Marat's Science

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more information about Jean Paul Marat: Scientist and Revolutionary

Clifford D. Conner

Humanity Books
an imprint of Prometheus Books
Amherst NY 1997
285 pages

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“Conner's approach is noteworthy because he takes Marat's scientific writings seriously . . . . Conner provides ample documentation to prove that Marat was seriously pursuing research on heat, light, and electricity wholly within the confines of contemporary knowledge . . . . The merit of this well-researched biography is that it sets Marat in his historical and personal context in a way that makes his remarkable saga intelligible. . . . Conner's treatment should stand as the latest word on this dramatic figure who flashes across the annals of science like a shooting star.”—Roger Hahn, Isis

“Conner is honest, well-informed, and by no means uncritical . . . . It is tempting to try to assess Marat's actions on their own merits, and it is here that Conner scores his most striking success. In one hundred carefully researched and closely argued pages, he shows that, during the 1780s, Marat was not some kind of charlatan, but a serious scientist, even if, as Conner concedes, he was also an ‘aggressive self-promoter.'" —Norman Hampson, American Historical Review

“Conner's book is well written, informed, and useful to historians of science.”—J. L. Heilbron, Annals of Science

“Conner delves deeper than the conventional characterization of the French revolutionary . . . . In language interesting to historians of science and accessible to historians without technical background, he describes Marat's (1743-93) work with medical theory and practice, heat, light, and static electricity.”—Booknews

“Conner demonstrates a thorough mastery of all of his subject's writings.”—Choice, December 1997

“Written in a thoroughly accessible style suitable for students or the general public, Clifford Conner's book on Marat deserves to be a bestseller. He has connected Marat's interest in science to his revolutionary ardor, to his hatred of privilege and exclusion based upon birth or breeding. Faced with the establishment within French science during the 1780s Marat learned about power, its use and abuse. His vision of a better society free from poverty and ignorance, coupled with the violence of his political passions, will haunt any modern, unreformed regime that survives through the support of privileged elites and perpetuates social injustice. Professor Conner has written a compelling, fast-paced and fairminded biography.” —Margaret C. Jacob, Professor of History and the History of Science, University of Pennsylvania

“Clifford Conner has made an invaluable contribution to understanding Marat. His meticulous analysis adds to prior biographies of Marat a valuable original and detailed description of Marat's works over nearly a quarter of a century in medicine and science. Fascinating in itself, this history makes it impossible to dispose of Marat as a neurotic and charlatan. Few historians have dared write an examined life of Marat and fewer have defied the received prejudice against him. For this reason, too, we are indebted to Clifford Conner, not only for sound scholarship and keen analysis, but for personal and professional courage in outfacing those who create demons in order to have events go and history written their way.” —Ramsey Clark, former Attorney General of the United States

“I found it fascinating. It is very much needed. In short, I think that the book is an excellent study of an important subject and I admire the combination of sympathy and objectivity that have been put into it.” —Martin Bernal, author of Black Athena


Isis, the journal of the History of Science Society
Roger Hahn
September 1998

This new biography of the much-maligned Jean Paul Marat is Clifford Conner's revised dissertation, completed at CUNY in 1993. Like all good biographers, Conner attempts to penetrate his subject's complex personality to fathom what motivated him in his activities both as a contentious would-be scientist and as a notorious political agitator. Most earlier biographers have in my opinion failed to tie Marat's aspirations as a renowned physical scientist to his behavior as a radical journalist after 1789. (For me, the most arresting effort remains the 1927 monograph by Louis Gottschalk, who characterized Marat as a frustrated paranoiac who today would require serious help from a psychiatrist.)

