Rowan, Archibald Hamilton (1751–1834), property owner, Volunteer, and United Irishman, was born 12 May 1751 in Rathbone Place, London, only son of Gawen Hamilton (1729–1805) of Killyleagh, Co. Down, and his wife, Jane (d. 1793), only child of a barrister, William Rowan (1693?–1767), a native of Dublin and lawyer who had been a fellow of TCD (1717–26) but, after marrying an heiress, moved to London, prospering so greatly as to be able to acquire valuable urban property there as well as lands in Ireland.
Family, education, and early life
William Rowan's importance to Archibald's future was considerable. He opened his home to him, supervised his education, and on his death (23 June 1767) left him the reversion of his fortune with the conditions that he take the name Rowan in addition to Hamilton and not go to Ireland until the age of 25, when he would be given £20,000. Gawen Hamilton lived in London in the 1750s, returning often to Killyleagh (which he had inherited in 1747 on the death of his father, Gawen) and serving as high sheriff of Co. Down (1773). He was ‘a muddle-headed, untidy, raffish sort of man, liberal in his sentiments, but possessing a taste for low company which in his later years became very marked’ (Nicolson, Desire to please, p. 22). Jane Hamilton, a snobbish, domineering woman, was the widow of Tichborne Aston of Beaulieu, Co. Louth, and, having no children by him, had presumably inherited his wealth. She separated from her husband, preferring to live at her father's house in Rathbone Place while her husband lived in Brooke St. and later in Cowley St.
The young Archibald found Gawen Hamilton's house in Cowley St. more congenial. It was frequented by radicals, among them John Wilkes and the Irishman Charles Lucas (qv). From Westminster School he was admitted to Queens' College, Cambridge (22 June 1768). For attempting to throw a tutor into the Cam and other misdemeanours (‘loose living’), Hamilton Rowan was rusticated. The next year or so he spent at Warrington Academy, a proto-university for Dissenters and a hothouse of unitarianism and radical politics. Returning to Cambridge he was admitted to Jesus College (22 May 1770). He was a protégé of John Jebb, a fellow of Peterhouse who was so drawn to Unitarianism as later to throw up two livings and quit Cambridge. While supposedly studying at Cambridge, Rowan struck up a friendship with Lord Charles Montagu and obtained from his brother, the duke of Manchester, a commission in the Huntingdon militia. Montagu being governor of South Carolina, Rowan accompanied him to Charleston during a university long vacation. After leaving Cambridge, he chose to live in France (1773–84), first at Rouen, then in Paris, from which he paid occasional visits to London. Montagu persuaded him to go with him to Lisbon with a view to their obtaining commissions in the Portuguese army (1777). The death of the king and fall of the marquis of Pombal (whom he met) cut short his brief stay and left him free to return to Paris, visiting en route Gibraltar, Tangiers and Marseilles. In Paris he met Benjamin Franklin and, falling under his influence despite still being a militia officer, tried to enlist Englishmen into the army of the rebellious British colonists in North America.
On 6 October 1781, Hamilton Rowan and Sarah Anne Dawson (b. 1764?), daughter of Walter Dawson of Lisanisk, near Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan, were married in Paris by the Dutch ambassador's chaplain (1781). The circumstances of the marriage were that Rowan's mother (‘immensely rich, parted from her husband’), knowing he had ‘got into various scrapes especially with married women’, persuaded him to marry Sarah Anne, who resided with her (at Pinner, Middlesex) and had no fortune, by paying a dowry of £10,000 (Drennan-McTier letters, pp 220–21). She was to prove a strong-minded, loyal wife. The couple lived at first at the Petit Hôtel de Choiseul in the rue de Mousseau (with Rowan's mother), then moved to Epinay near Saint-Denis. In 1784 they moved to Ireland.
