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  • Silk-Stocking Sympathy:American Whig Rhetoric and the Irish Famine
  • James M. Farrell (bio)

On 11 November 1844 J. W. Mighels of Portland, Maine, wrote a letter to Henry Clay, who had just been defeated in the presidential election. Mighels styled himself a "native born Whig" and blamed Clay's loss in Maine on "an army of Irish paupers, set on and marsheled [sic] by their infernal priest."1 It was a view widely shared among members of the Whig Party, who felt the sting of defeat to James Polk and the Democrats. Clay's own running mate Theodore Frelinghuysen attributed the Whig electoral downfall to an "alliance of the foreign vote and that most impracticable of all organizations, the abolitionists." The Irish immigrant vote in New York City, he said, "was tremendous," and "it is an alarming fact that this foreign vote has decided the great questions of American policy—and counteracted a nation's gratitude."2

Clay lost the 1844 presidential election by a little more than 39,000 votes. More importantly, he lost electoral-college votes in several states like New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Maine, and Michigan that had been won by the Whigs in 1840. In the earlier election William Henry Harrison carried nineteen states for the Whig ticket. Clay and the Whigs won only eleven states in the subsequent presidential election. Of course, there are many reasons why any particular election turns out the way it does: the candidates are different, the issues are different, the electorate is different. In 1844 American voters were concerned about the annexation of Texas, the dispute with [End Page 206] Great Britain over the Oregon Territory, and the growing influence of antislavery sentiment in an American politics that was becoming increasingly sectional.3 But the 1840s also saw a surge in immigration, particularly among the Germans and the Irish, most of whom were also Catholic. At the beginning of the nineteenth century about half-a-million Irish had settled in the United States. By 1845 another one million Irish immigrants had made America their home.4 Thus, even before the Great Famine, the Irish had become a potent political force in America, particularly in the urban areas of the eastern seaboard.

Throughout the nineteenth century, and especially as their numbers grew, the Irish overwhelmingly favored the Democratic Party, and thus Irish political influence posed an existential threat to the Whig Party.5 Irish alignment with the Democratic Party is not difficult to understand. From its formative days as the coalesced opposition to Andrew Jackson, the Whig Party sought to be the conservative force in American politics. They were the party of business and wealth, and the party of moral reform. The Whigs attracted most of their support from the established ranks of middle- and upper-class American Protestants. They were, as one historian suggested, "anglophile elites."6 Although not all Whigs were bigots, the Whig Party had a virulent anti-Catholic element that continually fed nativist sentiment within its ranks. Most northern Whigs were also antislavery, a position that [End Page 207] put them at odds with Irish voters who mostly opposed the abolition of slavery, and who consistently expressed hostility toward both British and American abolitionists.7 From the Irish perspective the Whigs were "the party of Yankee Protestants and British-American immigrants," whereas the Democrats were more welcoming to Irish newcomers and more tolerant of their religion.8 Democrats portrayed Whigs as an elitist association of "narrow-minded, silk-stocking patricians bent on telling other people how to behave."9

For obvious reasons, elitist attitudes compounded with nativist sentiments and religious bigotry cannot form the foundation of a successful national political strategy, as Henry Clay and the Whigs had learned. "There can be no doubt of the greatness of the evil of this constant manufacture of American citizens out of foreign emigrants," Clay wrote to John Crittenden after his election loss. The most recent Irish immigrants, he thought, were "incapable of justly appreciating the duties incident to the new character which they assume."10 Indeed, during the 1844 election postmortem, "the belief that Clay was denied the presidency by the votes of immigrant Catholics became...


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