The case of the confessional and the United Irishman

In 1800s New York, Derry lawyer William Sampson defended the sacrament of confession. The case would change American law in unforeseen ways


It was a Catholic response to a common crime: an opportunist theft of jewellery followed by an outpouring of remorse in the confessional box. In the New York city of 1813, the disappearance of trinkets and valuables from the wealthy was nothing special.

But when the prosecution sought to make Anthony Kohlmann, the priest who heard the confession, part of the case, The People vs Phillips suddenly became the flashpoint for a legal argument whose framer will be celebrated two centuries on.

“It was typical of William Sampson to take something small to make a larger point,” says Professor Walter J Walsh of the University of Washington, who is among those scheduled to give a talk on the flamboyant Derry man to mark the 200th anniversary of his historical argument on behalf of St Peter’s Church on Barclay Street. “Sampson’s opening line goes: ‘This case, like many other of importance, has its origins in a trivial occasion.’ ”

Sampson used the case to establish the unassailable right to religious freedom. As Walsh puts it, “he used Ireland as a way of undermining the assumptions of the law. He calls it ‘the Catholic question in America’, because that was what was at the heart of this: if the religion could not be practised freely, it could not be practised at all.”

It helped, of course, that Sampson cut such a compelling figure: a Derry Protestant who became one of the most eloquent spokesmen – and penmen – for the United Irishmen and who absorbed his subsequent banishment and three tumultuous years in Europe before washing up in the United States without losing any of his delight for legal argument.

“His memoirs read like a picaresque novel – shipwrecks and pirates and this insolent teasing of the English government,” says Walsh. “He includes his reflection on the spirit of British domination in Ireland. In New York he was remembered in folklore long afterwards, because he was a public intellectual and gadfly but also a champion of the underdog.

“In another case, for instance, he defended the very early strikers in New York – shoemakers who were striking at the time. And he had this extraordinary ability to deliver these satires on his feet.”

Walsh describes a case Sampson argued that centred on the taxonomy of whales and the contentious regulation of fish oil. “He ended up jousting and sparring with a very celebrated legislator called Samuel Mitchell. He was there also for the so-called ‘Trial of the Hurdy-Gurdy ’, when a barrel organ was prosecuted. So his trials were packed.”

As well as moving through rarefied social circles in New York and, later, Washington, Sampson took care to write a full account of the case, in which he was careful not to underplay its significance.

As he makes his argument to De Witt Clinton, the presiding judge, he includes a caustic rebuke of the old colonial system, “infected with narrow views and bigoted feelings”, while celebrating the clean division between church and state in American law. He makes the point that the Protestant religion has just two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. No court would tolerate the compromise of either. “Will not the same result follow if we deprive the Roman Catholic of one of his ordinances? Secrecy is the essence of the penance.”

The argument was a triumph, and its detailed recording has help to facilitate this weekend’s bicentennial reflection.

The finding of the court will be discussed this afternoon by Judge Brian McMahon, emeritus of the Irish High Court, who will set the case against contemporary developments in Ireland, the United States and throughout the European Union.

That talk is part of a day-long symposium on The People vs Phillips , which will take place at New York University’s school of law. On Sunday morning, Steve Di Ubaldo’s play The Catholic Question will be performed at Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn, where Sampson is buried.

He is interred in the same plot as his daughter Catherine and her husband, William Theobold Wolfe Tone, the son of the United Irishman cofounder, whose ideals Sampson championed to great effect in New York.

By coincidence, De Witt Clinton, who was sufficiently dazzled by Sampson’s logic and rhetoric to find in accordance with him, lies buried in the same graveyard. The pair remained close after the trial.

But even Sampson, for all his chutzpah, would probably be surprised to hear their words rehashed so close to his resting place some two centuries on.

“I think his influence on jurisprudence is becoming increasingly apparent,” says Walter Walsh.

“He could be seen as the first author of a really distinctive anti-colonial and postcolonial jurisprudence just at the time of the age of revolution. He was among a group that really influenced American literature and law and pushed it towards a more equal society based on United Irishmen ideals.”

As for what happened to the jewellery thief whose quick hands changed everything, one assumes religion saved him.