In these past seventy years our understanding of both Enlightenment science and the sources of radicalism has grown so much that now a new attack on the problem is entirely fitting. Conner's approach is noteworthy because he takes Marat's scientific writings seriously, assuming that what Marat wrote was a genuine and legitimate account of his experiences. Conner dismisses with good evidence the label of “charlatan” given to Marat by his contemporaries, which was their clever comeback to his characterization of many academicians of the time in his pamphlet Les charlatans modernes. Like the contributors to Jean-François Lemaire and Jean-Pierre Poirier's recent volume, Marat, Homme de Science? (1993), Conner empathizes with his subject. From his perspective, one can fully appreciate why Marat and his friends were incensed by the scorn with which the Academy of Sciences treated his writings. Conner provides ample documentation to prove that Marat was seriously pursuing research on heat, light, and electricity wholly within the confines of contemporary knowledge and stimulated in part by unsolved issues surrounding these “imponderable fluids.” Newton himself had not fully resolved the problem of the bending of light through or near solid bodies, one of Marat's main concerns in what he entitled “perioptrics.” It matters little to the biographer if Marat offered solutions that were historically dead ends. Conner asserts with good arguments that Marat did not receive a fair hearing from the scientific community.

Why? On this point, Conner provides no insights beyond those that countless earlier biographers have offered. Marat was self-serving, ambitious, lacking in the social and political skills needed to succeed in Old Regime society, and personally stubborn and irascible. He also continually challenged received authority in science and in the scientific establishment. In natural philosophy he was a failed rebel. But his determination was vindicated when the political revolution came. As Conner shows clearly, Marat became a brazen political agitator calling for mass rebellion of the underclass and a pitiless detractor of those who failed to subscribe to his viewpoint. The irony of his life is that his lasting fame was precipitated by his assassination in 1793. Supporters of the French Revolution, including the painter David, portrayed him as a martyr to their cause; opponents saw him as a monstrous ringleader egging on the populace to a hysterical pitch and one who deserved his tragic end.

The merit of this well-researched biography is that it sets Marat in his historical and personal context in a way that makes his remarkable saga intelligible. Along with the excellent biography in French by Olivier Coquard (1993), Conner's treatment should stand as the latest word on this dramatic figure who flashes across the annals of science like a shooting star.

Roger Hahn is Director of the Office for History of Science and Technology and Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley.

Volume 55, Number 4, October 1998
Reviewed by J. L. Heilbron, Worcester College, Oxford OX1 2HB, UK

Mr. Conner recommends his book as the first biography of Marat in English since 1927 and as the first biography in any language to give an adequate account of Marat's work as (to use Conner's labels) “scientist” and “experimental physicist.” This work, done mainly in the 1780s, had ceased by the time Marat took up his true calling as revolutionary journalist. From this self-appointed post he attacked the Parisian academic establishment that had rejected him. In 1791 he published a pamphlet written a few years earlier, Les charlatans modernes, in which he threw back at the academicians the charge they had leveled at him. Were they right? Was Marat a charlatan or a “scientist”? That is the main question that Conner sets out to answer in his account of Marat's books on light, heat, and electricity.

Conner reviews some of Marat's experiments, his relations with “scientists” and academicians, and the theories with which he proposed to replace Newton's principles of optics and Franklin's principles of electricity. Since Marat did many experiments with standard apparatus, aroused the interest temporarily of the Academy of Sciences, won prizes for his scientific work from provincial academies, and challenged physical theory where (as in the case of the number and mode of action of the electrical fluids) it was still unsettled, Conner concludes that his man was not a charlatan. Hence Marat must have been a scientist; tertium non datur in Conner's framework.

Conner has made good the case that Marat's sustained experimentation did not and should not earn him the reputation of a crank. But it does not follow that Marat was not a charlatan. His grandiose claims to have disproved Newton and Franklin were not supported by his experiments or by his analyses of standard phenomena supposed to confirm the received theories. It was this unsupportable bombast that made him a charlatan to the Paris Academy. Overplaying his hand and exaggerating his originality were Marat's ways of recommending himself. As Voltaire wrote of Marat's Essai sur l'homme , “After reading this three-volume diatribe that claims to deliver a perfect knowledge of mankind, I was angry at finding nothing more than has been repeated in many different languages over the last 3000 years.” [Footnote 1]

No more does it follow from Marat's experiments, or from his faithful translation of Newton's Opticks , or from his relations with provincial academies, that he was a scientist. The term indicates a person employed, usually full-time and at some one else's expense, in the study of the natural world or in the application of academic knowledge about it, who belongs to one or more learned or professional societies, who has had some higher education in some branch of science, and who meets certain standards of professional performance and behaviour. Most of the very few such people who existed in the eighteenth century were astronomers. “Scientist” should not be used of natural philosophers.

