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Thomas Carlyle

Birthplace: Ecclefechan, Hoddam, Dumfries
Death: February 05, 1881 (85)
Ecclefechan, Hoddam, Dumfries
Immediate Family:

Son of James Carlyle and Margaret Carlyle
Husband of Jane Baille Welsh
Brother of Alexander Carlyle; Janet Carlyle; John Aitken Carlyle; Margaret Carlyle; James Carlyle and 3 others

Managed by: Erin Ishimoticha
Last Updated:

About Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle was most famous in the Victorian era, when he was known for his dense, thoughtful books on history and philosophy. The son of a strict Calvinist, Carlyle became a divinity student at Edinburgh University but eventually left school and turned to writing instead. He developed a stomach ailment -- possibly gastric ulcers -- which stayed with him all his life and helped give him a reputation as a cranky and somewhat disagreeable personality. His prose style, famously quirky and sometimes savage, helped cement that reputation. His made a splash in 1833 with the publication of the semi-autobiographical Sartor Resartus ("The Tailor Re-Tailored"). Other major works included his three-part history The French Revolution (1837), the six-volume History of Frederick the Great (1858-65), and his 1847 collection of Oliver Cromwell's letters and speeches. He also devised a series of public lectures culminating in his book Heroes and Hero-Worship, which still is regarded as a key text on the subject. (His fascination with heroes and strong leaders has given him an reputation as anti-democratic.) In 1827 he married Jane Baille Welsh -- herself brilliant and difficult -- and their 40-year marriage is remembered as a tempestuous affair.

Carlyle was the victim of a famous misfortune after writing the first volume of The French Revolution. He entrusted the manuscript to his friend John Stuart Mill for review; shortly afterwards, Mill's maid mistook the manuscript for trash paper and burned it. Carlyle was forced to rewrite the entire volume from scratch.

n April 1845, Thomas and Jane Carlyle entertained three guests whose opinions dramatically clashed with their own--so much so that, as Jane Carlyle noted in her diary, "a little blood was shed involuntarily" (qtd. in Duffy 3). The guests were Charles Gavan Duffy, John O'Hagan, and John Pigot, all members of the political movement known as Young Ireland. Their immediate disagreement with their host was understandable, given Carlyle's depiction of the Irish in Chartism, where, his visitors complained, he had characterized them all as "all liars and thieves." (1) But Carlyle and his guests also disagreed on the fundamental political issue: the goal of Young Ireland was the repeal of the 1800 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland, a goal Carlyle opposed. In an essay published in the Examiner in 1848, Carlyle argued against repeal, comparing the efforts of Ireland against British colonialism with those of "a violent-tempered starved rat, extenuated into frenzy, [to] bar the way of a rhinoceros" ("Repeal" 43). Such inflamatory language helps to explain how the political discussion at the Carlyles' escalated to the point of bloodshed: O'Hagan's nose burst while the visitors "were all three at the loudest in their defence of Ireland against the foul aspersions Carlyle had cast on it" (qtd. in Duffy 3).

Less easily explained, however, is the enduring relationship that developed out of this contentious first meeting. Carlyle exchanged letters with the Young Irelanders and visited and traveled with them during his two trips to Ireland. He not only received and read their weekly newspaper, the Nation (founded in 1842), but published an article in it. The friendship cultivated by Carlyle and the Irish nationalists is all the more remarkable because they had reason for disagreement not only in Young Ireland's cause, but also in the means by which it was pursued. Writers in the Nation repeatedly encouraged their readers to overlook religious, political, and ethnic differences in order to create a united Ireland: a neutralized national identity was to over-ride all other allegiances. Carlyle's writing on Ireland, however, emphasized the country's religious and--especially--its Celtic racial character as key both to its troubles and to its destiny.

Carlyle's infamous positions on race are frequently cited in contemporary discussions of Victorian racial ideology, in part because they are some of the most influential and offensively expressed positions on the issue available. (2) Without excusing his racism, however, it should be noted that Carlyle emphasized race in his writing on famine Ireland partly to resist progressive narratives depicting that country's plight as a developmental stage to be suffered through rather than repaired. Carlyle's resistance to such a teleology is clear in one of his most overtly racist essays, "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question" (1849), published just months after he toured Ireland with Duffy.

Examining Young Ireland's involvement with Carlyle makes it clear that the movement, despite its emphasis on neutralized national identity, shared Carlyle's skepticism about theories of progress that positioned Ireland backward in time relative to a norm of national development defined by Britain. For Young Ireland, Irish nationalists must not be so accommodating as to replicate British national identity. And in the movement's writing, as in Carlyle's, this resistance to neutralized nationalism is often organized around the issue of race. If it may seem odd that Carlyle's tour of Ireland produced an essay declaring his support for black slavery in the West Indies, it may seem more peculiar still that Young Ireland writers were preoccupied with black oppression, given that repeal was usually figured as a conflict between two white racial groups--a battle between Saxons and Celts. This preoccupation is no less pivotal because it is never directly addressed--the Nation's editors deliberately avoided discussing the racism of whites against blacks in their paper, despite discussion of slavery at a figurative level, and despite later accounts citing white-on-black racism as one of the reasons behind a key rupture in the Nation's leadership.

