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  • The Transatlantic Roots of Irish American Anti-Abolitionism, 1843–1859
  • Ian Delahanty (bio)

That most Irish immigrants opposed both abolitionist reformers and anti-slavery politicians in the antebellum era was beyond dispute to contemporaries in all three camps. As early as 1842, the abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison perceived and made it his mission to disrupt “a stupendous conspiracy . . . between the leading Irish Demagogues, the leading pseudo democrats, and the southern slaveholders.” More than a decade later, a Know Nothing Party–affiliated newspaper in Concord, New Hampshire, blamed “the ignorance and superstition of a half a million semi-civilized Irish voters” for the electoral successes of proslavery politicians. Irish American newspaper editors disputed the tenor if not the specific complaint in these accusations. In 1856, the New York Irish-American cheerfully acknowledged that “Irish emigrants join the Democratic Party and take sides against abolitionists” before defending its readers against abolitionists’ accusations that immigrants frequently and wantonly assaulted African Americans.1 Scholarship on the antislavery movement, the antebellum sectional crisis, and Irish immigration in the Civil War era echoes the contemporary consensus that Irish Americans were foes to abolitionist reform and antislavery politics.2

Historians are far from unanimous, however, in explaining why Irish Americans were so singularly hostile to all shades of antislavery. Immigrants’ fears of labor competition from freed slaves, their purported need to establish a white racial identity, their attachment to the proslavery Democratic Party, and their receptiveness to the influence of a proslavery American Catholic hierarchy have all weighed heavily in the discussion.3 Cumulatively, these explanations interpret Irish American opposition to antislavery as a product of the social, political, and cultural influences in America that shaped the contours of Irish immigrants’ lives. Such an interpretation is useful in highlighting the forces that acted on Irish Americans as they encountered the sectional politics and nascent industrial capitalist economy of antebellum America. But it can also convey the impression [End Page 164] that immigrants arrived in the United States as blank slates, whose views on the major social and political questions of the day would be etched out by priests and ward bosses. Yet studies of Irish Americans’ involvement in Jacksonian-era politics, participation in the Civil War, and resistance to exploitative labor conditions have shown that immigrants brought certain ideas and practices with them from Ireland. Under the right circumstances, immigrants’ backgrounds in Ireland or the connections they maintained with their native land informed the ways they adjusted to life in the United States.4

While Irish history has featured prominently in more recent works on Irish immigrants and antislavery, the pre-famine era dominates the scholarship. In the years just prior to the Great Irish Potato Famine (1845–54), the revered Irish politician Daniel O’Connell insisted that the Irish on both sides of the Atlantic—but especially Irish Americans who supported his efforts to win Irish political autonomy from Great Britain—make common cause with abolitionists. The historian Angela Murphy explains that Irish Americans rejected O’Connell’s antislavery pleas in order to demonstrate their bona fides as respectable American citizens who would not be beholden to foreign influences. On the eve of the famine migration, then, the demands of loyalty to their adopted country led Irish immigrants to spurn antislavery appeals from Ireland. Other works on the pre-famine period similarly emphasize a contrast between the popularity of antislavery in O’Connell’s Ireland and an anti-abolitionist consensus among the American Irish.5

While most Irish immigrants remained steadfastly opposed to antislavery throughout the antebellum era, the argument here is that the basis of Irish American anti-abolitionism shifted in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Unlike in the pre-famine period, during and after the famine Irish Americans articulated their criticisms of antislavery not only with reference to their circumstances in the United States but also with reference to their Irish backgrounds and the interests of Irish people on both sides of the Atlantic. In other words, Irish American anti-abolitionism became as much Irish as it was American, a marked change from the pre-famine era when O’Connell had emphasized opposition to all forms of oppression as a pillar of...


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