From the existence of scientists follows the existence of their social and professional ties. Conner consequently places Marat in “the scientific community.” But there was no such thing in the 1780s. Even the “academic community” does not fit a society that boasted at the top the king's sublime academicians and, at the bottom, a bunch of impoverished provincial groups that tended to be ridiculous. “Ci git qui ne fut rien, pas même academicien,” runs a tomb stone in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Dijon, “here lies somebody who was nobody, not even an academician.”

Nor can Marat be enrolled in a community of “physicists,” to use another anachronism. An almanac published in 1777 lists four physiciens then active in Paris. Two were savants (Marat's bête noire Lavoisier called himself a physicien ), a third operated a cabinet of curiosities, and the fourth, “known for his sleight of hand,” gave amusing demonstrations. These “physicists” had few characteristics in common. The eighteenth century abounded in clubs, cliques, guilds, and corporations, but not in scientific communities.[Footnote2] That unsocial member of the putative scientific community, Marat, condemned academies for being unsuited to their task of advancing knowledge, which he held to be the business of inspired individuals like himself, not of groups.[Footnote 3]

Conner's book is well written, informed, and useful to historians of science beyond its demonstration of the peril of describing the past in anachronistic categories. To be fair, it is a peril that historians who want readers cannot always avoid.

[Footnote 1] Quoted by Jean-Pierre Poirier in Jean Bernard et al., Marat homme de science? (Paris, 1993), 47, the proceedings of a colloquium that answered the question posed in its title positively.

[Footnote 2] J. L. Heilbron, Electricity in the 17th and 18th centuries (Berkeley, 1979), 16, which unhappily uses “physicists” as a section heading.

[Footnote 3] Olivier Coquard, Marat (Paris, 1993), 185.

December 1998
Reviewed by Norman Hampson, University of York

In his introduction, Clifford D. Conner suggests that it is almost impossible to write a dispassionate biography of Jean-Paul Marat, and the rest of his book shows us why. Conner is honest, well-informed, and by no means uncritical, but his favorable verdict on Marat is unlikely to make many converts. One of the main reasons for this is that Conner is inclined to accept at face value Marat's own accounts of his activities, even if he is scrupulous about telling the reader when he is doing so. What Conner does not do, however, is tell us about Marat's more ludicrous attempts at self-glorification: claims that in 1774, Lord North spent 8,000 guineas to delay the publication of Marat's Chains of Slavery until after the British election; that Jacques Necker offered him a bribe of one million livres; that in 1791, the French government was pursuing him with five spies and two thousand assassins. The charge against Marat is not that he was inclined to exaggerate but that he was either a deliberate liar on a massive scale or that he inhabited a fantasy world in which he was always St. George, the only man capable of taking on an endless succession of dragons.

The skepticism generated by Marat's unreliability on matters of fact extends to every aspect of his career. Conner dedicates his book “To the wretched of the earth, for whom Marat lived and died.” There was not much evidence of that in those years before the revolution, when Dr. Marat's expensively treated patients were drawn mainly from the aristocracy and he himself was attached to the household of the Comte d'Artois. On the other hand, he spent a very harassed and uncomfortable three years on the run after 1789, when he would not have found it difficult to strike some sort of deal with the revolutionary authorities.

Whereas the assessment of most people's motives is a matter of drawing fine distinctions, in Marat's case only the absolutes seem plausible, and one's choice of extreme is liable to be influenced by one's political inclination. In this dilemma, it is tempting to try to assess Marat's actions on their own merits, and it is here that Conner scores his most striking success. In one hundred carefully researched and closely argued pages, he shows that, during the 1780s, Marat was not some kind of charlatan but a serious scientist, even if, as Conner concedes, he was also an “aggressive self-promoter.” The negative side of this achievement is that Conner leaves himself with little more than another hundred pages in which to explore Marat's political career. As a result, his study of the politician amounts to little more than a summary of his attitudes and actions during the main crises of the revolution, and there is no serious attempt to examine the content and influence of his newspaper.

