Binns, John (1772–1860), radical politician and journalist, was born 22 December 1772 in Dublin, second son of John Binns, a wealthy ironmonger, and his wife Mary, daughter of Benjamin Pemberton of Mount Olive, near Raheny, Co. Dublin. The Binnses were Moravians in religion and politically liberal, the Pembertons anglican and conservative. Both families were actively involved in Dublin municipal politics: John Binns senior had been a candidate for city sheriff, and a great uncle, ‘Long’ John Binns (qv), was a prominent patriot and an important influence on John; Mary's relative Joseph Pemberton (d. 1817), a leading opponent of catholic emancipation, was sheriff (1796–7), alderman (1798), and lord mayor of Dublin (1806–7). In 1774 John Binns senior was drowned crossing the Irish Sea. Five years later, against the advice of the Binnses, Mary Binns married George McEntegarte, a young pro-government lawyer and future mayor of Drogheda (1798), and moved with her sons to Drogheda. Their father left behind an estate of about £10,000 but died intestate, and his widow's remarriage complicated the question of inheritance. In Drogheda John and his elder brother Benjamin received some education, but they were mistreated by their stepfather and in 1782 ran away to their paternal grandfather in Dublin, who immediately took them into his care, and John attended the school of Sisson Darling (qv) at 35 Mabbot St., Dublin. Benjamin served his time as a plumber while John was apprenticed to a chandler and soap manufacturer, and both became caught up in the excitement of Volunteering and Patriot politics in Dublin.
Their uncle George Binns, an ironmonger of Dame St., was a member of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen, and John and Benjamin were probably also involved with the society (1792–4). In April 1794 they went to London, where they worked as plumbers, and that autumn they joined the London Corresponding Society (LCS), gaining reputations as extreme democrats. John had the greater political talents of the two. An eloquent speaker, he was soon a key member of the society's executive council and became chairman of its general committee in 1795, pressing the society to mobilise mass support to achieve parliamentary reform (though he later claimed that revolution was his real object). He chaired a great public demonstration on 26 October 1795 in Copenhagen Fields, Islington, to protest against the ‘treason and sedition’ bills introduced by the government, and addressed the audience of over 100,000 people. He joined the London Philomethan Society; William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft were also members, though Binns dismissed both as ‘the most diffuse and tiresome of speakers’ (Binns, 45). Becoming a travelling LCS emissary, Binns preached Paineite radicalism and warned of violent revolution if reform was not granted; informers also alleged that he gave lectures on revolutionary tactics and pike drills in London public houses. He visited a number of strategic locations, including Portsmouth, where he was suspected of encouraging naval mutiny. Arrested 11 March 1796 for using seditious language in a Birmingham public house, he was acquitted 9 April 1797. The Binns brothers joined the London United Irishmen in 1796 and also became executive committee members of the United Britons, an organisation that attempted to coordinate the activities of Irish and English republicans in 1797–8. In January 1798 the Binnses were part of a delegation that met United Irishmen in Dublin, and promised English support for an insurrection in Ireland. John was a friend of Sir Francis Burdett, MP, who introduced him to Arthur O'Connor (qv). While making arrangements for O'Connor and his party to travel to France, John was arrested at Margate on 28 February 1798. Tried at Maidstone for high treason with O'Connor and Fr James Coigly (qv), he refused to answer any questions and was again acquitted. Early in 1799 he was active in attempts to revive the United Irishmen, and on 16 March 1799 he was arrested and imprisoned in Clerkenwell until May 1799, then in Gloucester jail until March 1801 and the reinstatement of habeas corpus.
