Pennsylvania pledges to Irish freedom in 1918 U.S. election

A month before the 1918 U.S. elections, a Philadelphia chapter of the Friends of Irish Freedom sent a questionnaire to Pennsylvania candidates for state and federal office that asked whether they would make this pledge:

Will you, if elected to the public office for which you are a candidate, openly and unequivocally support Ireland’s claim to Complete Independence–the form of Government to be determined by the whole male and female population of Ireland?

The Irish Press published the questionnaire,1 which featured seven “historical facts” about England’s subjugation of Ireland “based on force,” including a 250,000-troop “army of occupation … equipped with all the ruthless machinery of modern warfare.” English prisons were “full of Irish men and women” who refused to follow her “tyrannical decrees.”

Wilson

The questionnaire also noted that over 500,000 men of the Irish race were serving in “Uncle Sam’s Army and Navy.” And it included two 27 September 1918, quotes from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson about the rights of smaller, weaker countries to be free from the rule of larger, stronger nations.

Friends of Irish Freedom and other Irish groups had been building support for Irish self-determination since January, when Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress. He said the world should “be made safe for every peace-loving nation, which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world…”

Mass meetings and petition drives mounted through the spring and summer, especially as it became clear that Wilson’s statement likely included only those nation’s controlled by Germany and its allies. “It must be remembered that while President Wilson did not include Ireland, he said nothing about excluding [it],” was the hopeful formulation of one speaker at a May 1918 Friends’ rally at the Lyceum Theater in Pittsburgh.2

As the November election neared, the Irish Press reported that responses to the Friends’ questionnaire were “gratifying to all friends of the cause” and also showed “in a conclusive manner” that 70 percent of Pennsylvania voters were “heartily in favor” of an Irish Republic. The Press continued:

This result should put a little ginger and backbone into the weak and vacillating men of our race who are willing to take anything that England should see fit to grant as a favor. Let our motto be that in the matter of self-determination nothing is too good for the Irish.

It is unclear how the Press determined the 70 percent support figure. There is no reference to voter polling independent of those candidates who returned the questionnaire. In two issues before the 5 November election, the Press named nine congressional candidates, plus the Democrat and Republican contenders for governor, as supportive of Ireland. Over 100 candidates were on the ballot for 33 congressional seats; plus dozens more for state legislative offices.

Letters of support

Focht

The Press reproduced two letters of support from congressional candidates.

“I wish to advise that I believe Ireland has suffered only too long the oppression of a foreign power, and that the day has come for her liberation …,” Republican Congressman Benjamin K. Focht wrote in a letter published on the front page of the Press. Focht was editor and publisher of the Lewisburg Saturday News in his district 60 miles north of the state capitol in Harrisburg.

Hulings

The paper also published a letter from Willis J. Hulings of Oil City, Pa., who was attempting to return to Congress after a two-year absence. Hulings said that he favored Irish freedom and that “sympathy with Irish patriots has been part of my life.”3 However, he did not see how “the United States Congress has any right of interference until after the Irish people have unitedly demanded separation from Great Britain.”

The Press editors acknowledged that Hulings position was shared “by many other honest Americans.” It added:

If Ireland must wait for freedom until Great Britain gives the Irish people an opportunity to unitedly demand separation, we should look for the establishment of the Irish Republic somewhere around the Greek calends.

Historian Joseph P. O’Grady noted that “what influence this [questionnaire and news coverage] had upon the campaign is difficult to assess; but the fact that candidates for high office would publicly endorse such statements [as the pledge] indicates, to some extent, the political power of the Irish at election time.”4

In the election, Democrats lost both chambers of Congress to the Republicans, a bad omen for Wilson, who had cast the midterm in strident personal and national security terms. Only three of the nine congressional candidates named in the Press, including Focht and Hulings, were elected. As the war in Europe ended the following week, the pressure campaign by Irish America continued to heat. The results of British Parliamentary elections in Ireland the following month would have an even bigger impact on the issue.

See archived stories about the Irish in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

  1. The Irish Press, Oct. 26, 1918, pgs. 1 & 4. Digital Library@Villanova University
  2. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 6, 1918, p. 3
  3. The Irish Press, Nov. 2, 1918, pgs. 1 & 7. Digital Library@Villanova University
  4. O’Grady, “Irish-Americans, Woodrow Wilson and Self-Determination: A Re-Evaluation,” American Catholic Historical Society, Vol. 74, No. 3, p. 165

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