Binns, John (1730?–1804), silk merchant, canal developer, and radical politician, was the son of Joshua Binns, who in 1719 was admitted to the Dublin weavers' guild by special grace. John Binns was admitted to the guild by birth in 1756, so he was probably born in the mid 1730s.
John Binns's most enduring commercial enterprise was his association with William Cope (qv) in the firm Cope & Binns, wholesale silk merchants, which by 1773 was operating at 81 Dame St., Dublin. Binns lived nearby, at 20 Fownes St. With the establishment in 1764 of the Irish Silk Warehouse, under the direction of the Dublin Society, the Dublin silk industry was about to enter its period of greatest prosperity. John Binns and William Cope became substantial merchants, both being founder members of the Dublin chamber of commerce in 1783, and serving on its council through the 1780s. Binns also served in 1779–80 as a paving commissioner. The firm expanded into larger premises at Shaw's Court, off Dame St., in 1789.
In the 1770s Binns became involved with the Grand Canal enterprise, to construct a canal from Dublin to the Shannon by a route passing south of Dublin city. The project had begun in 1756 under the commissioners of inland navigation, but progress was slow, and in 1772 an act was passed establishing the Company of Undertakers of the Grand Canal. At an early stage Binns served on the company's committee of accounts, and by 1777 he was a director, having invested over £500 in the company. His partner Cope also invested.
In 1789 the Irish parliament agreed to a petition to subsidise a second canal project linking Dublin and the Shannon, this time by a northerly route: the Royal Canal. Binns is said to have been the instigator of this proposal, drawing on plans originally discussed (and set aside) in 1756. He may have already fallen out with his fellow directors in the Grand Canal Company, for around this time he is said to have opposed a money-saving proposal that the two canals might share one route out of Dublin. At all events, from 1789 Binns's name appears among the directors of the Royal Canal Company, and from 1790 he ceased his connection with the Grand Canal Company. William Cope invested in the rival company, as did another of Binns's associates, James Napper Tandy (qv). Binns remained a director until retiring in 1802. The building of the Royal Canal (not completed until 1817) was beset with problems; in 1796 Binns admitted to a house of commons committee that no survey of its entire route had been made before the submission for parliamentary aid in 1789.
John Binns had a long career as a radical politician and civic representative. From 1774 to 1801 he represented the weavers' guild in the lower house of Dublin corporation. He had earlier aligned himself with some city activists, especially Tandy, who sought to carry on the work of Charles Lucas (qv) (d. 1771) in Dublin, through the Society of Free Citizens. In 1773 these activists campaigned successfully for the return as MP for Dublin city of Redmond Morres (qv), like Binns a director of the Grand Canal scheme, and a director of the Irish Silk Warehouse.
In 1779 Binns was prominent, alongside Tandy and Sir Edward Newenham (qv), MP for Co. Dublin, in urging the adoption of non-importation agreements by public bodies, in response to the failure of the British government to concede ‘free trade’ to Ireland. Following the success of this campaign, and the granting of legislative independence to Ireland, Binns was among those who called in 1784 for a ‘national congress’ to discuss radical reform. Within Dublin corporation, Binns and Tandy led a campaign in 1782 to reduce the cost of admission to civic freedom by special grace (and thereby increase the city electorate). However, by July 1784, at a meeting of Co. Dublin electors, Binns was contending that the inhabitants at large, and not merely freemen and freeholders, had a legitimate role in petitioning for reform. To promote reform, Binns and Tandy were prepared to extend the franchise, at least on limited terms, to catholics, but this proved controversial even in reforming circles. At different times during 1784 Binns, Tandy, and Sir Edward Newenham were all suspected (apparently wrongly) by the chief secretary, Thomas Orde (qv), of being in communication with France.
John Binns is not listed in the personnel of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen in the early 1790s, but he continued to support reform. Following the dismissal of Lord Fitzwilliam (qv) as lord lieutenant, he was among the minority of corporation members who signed a protest at the corporation's petition against a catholic relief bill before parliament in March 1795.
Meanwhile, there were business problems. In 1786 an act of the Irish parliament prohibited the Dublin Society from continuing its encouragement to the Irish Silk Warehouse. In the early 1790s a general depression in trade led to the failure of some large textile firms in Dublin, and by December 1792 Cope & Binns (which had allegedly made a profit of £10,000 in 1791) was said to be on the point of failing. William Cope later attributed these difficulties to his sponsorship, in Dublin corporation, of a ‘protestant ascendancy’ motion in January 1792: he claimed that this had led catholics to boycott the firm. Although this has been discounted, it seems possible that some years later, in 1798, Cope's association with the informer Thomas Reynolds (qv) dealt a more severe blow to the firm. Certainly, by 1793 Cope & Binns had gone into partnership with other silk merchants: the firm traded as Cope, Binns, Hautenville & Downes until being liquidated in 1801.
In about 1801 Binns had a disagreement with the weavers' guild, which failed to select him in December 1801 to represent the guild on Dublin corporation; he was promptly returned instead by the merchants' guild. His death, at his house in Dorset St., where he had moved in 1797, was reported in the Dublin Evening Post of 22 May 1804, which eulogised him as ‘that worthy, honest, and respected citizen’.
Binns's great-nephew, John Binns (qv) of Philadelphia, described him as a tall man, known to his reforming allies as ‘Long John Binns’, and to his opponents as ‘the devil's darning needle’. He has the distinction of having a bridge named after him on both the Grand Canal (at Robertstown, Co. Kildare), and at Lower Dorset St., Dublin, on the Royal Canal.