William Jones (Welsh radical)
|Died||20 August 1795
William Jones (christened 18 June 1726 – 20 August 1795) was a Welsh antiquary, poet, scholar and radical. Jones was an ardent supporter of both the American and French Revolutions – his strong support of the Jacobin cause earned him the nickname "the rural Voltaire" or "Welsh Voltaire". Despite his support for foreign revolutionary causes, he never advocated an uprising within his own country, instead campaigning to encourage his countrymen to emigrate to the United States. Jones held strong anti-English feelings, which led to one contemporary to describe him as "the hottest arsed" Welshman he had ever known.
Jones was born in 1726 to William Sion Dafydd and his second wife Catherine. His father was a guard on the coach that ran between Machynlleth in Wales and Shrewsbury in England, though he also farmed at Dol Hywel in Llangadfan in Montgomeryshire. Jones, despite his later preaching of the glory of emigration, lived his whole life in Llangadfan. He was christened at Llangadfan parish church on 18 June 1726, and the only formal education he received was at one of Griffith Jones' schools that existed for a time in the neighbourhood. He was mainly self-educated, and being raised as a Welsh speaker, he learnt English as a second language. His written English was said to be good, though he spoke it with difficulty. He also learnt Latin, and translated works by Horace and Ovid into Welsh. As well as the classics, Jones promoted the ideas of the French philosopher Voltaire in Welsh; in the view of David Barnes in his book The Companion Guide to Wales, this "succeeded in influencing the political development of his country".
Jones was married to Ann, and they had a son and two daughters. His wife suffered terribly from pains of the body and was confined to her bed for the last 15 years of her life.
Jones began to correspond with the Gwyneddigion Society, and with other contemporary men of letters, and began collecting and recording local folk songs and country dances for Edward Jones (Bardd y Brenin), the King's Bard. Jones spent much time conversing with the elderly members of the community as well as researching manuscripts and printed collections which provided Edward Jones with valuable material for his printed volumes. He describes many of the dances as having "sharp twists and turns rendering them fiendishly difficult to perform well", and stated that they were probably "too fatiguing for the bodies and minds of the present generation, and requiring much skill and activity in the performance".
He also collected Welsh poetry and made notes on their metre for Owain Myfyr. Jones also began to research and collect the genealogies of the old Welsh families. His descriptions of the parishes of Llangadfan, Llanerfyl and Garth-beibio were published by Gwallter Mechain in a 1796 issue of the Cambrian Register.
Madog ab Owain Gwynedd
In Welsh literary circles during the 18th century, the myth of Madog ab Owain Gwynedd provided an irresistible draw to those seeking a Welsh claim to lands in America. The belief existed that Madog, son of Owain Gwynedd, had travelled to North America in the 12th century and had planted a colony whose descendants, the Madogwys (Padoucas), still spoke the Welsh language. This myth was extremely attractive to Jones, and the publication of John Williams' 1791 work An Enquiry into the Truth of the Tradition, Concerning the Discovery of America, by Prince Madog ab Owen Gwynedd, about the Year, 1170 sent the members of the Gwyneddigion Society into a frenzy of excitement. Jones took these ideas a step further, claiming that Madog, or some of his followers, had travelled further south and discovered Mexico and Peru. Stating that 'Mango Capae' (Manco Cápac), the legendary first Sapa Inca was a descendant or Madog himself, claiming that 'Mango Capae' was an easy transition to 'Madog ap'.
Through his research into Welsh history, Jones became more curious about his nation's past, and decided to rescue Welsh historical traditions from the "condescension of well-meaning antiquarians and blinkered enthusiasts". His views became more and more radicalised over time; he came to dismiss the early Welsh historians such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose writings he described as "foolish fictions". Jones was especially vitriolic towards his English and Scottish contemporaries who he believed 'through prejudice or ignorance, seldom do us justice in their records'. He held particular disdain towards Lord Lyttelton, William Robertson and Tobias Smollett who he felt were hostile to the Welsh princes and failed to acknowledge the suffering of the Welsh prior to the Tudor period. He acknowledged his own temper and confessed that his bore malice against the descendents of the Saxons, refusing to trace the ancestry of English nobles because he believed most of them were descended from a variety of "bastards, thieves and robbers". His nationalist feelings were appreciated by many of his countrymen, and was admiringly described by one of his contemporaries as "the hottest arsed Welshman" he had ever known.
