‘Treat the coloured people as your equals’:
Charles Lenox Remond in Limerick and the failure of the Anti-Slavery Irish Address (1841)
Originally published in the Old Limerick Journal, №52, Winter 2017
“…slavery recedes, but the prejudice to which it has given birth remains stationary.” — Alexis de Tocqueville
Charles Lenox Remond’s family history, like that of countless other African American families, is one that is rooted in the struggle for freedom, equality and justice. His father John Remond, who was born in the Dutch slave colony of Curaçao in 1788, immigrated to the United States when he was just ten years of age. It was John’s mother, who apparently held the status of a free black person in Curaçao, that put him on board the Six Brothers brig to start his new life in America. While education is the specific reason offered by John Remond to explain his childhood migration from Curaçao, perhaps the slave revolt there in 1795 was also a factor. Members of the free black population played a part in both supporting the slave uprising and its subsequent violent suppression which have left them in a precarious position, distrusted by both the enslaved and slave-owners.
Once the Six Brothers landed in Salem, Massachusetts, the Master of the ship John Needham entrusted Remond into the care of his brother Isaac. Isaac Needham was a baker and John Remond worked for him as a delivery boy. John eventually became a hairdresser and caterer of some renown. He met his future wife, Nancy Lenox, also a free black, while training to be a hairdresser in Boston. Nancy Lenox was talented in the culinary arts; she later influenced their decision to get involved in the catering business. Both were active in the anti-slavery cause and in school desegregation campaigns. Their home was a busy ‘station’ on the ‘Underground Railroad’, acting as a safe house for fugitive slaves who were provided with ‘nourishment, clothing and shelter’. This activism influenced their children. Both their son Charles Lenox and daughter Sarah Parker grew up to become internationally respected anti-slavery lecturers and civil rights activists.
Charles Lenox Remond was born free in Salem, Massachusetts on the 1 February 1810. He joined the abolitionist movement in the early 1830s after attending one of William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery lectures. Garrison was the owner and editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, which Remond then began to support through promoting its circulation and sale. Garrison was a frequent visitor to the Remond home; indeed he had much to discuss here as Charles was a founding member of the New England Anti-Slavery Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society. Evidently Remond’s early exposure to abolitionism and hearing fugitive slaves tell of their experiences greatly informed his lifelong commitment to social justice.
An eloquent and powerful orator, Remond was employed as an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1838. He was the first paid African-American anti-slavery lecturer in the U.S. In one instance he ‘lectured in four different places on four successive evenings for one and a half hours each time’. One gets the sense from reading the text of his speeches that an immense and justifiable anger against racial prejudice was always simmering just below the surface. Arguably his strongest impulse to challenge the status quo was a reaction to his own personal experiences of racism.
In 1840 Remond was chosen to be one of the delegates representing the American Anti-Slavery Society at the inaugural World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. However, due to the sexist exclusion of female campaigners from active participation at the convention, Remond protested by refusing to be seated with the male delegates. In a display of solidarity he took his seat with the female abolitionists in the balcony. He explained that his trip to the convention had been sponsored by three different female anti-slavery societies and it was with ‘much sorrow’ that Remond recognised this prejudice at the heart of the anti-slavery movement in Britain. It was for this reason that he did not address the delegates until the convention ended. He was selected to follow Daniel O’Connell’s powerful address at the first annual meeting of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society at Exeter Hall on the 24 June 1841. O’Connell’s speech that day had a profound impact on Remond. Less than a week later he wrote to Charles B. Ray, the editor of the Colored American newspaper, wherein he surmised his experience in London. His new found awe of O’Connell is expressed as an epiphany.
My Friend, for thirteen years I have thought myself an abolitionist, but I had been in a measure mistaken, until I listened to the scorching rebukes of the fearless O’Connell, […] when before that vast assemblage, he quoted American publications, and alluded to the American declaration, and contrasted theory with practice; then I was moved to think, and feel, and speak [as an abolitionist]
Remond’s journey across the Atlantic to Britain had been a disturbing experience. He was forced to travel in the steerage of the ship due to his skin colour, but attending the meeting “more than compensated […] for the sacrifice and suffering”. Garrison wrote that once O’Connell’s speech finished there was “a storm of applause that almost shook the building to its foundations. The spectacle was sublime and heart-stirring beyond all power of description on my part”. Remond then embarked on an ambitious eighteen month speaking tour of Britain and Ireland to raise awareness of the horrors of slavery in the U.S. and to elicit transatlantic support for its complete abolition.
