Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from the Ulster Volunteer Corps Committee of Correspondence, 19 July 1783

From the Ulster Volunteer Corps Committee of Correspondence5

ALS:6 American Philosophical Society

[July 19, 1783]

At a meeting of the Comittee of Correspondence appointed by the Delagates of Forty five Volunteer Corps, assembled at Lisburn on the 1st. July Inst., held at Belfast 19 July 1783— Present—

Leiut. Col. Sharman,7 in the Chair
Major Burden—8 Captain Cunningham9
Captain Prentice Captain Moore
Captain Crawford1 Leiut. Tomb
and Mr. Robert Thompson,2

Ordered, that the following Letter, signed by the Secretary in the Name of this Comittee,3 be forwarded to his Excellency Benjamin Franklin Inclosing a Copy of the Resolutions of the Provincial meeting of Volunteers of Munster, & of the proceedings of the forty five Volunteer Delagates assembled at Lisburn on the 1st. Inst. respecting a Parlimentary Reform, as also a Copy of the Circular Letter written this day by this Comittee to the several Volunteer Corps of this Province—4

Belfast 19 July 1783


Your attachment to the rights of mankind,5 induce us to address you on the present great and momentous occasion—

The Spirit of freedom, which pervades all ranks of people in Ireland, with the Justice & wise policy of the British Nation, having forever removed all possible cause of Jealousy between the Sister Kingdoms, and united us to Britain on the basis of equal liberty & similar Constitution; it becomes the Duty, as it is the interest of each Kingdom to assist the other in their endeavours to restore to its ancient purity & vigour, a decayed, enfeebled & sickly Constitution.

In both nations it is now generally acknowledged that this great object can be obtained by no other means, but by a reform of the representation in Parliament— In England, the measure has for the present miscarried, tho’ supported by so many wise, honest, great & independent men—6 We trust however it has misscarried only for a Season, & that the next attempt will prove successfull— Ireland has now taken up the Idea, and if we shall be so happy as to see success crown our efforts, we think considerable weight will be thereby added to the endeavours of the freinds of the People in England. The People of the two nations united in pursuit of the same important object, must be not only powerfull but irrisistable.

The inclosed papers, which we request you may peruse, will show how far this Country has already gone in determining to procure a more equal Representation; the unanimous resolutions of about fifteen thousand Volunteers, already declared in a very few weeks, assure us the resolves of the Delagates of Ulster, who are to assemble at Dungannon on the 8th Sepr. next, will be no less unanimous and we will know that what the Volunteers (vast numbers of whom are freeholders) shall determine on, the other freeholders and people in general, who are not Volunteers, will adopt & Support by every means in their power—the aged fathers cannot differ from their Sons, respecting a matter on which depends every thing, that either holds dear for themselves, or their Posterity—

That you may see the very depraved state of our representation it is necessary to observe, that out of three hundred Members, of which our House of Commons consists, two hundred & twenty are returned by Boroughs. Those one hundred & ten Bouroughs are divided into three Classes— 1st. Those where the right of Election is vested in the Protestant Inhabitants at large— 2d Those where the right of Election is vested, in the Chief Majestrate Burgesses & Freemen— 3d Those where the right of Election is confined to the Chief Majestrate & Burgesses— frequently not exceeding five or Six in number & seldom above ten or twelve—

Almost all the Boroughs are venal & Corrupt, or implicitly obedient to the arbitary will of their respective Land lords, who dictate to the Electors in the most absolute manner, those Land lords, claim by prescription a kind of property in those Boroughs, which they transfer by sale, like an Estate, & receive from eight thousand to Nine thousand pounds for a Borough. And a seat for a Bourough is generally sold for Two thousand pounds, so that every Seven or Eight Years, the borough brings In Four thousand pounds to the Patron— Unhappily for Ireland our Counties are also too much governed by our Peers—& great men, whose influence over many of their respective tenants is very great, & this consideration has given rise here, to a doubt in the minds of many well meaning men, as to the propriety of adding to the Number of knights of the Shire—as generally now two great families endeavour to divide between them the Seats for the County, the others remain Neuter or join the independent interest, it is alledged were there Six Seats for the County—six great families woud divide them, and against such a junction, the independent freeholders woud not be able to make any effectual opposition—

May we now intreat as a most important favour conferred on not only us, but on this Kingdom, that you may be pleased to favour us with your sentiments & advice, as to the best, most eligible & most practicable mode of destroying, restraining, or counteracting this Hydra of Corruption, Borough Influence; that we may be enabled to lay yr. opinion before the Provincial assembly of Delagates at Dungannon; and as our last meeting for arranging buisness previous thereunto, is fixed to be on the twentieth of August, we hope you will be obliging enough, to forward your reply so as to be with us about that time—

Many apologies are due for this long address & for the very great trouble we have requested you to take, but we are Young in Politicks, & wish for information from men of more wisdom— experience—& abilities. This however we may venture to assert, that if we can only be directed to the best mode, The mass of the inhabitants of Ireland is at this moment so compleatly alive & sensible to the necessity of a well digested Reform— that there cannot remain a doubt, that what it attempts in conjunction with the Virtuous part of England, must be effectual—

The several matters on which we have requested your opinion are thrown into one Veiw in the following Queries— In order to the purity of Parliament & to restore that constitutional controul, which the constituent body shoud have over the Representative—

1st. Is it necessary that the Boroughs, when the right of election is vested in a few, and which in general are at the absolute disposal of one or two persons—should be disfranchised, and in their place the County Representatives increased—

2d The protestant inhabitants consist of near one million who return three hundred members, woud it be wise to encrease the Number of Representatives of the Nation at large?

