the year of independence, liberty, equality and fraternity. In a tumultuous life in Ireland, America, and France, Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798), a key influence on Irish republicanism, and his colleagues in the United Irish movement, sought to establish popular democracy in Ireland, to affirm Irish sovereignty, and to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter under the common name of Irishman. This was a radical shift from the sectarian politics long promoted in Ireland by London governments.
Forced into exile in 1795, Tone and his wife, Matilda (1769-1849), lived briefly in Princeton, New Jersey. From there, he sailed to France to seek aid for an Irish revolutionary movement and was commissioned as an officer in the French military. With the advice of the American ambassador in Paris, James Monroe, Tone arranged for two French invasions of Ireland. Both were failures, and Tone was captured, tried for treason, and convicted. He died, at the age of thirty-five, under disputed circumstances while awaiting execution.
Matilda Tone, born Martha Witherington, was a formidable individual in her own right, sharing her husband’s political commitments and struggles. She spent most of her life defending the legacy of 1798 and the memory of her famous husband, whom she had joined in France in 1797. At his death, she was a twenty-eight year old widow with three young children, two of whom would succumb to tuberculosis by 1806. She survived on a small pension from the French army, and on the financial support of Napoleon and Tallyrand until the Bourbon monarchy was restored in 1815.
Then, Matilda Tone emigrated from France (via Scotland) to the United States in 1817, settling first at 21 Hudson Street in New York City. Her only surviving child, William Tone, was an apprentice there in the law office of the United Irishman William Sampson. When he took employment with the US War Department in Washington, DC, Matilda and her second husband, Thomas Wilson, joined him there. Nevertheless, their ties to New York City continued through bonds with old ‘98 friends and eventually through the marriage of William Tone and Sampson’s only surviving child, Catherine, in late 1825. By year’s end, the Sampson in-laws had also moved into the Tone household in Georgetown. It was during this period that Theobold Wolfe Tone’s revolutionary memoirs, The Life of Wolfe Tone, were readied for publication. No doubt Matilda Tone played a role, albeit unacknowledged, in this monument to her first husband’s political principles, given that her son edited the work while living with her.
When Matilda Tone died in 1849, she was buried in the Old Presbyterian Cemetery in Georgetown, then a suburb of Washington, DC. When the cemetery was sold in 1891, Matilda Tone’s great-grandchildren had the remains transferred to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where the Maxwells had a family plot (Matilda Tone’s only grandchild, Grace Georgiana Tone, married Lascelles E. Maxwell). The white marble monument that marked the grave in Georgetown was re-erected in Green-Wood. A century later, it was so weather-beaten that it had the appearance of limestone; a corner of its crown had disappeared; and its epitaph was illegible.
Over the summer of 1996, Sean Webster, a fine arts sculptor and painter, acting on behalf of the Irish-American Labor Coalition and the New York Irish History Roundtable, restored the monument and added a new inscription:

In memory of
MATILDA,
Widow by her second marriage of
THOMAS WILSON,
born June 1769 died
March 18, 1849
Revered and loved
as the heroic wife of
THEOBALD WOLFE TONE

These remains
were removed from
the Old Presbyterian Cemetery
Georgetown D.C.
October 9, 1891
by the Irish-American Union

To celebrate
the legacy of 1798
the New York Irish
History Roundtable
and the Irish-American
Labor Coalition
restored this monument.
It was unveiled
by Ireland’s President
Mary Robinson
on 8 October 1996.

Despite the driving rain more than 300 of Brooklyn’s Irish community leaders heard President Robinson praise the 1798 patriot-heroine at the unveiling. This was followed by a lecture by Nancy Curtin (Fordham University) on Matilda Tone’s role in the dissemination of the ideals of the United Irish movement after Wolfe Tone’s death.

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