Remond in Ireland
After his extensive tour of Britain, Remond arrived in Dublin during the summer of 1841. This was a crucial part of the tour as there was a significant, and rapidly increasing, Irish population living in the United States. Remond was determined to influence them to oppose the slave system once they began their new life there. He was aware of the challenge that lay before him, and he was full of admiration and sympathy for the small anti-slavery groups toiling in Ireland. Shortly before arriving he wrote from Newcastle how ‘nobly do our Irish friends contest for truth and justice’.
His lectures in Dublin were a success, garnering large crowds. On some occasions ‘numbers had to go away, being unable to gain admittance’. As part of a theme that ran through the content of his lectures in Ireland, he alluded to O’Connell’s leadership on the slavery issue, describing him as a “good and mighty man, who has put himself forth the undaunted and fearless champion of liberty and rights of man in every clime the sun adorns”. Leaving Dublin, he lectured in Wexford, Waterford, and by August he had arrived in Limerick city accompanied by Richard D. Webb where they were ‘kindly received’ by Benjamin C. Fisher, a local merchant.
Richard Davis Webb was a Quaker, a prominent abolitionist, publisher, pacifist, temperance advocate and bookseller. He was educated at the famous Quaker school at Ballitore, County Kildare. Webb described this school as “a little Quaker Athens”. He was a critical thinker from an early age, and he unafraid to challenge orthodoxies. He was admonished on one occasion by his former schoolteacher Mary Leadbetter to be more careful in expressing his frank opinions about the Quaker religion. In 1837 he co-founded the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society (H.A.S.S.) along with Richard Allen (Quaker) and James Haughton (Unitarian).
These three social justice activists were labeled the ‘antieverythingarians’ by the Dublin press, which as Riach aptly commented, is ‘curiously inappropriate for men with such a positive conception of what sort of society they would like to live in’. Webb represented H.A.S.S. as a delegate at the aforementioned World Anti-Slavery Convention alongside his brothers Thomas and James, not to mention other influential members such as Daniel O’Connell and R.R. Madden. He wholeheartedly subscribed to his abolitionism, and after many years of correspondence Webb was in turn highly regarded and befriended by William Lloyd Garrison.
Among the Quakers resident in Limerick at this time were some committed anti-slavery advocates. Most active among them was the Fisher family of Limerick. These Fishers were relatives and friends of Richard D. Webb, his brother Thomas was married to Mary Fisher and his first cousin once removed, James Webb married Mary’s sister, Susanna Fisher. Mary and Susanna were the daughters of Benjamin Clarke Fisher and Mary Fisher (née Unthank), successful linen merchants in Limerick, who lived at Lifford House. The Fishers had eleven daughters and two sons and at least four of their daughters were involved in abolitionism.
Benjamin C. Fisher supported the anti-slavery movement for decades. At a Quaker meeting in Limerick in 1821 he was selected alongside William Alexander to collect subscriptions in support of the ‘total abolition of the slave trade’. The subscriptions collected by Fisher and Alexander were forwarded to another Irish abolitionist, Joseph Bewley of Dublin. Twenty copies of a pamphlet ‘respecting the present state of the slave trade’ posted from Dublin were also distributed at this meeting. This is one the earliest examples of organised anti-slavery activity in Limerick.
The Fisher family, like the Remond family before them, followed their parents’ example. Three of Benjamin’s daughters, Susanna, Rebecca and Charlotte were named by Richard D. Webb as being founding members of the Limerick Anti-Slavery Society, an auxiliary of the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society, and like H.A.S.S. they were also in league with Garrisonian abolitionists in the U.S. Another Limerick Quaker, Samuel Evans of Corbally Cottage, was the Society’s secretary. The Limerick Anti-Slavery Society had links with the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and for many years the Fishers sent over presents and homemade gifts to be sold at Anti-Slavery Bazaars for the purpose of raising funds to support their efforts. Rebecca Fisher also married a fellow Irish abolitionist and member of H.A.S.S, Robert Rowen Ross Moore in 1845.
