Nov 13, 2006

Green, Black, and White: A Brief Look at a Few Colors of the Revolutionary Atlantic

Left: Half-hanging of a suspected United Irishman by English troops, 1798 Left: Half-hanging of a suspected United Irishman by English troops, 1798

After the English put down the Irish Rebellion of 1798, an important destination for the outlawed United Irishmen was the newly independent United States.

While sharing with many revolutionary Americans a belief in republicanism and anti-monarchical philosophies, Irish republicans were far from welcome guests in the nascent United States. There was a clear anti-Irish bias already forming among the new American elite, and the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 reflects this predisposition. Whelan collected some of the most polemic attacks against the Irish by Federalist sympathizers:
William Cobbett described them as a “reckless and rebellious tribe of Jacobins,” “factious villains which Great Britain and Ireland have vomited from their shores.” A Federalist politician described Irish republicans in 1800 as “United Irishmen, freemasons, and the most God-provoking democrats on this side of hell.” In Congress in 1797, Congressman Harrison Gray Otis of Boston said that he did “not wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen nor the turbulent and disorderly of all parts of the world to come here with a view to disturb our tranquility.” 1

Left: Thomas Russell

The United Irishmen, however, also espoused beliefs antithetical to the commercial interests so dear to American Federalists. In his Letter to the People of Ireland (1796), Thomas Russell delineated a particular viewpoint that would surely be met with suspicion by the American elite:

Do they know that that horrid traffic [slavery] spreads its influence all over the globe; that it creates and perpetuates barbarism and misery, and prevents the spreading of civilization and religion, in which we profess to believe? Do they know that by it thousands and hundreds of thousands of these miserable Africans are dragged from their innocent families like the miserable defenders, transported to various places, and there treated with such a system of cruelty, torment, wickedness, and infamy, that it is impossible for language to adequately express its horror and guilt, and which would appear rather to be the work of wicked demons than of men.2
Left: 19th-century English portrayal of an Irishman as a subhuman, apelike creature Left: 19th-century English portrayal of an Irishman as a subhuman, apelike creature

Such rhetoric could hardly inspire the confidence of the leaders of a new nation in which perhaps as many as one million Africans were under bondage. The newly arrived Irish republicans – with their embrace of abolitionism – were seen by the American elite as potential fomenters of unrest, rather than as republican compatriots. Despite experiencing English racism themselves, United Irishmen who had immigrated to the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had not yet embraced the “whiteness” process of new immigrants described by historian David Roediger, and still adhered to the revolutionary notions of liberté, égalité, fraternité. 3

1 Whelan, Kevin. “The Green Atlantic: Radical reciprocities between Ireland and America in the Long Eighteenth Century,” in A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity, and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 228.
2 Russell, Thomas. A Letter to the People of Ireland (1796). Belfast.
3 See especially Roediger, David. Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White -The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs. New York: Basic Books, 2005.


historymike said...

Doing a little thinking out loud here, plus experimenting with footnotes.

Kathleen Marie said...

This is right up my interest alley. I LOVE the history of Ireland. Thanks for a great read!

microdot said...

Great Post, great subject! That's how my Fathers family ended up in America. The last name got changed over the years from an unpronouncable Celtic gargliing noise, but these are my people and I think rebellion is in the genes!

wjohnson said...

I have always been attracted to the Celtic / Nordic females and my wife is of Irish / German decent. I myself am of Scottish / German decent. You are correct that at one time the British did try to portray the Irish as “Ape” like humanoids. I will take that hot monkey love any day. I also like the fact that the Irish in the coalfields of Pennsylvania were the first to unionize as the “Molly McGuire’s.” Once they got to this country after being starved out and driven out by the British in control in Ireland, they knew they needed to take a stand and not take it anymore. When I want to just take time, unwind, and relax, I listen to Celtic music. When I am working in my wood shop, you will find me listening to the same Celtic music. Good posting!