Some months after his release he left for America and landed at Baltimore on 1 September 1801. Travelling on to New York, he joined the deist New York Society of Theophilanthropists, which advocated a freethinking, democratic, republican society. He then moved to a community of émigré radicals in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, which included Joseph Priestley, and in March 1802 founded a newspaper, the Republican Argus, with the motto that ‘persons not property should ever be the basis of representation’ (Wilson, 60); he also set up a printing works and a bookshop. Binns eagerly adopted the United States as his homeland: he was elected adjutant of the local militia regiment (May 1803), threw himself into the agitation for a more democratic constitution for Pennsylvania (1801–9), and advocated the territorial expansion of the US, including the annexation of Canada. In March 1807 he moved to Philadelphia to edit the radically outspoken Democratic Press, which disputed the title of Pennsylvania's leading paper with the equally radical Aurora, edited by William Duane (1760–1835). A strong partisan of Thomas Jefferson (president, 1801–9), he gave guarded support to subsequent Democratic-Republican presidents but fervently opposed Andrew Jackson (1829–37). He was a trusted advisor of Simon Snyder, the Jeffersonian republican governor of Pennsylvania (1808–17), and his influence over state patronage led to a long-running and bitter feud with Duane, a former friend. Their feuding and intolerance (and that of other exiled Irish and British radicals) discredited radical republicanism and gave rise to considerable nativist resentment towards foreign extremists. Binns did his best to encourage animosity to Britain (particularly denouncing Royal Navy aggressiveness against neutral American ships, and the impressment of Irish and other seamen from them) and strongly supported the war of 1812. During the war he acted as ADC to Governor Snyder, and the patriotic exertions of his Democratic Press were widely praised. He was elected an alderman of Philadelphia (1822–44). He and his paper flourished until the late 1820s, when his bitter attacks on Jackson, whom he denounced as a corrupt demagogue and a murderer (he distributed prints accusing him of murdering six fellow militiamen in 1812), earned him widespread public disfavour; his home was attacked, and financial problems ended the publication of the Democratic Press in 1829.
His hatred of Jackson led him to support the whigs from the late 1820s. A strong advocate of industrial innovation, he repudiated jacobinism as an attempt ‘to array the poorer, against the richer, portions of our population’ (Wilson, 7). He opposed slavery, and during the nullification crisis in 1832 proposed that the federal government should buy the freedom of slaves, who could then be returned to Africa. However, he owned some slaves himself, and in response to criticisms by Daniel O'Connell (qv) he claimed that Irish-Americans had wisely avoided the divisive issue of abolitionism to concentrate on Irish issues. He welcomed the achievement of catholic emancipation and by the 1830s concluded that revolutionary violence in Ireland was counterproductive. In the 1840–50s he defended the embattled Irish community in Philadelphia from nativist attacks, and squarely attributed the serious anti-catholic riots of 1844 to nativist incitement; he later denounced the Know-Nothing party as an American variant of Orangeism. In 1840 he published Binn's justice, a manual of Pennsylvania law, which went through eleven editions (some as Binn's magistrate's manual) until the last was published in 1912. He was visited by the Young Ireland exile Thomas D'Arcy McGee (qv) in 1848, and supplied him with material for his History of the Irish settlers in America (1852).
He married (1806) Mary Anne Bagster, with whom he joined the Church of the United Brethren; they had ten children. He died in Philadelphia 16 June 1860.
His elder brother Benjamin Pemberton Binns (1771–p. 1857) was born 18 January 1771 in Dublin. He was an assistant secretary of the LCS and one of their main couriers. He introduced his brother John to Fr James Coigly, and wrote a memorandum on English radicalism that Coigly took to Paris in 1797. After travelling with the United Britons delegation to Dublin in January 1798, he was arrested on his return to London (19 April 1798), questioned before the privy council, but released on bail. Rearrested in June 1798, he was held in solitary confinement in Newgate (–August 1799) and in Dorchester jail (–March 1801). He left England c.March 1803 and set up a small plumber's business in Bray, Co. Wicklow. Deeply distressed by his imprisonment – he suffered from agoraphobia afterwards – he appears largely to have given up politics, but at some stage he wrote the ballad ‘Lines on the burning of Scullabogue barn’, which blamed the atrocity on agents of Dublin Castle intent on fomenting sectarian hatred. His business did not prosper, and after he was unsuccessful in attempts to retrieve family property from McEntegarte, he emigrated to America in March 1817. He died in Philadelphia after 1857.