The Fishers’ anti-slavery interest and support led to the development of transatlantic relationships between them and like-minded progressives; this widened their perspective on the world as well as providing a form of escapism. In their view, the culture to openly challenge social and institutional norms which led to anti-slavery views was uncommon in Limerick at this time. Underlining this, and possibly also alluding to the social dominance of the Church of Ireland and Roman Catholicism, Rebecca and Susanna Fisher wrote to Maria West Chapman how:
We live in a land of apparent freedom — but alas; how chained in its most important aspect — mind is held in bondage and the chains are held sacred…but the prospect is different when we look across the waters that connect us with you — in America we see light breaking.
In compliment to such sentiments, another Fisher family in Limerick was seen as an oasis of intellectual activity. Gerald Griffin, the novelist, poet and playwright, addressed the then Quaker family of James Joseph and Lydia Fisher of Richmond as ‚ ’dear people, all of you’ who were to him, ‘a literary oasis in what I thought a desert of utter and irreclaimable dullness! So much for my native city’. These Fishers were supporters of the anti-slavery movement, although in a more passive sense. Thomas Fisher, a brother of James Joseph Fisher, was educated at Ballitore and lived for many years with Richard and Hannah Webb in Dublin. It is thus not a surprise that Charles Lenox Remond’s first lecture in Limerick was held in the Quaker’s meeting house, which was then located on Cecil Street.
Present at this lecture was a journalist with the Limerick Reporter newspaper. The Reporter’s editorial stance was Catholic, pro-repeal, pro-O’Connell and anti-slavery. It was the only newspaper in Limerick to cover Remond’s visit, with the more established and Unionist Limerick Chronicle ignoring these events. Remond was introduced to the audience by Samuel Evans and Richard D. Webb and at eight o’clock on Monday 23 August 1841 this ‘young man of colour’ delivered a lecture on the cruelties, injustices and iniquities of American slavery’.
The meeting was attended by a dense crowd of men and women from across the religious and political spectrum of Limerick. The Limerick Reporter was impressed with Remond’s ‘address, manner, accent and delivery’ as he outlined the inherent wrong of slavery. It also reflected that some of the interest generated in Limerick by Remond’s visit was because ‘the subject is a novel one in this country’, but reassures that it is‚ not the less important or interesting, because of its novelty’. This introductory lecture was general and Remond’s subsequent lectures in Limerick concentrated on the specifics of slavery. They were held at a different venue; the Independent Chapel, located at 6 Bedford Row.
Remond hosted by Limerick’s Congregationalists
The Independent Chapel in Limerick was described by a contemporary as a ‘plain substantial building, well suited for the purpose for which it is intended’. It was a Congregationalist place of worship. Its minister at that time was Dr. Townley. Congregationalists, like the Quakers, have a notable tradition of anti-slavery advocacy which goes back to the eighteenth century. Rev. Samuel Hopkins, a Congregational minister from Newport, Rhode Island denounced the institution of slavery in 1776 when he published A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans. His abolitionist sermons, based on Isaiah 1:15, inform those who owned or traded slaves that:
“Even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong.”
Members of the New England Congregational Church helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Josiah Conder, a Congregationalist from London, was a founding member of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and helped organise the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. Such anti-slavery views were also shared by the serving Independent ministers in Limerick, with the result that the Independent chapel was the most popular city venue for visiting anti-slavery lecturers for the next fifteen years.
