BY PROF. GEORGE MACLOSKIE.
Hon. W. E. Robinson, the
famous "Richelieu" of American journalism, died after a brief illness, at
his home in Brooklyn, on January 23, 1892, in the seventy-eighth year of
his age, and was buried in Greenwood, Rev. Drs. John Hall and T. De Witt
Talmage assisting at his obsequies. As he was a representative
Scotch-Irishman, and, in the language of the New York Recorder, "for over
twenty years one of the most picturesque figures in American politics," he
is well entitled to a place in our obituary.
Born at Unagh, near
Cookstown, in County Tyrone, Ireland, May 6, 1814, he early manifested
literary ability of a high order. His father is described to us by a lady
who remembers him, as "a lovely old man, and, I think, an elder in the
Presbyterian Church," and, along with his other children, was engaged in
trade. William, however, did not take to trade, but setting himself, first
secretly, to the study of Latin and Greek, soon contrived to attend
Cookstown Academy, and afterward proceeded to the Belfast Academical
Institution. The time of his youth was marked by political ferment in
Ireland, Daniel O'Connell being prominent as the great agitator for
Repeal, and although Robinson's surroundings in Presbyterian Belfast were
antagonistic to O'Connell and to Repeal, he seems even then to have thrown
himself heartily into the Nationalist cause.
In 1836 he emigrated to
America, arriving in New York, after a voyage of sixty-six days, with a
British sovereign in his possession. When coming up New York Harbor, he
sketched out the lines which afterward became popular:
The Emigrant's Song.
Hail! brightest banner that
floats on the gale!
Flag of the country of Washington, hail!
Red are thy stripes, as the blood of the brave,
Bright are thy stars, as the sun on the wave;
Wrapped in thy folds are the hopes of the free.
Banner of Washington! blessings on thee!
Mountain tops mingle the sky
with their snow;
Prairies lie smiling in sunshine below;
Rivers, as broad as the sea in their pride,
Border thine empires, but do not divide;
Niagara's voice, far out—anthems the sea;
Land of sublimity! blessings on thee!
Hope of the world! on thy
When thou didst burst on the pathway of Time,
Millions from darkness and bondage awoke;
Music was born when Liberty spoke:
Millions to come yet shall join in the glee,
Land of the pilgrim's hope! blessings on thee!
Traitors shall perish and
Treason shall fail;
Kingdoms and thrones in thy glory grow pale!
Thou shalt live on, and thy people shall own
Loyalty's sweet, where each heart is thy throne.
Union and freedom thy heritage be;
Country of Washington! blessings on thee!
In the following year he
entered Yale College, having $10 wherewith to begin his academic career.
Soon, however, he took a high place in his class, and became remarkable
for his ability as a writer and as an orator; and his college course
appropriately closed by his being the valedictorian of the celebrated
class of 1841, of which he ultimately proved to be the last survivor. In
the early part of his attendance at Yale he became a frequent contributor
to the New Haven Herald, and afterward editor of the New Haven Daily
Courier, and he founded the Yale Banner. He also founded a Chapter of the
"Phi Upsilon" secret society. His first appearances as a speaker were by
way of lecturing on Ireland, which made him a hero with Hiberno-Americans
who sympathized with his advocacy of the independence of their country and
his denunciations of Saxon wrongs. All his life proved that he was
entirely honest and sincere in his attitude on this subject, and we should
remember that the Ireland of his youth was differently placed from that of
our day; its land tenure, ecclesiastical polity, and political system
being enormously wrong, though in our time they have been, in a great
measure, set right.