It is not merely shortage of space, however, that leaves the reader skeptical about Conner's claim that Marat provided the Montagnards with indispensable leadership. That was probably his view, but it was certainly not theirs. As one follows the development of Marat's hostility to one popular leader after another, culminating in his denunciation of Jacques Roux, who had sheltered him when he was on the run from the police, the futility of trying to separate motive from achievement becomes obvious. This raised the question of whether Marat's real concern—as he himself once admitted—was not the pursuit of personal glory, whether as the man who confounded Isaac Newton or as the unchallengeable savior of the sans-culottes. This returns us to our original dilemma: if we are not to take Marat at his own estimation, it is difficult to take him seriously. Conner has presented us with the case for the defense. Even if it fails to convince the jury, his exposition of Marat's scientific work may be held to constitute some sort of extenuating circumstance.


Conner (European history, City U. of New York) delves deeper than the conventional characterization of the French revolutionary as either hero or bloodthirsty fanatic to incorporate his life before the revolution as a scholar, scientist, and medical doctor as well as his journalistic activism and rise to power. In language interesting to historians of science and accessible to historians without technical background, he describes Marat's (1743-93) work with medical theory and practice, heat, light, and static electricity.


A People’s History of Science (website)

Histoire Populaire des Sciences (reviews/21mb pdf) (buy the book)

Storia populare della scienza (Buy the Book)

Historia Popular de la Ciencia (reviews)

Halkin Bilim Tarihi (Buy the Book)

Korean edition (Buy the Book)

Arthur O’Connor: The Most Important Irish Revolutionary You May Never Have Heard Of (buy the book) (reviews)

Colonel Despard: The Life and Times of an Anglo-Irish Rebel (buy the book) (reviews)

Reviews of COLONEL DESPARD: The Life and Times of an Anglo-Irish Rebel

The Journal of Military History
October 2000

The now all-but-forgotten Colonel Edward Marcus Despard (1751-1803) was once infamous for his involvement in a conspiracy that was apparently aimed at overthrowing the British government during the period of the Napoleonic Wars. This has led most historians, particularly Sir Charles Oman in his 1922 essay “The Unfortunate Colonel Despard,” to dismiss him as a lunatic conspirator of marginal historical interest. This conclusion is challenged by Clifford Conner, a professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Law who is an experienced biographer, having previously written Jean Paul Marat: Scientist and Revolutionary (1997).

The author explains that Despard played a key role in Britain's 1780 campaign against Spanish Nicaragua during the American Revolutionary War. As a result of his admirable service, he was appointed Superintendent of British Honduras (Belize) in 1784. But, because of the consequences linked directly to the performing of his duties in British Honduras, Despard's faithful service to the crown was rewarded by near financial ruin and three years of imprisonment. His disillusionment, along with hopes generated by the American and French Revolutions, led him to join with those who sought to reform the British government. However, in response to the repressive measures of the government, the reform movement was radicalized. In cooperation with the Irish revolutionary organization, the United Irishmen, the radicals formed their own secret organization known as the United Englishmen, of which Despard became a member.

The author makes the crucial point that the “Despard Conspiracy” of the United Englishmen, in which Despard was “neither its prime mover nor its central leader” (p. 206), did not have the overthrow of the British government as its objective. Rather, it was actually intended as a diversionary uprising in support of the main rebellion in Ireland under Robert Emmet, all of which was to coincide with the landing of a French expeditionary force. However, the arrest of Despard and other United Englishmen on 16 November 1802, forestalled any uprising in London. Following their trial for treason, Despard, along with six of his comrades, was executed on 21 February 1803.