Rev. Charles Gostling Townley was originally from Ramsgate, Kent. He was a Congregational minister in Limerick from 1816 until 1844 and was a lifelong member of the Irish Evangelical Society. It is not difficult to imagine how Rev. Townley became politicised on the subject of slavery. Congregationalists in Britain were among the most active, and yet most overlooked, Christian denominations pushing for abolition in the nineteenth century. An anti-slavery article entitled ‘Christianity and Slavery Contrasted’ appeared in The Evangelical Magazine in 1832, and perhaps more pertinently, Josiah Conder addressed the Irish Evangelical Society on the subject of slavery at their Annual General Meeting in 1833. The Evangelical Magazine was a vocal supporter of the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act that same year, putting forward the radical suggestion that instead of compensating the slave owners, the British government should instead give state compensation to the slave ‘for his loss of liberty and imprisonment in a strange land’.
And so at Dr. Townley’s Independent chapel, on Wednesday evening the 25 August, Remond delivered his second lecture in Limerick city. Word had evidently spread around Limerick about the black abolitionists’ previous performance and so:
the house was thronged in every part, even the stairs leading to the galleries […] were crowded with anxious groups, impatient to hear the gifted tongue of this interesting person.
The Limerick Reporter suggested that ‘the ‘popular error’ of linking skin colour with intelligence was‚ entirely demolished by the undoubted talent and acute and tutored judgment of Mr. Remond’. This lecture emphasised the contradiction at the heart of the United States, with Remond exposing the “incongruities and inconsistencies of the Americans in such a point of view as to disabuse the most skeptical and disarm the most prejudiced in their favour” with slavery being “the ugliest blot on the history of nations”.
During this lecture that Remond once again made an allusion “in forcible and complimentary terms to the energetic exertions of O’Connell, to put an end to this cruelty by the thrilling power of his unmatched eloquence”. His lecture lasted over an hour and a half and Remond ended it by confirming a third lecture on the 27 August. The Limerick Reporter, comparing the Repeal movement to the Anti-Slavery cause, called on ’every honest Christian patriot’ to attend. Remond’s fourth and final lecture in Limerick was again held at the Independent chapel on Tuesday the 7 September 1841. According to Richard Webb, this was “the most crowded and the most attentive meeting” he had attended up to this point. The Limerick Reporter was effusive in its praise, stating that it was ‘one of the most powerful, eloquent, and effective [lectures] delivered in this city’. Remond in return singled out the “independence and humanity” of the Limerick Reporter for “noticing” his lectures. In a steely reference to the Limerick Chronicle, he said that he was mindful of the other newspaper in Limerick which decided to pass over his exertions in silence. It was then that Benjamin C. Fisher proposed the following resolution which was seconded by acclamation:
Resolved — That it is the opinion of this meeting, from the facts laid before it by Mr. Remond, in his various lectures, that but little general information exists amongst the people of this country in reference to the workings of the horrible and inhuman system of Slavery; and that best thanks be given to the Limerick Anti-Slavery Society for having brought Mr. Remond to this city to expose the iniquity of a system disgraceful to a generation confessed enlightened, and that we pledge ourselves to aid in forwarding the extinction of this degrading and unchristian system by every legitimate means in our power.
The resolution was passed ‘amid the loud and long-continued applause of a crowded and most respectable audience’. This acknowledgement by the Limerick Anti-Slavery Society that most of their neighbours were unaware of the depravities associated with chattel slavery helps to explain their on-going work.
Remond in County Clare
Charles Lenox Remond’s stay in Limerick was not all business. The Webb family visited the seaside town of Kilkee each summer, meeting up with their Limerick cousins, the Fishers and the Goughs. On this occasion Richard Webb decided to take Remond along to show him another side to Ireland. What ensued is a rare occasion of a free black man, conversing, and interacting with rural people of mid-nineteenth century Ireland. Webb describes it thus,
..a piper happened also to be of the party. He carried a set of Highland pipes, and such a wild halloo as his music and Remond’s aspect set up in this primitive district we travelled, nobody could conceive. Men, women, and children followed us along the cliffs, along the roads and into the cabins — for there are no houses. The people are chiefly remarkable for beautiful hazel eyes, fairly divided among the sexes — and a great profusion of lovely faces among the women — bare legs, battered garments, great poverty, wonderful good humour, an original simplicity and ignorance of the rest of the world.
