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Dec 1, 1979

O’Connell, Anti-Slavery, and Freedom

“O’Connell stood steadfast in his commitment to abolish human slavery even when it undermined his lifelong ambition to achieve home rule for Ireland.”

Douglas C. Riach

“Daniel O’Connell and American Anti-Slavery” Irish Historical Studies (Ireland), 20(March 1977):3–25.

The crusade to abolish chattel slavery was one of the first transatlantic movements defending human rights. Diverse abolitionists in England, Ireland and America worked together to banish first the slave trade and then slavery itself from the British Empire and America. The complexities of cooperation among very disparate political and social groups form an interesting historical model for contemporary defenders of international human rights.

Daniel O’Connell, the leader of Irish liberalism and champion of Catholic emancipation, subsequently sought to repeal the act of union linking Ireland to Great Britain. O’Connell similarly supported advocates of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and the United States. The often conflicting pressures of moral principle and political expediency, however, complicated O’Connell’s relations with the abolitionists. He seriously depended on the political, moral, and especially financial support from America in his struggle to accomplish repeal, or home rule for Ireland. Yet the Irish in America were politically allied with the Democratic party, the anti-Abolitionist party in the pre-Civil War period. The Irish-Americans, sensitive to sativist attacks upon them as both foreigners and Catholics, resented O’Connell’s urging that they support the abolitionist cause, a cause led by the same Puritan forces hostile to their own political and cultural needs.

O’Connell first took up the abolitionist cause in 1824. Following Catholic emancipation in 1829, he concentrated his attacks upon the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies and the United States. In 1832 he championed William Lloyd Garrison’s American abolitionist movement and his attack on black colonization as both impractical and unethical. Although O’Connell’s attitudes mobilized Irish and British opinion against slavery, it failed to influence the American Irish.

During the early 1840s, in the midst of his international drive to repeal the act of union, O’Connell’s antislavery commitment provoked a backlash among the Irish repealers in America. Stung by his embarrassing intervention, the American Irish wished O’Connell to downplay his abolitionist rhetoric. Likewise, many abolitionists in Ireland, especially Irish Quakers, did not reciprocate O’Connell’s support of abolition by supporting his repeal movement. The international movement for repeal of the act of union between Ireland and Great Britain suffered severe tensions in their fragile alliance.

Economic conflicts also arose. O’Connell’s desire to build up a cotton textile industry in Ireland by reducing British tariffs on American cotton was opposed by abolitionists who felt such a policy strengthened the economy of the slave system in the American South. O’Connell’s principled supported of abolition began to cut into the contribution from American supporters of repeal. When O’Connell realized that many abolitionists were identified with prohibition, Sabbath restrictions, nativism, and anti-Catholicism, he dissociated himself from any particular clique of American abolitionists, but maintained his principled support of abolition. O’Connell’s opposition to American annexation of Texas, because it would strengthen the slave system, also enraged his American and Irish admirers.

O’Connell stood steadfast in his commitment to abolish human slavery even when it undermined his lifelong ambition to achieve home rule for Ireland. The conflicting interests and ethical imperatives facing a statesman with international constituencies illuminate the difficulties that similar ethical commitments to human liberty present to statesmen of our own time.