May 11, 2014 | Malcolm Johnstone
(Writer’s note: Recently, a group from Ireland visited West Chester and asked what Wolfe Tone may have experienced during his visit in 1795. The following article attempts an answer.)
West Chester PA — The success of the American Revolution helped inspire others around the world to battle for independence in their own countries. Among them was Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763–1798), considered a prominent Irish revolutionary leader as Ireland sought independence from England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although not well-known in the United States, throughout Ireland he is revered as the father of Irish republicanism.
In 1795, Wolfe Tone was forced by the British Crown to leave Ireland for the United States where he arrived in Wilmington DE with his family and a library of some 200 books. They headed to Philadelphia, the national capital at the time, where he met with George Washington (who he thought was too aristocratic) and other American revolutionary notables. But he found Philly to be too costly.
He later wrote in his memoirs that “I moved my family, first to Westchester [sic], and then to Downingstown [sic], both in the state of Pennsylvania, about thirty miles from Philadelphia; and I began to look about for a small plantation, such as might suit the shattered state of my finances, on which the enormous expense of living in Philadelphia (three times as dear as at Paris, or even London,) was beginning to make a sensible inroad.”
Smith-Sharpless Building (1789), 17 North High St.
When he arrived in West Chester, Wolfe Tone would have found a village with a small courthouse surrounded by structures such as the Smith-Sharpless Building, which had apartments and offices where lawyers, physicians, and other professionals could be found. Today the Smith-Sharpless building is considered the best example of West Chester’s surviving First Period structures. There was also a school house, a few taverns and shops, stables, and about 300 inhabitants; many of them well-educated and sympathetic to the Irish cause. This included General Richard Humpton, a Revolutionary War hero, who showed great hospitality to the Tone family.
What Wolfe Tone did not find was an estate that he could purchase allowing him to become “an American farmer.” After weeks of excursions throughout the region, he finally settled on a farm in Princeton, New Jersey.
But by 1796, the demands of the Irish Rebellion forced him to sail to France, where he raised an army against the British. He then attempted an invasion of Ireland itself to set off what became the Irish Rebellion of 1798. It was not successful and Wolfe Tone was eventually arrested, put on trial for treason, and sentenced to hang. Rather than experience such an ignoble fate, he committed suicide in his prison cell with a pen-knife, although it would take six days of agony before he perished from his self-inflicted wounds.
Today, Wolfe Tone’s name is remembered by the West Chester Ancient Order of Hibernians who refer to their local organization as Wolfe Tone Division 1.
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- Memoirs of Theobald Wolfe Tone, Edited by William Theobald Wolfe Tone, London, 1827. Available at Googlebooks
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Updated from the original article of September 22, 2014.