The timing of Remond’s visit to west Clare coincided with the implementation of the hated Poor Law Act. This Act sought to centralise the relief for the destitute, forcing the rural poor, when desperate, into towns and cities. It was ostensibly a cost saving measure, hoping to reduce the ‘burden’ on ratepayers. The extremely wealthy MP for Limerick, William Roche, voted for its introduction (albeit with some reservations) with his party leader, Daniel O’Connell, voting against it. Limerick’s workhouse opened its doors in May 1841.
Webb and Remond’s relationship
Richard D. Webb publicly praised Charles Lenox Remond’s efforts in Ireland, describing his tour as a “triumphant one” that would be “long remembered”. But afterwards he was disappointed that Remond did not correspond with anti-slavery activists in Ireland who had sent him letters but received no reply. In a letter to Maria Chapman, sent six years after Remond left Ireland, Webb inquired how Remond was ‘in mind, body and estate’ as ‘we never hear anything of him, from himself’. While Remond did not keep in touch with Webb, he was greatly appreciative of his efforts and hospitality. Writing to Nathaniel P. Rogers from Richard Allen’s home in Dublin, Remond felt that Rogers was:
too well acquainted & appreciate the Dublin friends [Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society] too highly to make it necessary that I speak or write their praise….in fact no language could be in too high commendation of such men & families as those of Richard Allen, James Haughton, Richard D. & James H. Webb. May their numbers increase.
These relationship issues aside, Webb wrote to Garrison how ‘no one has ever yet done more as a lecturer, [on] behalf of your [abolitionist] efforts in America’ as Remond. There is no record of any letters from Limerick which refer to the lasting effect Remond had on anti-slavery activity there, but if reports of abolitionists in Cork and Wexford are an indication, then his visit was a boon to their efforts. The Cork Ladies Anti-Slavery Society enthused how the ‘lectures of our friend Charles L. Remond have been productive of much good; no one could listen unmoved to his appeals’. They believed that if Remond had visited years before then he would have long dispelled the ignorance ‘with which we were surrounded’ and that the sympathy of the Irish people ‘would not have been so long withheld’.
A note of realism however is struck by Sarah Poole, a Quaker, abolitionist and also a cousin of Richard D. Webb, who wrote from Wexford on how Charles Lenox Remond’s ‘eloquent appeals’ there had ‘aroused transient zeal’ in support of the cause but that this had ‘quickly vanished’ two years later. She explained this by referring to the Irish as ‘mercurial’ and that perseverance was important and added ‘we must only hope that as information spreads, hearts will be gained — and hearts can never desert it, until its triumph is complete’.
Webb’s letters to Garrison also offer a glimpse into the mental state of Remond as he toured Ireland as well as an insight into the psychology of the Irish audiences he met. Remond was evidently weighed down by the pressures of such an extensive tour, homesickness, financial difficulties and his constant guardedness against racism and discrimination. His lectures in Limerick were without opposition or controversy but Webb warned against drawing a general conclusion from this:
Remond has, hitherto, had no battle to meet in Ireland — neither unkindness, nor persecution…Prejudice and ignorance have barred his way in England. The same elements exist in Ireland, but they have not been suffered to come in his way. He is apt to trouble himself with the apprehension of evils he has not encountered [in Ireland]. I wish he would let the day take care for itself and he need not be so depressed as I see him at times.
The frank acknowledgement by Webb that the ‘same elements exist in Ireland’ is an important detail that challenges the popular sociological assertion that the Irish had to consciously “became white” upon landing in America. The reality is that they were always legally and socially ‘white’, meaning ‘not-black’, and their socialisation in the U.S. was them asserting this identity in this context for perhaps the first time. As Eric Foner put it:
No one had tried to prevent Irish immigrants from voting on the grounds that they were not white, hauled them into court for marrying white persons, or claimed that the law prevented them from becoming naturalized citizens. Immigrant groups suffered severe discrimination, but being discriminated against did not make them non-white.
Foner argues that we should resist the “elevation of whiteness to an all-purpose explanation for political, social, and cultural behavior” as it ignores the fact that the ‘white’ category “contains within itself many kinds of inequality. Not all white people share the same interests or class status. One can be white and still disempowered in the United States”.
