- American Slavery, Irish Freedom: Abolition, Immigrant Citizenship, and the Transatlantic Movement for Irish Repeal
Slavery, Irish Repeal, Abolitionism, Daniel O'Connell, Nationalism, Catholicism
Angela Murphy joins a number of historians interested in the trans-Atlantic nature of early American nationalism. American Slavery, Irish Freedom interweaves nation-building in the young republic with the Irish repeal movement, galvanized by the Act of Union at the turn of the nineteenth century, which put to death governmental independence for the Irish. Irish agitation against union had a number of supporters in the United States—supporters who interpreted Irish repeal from within their own nationalistic framework. Repeal in America, in other words, was marbled together with the development of a uniquely North American concept of national identity. [End Page 732]
Although a dynamic cultural construction that shapes the identity of a particular community over a large geographic area, nationalism is at the same time fragile and subject to change. Certain ideas and movements have periodically tested the efforts to forge a culturally homogenous community. One leading issue that intensified competing nationalistic visions was that of slavery. Many believed that human chattel bondage was a danger to the nation, subject to the judgment of God, while others believed that consistent opposition to the institution would threaten to undo the Union. Supporters of Irish repeal in the United States distanced themselves from the antislavery movement, especially its more radical strand. Murphy sets out to consider why Irish American repealers were "so hostile to the antislavery movement" (1).
Murphy's history centers on the political activity of Daniel O'Connell, the central leader in the campaign for Irish nationalism, who integrated opposition to human chattel bondage with the Irish repeal movement. From the beginning, therefore, "repeal and abolition," Murphy writes, "grew together" (35). For O'Connell, it would have been inconsistent to support freedom in one case while ignoring bondage in another, as was clear from his support of the antislavery sentiments in the Address from the People of Ireland to Their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America, which challenged the hypocrisy of slavery "in a country that proclaimed respect for 'the natural, inalienable rights of man'" (51). Abolitionists, especially in the United States, circulated the Address hoping that American repealers too would join the cause of antislavery. One could make the case that O'Connell's interest in self-government for Ireland and by extension African Americans in the United State was not only trans-Atlantic but also transnational.
Yet compelling American repealers to join the antislavery cause proved difficult for abolitionists. To support abolition, a cause that many identified as not only inimical to the nation but even treasonous, would have been to nullify one's efforts to show national loyalty. The increased interest in repeal raised the concern among many other Americans that the movement "was part of a papal plot to destroy the American republic" (180). Showing one's civil loyalty, therefore, became an ever more sensitive issue given the increasingly hostility toward the Irish—especially Irish immigration—in the 1840s.
What is more, Irish Americans largely avoided antislavery because of its close ties to anti-Catholicism. A number of leading abolitionists—including George Bourne, Joshua Leavitt, Elijah Lovejoy, and Arthur [End Page 733] Tappan—linked southern slavery with Papal slavery. As understood in the minds of a number of contemporaries, the former enslaved the body; the later enslaved the soul. Eventually, as abolitionists had to confront the underlying racism among antislavery advocates, they also realized the need to deal with the virulent religious intolerance among their own. By the 1840s, for instance, leading immediatists sought to separate anti-Catholic hostilities from the cause of slavery. The question remains as to how successful radical abolitionists were in separating their fight for black civil rights from their hostility to popery. From Murphy's vantage point, the belief held by abolitionists that the Irish were "dupes" of the Catholic hierarchy reflected the broader anti-Catholicism in American culture. For other historians...