Rising up in the House—Part II:
The House Debates the “Irish Question”
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
Hearings on the “Irish question” attracted witnesses from across the country to testify in favor of Irish independence.
This is the second part of a story that started in June.
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress to denounce German aggression. Dramatically abandoning his commitment to neutrality, he urged Congress to declare war on Imperial Germany to “make the world safe for democracy.” Wilson emphasized that the United States must undertake a principled intervention in the war in order to protect the right of self-determination for small nations. When Congress passed a war declaration on April 6, Members seized the moment to revive the issue of Irish independence, which had failed to gain traction in the House a year earlier when Missouri Representative Leonidas C. Dyer insisted that Congress support the Easter Rising.
One week later, Representative Thomas Gallagher of Illinois introduced a resolution calling for the United States to make the independence of Ireland a condition of any agreement to end the war. On April 28, Representative William Cary of Wisconsin proposed a similar resolution. Speaker of the House Champ Clark of Missouri and 136 Members signed a telegram sent directly to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, which reiterated Wilson’s position on the rights of small nations and emphasized the importance of Irish independence to the American people.
This burst of activity was followed by a May 14 resolution “to declare the liberation of Ireland one of the purposes of the present war.” Proposed by Illinois Representative William E. Mason, the resolution outlined explicit terms for the “separation” of the island from Great Britain, demanded that Ireland play a part in the postwar peace process, and authorized the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury to purchase up to $100 million in bonds from the newly constituted Irish government.
Once again, however, the Committee on Foreign Affairs refused to release any of the proposed resolutions on Irish independence that spring. After American troops arrived in France in June, only one resolution on Irish independence was drafted in the House. In January 1918, Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana sought to recognize “the right of Ireland to political independence,” and to count Ireland “among those countries whose freedom and democracy we are fighting” for in the present war. The committee ignored her resolution, and the “Irish question” was conspicuously absent from congressional debate until the conclusion of the war in November 1918, when a reinvigorated campaign finally provoked action in the House.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
Representative Thomas Gallagher first proposed a resolution ensuring the independence of Ireland as a condition of a treaty ending World War I.
Hearings on the “Irish Question”
On December 3, 1918, Gallagher proposed a joint resolution (65 H. J. Res. 357) that called on the U.S. delegation at the peace conference in Paris to make Irish self-determination an urgent matter in the negotiations. Gallagher cited President Wilson’s defense of the rights of small nations and his belief that “all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” A growing popular support for independence, fueled by mass meetings held across the country by organizations such as the Friends of Irish Freedom bolstered Gallagher’s case for action.
After more than two and half years of inaction, the Committee on Foreign Affairs finally held hearings on the “Irish question” on December 12, 1918. A diverse array of citizens, local politicians, and representatives of civic organizations and labor unions traveled to Washington to submit testimony in favor of Irish independence. Witnesses highlighted the intertwined histories of Ireland and the United States as a reason for intervention. Many also stressed that the United States played a decisive role in ending the war, which thereby endowed the President—and Congress—with the power to request that Britain grant Ireland a seat at the negotiating table in Paris. Representative Gallagher ended the proceedings by reading an excerpt from the 1916 Proclamation, adding that its lofty principles on national independence were the same that “immortalized” America’s founders.
Debating the Gallagher Resolution
After the Committee on Foreign Affairs cleared the bill, it made it to the floor on March 4, 1919, the last day of the 65th Congress. In a spirited debate, those in favor of the resolution grounded their support in the historical ties between Ireland and the United States, focusing on the contributions of Irish immigrants to America’s rise as a global power.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
Representative Thomas Connally reminded the House that Great Britain was America's wartime ally and insisted that President Woodrow Wilson's principle of self-determination applied only to the countries “under the dominion of our enemies.”
Representative Thomas Connally
of Texas, however, offered the first overt sign of opposition to Irish independence. He reminded his colleagues that Great Britain was an ally in the war, and that the principle of self-determination championed by President Wilson only applied to countries “under the dominion of our enemies.” How would the House react, Connally asked, if the British Parliament proposed a similar resolution calling for the independence of U.S. possessions such as the Philippines or Puerto Rico? Furthermore, he questioned the ability of the House to intervene in the internal affairs of another nation, believing that only the executive was able to constitutionally exercise this power.
Proponents of the Gallagher resolution flatly ignored Connally’s argument. And Representative Thomas Smith of New York reassured Members that this would not be an extraordinary maneuver, as Congress had voiced its support for other movements for national independence in the past, including Cuba and the “South American republics.” This precedent, coupled with what Representative Ambrose Kennedy of Rhode Island called the distinct “national culture” and history of the Irish people, put Ireland level with the nascent states eagerly awaiting liberation following the conclusion of war, such as Czechoslovakia and Poland.
For Representative George F. O’Shaunessy of Rhode Island, the mandate for action came directly from President Wilson. Congress had fiercely debated the decision to go to war, and continued to struggle with the President over questions of authority and oversight. O’Shaunessy insisted that Congress had a responsibility to review Wilson’s justification for intervention—particularly his declaration of support for the right of self-determination for all nations. “What a mockery it would be to apply the principle of self-determination to one nation and refuse it to another.” The House, O’Shaunessy said, must “raise its powerful voice in behalf of one of the oldest nations in the world—Ireland.”
The joint resolution passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 216 to 45. The Senate, however, failed to vote on it before the session concluded, and instead passed a separate measure at the beginning of the 66th Congress.
Ultimately, the long battle in the House over the “Irish question” did not have a decisive effect on the peace process in 1919 or the political status of Ireland. From 1919 to 1921, the Irish War of Independence pitted the Irish Republican Army against the British forces in Ireland. In 1922, Ireland achieved a qualified independence from Great Britain as the Irish Free State. A bloody, year-long civil war over the political future of the nation followed. These developments in Ireland caused support for congressional action on this matter to wane in the early 1920s.
Despite the limited impact of the Gallagher resolution on the postwar peace process, the debate demonstrates the many ways House Members grappled with the far-reaching implications of using the “powerful voice” of Congress to influence international affairs. While the Great War forced America to intervene in European affairs, the 1916 Easter Rising provoked House Members to think expansively about the possibilities for exercising American power abroad.
In the floor debate on the Gallagher resolution, Representative Augustine Lonergan of Connecticut called for the United States to continue to use its prominent role on the global stage to provide principled support for causes such as Irish independence. “America is the champion of oppressed peoples,” he said. “Whether we find the role a delicate one to perform or not, it is our position in the world to-day.”
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 3rd sess. (4 March 1919); H. Res. 49, 65th Cong., 1st sess., 13 April 1917; H.J. Res. 71, 65th Cong., 1st sess., 28 April 1917; H.J. Res. 88, 65th Cong., 1st sess., 14 May 1917; H.J. Res. 204, 65th Cong., 2nd sess., 4 January 1918; H.J. Res. 357, 65th Cong., 3rd sess., 3 December 1918; S. Res. 48, 66th Cong., 1st sess., 6 June 1919; Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, The Irish Question, 65th Cong., 3rd sess. (12 December 1918); Congressional Research Service, “Congressional Involvement in the Irish Question, 1916–1979,” 15 October 1979; David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); Seward W. Livermore, Woodrow Wilson and the War Congress, 1916–1918 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966); Timothy Meagher, The Columbia Guide to Irish American History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).