Webb’s account of Remond’s tour also reveals that they did meet some general resistance to the progressive politics associated with abolitionism. In Wexford ‚some slight opposition’ was shown at one of the meetings and in Waterford a few ‘high professors’ attacked Remond for being associated with Garrison and other ‘pestilent fellows’ for their ‘strange doctrines’ of women’s rights and non-resistance. Webb felt that many in Ireland struggled to understand the principle of chattel slavery. This undermined their efforts to garner sympathy for their cause. Remond was even asked “what are going to do for the white slave?” during one of his lectures in Dublin. Webb explained that Irish people were “so used to abject want and enormous luxury, that slavery is not readily looked on so much in the robbery of rights, as a privation of advantages” and thus
the wickedness of man’s holding property in man is forgotten in the description of the supply of food, the imposition of labour, the quantity of clothing, and the animal wants of the man….Slavery being unknown amongst us, we are tempted to confound it in our minds with the lowest position of humanity with which we are familiar. This is perfectly natural, but extremely fallacious.
Remond carries the ‘Irish Address’ across the Atlantic
The most important aspect of Remond’s time in Ireland was his role in collecting signatures in support of the anti-slavery ‘Address from the people of Ireland to their countrymen and countrywomen in America’. This Address, which was drafted by Richard D. Webb and James Haughton, was eventually signed by over sixty thousand Irish people, the majority of which were Catholic. The list included the names of Daniel O’Connell, Fr. Theobald Mathew, the famous temperance campaigner, and the celebrated Catholic abolitionist Dr. R.R. Madden. Displaying the close relationship between the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society and the Repeal movement, O’Connell had allowed his Repeal agents to also collect signatures at their political rallies. The Address implored the Irish in the U.S. to ‘treat the colored people as you equals, as brethren’ and warned that ‘none can be neutral’ on the issue of slavery. The dual cause of Repeal and Abolitionism appears have been taken up with enthusiasm in Ireland, and the working classes in Ireland were now engaged, albeit briefly, in both campaigns. The Dublin correspondent of Garrison’s The Liberator newspaper posted this anecdote of how:
A young lad, about thirteen, had been most indefatigable in collecting signatures. I heard the other day, he was going from house to house in the more genteel neighbourhoods, rapping at hall doors . . . the other day he came for five sheets more. He told me he was going to school the next week, and that before he left, he must do all he could to liberate the slaves. … Another young man brought me in four sheets, containing amongst other names, those of forty-three Roman Catholic clergymen, of whom one is a bishop, and eleven parish priests.
Another source, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote to Richard Allen that he had collected the signatures of one Catholic bishop and seventy two priests who signed with the ‘greatest willingness’ once told of the purport of the Address. While there was far less at stake, the support of the Catholic clergy in Ireland is interesting because of the belligerent reaction the Address provoked among many of their counterparts in the U.S.
While the petition roll no longer survives, it is almost certain that it contained hundreds of signatures from those who attended Remond’s lectures in Limerick. The Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society reported that ‘names were being rapidly obtained’ at the lectures and that they had collected 10,000 signatures by October.
Remond carried the Address across the Atlantic and presented it to the great anti-slavery meeting in Faneuil Hall, Boston on 28 January 1842. When it was unrolled, it stretched spectacularly from the speaker’s platform to the entrance door of the hall.It was received ‘by the large assemblage with cheers and loud acclamations of applause’. There were over 4,000 present and many stood up to respond to this Address. Garrison, referring to the “[petition] roll which lies here before me”, stated it was a “gift of glorious Old Ireland to America” and “an incendiary document” that would “burn up nothing but slavery.”
A common theme on the night was the parallel drawn between anti-slavery and the Irish Repeal movement. The abolitionist Col. J.P. Miller of Vermont stated that:
[Ireland] lies near the heart of all who love liberty, for she is oppressed. Nearer still must she be to our hearts, when we see her amid all her own toils and sufferings for relief, raising a voice of cheer and sympathy for those who groan beneath a still deadlier despotism..[…]..I care not who turn their faces from me at the announcement [that] I am a Repealer.