The presidential campaign
of "Tippecanoe" Harrison gave further scope for his oratory, and opened
his way into American politics. Ere long he was in demand all over the
country, and he became a protege of Horace Greeley, who engaged him to
lecture for the Whig party, and also to contribute to the Log Cabin, an
important political sheet in that election. After the electoral campaign
he attended lectures on law, till he was appointed, in 1843, as the
Washington correspondent of the New York Tribune. His letters to the
Tribune, under the assumed name of "Richelieu," gave a graphic picture of
proceedings in Congress, and were so full of humor and satire that their
author promptly won both fame and trouble. His description of the daily
retreat of an honorable Congressman behind the Speaker's chair for the
purpose of lunching, by stealth, on sausages which issued from his pocket,
wrapped in paper, was so racy that it reached European as well as American
papers, and was withal such an outrage on Congressional proprieties that
it led to his temporary expulsion from the Reporters' Gallery. When
another correspondent, on being afterward ejected for the same offense
against the Senate, asked for a nomination to the Presidency of the United
States by way of vindication of the liberty of the press, Robinson
humorously suggested that it was he who, being the first offender, should
be made President, and the other should be made Vice President. At this
time ho had an opportunity to declare his principles on the two subjects
of Daniel O'Connell and American slavery. Having been chosen orator for
St. Patrick's Day celebration in Washington in 1847, and learning that
O'Connell was not to be toasted because he had uttered some words against
slavery, Robinson declared that he would not speak unless O'Connell was
toasted, and this compelled the pro-slavery men to yield. In the same year
he organized measures for the relief of the Irish famine, and succeeded in
securing the authority of Congress for dispatching the frigate
"Macedonian" to the relief of the starving people. Soon after this he was
set up at the Whig convention, in New York City, for a nomination to
Congress, and failed by a solitary vote.
In the uprising in Ireland
of 1848, he used his pen to advocate the cause of its independence, and in
1849 he became editor of a New York paper, The People, strongly opposed to
England and favoring Ireland. His speech on "Celt and Saxon," delivered
before a representative convention of college fraternities in Hamilton
College in 1851, was published at length in the Tribune, and gave rise to
much comment in Europe as well as here. It was discussed in the British
House of Lords and by the London Times.
In 1854 he loft Washington
in order to enter on the practice of law in New York City, at which he
continued till his appointment by President Lincoln, in 1862, to the
office of Collector of Internal Revenue for the Third District of New
York, an office which he faithfully discharged till his resignation in
1866, with a view to reenter politics. Being rather independent as to his
views of American politics, he did not change much in accepting a
nomination for Congress from the Democratic party in Brooklyn, which
resulted in his election. In Congress he was distinguished for his
antipathy to Britain, but he was esteemed as a man of integrity, and he
advocated and secured the passage of valuable measures. One of these was
the naturalization law, which led to the abrogation of the outrageous and
oppressive claims for perpetual allegiance, formerly pressed by old-world
monarchs upon America's adopted citizens. He also moved the bill favoring
the construction of the Brooklyn bridge, which was passed March 2, 1869,
just at the close of his first term in Congress. Having offended some of
the Democrats by his independent course as a Congressman, his legislative
career was interrupted for a time.
We next find him, in 1871,
united with Mr. Patrick Ford in the editorship of the Irish World, where
he was free to put in practice the process (according to the phrase first
employed by him) of "twisting the tail of the British lion." In 1880 he
was again returned to Congress by the Democrats, and a third time in 1882;
but in 1884 he broke the party traces, and was rejected by the leaders. He
then returned to support himself by journalism, and continued in harness
till his death.
He was married in 1853, and
leaves three daughters and two sons, one of the latter following the
father's profession of journalism. His Irish Nationalist sympathies and
spirit of liberality rendered him a favorite in Roman Catholic circles,
especially with the late Archbishop Hughes, of New York; but he retained
his Protestant profession. Dr. Talmage very justly bore testimony at his
funeral to his industry, perseverance, self-reliance, integrity, courage,
genius, and faith in God. Though Robinson moved in political circles about
New York when Tweed flourished, and when a writer of his mark could fetch
a high price, he was not contaminated by the evil example. We have
evidence of this not only in the testimony of his critics, but in the fact
that whilst he worked assiduously for his support, he neither lived
sumptuously nor accumulated wealth. Such a life leaves a fragrant memory.
Some of our readers may
recall his striking appearance at the Scotch-Irish Congress in Pittsburg
in May, 1890. He read a valuable historical paper on "The Prestons of
America," and we had an opportunity of marking his noble bearing, tall
though slightly stooped with age, his handsome face, long snow-white
curling locks, oratorical powers still retained. He usually carried a
blackthorn stick, perhaps a shillalah hinting of his Hibernianism. We
strongly suspect that his middle name "Erigena" (Irish-born), was not
baptismal, but adoptive, by way of testimony that he was not ashamed of