William Sampson, member of the Society of United Irishmen, author and Irish Protestant lawyer known for his defence of religious liberty in Ireland and the United States, dies in New York City on December 28, 1836.
Sampson is born in Derry, County Londonderry, to an affluent Anglican family. He attends Trinity College Dublin and studies law at Lincoln’s Inn in London. In his twenties, he briefly visits an uncle in North Carolina. In 1790 he marries Grace Clark and they have two sons, William and John, and a daughter, Catherine Anne.
Admitted to the Irish Bar, Sampson becomes Junior Counsel to John Philpot Curran, and helps him provide legal defences for many members of the Society of United Irishmen. A member of the Church of Ireland, he is disturbed by anti-Catholic violence and contributes writings to the Society’s newspapers. He is arrested at the time of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, imprisoned, and compelled to leave Ireland for exile in Europe.
Shipwrecked at Pwllheli in Wales, Sampson makes his way to exile in Porto, Portugal, where he is again arrested, imprisoned in Lisbon, and then expelled. After living some years in France, and then Hamburg, he flees to England ahead of the approach of Napoleon‘s armies where he is re-arrested. After unsuccessfully petitioning for a return to Ireland, he arrives in New York City on July 4, 1806.
In the United States, Sampson successfully continues his career in the law, eventually sending for his family. He sets up a business publishing detailed accounts of the court proceedings in cases with popular appeal. In 1809 he reports on the case of a Navy Lieutenant Renshaw prosecuted for dueling. That same year he handles a case against Amos and Demis Broad, accused of brutally beating their slave, Betty, and her 3-year-old daughter where Sampson succeeded in having both slaves manumitted. The authorities in Ireland had disbarred Sampson, which causes him some bitter amusement, as it does not affect his work in the United States.
Sampson’s most important case in the United States is in 1813 and is referred to as “The Catholic Question in America.” Police investigating the misdemeanor of receiving stolen goods question the suspects’ priest, the Reverend Mr. Kohlman. He declines to given any information that he has heard in confession. The priest is called to testify at the trial in the Court of General Sessions in the City of New York. He again declines. The issue whether to compel the testimony is fully briefed and carefully argued on both sides, with a detailed examination of the common law. In the end, the confessional privilege is accepted for the first time in a court of the United States.
William Sampson dies on December 28, 1836 and is buried in the Riker Family graveyard on Long Island in what is now East Elmhurst, Queens, New York. He is later reinterred in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where he is now buried in the same plot as Matilda Witherington Tone and William Theobald Wolfe Tone, the wife and son of the Irish revolutionary Wolfe Tone, and his daughter Catherine, the wife of William Theobald Wolfe Tone.