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The "Irish Vote" and Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1860-1876

From: Civil War History
Volume 26, Number 2, June 1980
pp. 117-141 | 10.1353/cwh.1980.0034

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THE "IRISH VOTE" AND PARTY POLITICS IN MASSACHUSETTS, 1860-1876 Dale Baum The influx of Irish Catholic immigrants into Massachusetts in the 1840's and 1850's coincided with a great period of political party realignment. Whig party predominance was superseded gradually by a powerful and enduring coalition of voters forged by the new Republican party. According to conventional wisdom, among thevoters who did not alter their party commitments or even temporarily shift their partisan allegiances during the political upheavals were the state's Irish-American citizens. Steadfast in their hostility to the anti-slavery cause on the one side, and to the nativist movement on the other, the Irish remained loyal to the Democratic party. While historians disagree over whether sectional issues regarding slavery or ethocultural and religious concerns had greater impact upon the reshuffling of other voters, most would agree that the Irish were unmovable obstacles to the reformist trends in Massachusetts political life and that after the Know-Nothing episode they were more than ever set apart from the larger society around them.1 The Civil War, it is argued, ended the social, intellectual, and psychological isolation of the Massachusetts Irish. The loyalty of the An earlier version of this article was read at the 1979 meeting of the Organization of American Historians. The author acknowledges a summer research grant and computer time provided by Texas A&M University to assist with this study. The author also wishes to thank the following scholars for their helpful suggestions: Jay Dolan of Notre Dame University; Carol Groneman of the New York Council for the Humanities; Allan J. Lichtman of American University; and Peyton McCrary of the University of South Alabama. 1 William G. Bean, "An Aspect of Know-Nothingism: The Immigrant and Slavery," South Atlantic Quarterly XXIII (Oct., 1924), 319-324; "Puritan Versus Celt: 1850-1860," New England Quarterly VII (Mar., 1934), 70-89; and "Party Transformation in Massachusetts with Special Reference to the Antecedents of Republicanism, 1848-1860" (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1922), 195-223; Oscar Handlin, Bostons Immigrants: A Study in Acculturation (New York, 1972, revised and enlarged edition), 178-206; Gilbert Osofsky, "Abolitionists, Irish Immigrants, and the Dilemmas of Romantic Nationalism," American Historical Review LXXX (Oct., 1975), 889-912. Fora provocative interpretation of the political realignment of the 1850's, see: Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York, 1978). Civil War History, Vol. XXVI, No. 2 Copyright ® 1980 by The Kent State University Press 0009-8078/80/2602-0002 $01.25/0 118CIVIL WAR HISTORY Irish to the Union cause and the participation ofmany ofthem in the war itself helped destroy some of the barriers that had separated them from Yankees. More importantly, immediately after the war the activities of Irish nationalists and the revitalization of the labor movement provided a common ground for discussion among Irishmen, Republicans, and labor reformers. Republican politicians, such as Benjamin F. Butler and Nathaniel P. Banks, joined the leaders of organized labor in recruiting Irish support. On the national level, the administration of Ulysses S. Grant actively sought the favor of Irish voters. As a consequence, according to David Montgomery, "Irish votes were not by definition Democratic" from 1866 to 1872.2 Did the assiduous efforts of many Massachusetts Republicans to woo Irish voters succeed, or did the Irish continue to favor the Democratic party throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction period? To what extent did the rise of an independent Labor Reform party in the postwar period place strains on the bonds between the Irish and their traditional allegiance to the Democratic party? In addition to traditional evidence, the use of ecological regression techniques makes it possible to evaluate the relative importance of the "Irish vote" in the coalitional support for the Republican, Labor Reform, and Democratic parties, during these crucial years of the Massachusetts party system. In the 1850's virtually every major political party, with the obvious exception of the Native Americans or Know-Nothings, sought at one time or another the support of the Irish. The migration of many Irish Catholics into what once had been the urban Whig strongholds of eastern Massachusetts created a peculiar political situation. An antiWhig coalition of Democrats...