This article examines the vision of democracy evolved by Theobald Wolfe Tone, a leading thinker within in the Society of United Irishmen and an iconic figure in Irish history. Focusing on 1790–1792, it argues that Tone embraced democracy early, though his pragmatism ensured that he continued to work for goals short of his ideal. Through reading Tone’s works in the context of his actions, it suggests that his vision of democracy was heavily influenced by the confessional nature of the Irish state and sectarianism within Irish society, and that it extended far beyond political reform to a belief in the need to reshape Ireland’s society and economy in the interests of the lower and middle orders. Tone emerges as a truly revolutionary figure. In re-examining this crucial period for Tone’s political thought, we gain a clearer understanding of the politics of the United Irishmen, and of Irish events in the 1790s, their relationship to events abroad, and of the origins of democratic thought and practice in Ireland.
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