In 1842, Irish immigrants in Schuylkill County began an international war of words over slavery in America

Rage brought together a group of Irish immigrants at the Pottsville home of Edward O’Connor on the afternoon of March 1, 1842. Their meeting that Tuesday afternoon sparked an international war of words that spilled onto newspaper pages across the world, pitting Irish emigres in the Coal Region against their countrymen in Ireland and the leader of Ireland’s Catholic majority – Daniel O’Connell. The issue that stoked this international incident: slavery in America and equality for African Americans. 

Branding Slaves
An illustration from the 1840 “Anti-Slavery Almanac” showing cruelty toward slaves in the American South.

This situation began when an address was read before an anti-slavery convention at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts on January 28, 1842. The “Address of the People of Ireland to their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America” was signed by Daniel O’Connell, Father Theobald Matthew, R.R. Madden, and 60,000 other Irishmen. Their address was a fiery salvo at the institution of slavery in the United States of America. This was nothing less than three of the most prominent and well-respected men in Ireland, with tens of thousands of others, taking a firm stand against slavery on the western shores of the Atlantic. 

faneuil-hall-inside
Boston’s Faneuil Hall in 1845 (Boston Public Library)

Their address read as follows: 

Dear Friends:
You are at a great distance from your native land! A wide expanse of water separates you from the beloved country of your birth — from us and from the kindred whom you love, and who love you, and pray for your happiness and prosperity in the land of your adoption.

We regard America with feelings of admiration: we do not look upon her as a strange land, nor upon her people as aliens from our affections. The power of steam has brought us nearer together; it will increase the intercourse between us, so that the character of the Irish people and of the American people must in future be acted upon by the feelings and dispositions of each.

The object of this address is to call your attention to the subject of slavery in America — that foul blot upon the noble institution and the fair fame of your adopted country. But for this one stain, America would indeed be a land worthy your adoption; but she will never be the glorious country that her free Constitution designed her to be, so long as her soil is polluted by the foot-prints of a single slave.

Slavery is the most tremendous invasion of the natural, inalienable rights of man, and of some of the noblest gifts of God, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What a spectacle does America present to the people of the earth! A land of professing Christian republicans, uniting their energies for the oppression and degradation of three millions of innocent human beings, the children of one common Father, who suffer the most grievous wrongs and the utmost degradation, for no crime of their ancestors or their own! Slavery is a sin against God and man. All who are not for it must be against it. None can be neutral. We entreat you to take the part of justice, religion, and liberty.

It is in vain that American citizens attempt to conceal their own and their country’s degradation under this withering curse. America is cursed by slavery! We call upon you to unite WITH THE Abolitionists, and never to cease your efforts until perfect liberty be granted to every one of her inhabitants, the black man as well as the white man. We are all children of the same gracious God; all equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We are told that you possess great power, both moral and political, in America. We entreat you to exercise that power and that influence for the sake of humanity.

You will not witness the horrors of slavery in all the States of America. Thirteen of them are free, and thirteen are slave States. But in all, the pro-slavery feeling, though rapidly decreasing, is still strong. Do not unite with it: on the contrary, oppose it by all the peaceful means in your power. Join WITH THE ABOLITIONISTS EVERYWHERE. They are the only consistent advocates of liberty. Tell every man that you do not understand liberty for the white man, and slavery for the black man; that you are for liberty for all, of every color, creed, and country.

The American citizen proudly points to the National Declaration of Independence, which declares that all mankind are born free and equal, and are alike entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. – Aid him to carry out this noble declaration, by obtaining freedom for the slave.

Irishmen and Irishwomen ! treat the colored people as your equals, as brethren. By all your memories of Ireland, continue to love liberty — hate slavery — cling by the abolitionists — and in America you will do honor to the name of Ireland.

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Daniel O’Connell in the 1840s (LOC)

The appearance of this address in newspapers across America in the early months of 1842 brought the small, but growing Irish immigrant community in Pottsville to a full froth. At the meeting at Edward O’Connor’s home, a committee assembled itself and put together a retort to the address signed by O’Connell, Matthew, and Madden and read at Faneuil Hall. The group consisted of the following men: Edward O’Connor, J.C. Neville, James Cleary, Patrick McGreevy, and John Reiley. They were deeply angered by their countrymen’s call for racial equality and the abolition of slavery.

Pottsville 1854 (1)
Pottsville in the years before the Civil War. (Gleason’s Pictorial)

Their response was published in the Miners’ Journal on March 5, 1842. It sparked a firestorm that would reverberate back and forth across the Atlantic in the months that followed. 

Whereas, the above address was published in many of the periodicals of the 28th February, ult., purporting to be a benevolent address of the people of Ireland to Irishmen in the United States, signed by Daniel O’Connell, Theobald Matthew, R.R. Madden, and sixty thousand Irishmen, calling upon us and our wives and daughters to look upon the Negroes as “BRETHREN,” and to join with and espouse the cause of abolition.

We the Irish population of Pottsville and its vicinity, believing the said address to be a vile fabrication, and also that slavery is an evil entailed on this country by the iniquity of the British government. In order to manifest our disapprobation of the said address, and also to show that we look upon any person who may address us upon a national question otherwise than as American citizens – as our enemy, therefore,

1st, Resolved, That we believe the above address to be as far as it relates to the signatures of Daniel O’Connell and the Rev. Theobald Mathew, as a base fabrication – that we consider its style and manner insulting to our dignity as men – that we altogether and most emphatically declare our disapprobation of it, and most solemnly disavow any intention to participate or co-operate with the authors of it.

2nd. Resolved, That we do not form a distinct class of the community, but consider ourselves in every respect as CITIZENS of this great and glorious republic – that we look upon every attempt to address us otherwise than as CITIZENS upon the subject of the abolition of Negro slavery or any subject whatsoever, as base and iniquitous, no matter from what quarter it may proceed.

3rd, Resolved, That we hereby in the most unequivocal manner condemn the said address, and regard it (to use its own language) as the most tremendous invasion of the feelings of Irishmen in America – and whether it emanated from the pen of Daniel O’Connell or from any other source whatever, we cannot find langue too strong to censure and treat it with the scorn it deserves.

It is requested that all papers throughout the Union favorable to the above expression of our sentiments will publish the above.

SIGNED BY THE OFFICERS.  

These resolutions were indeed copied in newspapers across America. They were then carried by ship to Irish ports and republished in Irish newspapers and subsequently ripped apart by Irish newspaper editors. We will address these responses in our next post. Stay tuned for more on this story. 


Featured Image: Daniel O’Connell (Wikimedia Commons) and the address that sparked this firestorm in 1842 (Library of Congress)


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