3d A plausible objection (mentioned above) has been raised against an increase of County Representatives, has that argument much weight, and if it has—is it remediable—

4th. Should the right of suffrage be extended, and if it should, who are the proper objects of such extension—?7

5th. In order to gaurd against undue influence woud it be wise to have the Members returned by Ballot?

6th. Woud not a limitation of the duration of Parliaments to a shorter term then eight Years have excellent effects, & shd. it be less then triennial?

7th. If the abolition of the enslaved Boroughs is necessary, woud it be equitable or expedient, that they be purchased by the Nation—

8th. What specific mode of Reform, in the representation of Ireland best suits your own Ideas—considering the situation of this Country and what are the Steps which you conceive best adapted to effect the Reform—

You will be so obliging as to direct your reply to our Chairman Leiut. Col. Sharman at Lisburn—8

The long Connexion that has subsisted between America & this Country, and the ties of Nature which must ever hold that Country dear to this—must plead our apology for this Address.

Signed by order.

Henry Joy. Junr
Secry of the 45 Corps

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

5In 1782 the Volunteers (for whom see XXIX, 265n; XXXVIII, 187n) and their allies in the Irish Parliament successfully pressured the British government to grant Ireland legislative independence. Many reformers believed that this autonomy would be meaningful only if it was followed by a change in the system of political representation within Ireland. On July 1 delegates representing 45 Ulster Volunteer corps met at Lisburn and resolved to call a general meeting of Ulster Volunteers at Dungannon for Sept. 8 to debate parliamentary reform. In preparation for this meeting, the Lisburn delegates established a committee of correspondence charged with gathering “the best authorities and informations on the subject of parliamentary reform”: Patrick Rogers, The Irish Volunteers and Catholic Emancipation (1778–1793) … (London, 1934), pp. 80–94.

The present text was adapted from the committee’s “Circular Letter for England.” That letter was published, along with responses from seven prominent English reformers, in Proceedings Relative to the Ulster Assembly of Volunteer Delegates … (Belfast, 1783). One of them, John Cartwright, credited Henry Laurens with having convinced him of the advantages of ballot voting.

According to one of the committee members, circular letters were also sent to reformers within Ireland and to two men in France: BF and the abbé Raynal. Neither one had responded by the time the Sept. 8 meeting approached: Jean Agnew and Maria Luddy, eds., The Drennan-McTier Letters (3 vols., [Dublin], 1998–99), I, 129–30. BF did rejoice at the unanimous resolves taken at the Dungannon meeting, however. Writing to Sir Edward Newenham on Oct. 2, he observed that “liberty, which some years since appeared in danger of extinction, is now regaining the ground she had lost”: WTF, Memoirs, II, 226–7.

6The final paragraph was added by Henry Joy, Jr., who signed. The body of the letter is in another hand.

7William Sharman (1730–1803) served as the collector of the revenue for Lisburn until 1783, when he was elected as M.P. for the town: Edith M. Johnston-Liik, ed., History of the Irish Parliament, 1692–1800 … (6 vols., Belfast, 2002), VI, 261–2.

8Maj. Robert Burden of the Ulster regiment: Rogers, Irish Volunteers and Catholic Emancipation, p. 154.

9Born in Ireland, Waddell Cunningham (1729–1797) rose to great wealth and prominence as a merchant in New York in the 1750s before returning to Belfast in 1764. During the Revolution he traded both with American insurgents and with Loyalists in New York. In 1783 Cunningham retired from business and ran successfully for a seat in the Irish Parliament: ODNB.

1John Crawford, a justice of the peace: Agnew and Luddy, eds., Drennan-McTier Letters, I, 126n.

2A merchant and sugar refiner: Agnew and Luddy, eds., Drennan-Mc-Tier Letters, I, 81n.

3Henry Joy, Jr. (1754–1835), worked as a journalist for his family’s newspaper, the Belfast News-Letter, before taking over as editor in 1789: John Bradbury, Celebrated Citizens of Belfast (Belfast, 2002), p. 47.

4The enclosures are missing. Delegates of the Volunteers of Munster met on March 1 and passed resolutions calling for parliamentary reform: Rogers, Irish Volunteers and Catholic Emancipation, p. 89. The resolutions of the Volunteer delegates at Lisburn and the committee’s circular letter to the Volunteer Army of the Province of Ulster are in Proceedings Relative to the Ulster Assembly of Volunteer Delegates, pp. 3–7.

5This word was substituted for “the people, and to the general prosperity of the British empire” in the circular for England.

6On May 7 William Pitt had introduced a motion for moderate parliamentary reform in the House of Commons. Although it was defeated, with only one-third of the members voting in favor, reformers like Christopher Wyvill were encouraged by the tone of the debate: John Ehrman, The Younger Pitt (3 vols., New York and Stanford, Calif., 1969–96), I, 73–6.

7An oblique reference to the potential extension of the franchise to Irish Catholics: Rogers, Irish Volunteers and Catholic Emancipation, p. 90.

8The original circular letter for England ended here.

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