The Antebellum Irish and the “Gang of Eight” Bill

A couple of weeks ago Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore made a trip to the United States “to meet members of the U.S. Congress to lobby them on behalf of immigration reform,” in the particular the “Gang of Eight” bill which had just recently passed the U.S. Senate. Among other things, the bill provides a method to legalise and provide a “path to citizenship” for the estimated 11 million+ undocumented aliens in the United States. Gilmore met with leading House of Representatives members, where the bill has been sent from the Senate, to lend the Irish government’s support to the legislation.

Immigration reform in America is apparently back on the Irish government’s agenda with an estimated 50,000+ Irish living and working illegally in the U.S. During the heady days of the economic boom, with many Irish returning from America to Ireland, and many already there legalized through the Donnelly and Morrison visa programmes, the fate of Irish emigrants abroad fell down the list of priorities. With the massive economic downturn since 2008, however, it is back on the agenda. Tens of thousands of Irish are again leaving Ireland, most heading for the UK or Australia. The U.S., however, remains a significant destination, despite stringent rules about working there. Hence Minister Gilmore’s interest in U.S. immigration policy.

In the 19th century of course, there was not an Irish government to lobby on behalf of the millions of Irish who travelled America. The UK government was concerned about out- migration from Ireland and its consuls in the U.S. did deal with individual immigrant problems, especially if British subjects were wrongly arrested and incarcerated. During the Civil War, for example, the consuls did trojan work, getting Irish immigrants who refused to serve in the army, out of jail. Similarly, back in Ireland, British authorities tried to stop illegal recruitment of Irish immigrants for the War in Ireland. But, apart from military enlistment, in terms of immigration policy within the United States, the British government did not intervene. Under British law, until the Anglo-American Treaty of 1870, the renunciation of your British allegiance to become an American citizen was not recognized. No matter what oath you had taken to the United States, you remained a subject of the United Kingdom. Lobbying for the citizenship rights of naturalized Americans of Irish birth therefore made no sense. Indeed there is evidence, examined in David Sim’s forthcoming book, of collusion between British consular officials and American nativists. The immigration reform of the 1850s was to restrict the rights of immigrants already in America. The nativist Know-Nothings (American Party) sought to increase the naturalization waiting period from five to twenty-one years, thus diminishing the power of the immigrant, particularly Irish vote in America. This decline would have been welcomed by British government who correctly feared the influence of Irish voters on American foreign policy.

The Irish in America then had to seek the aid of American politicians to fight their corner, and they found this help in the Democratic Party. The party explicitly welcomed immigrants in its party platform and vigorously opposed nativist efforts to restrict immigration. A young Democratic congressman from Mississippi, for example, made his first major speech in Congress opposing nativism. Jefferson Davis called nativists “sordid” on the floor of the House and argued that immigrants were so good for the country that the naturalization process should be amended to make it “more easily accomplished.” There were of course Whigs, the most prominent being William Henry Seward, who supported immigrants, but the anti-immigrant rhetoric of many of the party’s members and newspapers sullied their reputation among the Irish. Davis’s hometown newspaper, the Vicksburg Whig, for example, complained constantly of Irish immigrants being too concerned with Irish politics and too interfering in American politics. The trek of many Whigs to the Know-Northings after the demise of their party in 1853, only confirmed to the Irish that the Whigs had always strongly anti-immigrant. Even pro-Whig Irish commentators such as John L. Prendergast of the Daily Orleanian, had to seek shelter with the Democrats. Prendergast published his newspaper in the old New Orleans Third Municipality, down river from today’s Central Business District and French Quarter in the poorest section of the city. Here working-class natives and immigrants laboured on the docks. Prendergast saw himself as the friend of the Irish working man and endorsed the Whigs because of their support for public infrastructure projects, which often provided a lot of work for immigrants. Like the Irish American economist Mathew Carey, he strongly supported an “American System” where the government would encourage economic activity and protect domestic industries. He railed against the Irish Democrat elite of uptown New Orleans whom he described as a “mushroom aristocracy.” He decried the tokenism of Democratic appointments of Irish to lower-level patronage posts for the Irish support for policies he believed detrimental to their economic interests. It must have killed him to go with the Democrats in 1855, but he did when faced with the reality that most of his former Whig friends in Louisiana had joined the Know-Nothings, whose New Orleans branch was among the most violent in the whole country. The Irish alliance with the Democrats continued to 1860 where, North and South, they despised the Republican Party, which despite Abraham Lincoln’s and Seward’s critiques of nativism, they saw as the Know-Nothings’ successor. The Irish thus overwhelmingly supported the National Democrat, Stephen Douglas in the presidential election of that year.

This almost total Irish embrace of the Democrats in the antebellum era is indicative of the huge importance of party rhetoric to immigrants. The current bill before the House has bipartisan support, in large part because of the severe decline of support by Hispanics for pro-immigration and Spanish speaker George W. Bush from 44 to just 27 percent for Mitt Romney last year. Some commentators believe that this decline did not affect the outcome of the 2012 election, yet a lot of Republicans, especially those with large immigrant populations in their states, seem to disagree. Traditionally, Irish immigrants seeking support have found it with the Democratic Party, in recent times particularly from Congressmen Brian Donnelly and Bruce Morrison and Senator Ted Kennedy. In Gilmore’s trip, however, along with meeting prominent Irish American Democrats such as Senator Patrick Leahy, he had meetings with Republican Speaker John Boehner, Congressmen Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy as well as Senator John McCain, the latter long a supporter of immigration reform. The Catholic and Irish American vote has in recent elections echoed the national elections. Paul Ryan’s presence on the Republican ticket could not win Romney the Catholic vote. As the Catholic and Irish American vote goes, so goes the nation, and it was Hispanic Catholics who threw the overall Catholic vote to Obama in 2012. The Irish Americans who chose the Democrats in the antebellum era were more often on the winning side and were especially important in swing states such as New York and Pennsylvania much to the chagrin of the Whigs. Republicans such as McCain and Ryan seem keen not to write off another large swing ethnic bloc in the 21st century and change the tone back to the inclusive one of President G. W. Bush when he stated in a live speech from the Oval Office to the American people that “America needs to debate immigration in a respectful tone” and that “we must always remember that real lives will be affected by our debates and decisions, and that every human being has dignity and value no matter what their citizenship papers say,” rhetoric that would have been music to ears of antebellum Irish immigrants.


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