Conner, whose work is strongly influenced by Edward Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, 1963, argues that the historical importance of Despard's life lies not with the conspiracy that bears his name, but with his role in the development of English radicalism. But this argument is dependent upon which camp one occupies in the historiographical debate concerning the development of English radicalism: was the “Despard Conspiracy” the last gasp of English Jacobinism and, thus, a dead end, as some historians maintain, or did it form a bridge to nineteenth-century radical movements such as the Luddites and Chartists, as other historians, particularly Edward Thompson, claim? Even if we accept Thompson's thesis, Despard's role in this evolution of radicalism is far from clear, so that Conner's assertion that Despard “played a significant part in an important transitional stage in the development of English and European radicalism” (p. 19) remains dubious at best. While it is true that, in contrast to the negative portrait painted by Oman, Conner demonstrates that Despard was an interesting and even admirable individual, it is hard not to accept Oman's conclusion that the life of the “unfortunate Colonel Despard” is of “marginal historical interest.”--Paul V. Walsh, Delaware County Community College, Media, Pennsylvania

Canadian Journal of History/Annales Canadiennes d'Histoire
December 2001

In many ways the transit that Clifford D. Conner has chosen to trace in Colonel Despard: The Life and Times of an Anglo-Irish Rebel could not be more suited for dramatic treatment. Born into a relatively prosperous family of Anglo-Irish gentry, Edward Marcus Despard embarked on a promising military career in 1766. While his brother John rose to the rank of general in the army, Edward's course was less satisfactory. In 1803 he was tried and convicted of high treason. Executed along with six others, he narrowly escaped the indignity of a posthumous exhibition of his severed head.

Given that most of the attention customarily paid to Despard is lavished upon his 1803 trial, it might seem ironic to suggest that Conner's account of his subject's early career is the most engaging aspect of his work. But this is to compliment the author, who devotes the first half of the book to this period of Despard's life. In 1780 Despard served in what was surely one of the more ill-advised military expeditions of the day, the attempt by a small British force based at Jamaica to launch a pre-emptive strike against Spanish holdings in Central America. As the officer with primary responsibility for engineering operations, Despard's role was far from insignificant. In the campaign, which took (but could not hold) the sparsely defended Spanish fortress of St. John, Despard performed capably. He earned the respect and friendship of one of the assisting naval officers, a certain Horatio Nelson (who later testified at his trial), and his name was gazetted in the official published reports. While archaeologists no doubt celebrate the fact that Despard failed in his eleventh-hour effort to level the fortress as the disease-stricken British force retreated, his career did not suffer as a result. He was promoted and made commander-in-chief of the island of Rattan. In 1784 the British government named Colonel Despard the first superintendent of the Bay of Honduras Settlement. His experiences in that position (which he held until 1790) cast light on the difficulties of colonial administration in the more distant borderlands of the eighteenth-century British Empire. Although Despard was charged with responsibility for the British population in the area, the territory was actually under Spanish sovereignty. As a result he was forced to balance the interests of the British crown, the local settlers, and supervising Spanish officials. Conner judges Despard's work here as a moral victory of sorts: although he was unable to get the local oligarchs to honour the terms of the 1783 treaty with the Spanish, he was able to prevent them from completely abrogating the rights of the poorer inhabitants of the settlement. In his account of this period Conner is largely dependent upon the lengthy report Despard subsequently produced in order to vindicate his administration. Understandably this source privileges Despard's formal dealings with the settlers and the representatives of the Spanish crown, and provides little in the way of the kind of quotidian personal information readers might expect in the biographical form. This raises the fundamental challenge that Conner faces—how to write a compelling biography of a figure about whom so little information has survived?

Conner's (only partly) successful solution is to proceed cautiously: to outline the events and issues to which Despard was undoubtedly in close proximity, all the while underscoring the contingent and necessarily speculative nature of all but the most manifest causal links. Thus, he avoids interpreting Despard's eventual recall from the Honduras and his subsequent failures to obtain any further commissions as the primary source of his political radicalism, opting instead for an interpretation that sees Despard as an Irish patriot attracted to the revolutionary message of the period. No evidence exists to explain why Despard eventually chose to move in the circles of those who ultimately advocated physical force. Whatever the reason, it was a decision that led Despard to the scaffold. He became involved with a group planning an English rising intended to coincide with a French invasion. Government spies had thoroughly infiltrated the circles in which he traveled, and while Despard was not guilty of the specific treason charges with which he was charged, he was on a path which accepted death as the penalty for failure.

