Today’s post is written by David Langbart, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

Ambassador (ret.) Peter Bridges was good enough to post a link to an interesting article by Robert Schmuhl in a comment on the earlier post about the Easter Rising in Ireland. In his article, Professor Schmuhl describes how Eamon de Valera changed his story about the reason behind receiving a reprieve from a death sentence for participation in the Easter Rising. Schmuhl recounts that in 1963, de Valera told a visiting President John F. Kennedy that he credited his American citizenship for saving him. In 1969, however, de Valera wrote that his U.S. citizenship did not save him, adding that “I know of nothing in international law which could be cited in my defence or made an excuse for American intervention, except, perhaps, to see that I got a fair trial.”

Intrigued by the changed story, I went back to the files to see what the contemporary documents say. This is what I found.


The files of the U.S. consulate in Dublin include a few documents relating to de Valera. In a May 5, 1916, memorandum, Consul Edward Adams reported the visit of a Maura Dixon on behalf of Mrs. De Valera. She brought with her a copy of a certificate of baptism for “Edward De Valera” (as he was then known) signed by Rev. T.J. Donlon, Assistant Rector of the Church of St. Agnes in New York City that stated that he was born on October 14, 1882, and baptized in that church. Adams concluded, “no evidence to the contrary obtainable at this time,” that de Valera was a U.S. citizen and I respectfully request that action in his case be delayed until definite knowledge thereof may be secured.”

On June 12, Adams wrote to General Sir John Maxwell, commander of British forces in Ireland after the Rising, and requested a written report on the disposition of the case of “Edward De Valera, American Citizen . . . arrested in connection with the recent rebellion.” He noted that he was making the request under instruction from the Department of State. On the following day, Adams received the following letter from Major I.H. Price of the General Staff:

. . . . I am directed by the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief to inform you that this man was “Adjutant” of the Dublin Brigade of Rebel forces, and was in command of a body of rebels which held the premises of Messrs. Boland’s, Ringsend, Dublin.

He was tried by Courtmartial and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to Penal Servitude for life.

Adams reported the exchange verbatim to the Department.[2]

On October 2, Adams received an August 31 letter of gratitude from the Rev. Thomas Wheelwright, de Valera’s half-brother. It read, in part:

. . . . After the surrender he was sentenced to be shot, but this sentence was, I am told, at your intervention commuted to life-imprisonment.

Permit to express my gratitude to you for this favor, as well as for the great kindness you have shown his afflicted wife on various occasions. . . . .

Adams responded on February 2, 1917. His letter read, in part:

         As to the part taken by me in your brother’s case, I can only say that, beyond telephone messages, report on Mrs. De Valera’s statements, a request for information, etc., in his case, there is nothing for which you owe me any special gratitude. I simply did all I could in the trying conditions, under restrictions of Martial Law, -just as I did for others. Mrs. De Valera appeared grateful and came here to thank us for our interventions. . . .

In the meantime, in his November report, in the only positive statement of American intervention and its outcome, Consul Adams wrote:

In another instance, by intervention on the plea of Citizenship, made at the request of the wife of Edward DeValera who had been an officer in the revolutionary movement, a sentence of death was commuted to imprisonment for life. Mrs. DeValera afterward called at the Consulate to express her gratitude.[3]


The story reflected in the central files of the Department of State is somewhat different. There is no documentation to indicate that American officials in Washington made any approach or representations to British officials there. Nor are there any reports indicating that the U.S. consulate in Dublin or the embassy in London did the same. Those offices did make efforts to gather information, though, and that is reflected in the files.

The records show a considerable amount of Congressional and public interest in 1916. For the most part, the Department’s responses to those letters included language along the lines of:

It seems proper to add that the fact that Mr. De Valera may be an American citizen constitutes no reason for clemency in his case, or for a request by this Government for clemency on the part of the British Government. There appears to be nothing to indicate that his trial was not fair or that he was in any way discriminated against, and there would, therefore, appear to be no reason for action by this Department on behalf of Mr. De Valera.[4]

In 1923/1924, when de Valera was once again in prison and facing a death sentence, his mother, Catherine Wheelwright wrote to President Coolidge asking him to save her son as President Wilson had.[5] The records do not contain a response to Mrs. Wheelwright. When members of congress and other public officials wrote, the Department generally responded as follows:

. . . I beg to inform you that no evidence has been submitted to the Department which would substantiate the statement made that Mr. de Valera is entitled to the protection of this Government. The Department has no record of his ever having applied for an American passport. . . .[6]

A background memorandum from the Office of the Solicitor states:

. . . . If it is true, as alleged, that he was born in the State of New York, and if he has never obtained naturalization in a foreign state or taken a foreign oath of allegiance, he may still be regarded as a citizen of the United States, although by his political agitation in Ireland, he has undoubtedly placed himself in a position where he is not entitled to the protection of this government.[7]


Neither the files of the consulate in Dublin nor the Department of State include documentation that definitively demonstrate U.S. intervention based on de Valera’s U.S. citizenship. Clearly, however, people at the time believed that to be the case: Consul Adams, his half-brother, his mother, and perhaps others. Enough that it became accepted wisdom.


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all documents discussing the work of the consulate come from the files of Consulate in Dublin, 1916 General Correspondence, Volume V, RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.

[2] Consulate Dublin to Department of State, Unnumbered Despatch, June 14, 1916, file 341D.1121 Valera, Eamon De/5, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[3] Consulate Dublin to Department of State, Despatch 182, November 29, 1916, file 841.00/33, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[4] Assistant Secretary of State Frank L. Polk to Rep. George Holden Tinkham, Letter, July 20, 1916, file 341D.1121 Valera, Eamon De/5A, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[5] Catherine Wheelwright to President Calvin Coolidge, Letter, September 22, 1923, file 341D.1121 Valera, Eamon De/45, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[6] Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes to Senator David I. Walsh, March 10, 1924, file 341D.1121 Valera, Eamon De/55, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[7] Office of the Solicitor Memorandum to Division of Western European Affairs, March 4, 1924, file 341D.1121 Valera, Eamon De/55, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.