Volunteer and United Irishman, 1784–93
Rowan made his home in Co. Kildare (where his mother had a small property), first taking a cottage near Naas, then purchasing a house at Rathcoffey, between Clane and Kilcock. He could live as a country gentleman while being conveniently close to Dublin, where his mother now lived. He became a Volunteer, joining his father's company at Killyleagh as a private and appearing at a review near Belfast (July 1784). Soon he was an officer and a delegate from Co. Down at the Volunteer reform congress in Dublin (February 1785). Afterwards he wrote a letter to the press expressing disappointment that the majority of delegates were not in favour of his ‘three great objects’: exclusion from the Irish house of commons of all place-hunters and pensioners, disfranchisement of depopulated boroughs, and – 88 years before its enactment – the secret ballot ‘which would exempt the tenant from the too frequent tyranny of the landlord’ (Rowan). In the same year he made the acquaintance of William Drennan (qv), who helped to broaden his political outlook and made him aware of the grievances of the Ulster presbyterians. It was probably not long after this that Rowan, no doubt wishing to become a parliamentary elector in Dublin, obtained admission to the guild of merchants (he was to be disfranchised by the guild on 15 October 1798). On succeeding his father as commander of the Killyleagh and the Killinchy Volunteers (May 1786) he wrote public letters stating his opposition to the ‘insidious policy of corrupt courtiers’. Rowan achieved great popularity in Dublin by taking up the case of Mary Neal, who aged twelve was enticed into a brothel and violated by Lord Carhampton (qv), by persuading her father to bring an action against the brothel keeper, a Mrs Llewellyn, a foster-sister to Carhampton. Rowan's pamphlet, A brief investigation of the sufferings of John, Anne and Mary Neal (1788), ensured his position as a friend and advocate of the populace.
He joined the Dublin Society of United Irishmen at its formation or shortly after (November–December 1791). When another member, James Napper Tandy (qv), created a crisis in the society by taking strong exception to an offensive remark about himself made in the Irish house of commons by the solicitor-general, John Toler (qv), Rowan came to the fore, presiding over a meeting of the society which censured Toler, causing Tandy's brief imprisonment (February 1792). Like his father a founder member of the Northern Whig Club (March 1790), he presided over a meeting at which the French revolutionary army was congratulated on its victories at Valmy and Jemappes (5 November 1792). His enthusiasm for volunteering persisted after the general decline of the movement. At the end of 1792 he and Tandy raised in Dublin the 1st National Battalion Volunteer corps. In its emblem, a harp without a crown surmounted by a cap of liberty, it was unequivocally republican; its members, who were few, were known as the National Guards after the Garde Nationale in Paris. The issuing of a government proclamation against the new corps (9 December) did not deter Rowan and other members from walking in the streets with their green uniform and side-arms, or from holding a meeting in a fencing house in Cope St. a few days later (16 December). Some copies of a handbill entitled ‘Citizens, to arms! (known also as ‘Address to the Volunteers’) were thrown from the gallery of the house with the consequence that Rowan was arrested at his Dublin home in Dominick St. and charged with distributing inflammatory handbills (21 December).
Conspiracy and flight to France, 1793–5
For the next thirteen months he was on remand. Though he resigned his commission in the Volunteers, he continued to be indiscreet and refused an offer of the lord chancellor, Lord FitzGibbon (qv), to drop the prosecution if he would leave Ireland. In May 1793, two months after the outbreak of war between England and France, a French agent, Lieut-col. Eleazer Oswald (an American citizen), arrived in Dublin and got in touch with Lord Edward FitzGerald (qv), whom he had known in Paris and whom Rowan had recently befriended. At Fitzgerald's suggestion he approached Rowan, as well as Simon Butler (qv), Oliver Bond (qv) and James Reynolds (qv), and, according to Rowan's account, offered French support for an Irish uprising, which, it appears, was rejected for want of preparation. In October 1793, offended by remarks made about himself by the lord advocate of Scotland, Robert Dundas, during the trial of Thomas Muir for sedition, he went to Edinburgh to challenge Dundas, was briefly arrested and returned to Ireland in triumph. Rowan's own trial, despite unreliable prosecution witnesses and an eloquent defence by John Philpot Curran (qv), resulted in a conviction (19 January 1794). He was sentenced to a fine of £500 and two years’ imprisonment. At Newgate jail he had his own room and could receive visitors and have his dinner brought from his house.
Ease of access enabled another French agent, William Jackson (qv), to visit Rowan, engage him in three or more treasonable conversations and receive from him copies in Rowan's hand of a memorandum drawn up by Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv) for the Committee of Public Safety stating that such was the level and extent of disaffection that the Irish would rise up against British rule if a French force of sufficient strength landed (April 1794). As an informer was present, the authorities knew to intercept the memorandum and incriminating letters and to arrest Jackson. By bribing a jailer, and with help from his wife and his friend Matthew Dowling (qv), Rowan escaped (1 May). Two smugglers, dismissive of the £2,000 reward offered for his arrest, conveyed him to France on a small boat. He was landed at Roscoff in Brittany and promptly arrested as a suspected British spy. Luckily he was recognised at Brest by an Irishman, John Sullivan, an inspector of prisons, who accompanied him to Paris, where soon after his arrival (20 June) he was ushered into the presence of Robespierre. Again he stayed at the Petit Hôtel de Choiseul. Witnessing the guillotining of some sixty members of the Paris commune (late July) could not greatly have dampened his revolutionary ardour, for he dictated memoranda for the Committee of Public Safety (early October) on the state of Ireland and prospects of French invaders being made welcome by the Irish people. In Paris he met Thomas Paine, the English radical at whose suggestion Oswald had visited Ireland; Paine introduced Rowan to James Monroe, the American ambassador, who gave him a letter of introduction to his secretary of state, Edmond Randolph. Leaving Paris (17 April 1795) under an assumed name (‘James Thomson’) he reached Rouen by rowing himself down the Seine in a Thames wherry formerly belonging to the duke of Orleans (‘Philippe-Égalité’). At Le Havre he embarked on the Columbus bound for America.