He then turned towards the section of the vast hall where loud applause was emanating in response to his pro-Repeal words. This section of the crowd was apparently made up of Irish or Irish-American attendees. Addressing them directly he said:
I have Irish blood in my veins, and I know the condition of your oppressed land, and I trust the day of her redemption draws night. I know your Daniel O’Connell. In all the earth there is not a greater man than he. [Miller then pointed to the Address] He speaks to you tonight. And with his voice have sixty thousand Irishmen united theirs, adjuring you to act with the American abolitionists, and liberate the American slave.
The Irish in the crowd, which the abolitionist Anne Warren Weston aloofly described as ‘peasants’ because of their dress, responded with vigour; they shouted “We will! We will!” George Bradburn, was next introduced to the crowd by Garrison. Bradburn, a Unitarian minister and abolitionist, referred to the ‚seven thousand slaves in the District of Columba’ and called on ‘every Irishman’ to listen to O’Connell and never ‘vote for a man who sustains slavery’ and that by doing so ‘will sweep away this disgrace from the capital of your adopted land’. James Cannings Fuller, who was pro-Irish independence and an active abolitionist, then addressed the meeting, stating that he knew:
what feelings and sufferings bring an Irishman to America. What did you come from the other side for? Oppression drove you here, and you came for universal liberty!
He expressed hope that the Irish in America would labour for the anti-slavery cause. At this point in the proceedings an unnamed Irishman came up to the platform and shook Fuller’s hand. “I knew you would!” Fuller replied, amidst loud cheering. Four months later, James Canning Fuller was no longer so enthusiastic about widespread Irish American support for abolition. In April 1842 he wrote that:
…however true to liberty an Irishman’s heart is, when it beats on his own native soil…on his emigration to America, circumstances and influences by which he becomes surrounded, in too many cases warp his judgment, and bias his heart.
Much to the abolitionist’s dismay, the famous Address and its sixty thousand signatures, was opposed by influential Irish-American political leaders and clergy. The Archbishop of New York, John Hughes of County Tyrone, denounced the Address as fraudulent and claimed that it if it was genuine it was an unwanted “interference” in U.S. affairs. He wrote a counter Address that declared that ‘it is the duty of every naturalised Irishman to resist and repudiate the Address with indignation’.
Hughes even brought the matter up with Daniel O’Connell in person, castigating his outspoken views on slavery in the U.S. which he felt were “too severe upon an institution for which the present generation, or present government of America, is by no means responsible — I mean slavery.” O’Connell replied: “that it would strange indeed, if I should not be the friend of the slave throughout the world — I, who was born a slave myself”. But O’Connell’s sympathy for the plight of the slave did not convince Hughes.
In support of Fuller’s view, that a man’s judgement may be affected by living in a state where slavery is normalised, Hughes had grown more defensive of slavery as the years passed. Hughes wrote a poem The Slave in 1824 which condemned slavery, and yet during a visit to Cuba in 1853 he was an apologist for slavery believing ‘that emancipation would be a very bad thing for the negroes as well as for the planters’. His view was generally representative of the Catholic hierarchy in the U.S. at this time, which in general, ‘defended property rights over labour, including the right to own slaves’.
Despite Pope Gregory XVI’s condemnation of the slave trade in 1839, there is no account of a Catholic bishop in the U.S. denouncing slavery while it remained legal, ergo none called for its abolition. During the New York Draft Riots of 1863, which included the lynching of African-Americans by Irish-Americans, attacks on the homes of abolitionists and the destruction of the Colored Orphan Asylum, an ailing Archbishop Hughes attempted to quell the violence by addressing a crowd of over five thousand people. At one point during his speech a person in the crowd shouted up to him “Let the nigger stay in the South!”. Hughes did not respond to this directly but instead told the crowd that their grievances were temporary. The following day he wrote to Secretary of State Seward and expressed the view that the ‘misguided’ rioters were against the move by ‘a few here and elsewhere’ to make ‘black labour equal to white labour’. This contrasts with the statement by the French-born Bishop of Cleveland, Louis Amadeus Rappe, who called specifically on Irish Catholics to obey the law and to:
..Not ill-treat the colored people. A colored man had as much right to live and to labour for his living as a white man had, and their right must be respected. It was cowardly and sinful to molest these people because their skin was of a different colour.