As a readable account of the life of an interesting historical character this book will satisfy the interests of a general reading audience. Its utility for scholars and serious students of the Georgian period is less compelling, primarily because Conner's study—which advertises its use of archival sources—lacks citations. The few notes that do appear are entirely discursive. Consequently, those interested in querying Conner's interpretations, or investigating questions generated by the study, are left to their own devices. They will still find Marianne Elliott's 1977 Past and Present article the authoritative guide to the literature on the shadowy figure of Colonel Edward Marcus Despard. --Timothy Jenks, University of Toronto


Review by Mary McWay Seaman
The Celtic Connection
March 1, 2011

Arthur O’Connor (1763-1852) could easily have settled down into the life of a dissolute dandy, but he chose a patriotic path that almost destroyed him. Clifford D. Conner’s biography of this hero of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 is remarkable for both its breadth and its depth. This superbly researched work draws from historical records in Ireland and continental Europe, and also from the leader’s unpublished memoirs and correspondence which are housed in France at the chateau du Bignon, O’Connor’s home in exile from 1807 until his death.

Born into an Anglo-Irish ascendancy family with a long history in County Cork, Arthur O’Connor changed his family name from Conner to O’Connor, thereby capturing the cachet of the clan’s legendary heroism back to the last high king of Ireland, Rory O’Connor. A grandee on fire with the dream of an independent Ireland, he joined with colleagues Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Robert Emmet and other well-known patriots to organize the United Irish Society. The United Irishmen launched an improbable rebellion against oppressive English rule that united rich and poor, Catholic and Protestant, and gentry and landless. Conner’s painstaking presentation of the United Irish Society shows it morphing from “a small propaganda group” into a “mass underground army” dedicated to freeing the country.

In 1795, O’Connor resigned from Parliament to favor Catholic emancipation. Conner advises that his “life-long aversion to ‘popery’ and priestcraft did not prevent him from abhorring the oppression of Irish Catholics.” The leader admired the American War of Independence and studied revolutionary France, but his dogged efforts in securing French help to defeat Britain were met with frustration. Conner presents all the behind-the-scenes wrangling, waffling, waiting and watching as French General Lazare Hoche’s weather-cursed, failed invasion off Bantry Bay was destined to become a heart-breaker. However, folks in Ireland were “invigorated by the expectation that its powerful military ally would surely return soon for another try.”

By 1797, O’Connor was imprisoned for treason with other leading United Irishmen, and British General Gerard Lake’s reign of terror across Ulster outraged the population, sowing seeds for the coming Rebellion. O’Connor was released for a time and foiled in an attempt to escape to France just as the Rebellion was in full swing. Synopses of several battles, including Vinegar Hill in Wexford, and the defeat of Irish and French forces at Ballinamuck, County Longford, make for woeful reading. At its close, the insurrection left more than 30,000 rebels dead, and ongoing hangings of the United Irish leaders drew outrage. The British implemented the Kilmainham Pact to avoid propelling more men into martyrdom: The Pact permitted some principals to accept permanent exile in lieu of death. America refused to take the rebels, and O’Connor languished in jail before finally being exiled to France in 1802.

Conner does not shy away from showing that O’Connor and his imprisoned compatriots suffered from the well-known malady of “petty intrigues that commonly afflict groups of people who are involuntarily confined together.” He bravely offers a sorrowful account of the United Irish Society’s descent into infighting, rivalries and petty jealousies. A falling-out between O’Connor and Emmet would “seriously demoralize the [United Irish Society] and undermine its chances of recovery.”

After arriving in France, O’Connor and Emmet both pleaded with Bonaparte to help free Ireland, and Bonaparte assembled the exiles into an Irish military legion “in the service of France” with a goal of liberating their homeland. Alas, that goal remained elusive, and Conner spends time exploring the what-ifs, building an absorbing discussion. O’Connor married a young, well-born French woman and lived out the rest of his life on a country estate southeast of Paris, practicing scientific agronomy.

Clifford D. Conner’s comprehensive, compelling portrait of Arthur O’Connor is prescient with the multi-nation whirlwind of economic and political reordering, as America and Europe moved toward free and open societies.