In America and Germany, 1795–1803
The Irish public were made aware of Hamilton Rowan's arrival in Philadelphia from Le Havre on 17 July 1795 by a report in the Freeman's Journal; his ship had been boarded by HMS Melampos but Rowan, travelling as ‘Mr Thompson of South Carolina’, had escaped detection (F.J., 3 Sept. 1795). In Philadelphia he joined Reynolds, who had also fled from Ireland after being inculpated with Jackson, and accompanied him to the French ambassador, Pierre Auguste Adet, to whom he presented a memorandum. Three weeks later they were joined by Tone, for whom Rowan wrote a letter of introduction to Adet (whom he had known in Paris). As Tone was leaving for France a few months later, Rowan gave him letters of introduction to Monroe and Nicholas Madgett (qv), an Irishman employed at the French foreign office. It is evident from all this, contrary to the impression given in his published autobiography and by his biographer, his great-great-grandson Harold Nicolson, that Rowan's ardour for revolution was not greatly dampened by his experiences in France during the Terror. Towards the end of 1796 Rowan settled at Wilmington, Delaware, contemplated farming but, encouraged by a quaker, William Poole, turned to calico printing, ultimately suffering a financial loss of £800 (mid 1799). News from Ireland (1799) of the proposed abolition of the Irish parliament he welcomed as promising ‘the downfall of one of the most corrupt assemblies I believe ever existed’ (Autobiography, 340).
Never happy in America, disliking slavery, cruelty to the Native Americans, the lack of civility and even the climate, he took heart from his wife's attempts (from 1796), through his friend Richard Griffith (qv), whose politics were closer to her own than to Rowan's, to obtain a pardon that would allow him to return to Ireland; but he told her ‘I never will sign any petition or declaration in favour of the British constitution in Ireland’ (ibid., p. 354). In September 1799 an assurance was given by the Irish chief secretary, Viscount Castlereagh (qv), that he would be unmolested if he crossed the Atlantic and obtained refuge in Denmark or elsewhere. After embarking at Philadelphia (9 July 1800) and landing at Hamburg (17 August), Rowan made for Lübeck on the Baltic, finally settling with his family at Altona, a Danish town on the Elbe below Hamburg (1801–03). Thanks to Griffith's continuing efforts and the support of Castlereagh, a pardon was granted to Rowan (May 1803).
Country gentleman and liberal, 1806–34
Only after his eldest son, Gawen, had shown loyalty to the king by entering the British navy was Rowan permitted to move from London (where he lived until 1806) to his home in Ireland. During all this time he was in correspondence with his agent in Ireland, Archibald Hamilton. On his father's death (9 April 1805) Hamilton promptly took possession of Killyleagh on Rowan's behalf, ousting the dead man's mistress. Rowan returned in triumph (27 July 1806). He was said by Drennan to have lands in six counties and to be worth £4,000 p.a. Drennan got the impression of Rowan after the Co. Down by-election of July 1805 that ‘he might not be an enemy to Lord Castlereagh’ and was ‘curious to know how he voted and how he advised his tenantry to act’ (Drennan–McTier letters, iii, 348). Rowan owed a debt of gratitude to Castlereagh (who was standing for re-election) and probably had no love for the rival candidate, John Meade, who represented the Downshire interest. In later elections he appears to have played no significant part.
Rowan's liberalism was not in decline, nor was his impulsive radicalism. He sent a message of encouragement to the catholic county meeting held at Newry in September 1811 to consider preparing a petition to parliament; in the same issue of the newspaper reporting this meeting (Dublin Evening Post, 12 September 1811) is a public letter from the secretary of the protestant dissenting congregation at Killyleagh expressing gratitude to Rowan for his support for presbyterians there. Yet when another French agent, Luke Lawless, brother of John Lawless (qv), arrived in Ireland later that month on a fact-finding mission Rowan provided him with information on Ulster (incorporated in the report he made to Napoleon), even advising him that Ulster would be the best place for a French landing. Rowan's ‘brush with treason’, which seems to have come to the attention of the chief secretary, William Wellesley-Pole (qv), is an example of ‘the knife-edge course between constitutionalism and treason followed by many reformers’ (Elliott, Partners, 361).