Why did the racial distinction between black and white have this much significance to the writing on repeal by both Carlyle and the Young Ireland writers? The question is important because it provides necessary context not only for Carlyle's positions on race, but also for the struggle of Young Ireland to avoid both Carlylean racism and racially neutral nationalism. But the dilemma of Young Ireland's leadership, which scorned Carlyle's racism even as it acknowledged some aspects of his critique of nationalist subjectivity, also suggests ways that contemporary scholars might acknowledge the failings of Carlyle's social critique while still profiting from it.

Unlikely Collaborators: Carlyle and Young Ireland

When the Young Irelanders visited Carlyle in 1845, they were journeying to meet a writer they had long admired. His influence over their movement was so significant that the early Nation contributors dubbed their regular social gatherings "tea and Thomas" (Davis 31-32). After their personal acquaintance commenced, Carlyle met with Young Ireland members during both of his journeys to Ireland--a brief one in 1846, and a more lengthy tour in 1849--and corresponded with several of them. Although he remained an opponent of the repeal movement, he also remained a faithful friend to the Young Irelanders even when they suffered the consequences of their repeal agitation. Twice he wrote to George Villiers (Lord Clarendon), lord lieutenant of Ireland, to plead for magnanimous treatment of a Young Ireland prisoner: once for Duffy and once for John Mitchel. (3) In each case, Carlyle described the prisoner as a gifted and well-intentioned Irishman who had been led astray by repealer Daniel O'Connell but who, as he wrote, comparing Duffy to Mitchel, "might grow into something useful yet, and do good to himself and perhaps to his poor Country, too" (27 Oct. 1848, 146).

Carlyle developed a particularly longstanding relationship with Duffy, who chronicled their interactions in his 1892 Conversations with Carlyle. They exchanged not only personal regards but also professional work. Duffy--astonishingly--served as a proofreader for Carlyle's hero-worshipping work on Oliver Cromwell, ensuring the accuracy of its Irish place names (Conversations 13). For his part, Carlyle read the copies of the Nation that Duffy sent and marked for him (7), admiring Duffy's editorials as wheat amidst the general Irish chaff (17). In 1849 he even submitted an essay to Duffy, instructing him to "do as you like" with it, "only don't ... speak of my mortal name in connection with it" (Conversations 146). Duffy printed the piece anonymously in the Nation, whereafter its author was immediately recognized (Conversations 146). The essay, "Trees of Liberty," appeared in December 1849--the same month that saw the publication of "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question"--and suggested that patriotic Irishmen would be better off planting trees for their country than dying for it.

Duffy was Carlyle's host in 1846 and his traveling companion in 1849 (Conversations 22-23, 47-125). The peculiarity of their relationship--as well as of Carlyle's relationship with Young Ireland more generally--may present itself most emphatically in the 1849 journey's odd pairing. Here was Carlyle--the repeal opponent, disparager of the Irish, and internationally famous historian--twice invited to visit the lord lieutenant of Ireland, and twice choosing instead to spend his time with repeal-advocate Duffy. And here was Duffy--newly released from nine months in prison after a narrow escape from his treason-felony charge (R. Davis 165)--greeted with celebration as a nationalist hero all over Ireland, yet choosing as his traveling companion a public disparager of the Irish nationalist cause. (4)

One explanation for this strange partnership might be found in Carlyle's ongoing emphasis on the position and plight of Ireland. Ireland and the Irish not only appear as a threat to British stability in Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843), but are more centrally the subject of a series of essays Carlyle published in the Examiner and the Spectator between March 1848 and April 1849. (5) Carlyle had begun research for a book on Ireland and was widely expected to write one. (6) Ireland, he noted, "really is my problem; the breaking-point of the huge suppuration which all British and all European Society now is" (Reminiscences iii). By visiting Ireland in person in 1849, he hoped to "have the Problem lying visible before [his] eyes ... for there, in that starving distressed Country, there it is that the 'universal Imposture' has fallen prostrate into due ruin, and is demanding of all men, 'What will you do with me?'" ("To Jean Carlyle Aitken" 71). His month-long tour, beginning in Dublin, ending in Londonderry, and circling clockwise around the island in between, exposed him to scenes of extreme poverty and starvation but also gave him cause for hope. He toured ruins and an experimental farm, and his letters juxtapose descriptions of Irish beggars and Irish hospitality.

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Thomas Carlyle's Timeline

December 4, 1795
Ecclefechan, Hoddam, Dumfries
February 5, 1881
Age 85
Ecclefechan, Hoddam, Dumfries