I was asked to submit an article about my biography of Arthur O’Connor to the 2009 St. Patrick’s Day issue of The Irish Echo. This is the article.

By Clifford D. Conner

When I tell people I have just written a new biography of Arthur O’Connor, their usual response is: “Arthur who?”

Well, the subtitle begins to provide an answer: “The Most Important Irish Revolutionary You May Never Have Heard Of.”

In this book I make the claim that Arthur O’Connor played a major role in Irish history.

He was the most important leader of the United Irish Society—the United Irishmen—in the era of the Great Rebellion of 1798, one of the most significant episodes in Ireland’s past.

But histories of the rebellion have traditionally either mentioned Arthur O’Connor only in passing, or not at all. It is almost as if books about the Russian Revolution were to neglect mentioning Lenin.

My motives for writing the biography were twofold. The less important reason was to restore O’Connor himself to historical memory, just as a matter of simple justice.

But the more important reason was to make possible a more accurate understanding of the 1798 Rebellion as a historical event, because omitting or minimizing O’Connor’s role gives a distorted picture of those turbulent times.

Why is O’Connor’s name not more familiar to us? The best-remembered figures of this critical era are Theobald Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward Fitzgerald.

But in 1798, if officials of the British government headed by William Pitt were asked who they considered to be Public Enemy Number One, or if French government officials were asked to identify the primary Irish revolutionary with whom they were collaborating, both would have replied without hesitation: “Arthur O’Connor.”

O’Connor was from County Cork; his first political position was as High Sheriff of the county. His family’s estate was called “Connorville,” but before that it was called Ballyprevane. It seems that neither Connorville, nor Ballyprevane, are on the map any more, though they were, I believe, in the general vicinity of Bandon.

Arthur O’Connor’s more famous nephew, Feargus O’Connor, was born at Connorville. Feargus represented Cork in the British Parliament and then went on to lead the radical Chartist movement in England.

In trying to focus attention on Arthur O’Connor’s contributions, it is definitely not my intention to downplay or undermine the historical reputations of Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward.

They fully deserve the great honor their memory has been accorded over the centuries. But I continue to believe that the question of why they have been so well remembered and O’Connor has not is worth an answer.

In fact, the answer is rather straightforward. Those of us who venerate the heroic Irish freedom fighters of the past have tended to mainly remember our martyrs, those who fell in battle in the struggle to free Ireland from British rule.

Both Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward lost their lives in 1798 at the hands of Ireland’s enemies, and they are rightly remembered and revered for their supreme sacrifice.

Arthur O’Connor, on the other hand, was not a martyr. He didn’t die in 1798. In fact, he lived more than another half century, fifty-four years, to be exact, beyond the rebellion.

So when we remember Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward, the quality that we are most commemorating is their great courage, which led them to lay down their young lives for Irish freedom. Arthur O’Connor, meanwhile, died in his bed in 1852 and then gradually faded from historical memory. But it is my contention that O’Connor displayed every bit as much courage during the rebellion as any of the martyrs.

It was not cowardice that saved his skin, but simply luck. Although he escaped execution, he suffered many years of imprisonment, from Kilmainham in Dublin to the Tower of London, to Fort George in Scotland, and, ultimately, he was banished from his homeland for life.

Furthermore, O’Connor made great efforts to continue the struggle while living in exile. The post-revolutionary government of France, eventually headed by Napoleon Bonaparte, formed an Irish Legion to liberate Ireland from British rule, and Arthur O’Connor was chosen to command it.

The widespread expectation was that O’Connor would have become Bonaparte’s anointed king of Ireland if the French had succeeded in driving the British out. But Bonaparte’s plans to invade Ireland with General O’Connor at the head of a liberation army were never implemented. Instead, Bonaparte diverted his attention and his forces toward Egypt, with disastrous results for France.

Before I explain, at least in outline, exactly why I believe O’Connor was the most important revolutionary leader of the era, first a few words about the rebellion itself are in order.