In his declining years Rowan remained avowedly a liberal in his politics and his religion. Approving of Daniel O'Connell (qv), he was a member of the New Catholic Association (1825–6). George Robert Dawson (qv), speaking in the house of commons in a debate on the association (14 February 1825), referred to Rowan as a ‘convicted traitor’. Incensed, Rowan (then aged 74) crossed the Irish Sea to challenge Dawson to a duel but in London was dissuaded. His last public appearance was at the Rotunda, Dublin, at a meeting organised by the Friends of Civil and Religious Liberty (20 January 1829). Archibald Hamilton Rowan died the grand old man of Irish radicalism on 1 November 1834 in Holles St., Dublin. A presbyterian minister conducted his funeral service; he was buried in the vaults at St Mary's church, Dublin.
With his wife Sarah (who died on 25 February 1834) he had five sons and five daughters. His eldest son, Gawen William Rowan (1783–1834), who reverted to the surname Hamilton, predeceased him by ten weeks. It was therefore a grandson, Gawen's elder son Archibald Rowan Hamilton (1818–60), who succeeded to Killyleagh Castle. Rowan's third son, Archibald (d. 1816?), an army officer, and his fourth son, Frederick (1792–1811), a naval officer, both died in the British service. The youngest, Dawson (b. 1801), may have emigrated. The assertion that Rowan ‘fathered several natural children’ in America (Burke's Irish family records (1976), 553) is uncorroborated.
Character and interests
Like his wife and maternal grandfather, Rowan had strong unitarian tendencies. Another was religious tolerance. ‘One law’, he wrote in 1811 to Lord Fingall (qv), ‘ought to bind catholic and protestant, jew or mahometan, if Irishmen’ (Autobiography, 400). Rowan was a Freemason. He was master of a lodge at Cambridge and a member of two Dublin lodges (nos 2 and 620). Lodge no. 620, known as the First Volunteer, he joined in 1789 and attended until 1820, when his health was failing (Geoghegan, Hist., p. 23). He was elected MRIA (22 May 1786) but was eventually expelled (16 March 1799), ‘having been charged with high treason and absconded’ (RIA minute bk, i, 21, 146).
He had bookish interests: there was a printing press at his house at Rathcoffey which in 1793 turned out a pamphlet; he turned his hand to lithography after returning from exile; he was listed in Watson's Almanac for 1819 as a member of the committee of the Dublin Library Society; and the auction catalogue of part of his library removed from Rathcoffey after his death listed 941 lots. Another interest was chemistry – laboratories were installed at Killyleagh, Rathcoffey and at the house he bought in Leinster St., Dublin, backing on the premises of the Dublin Society, of which he was a member. Killyleagh was improved by the erection of mills and two new streets to house workers. Similarly Rowan took a benevolent interest in manual workers elsewhere whether Dublin lamplighters or silk-weavers. As well as the one or two large dogs that usually accompanied him he had as pets at different times a racoon, an opossum, a young bear and a squirrel. An accomplished oarsman, Rowan was a man of striking physique who ‘might have served as a model for a Hercules, his gigantic limbs conveying the idea of almost unnatural strength; his shoulders, arms and broad chest were the very emblems of muscular energy’ (Barrington, Pers. sketches, ii, 113).
Among the United Irishmen, Rowan was, next to Lord Edward FitzGerald (who joined only in 1796), the best example of an Irish upper-class radical, wealthy, well connected, a man of the world, widely travelled, with a military rank; impulsive and audacious, he espoused Jacobinism, thrice communicated treasonably with French spies, several times narrowly escaping with his life to retire in constructive comfort and be admired by a new generation of radicals. His ‘innate and undeviating courtesy that makes no distinction of rank or sex’ was a quality that struck Curran's son William (‘Rowan’, p. 511). ‘Rowan's political behaviour’, an analyst of his career writes, ‘may be seen as part of the tradition of Unitarian dissent, a tradition that allied itself with the cause of social and constitutional reform’ (Orr, ‘Doing history’, 225).
A portrait of Rowan in middle age (1794), painted probably by Hugh Douglas Hamilton (qv) and now held at Killyleagh, is printed by Cullen, as an old man (1821), sketched by John Comerford (qv), by Drummond and Nicolson.