Front Page Titles (by Subject) 57.: The Fenian Convicts 25 MAY, 1867 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII - Public and Parliamentary Speeches Part I November 1850 - November 1868
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57.: The Fenian Convicts 25 MAY, 1867 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII - Public and Parliamentary Speeches Part I November 1850 - November 1868 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII - Public and Parliamentary Speeches Part I November 1850 - November 1868, ed. John M. Robson and Bruce L. Kinzer (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).
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The Fenian Convicts
Morning Star, 27 May, 1867, p. 6. Headed: “The Fenian Convicts. Important Deputation to Lord Derby.” Reported in the Evening Star (identically with the Morning Star), the Daily Telegraph, the Daily News, and The Times (an abbreviated summary of Mill’s remarks). (Clippings of the Morning Star and Daily News reports are in the Mill-Taylor Collection.) On Saturday, 25 May, in the afternoon, a deputation of about sixty people, mainly Members of Parliament, called on the Prime Minister, Edward George Geoffrey Smith Stanley (1799–1869), 14th Earl of Derby, at his residence, to ask for a Royal pardon for “General” Thomas Francis Bourke, or Burke (b. 1840), who, having been found guilty of high treason for his part in the March uprising in Tipperary, had been sentenced to be hanged on 29 May. The delegation would have been larger, had some Members not gone by mistake to the Prime Minister’s official residence in Downing Street. Mill, who was “sensibly . . . moved by the affecting nature of the task,” spoke second.
my lord, we have come here without distinction of party. (Loud cries of Hear.) We come here with as deep and earnest a feeling as it is possible for human beings to have, to implore your lordship not to erect the scaffold in this country for political offences. It is not, my lord, for the sake of these unfortunate men we say it.1 Heaven knows the punishment of failure, under the desperateness of these cases, is as painful a measure of punishment as almost any. The punishment to which, at all events, those men have subjected themselves, should their lives not be taken, for the rest of their existence, may be supposed to be quite sufficient to vindicate the law, and deter persons—as we all admit they ought to be deterred—from attempting a revolution when there is not a feeling in the country which would enable them to succeed. We most seriously apprehend that the effect of executing these men will be to make them heroes and martyrs. You must remember that the cause of Irish nationality has not yet had aitsa martyrs. Irish wrongs have had martyrs, but long since this has been put an end to as far as we are concerned. Emmett and Fitzgerald were not martyrs to Irish nationality;2 but the execution of these unhappy men will give a sanctity to the cause in which they embarked which must bring about results most unhappy for Ireland and for this country. We ought to think a little of what will be thought in foreign countries if these men are executed. We know what the feeling of foreign countries is on nationalities. They do not know the actual state of Ireland. They do not know with what a deep and sincere desire we have tried to make Ireland prosperous, and give her no cause to regret her union with us. They know nothing of this. They only know that there is one oppressed nationality which is ruled by another nationality, as they think, by force. bI think that state of things can only be remedied when a country can be induced to forget, as Scotland has forgotten, what is past.b In this view, therefore, I think it would be the most fatal thing in the world to put these men to death. The punishment of death, God knows, is not the most severe punishment, but it is a punishment which excites most sympathy. If these men be executed they will be dearly remembered, their memory will be held sacred by the Irish people, and their example will bring hundreds of their fellow-countrymen to their ruin. (Hear, hear.) There is another point in this matter which is not unworthy the consideration of a statesman, and it is this: It is much to be feared that there must be an impression among the American people that when, with respect to the invaders of Canada,3 many persons desired that the severest punishment should be resorted to, yet with a correct morality—for it was a correct morality to condemn people to penal servitude instead of death—the execution of these men did not take place, that that was done because her Majesty’s Government thought the lives of the men could not be taken with safety. There are many other gentlemen on the deputation anxious to address your lordship, and I will not therefore further detain you.
[Mill was followed by a dozen other speakers before Derby replied at length, explaining that while the Government had considered the case for mercy most carefully before rejecting it, he would be willing to place before Cabinet that afternoon any document they might prepare. The deputation, after thanking the Prime Minister for his attention and courtesy, assembled in Derby’s drawing room and prepared a document, signed by them all, and given to Derby, saying: “We the undersigned members of the House of Commons, very respectfully beg to express the hope that the extreme sentence of capital punishment in the case of the convict Burke may be commuted.”]
[1 ]In fact the cases of John McCafferty and John McClure, the other accused Fenians, were not yet under consideration. Their sentences were eventually commuted to life imprisonment, and they were deported in 1871 after four years in jail.
[2 ]Robert Emmett (1778–1803) was hanged for his part in an uprising in 1803 that aimed at the capture of Dublin Castle and resulted in the death of Lord Kilwarden. Edward Fitzgerald (1763–98) died from a wound received in the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798.
[3 ]On 1 June, 1866, 800 Fenians crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie. They were defeated at Ridgeway by the Canadians, and the remainder surrendered to U.S. forces on 3 June.