Jones also tried to gain a separate identity for Wales, and as an antidote to the likes of God save the King and Rule, Britannia!, set about composing a national anthem for Wales. The song he hoped would be sung at meetings and societies across the country. The anthem, sung to the refrain, "Ac unwn lawen ganiad ar doriad teg y dydd" (And join in joyful song at the fair break of dawn), was designed to commemorate "our viscitudes (sic) of Fortune". Jones made great play of the treachery and pillage wrought by the Romans, the "treacherous" Vortigern, "that tyrant" Edward I and "the usurper" Henry IV. It is believed that this is the first attempt to produce a national anthem for Wales in Modern history. As well as an anthem, Jones also advocated a national library and a national eisteddfod.
Although Jones' nationalism was fuelled by what he saw as an English oppression, he was also acutely aware of the social and economic changes that were affecting the country, which he felt boded ill for the smaller farmer. Since the 1770s, long term leases that once lasted generations, were being replaced by annual tenancies which allowed land owners to change rent levels from year to year. As early as December 1786 he had written to his landlord, Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn rebuking him for employing agents who were 'destitute of the principles of justice [and] moral honesty' and comparing Sir Watkin unfavourably to his father. By the 1790s Jones held a belief that the landed elite, through the use of unscrupulous agents, had forfeited the rights to expect the unquestioning obedience of their tenants, and that the traditional code of conduct had been violated. In writings reminiscent of his hero Voltaire, he declared that society was composed of 'Shearers' and 'Feeders', 'Oppressors' and 'Slaves'. As an open supporter of the American Revolution and later the French Revolution, the British government viewed Jones as a dissident. Orders were made to open and examine his mail, and government spies were ordered to keep him under watch.
His views on a broken society, under what he described as William Pitt's 'reign of terror' led him to advocate that broken Welsh tenant farmers should leave Britain and emigrate to the United States. At the Llanrwst eisteddfod in June 1791 Jones distributed copies of an address, titled 'To all Indigenous Cambro-Britons', calling for tenant farmers and impoverished craftsmen to pack their bags, quit Wales and sail to the 'Promised Land' of North America. When Jones heard, in 1792, that Sir William Johnstone Pulteney, had purchased large tracts of land in New York State, he wrote to him expressing his desire to see the creation of a Welsh colony on this estate. Jones though did not endear himself to Sir William, referring to the 'insatiable avarice of the landowners', calling them 'Egyptian taskmasters'. Sir William's response was very negative, he countered that the farmers of Britain lived in the most 'bounteous country in the world' and that if they improved their cultivation methods and became more industrious, then they would prosper. Undeterred Jones then contacted Thomas Pinckney, the American ambassador in London, asking him to lend support in a plan to establish a joint-stock company to survey suitable land in Kentucky and Pennsylvania where a large number of Welsh settlers could establish a new state, whose affairs would be conducted in the Welsh language. Pinckney rebuffed the idea.
Despite Jones' desires to see a Welsh colony in America, he himself never emigrated, illness and poverty preventing him from travelling. Neither did his dream of a Welsh colony come to fruition, though his idea of an independent Welsh homeland in America was an important influence on Edward Bebb and Eziekel Hughes, two of the foremost Welsh emigrants who settled in Ohio in the 1790s.
Later life and health
Jones had long been a herbalist and had succeeded in curing himself of scrofula. He circulated advertisements which proclaimed his ability for healing not only scrofula but also "Fistulous and running ulcers, the Fistula Lachrymalis and other disorders of the eyes, glandulous tumours, aedematous and dropsical swellings, white swellings of the joints, rheumatick, fixt and wandering Pains". He had planned to publish a book of household remedies; however, these plans, and his career as a healer, were cut short by the Medicine Duties Act of 1785, which obliged him to apply for a licence to operate as a doctor.
In his later life Jones was a sorry figure. The lease on Dolhywel had expired, his rent had trebled, and his long-suffering daughter left home to get married. The local absentee rector, Matthew Worthington, believing Jones to be a volatile radical, reportedly did all in his power to turn the locals against him. Jones died in 1795 at the age of 69. He was buried, on his own insistence, in unconsecrated ground within Llangadfan parish church.
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- Lloyd, John Edward; Jenkins, R.T. (1958). The Dictionary of Welsh Biography, Down to 1940. Cardiff: William Lewis.