During the American Civil War, Hughes called on his fellow Catholics to “pray to God that it be brought to an end”, yet we do not find a similar call from him in relation to the emancipation of slaves. Theodore Allen’s research posits that the ‘labour competition’ explanation for the anti-black violence committed during the 1863 riot is not a sufficient historical explanation, but rather the repetition of the self-justification offered by the perpetrators themselves. Despite immense competition for jobs between the various groups of European immigrants, none were lynched, set on fire, or collectively punished in this way, this often. The most plausible explanation for the racial violence appears to have been racism, encouraged and inflamed by the same intolerant anti-emancipation Copperhead press as well as by prominent Irish-American leaders in the U.S. Both had previously attacked the abolitionist Address and they now wished to uphold, via the pro-immigrant pro-slavery Democrat party, the white supremacist status quo for their own benefit.
It is useful to note that at the time of these riots the Cincinnati Telegraph was the only Catholic newspaper in the U.S. that welcomed Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation. At the other extreme, the New York Freeman’s Journal and Catholic Register, [a newspaper popular with the Irish American population in New York] called for organised violence in response to the draft and the emancipation of slaves. During the riots it told its readers that ‘those [negroes] that float hither from the South’ should be ‘driven away, imprisoned, or exterminated’. Some of their readers duly obliged. This disgraceful editorial was at the extreme end of Democratic rhetoric which for the previous few years had warned white labourers in New York that free blacks would stream north and take their jobs. But we also need to be careful in how we remember this dark chapter in the history of the Irish diaspora and not use too broad a brush stroke. Among those attempting to suppress the Draft Riots were many Irishmen serving as police officers and soldiers who undoubtedly shot and killed many of their rioting countrymen. They were also among those lynched by the Irish mob, as in the gruesome death of Colonel Henry F. O’Brien of the 11th New York Infantry. Irish fire-fighters worked to put out the flames across the city and one group of Irish street-car drivers led by Paddy McCaffrey helped to secure an isolated group of children who escaped the burning ‘Colored Orphanage’, and despite being pelted with stones by the rioters, escorted them to safety.
Politically, the majority of Repeal associations rejected the call to ally with abolitionists, stating that slavery was constitutional, and that abolitionism was a plot by the British to damage the unity of the United States. Garrison wrote to Webb shortly after the unveiling of the Irish Address and he sorrowfully described how ‘Irish papers in Boston sneer at the Address, and denounce it and the abolitionists in true pro-slavery style. I fear they will keep the great mass of your countrymen here from uniting with us’. While the anti-slavery address failed to fulfill its primary purpose, the historical record should not omit or downplay such a unique message of transatlantic solidarity between the politically oppressed and the enslaved.
Also present at the Anti-Slavery meeting at Faneuil Hall that evening, was a fugitive slave named Frederick Douglass. Douglass addressed the crowd, in dramatic fashion “I stand here a slave…my back is scarred by the lash”. He proceeded to deliver a short speech on what he called the “mockery of religion” that was preached in the Southern states. Afterwards Garrison drew a direct analogy between the life of Frederick Douglass and the history of Ireland. Slave-owners, he said, made the argument that “slaves cannot take care of themselves” but “you have listened to one of their victims tonight…is it your opinion that he can take care of himself?” Shouts of “Yes!” were heard in reply. “Then he does not need their whips, and chains, and branding irons, and slave laws to help him”. Garrison then made the same argument with respect to Ireland:
England, in true slaveholding style, says that Ireland cannot take care of herself, and therefore she will look after the interests of the Emerald Isle. But Ireland has about made up her mind, and she will no longer be the vassal of England, to be subjected to famine, oppression and misrule.
Frederick Douglass was to become arguably the most famous and influential slave in American history. He was also the next black abolitionist lecturer to visit Limerick in 1845.
If you wish to support my work, you can make a donation here.
References/citations available in the print edition of this article.