MacKnight (McKnight), James (1801–76), journalist and agrarian reformer, was born 27 February 1801 near Grallagh House, Rathfriland, Co. Down, son of an Irish-speaking presbyterian smallholder; other details of his parents are unknown. As a youth he aspired to the presbyterian ministry. In November 1825, after reading Latin and Greek at the school of David Henderson of Newry, he entered the Royal Academical Institution in Belfast. Proving deficient in extempore preaching, he reconsidered his vocation. Paying for his education by taking time off to work, between November 1826 and May 1827 he deputised as librarian in the Linen Hall library, and in 1829 joined the Belfast News Letter, becoming editor c.1830. Though himself of liberal-unionist leanings, the paper's proprietor, Alexander Mackay (d. 1844), was a tory. MacKnight kept up a sharp critique of popular nationalist politics under Daniel O'Connell (qv), but this was wedded to an ardent scholarly interest in Irish language and literature. In 1832 he deprecated the nationalist focus on divisive politics at the expense of the potentially unifying study of Gaelic culture. He repeatedly stressed the common origins of the Irish and Scots Gaelic languages and communities and implicitly the shared culture of Irish catholic and presbyterian. Clashing with a less flexible proprietor after Mackay's death, he resigned in late 1846, becoming editor (1847–8, 1854–76) of the Londonderry Standard, which advocated ‘the interests of the orthodox presbyterians of Ireland’ (Legg, 204).
In mid 1847, with William Sharman Crawford (qv), he founded the Tenant Right Association in Derry, closely aided by a group of radical presbyterian ministers, and its views were published in pamphlet in March 1848. MacKnight argued that the original plantation grants, under which most Ulster landlords held (though usually at several removes), vested the land in trust and did not endow absolute proprietory rights of control. So the landlord had strictly only an interest in the ‘raw earth’ before clearance and reclamation by the tenant-farmer might elevate land values and accomplish a practical partnership of landlord and tenant in equity of right to the cultivated holding. The concept of rent was only admissible as a variable residue after deduction of the ‘interest of the farmer's capital’ (Wright, 173). Without the assurance of security of tenure, tenant right (the right to sell one's tenure in private sale) made little sense. The tenant grievance was thus given a rational integrity that lifted future settlement of the matter out of the plane of simple sentiment and mercy on individual estates. MacKnight insisted that the modern development of civil equality now guaranteed ‘equal enjoyment of plantation rights and immunities’ by catholic or protestant tenants (Wright, 172). The southern tenant right movement seems to have derived the terminology of the ‘three F's’ (fair rent, free sale, fixity of tenure) from MacKnight's case. Large extracts of the pamphlet were published by the Nation in spring 1848.
Editing the Banner of Ulster (a twice-weekly journal set up as the organ of the general assembly of the presbyterian church) during the years of tenant agitation (1848–53), MacKnight used his position deliberately to nurture a non-partisan social vision among a constituency with set and narrow views. His first editorial attacked the simplistic anti-popery of organisations such as the Church Education Society. In April 1848 he led a deputation to Westminster protesting the inadequacies of the Somerville tenant compensation bill. After speaking at a well attended tenant right meeting in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, in late May 1848, he addressed a huge Orange meeting at Garvagh, Co. Armagh, on a platform bedecked with the slogan ‘Tenant right and no surrender’, bravely defending the proposed rate-in-aid levy for distressed western districts (Wright, 133). In August 1849, after giving Thomas Carlyle a tour of Derry, he had consultations with Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) (a long-standing correspondent on matters of politics and Irish literature) in which the future shape of a united organisation of tenant right associations, north and south, took form. In late 1849 the radical implications of the MacKnight thesis were raised in the house of lords, with a view to silencing presbyterian ministers advocating tenant right. In May 1850 he was one of nine reformers to sign a circular calling for a tenant right conference ‘to devise some specific measure of legislation to be sought for and some plan of united action’ (Duffy, League, 36). MacKnight chaired one day of the four-day conference in early August 1850 and was elected president of the ensuing ‘Tenant League, North and South’.
His participation was integral to the prospect of cooperation between northern protestant and southern catholic associations, but depended on the League's sticking sensibly to the agrarian issue. In the popular tumult after the creation of the Tenant League this seemed unlikely, but MacKnight spoke warmly at meetings in Enniscorthy, Kilkenny, and Cashel in late September 1850, urging a new solidarity of ‘brotherly feeling, a community open to Irishmen of the presbyterian faith’ (ibid., 75). But by November 1850 he was dismayed by the ‘furious repeal manifesto’ of the Tenant League candidate at the Limerick by-election, explaining to Duffy that ‘any impression of this kind would destroy us’ (ibid., 87). In December 1850 at a meeting in Newtownards he spoke of the folly of stereotyping southern catholicism as hot-headed and uncivil. However, during the outbreak of mass Irish catholic indignation consequent on the ecclesiastical titles act of early 1851, the strategy became almost untenable. He explained privately that he ‘had been doing all in my power to divert this cursed excitement into a neutral channel’ despite the threat of renewed tory and Orange mobilisation (ibid., 128). As the Tenant League was dragged into advocacy of catholic and nationalist interests, the northern associations began to disengage from the united movement. The strident and obtuse editorials of the League secretary, Frederick Lucas (qv), in the Tablet further alienated northern presbyterians from the League. Relations between MacKnight and Duffy soured as League candidacies failed in the general election of July 1852, and the incompatibility of the two camps within the League was evidenced at the annual conference of September that year. The frail threads of unity within the organisation were finally snapped when MacKnight and other northern delegates refused to censure the defection to government office of John Sadleir (qv) and William Keogh (qv) during League debate in January and February 1853.
In the few months before increased agricultural prosperity took the momentum out of the tenant movement, MacKnight and Crawford negotiated for legislative reform separately from their former colleagues in Dublin. By late 1853 MacKnight wrote of the League and its adoption of a broader political agenda with undisguised hostility. Though guilty of unfair attacks on League administration at this juncture, he never retreated from a principled and inclusive stance on civil and agrarian issues. Resuming editorial sway at the Londonderry Standard in early 1854, he exerted great influence on the resurgence of liberal presbyterianism in the region in the 1850s and 1860s. His intellectual authority as a political thinker within Ulster protestantism was unchallenged in those decades, though never reflected in electoral terms outside Derry. His ideas were quoted again in criticism of Gladstone's land bills of the late 1860s and influenced the formation of the Route Tenants Defence Association in Ballymoney in 1869. During 1870 he led constructive but radical analysis of the defects in Gladstone's approach, speaking at meetings in Ulster and meeting the prime minister in London. At a tenant right conference in Ballymoney in April 1870, however, his proposed set of resolutions on the completed bill were shelved through the interference of Thomas MacKnight (qv) (no relation) and other whigs, anxious to show party discipline. MacKnight remained outside such party confines and in one of his last public speeches decried the offer of tenant right decoupled from secure fixity of tenure for the farmer: ‘there is . . . in our social economy an irreconcilable antagonism between free representative institutions and feudal territorialism’ (Wright, 389). After some months of illness he died 8 June 1876 in Derry, repeating the Lord's prayer in Irish on his deathbed.
He married (c.1848) the sister of James McPherson, proprietor of the Londonderry Standard. She survived his death. They had no children.