Historians of that period sometimes refer to it as the era of the “Atlantic Revolution.” That concept subsumes the American Revolution that erupted in 1776 and the French Revolution that began in 1789 into a much larger wave of revolutionary ferment that swept over all of Europe and the Americas in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. There was an immense upsurge of revolutionary radicalism even in England itself at that time, but it has been largely forgotten because it did not result in a successful transfer of power as in North America and in France.

In Ireland the revolutionary wave took the form of a powerful national liberation struggle that culminated in the great rebellion of 1798. That uprising did not end British rule, and did not put state power in Irish hands, so it, too, was a failed revolution.

It has not been forgotten, because the fight for freedom continued, sometimes burning brightly and sometimes not so brightly. But the flame of revolutionary struggle was never entirely extinguished, and so the memory of 1798 has persisted.

Why did the rebellion fail? Perhaps the most obvious reason was British success in destroying its leadership. By the time the rebels rose en masse in 1798, O’Connor and the other top leaders of the United Irishmen had been removed from the scene of action by a successful campaign of governmental repression, facilitated by the treachery of disloyal members acting as informers.

The organizational framework of the revolutionary upsurge was a rebel army organized under the banner of the United Irishmen.

Although O’Connor was not among the original founders of the United Irish Society, he was the foremost engineer of its transformation from a small reformist propaganda group into a powerful underground revolutionary army.

The other aspect of O’Connor’s centrality to the rebellion was the part he played in 1796 in the attempt to enlist France’s military support for an Irish revolution.

He was neither the first, nor the last, representative of the United Irishmen to engage in negotiations with the French government, but he was certainly the most effective. Again, O’Connor’s diplomatic role has rarely been examined by historians of the rebellion, but I have thoroughly documented the fact that O’Connor was the principal Irish negotiator.

O’Connor brought a number of positive attributes to the Irish revolutionary struggle. His social status as a landowning gentleman with an aristocratic pedigree gave him a major advantage in assuming a position of leadership.

He was a charismatic orator, an accomplished writer, an able political organizer, a diligent student of military strategy and tactics, and a skilled conspirator.

As the most philosophically inclined of the United Irish leaders, and arguably the most intellectually gifted, O’Connor became the movement’s leading theoretician.

He utilized the most advanced socioeconomic views of the time (the “economical science” of Adam Smith) in an effort to develop a systematic theory of how a social transformation could be accomplished in Ireland. His 1798 work The State of Ireland was the most fully developed expression of his revolutionary ideology.

O’Connor’s influence was magnified considerably by his close association with Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who affectionately called O’Connor his “twin soul.”

As a member of Ireland’s premier aristocratic family, Lord Edward’s social standing far eclipsed O’Connor’s, but in their joint political activities, Fitzgerald looked to his more talented friend for guidance.

They nevertheless perceived their relationship to be one of equals because its primary bond was their common devotion to Irish patriotism.

On the other hand, O’Connor’s character and behavior were marked by particularly stark contradictions.

He was a revolutionary, but not at all a “man of the people.” He flaunted his aristocratic status and loved rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful, while devoting his life to fighting for democracy.

As a major landowner, his desire to mobilize the Irish poor to fight for Irish liberation was tempered by fear they might go too far and expropriate his own lands.

Far from hating England, he was an avid Anglophile, but his love of almost all things English did not prevent him from mounting a powerful challenge to British rule in Ireland.

Quite aside from its historical significance, the narrative of O’Connor’s life makes for interesting reading because his revolutionary career was full of drama, adventure, and controversy.

He counted some of the most prominent British political and cultural figures of the day—including Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan—among his closest friends.

In France, he was rapidly integrated into leading intellectual and social circles, and married the only child of the acclaimed philosophe Condorcet, Eliza, when she was 17 and he was 44.

Readers may judge for themselves whether I have succeeded in making the case that Arthur O’Connor was “the most important Irish revolutionary you may never have heard of.” The book is available from,, and other on-line booksellers. If it is not on the shelves at your local bookstore, you can ask them to order it for you from the publisher, iUniverse.

Clifford D. Conner is a historian on the faculty of the School of Professional Studies, City University of New York Graduate Center.