Society of the Cincinnati Annual Lecture: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and the Origins of American Political Asylum

October 14, 2019

Roger Ekirch answering audience member question

Award-winning author and University Distinguished Professor of history at Virginia Tech, A. Roger Ekirch, visited VCU on October 14 to present Mutiny, Martyrdom, and the Origins of American Political Asylum. The free lecture was made possible by the generous support of the Society of the Cincinnati in the state of Virginia – the statewide branch of the nation’s oldest patriotic organization.

Professor Ekirch’s presentation was based his historical research into the controversial case of an accused mutineer, John Robbins (aka Robert Nash), who requested political asylum in the United States in 1799. Ekirch demonstrated the impact of President John Adams’ decision to allow the British government to extradite Robbins. When the British admiralty court tried him and found him guilty, it not only had Robbins executed, but displayed his corpse in public as a deterrent to other potential mutineers. Americans’ anger at his execution and Adams’ perceived submission to the British government helped to decide the tumultuous presidential election of 1800, when Adams lost to Thomas Jefferson. Equally important, the case was invoked for decades and spurred America’s policy of providing political asylum to foreign refugees.

“With the aftershocks of the execution came a growing consensus that the executive branch should not be able to extradite Americans to foreign powers,” Ekirch explained. Eventually, because of the events that occurred after the mutiny, political asylum became the standard in the 1840’s until about 1981 when former President Ronald Reagan, and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pushed a new accord that gutted political asylum.   

The lecture was attended by over 80 VCU students, faculty, staff, and community members, including members of the Society of the Cincinnati.  

“A liberal arts education is so critical in today’s world,” said Society member William Longan. “Companies can help you to learn the skills you need to do your job, but they cannot teach you how to think.” That is one of the reasons why the Society sponsors a variety of engaging, educational events throughout the state. This event was the 10th annual lecture hosted by the Department of History at VCU. 

Click here to see pictures from the event - Facebook photo album.