Irish Americans and Whiteness

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Irish Americans and Whiteness

Throughout most of the eighteenth century, Ireland was governed under a series of codes known collectively as the Penal Laws, which regulated every aspect of Irish life and subjected Irish Catholics to a form of oppression that in another context would be labeled “racial.” Judicial authorities in Ireland declared, “The law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic?” A dictum whose similarity to the Dred Scott Decision, the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that denied blacks the rights of citizenship, is impossible to overlook. Indeed, the landlord system made the material conditions of the Irish peasant comparable to those of an American slave. The 1800 Union with Britain ruined Irish agriculture, creating a surplus population of farmers. Unable to find places in domestic industry, Irish agriculture workers were compelled to emigrate.

From 1815 to the end of the Great Irish Famine (1845–1850), between 800,000 and one million Irish went to America, where developing industry created a shortage of wage laborers. These displaced Irish peasants became the unskilled labor force in the free states. When they first began arriving in large numbers, they were, in the words of “Mr. Dooley” (the columnist Finley Peter Dunne), given a shovel and told to start digging up the place as if they owned it. They worked on the rail beds and canals for low wages under dangerous conditions. In the South they were occasionally employed where it did not make sense to risk the life of a slave.

As they arrived in American cities, they were crowded into districts that became centers of crime, vice, and disease, and they commonly found themselves thrown together with free Negroes. Irish and African Americans fought each other and the police, socialized (and occasionally intermarried), and developed a common culture of the lowly. Both groups also suffered the scorn of those better situated. Along with Jim Crow and Jim Dandy, the drunken, belligerent, and foolish Pat and Bridget were stock characters on the early American stage.

The Irish enjoyed one marked advantage over refugees from southern slavery, however: No one was chasing them with dogs. In spite of initial barriers, including

nativist hostility, they were able to make the transition from an oppressed race in Ireland to members of an oppressing race in America, that is, they became “white.” To the Irish, to become white in America did not mean that they all became rich, or even “middle-class.” Nor did it mean that they all became the social equals of the Saltonstalls and van Rensselaers; even the marriage of Grace Kelly to the Prince of Monaco and the election of John F. Kennedy as president did not eliminate all barriers to Irish entry into certain exclusive circles.

To Irish laborers, to become white meant that they could sell themselves piecemeal instead of being sold for life, and later that they could compete for jobs in all spheres instead of being confined to certain work. To Irish entrepreneurs, it meant that they could function outside of a segregated market. For all the Irish, it meant that they were citizens of a democratic republic, with the right to elect and be elected, to be tried by a jury of their peers, to live wherever they could afford, and to spend whatever money they managed to acquire without racially imposed restrictions. To enter the white race was a strategy to secure an advantage in a competitive society.

To the extent that color consciousness existed among newly arrived immigrants from Ireland, it was one of several ways they had of identifying themselves. To become white they had to subordinate county, religious, and national animosities (not to mention any natural sympathies they may have felt for their fellow creatures) to a new solidarity based on color—a bond that, it must be remembered, was contradicted by their experience in Ireland. America was well set up to teach new arrivals the overriding value of white skin. The spread of wage labor made white laborers anxious about losing the precarious independence they had gained from the American Revolution. In response, they sought refuge in whiteness. The dominant ideology became more explicitly racial than it had been during the Revolutionary era. The result was a new definition of citizenship, with the United States becoming a “white republic.” Black skin was the badge of the slave, and in a perfect inversion of cause and effect, the degradation of the African Americans was seen as a function of their color rather than of their servile condition. The color-caste system meant that no black person could be free, even in the limited sense most whites were. It affected relations between employers and laborers, even in those areas where slavery did not exist.

In the decades following the War of 1812, as wage labor grew in the north, southern slavery became the foundation of world commerce and industry. The slave-holders strengthened their hold over the Republic, with the support of northern white laborers seeking to protect themselves from competition. As a consequence, the color line grew firmer in all parts of the country.

The Democratic Party was the chief instrument of the governing coalition, the party most strongly identified with white supremacy, and the Irish were a key element in it. By 1844 they were the most solid voting bloc in the country, and it was widely believed that Irish votes provided James Polk’s margin of victory in that year. The Irish voted Democratic because the party championed their assimilation as whites, and because, more than any other institution, it taught them the meaning of whiteness. The party rejected nativism, not because of a vision of a nonracial society, but because their vision was for a society polarized between white and black. Even as the bulk of the northern population began to turn toward Free-Soilism and, later, the Republican Party, the Irish remained loyal to the Democratic slaveholder-led coalition. They were less attracted than any other group to the promise of land in the West, primarily because they simply could not afford it. Free-Soil did not imply free soil. Taking into account the costs of land purchase, clearing and fencing, implements, seed, and livestock, as well as travel costs and the cash needed to survive until the first crop was brought in and sold, a minimum of $1,000 was required to equip a family farm in the West; a sum so far beyond the reach of the savings possible on a laborer’s wage that the available land for settlement might as well have been located on the moon.

“It is a curious fact,” wrote John Finch, an English Owenite who traveled the United States in 1843, “that the democratic party, and particularly the poorer class of Irish immigrants in America, are greater enemies to the negro population, and greater advocates for the continuance of negro slavery, than any portion of the population in the free States” (quoted in Ignatiev 1995, p. 97), attributed the animosity between Irish and African Americans to labor competition between the two groups.

Citing “labor competition” without further specification raises more questions than it answers, however. Ideally, workers contracting for the sale of their labor power compete as individuals, not as groups. The competition gives rise to animosity among these individuals; but normally it also gives rise to its opposite, unity. It is not free competition that leads to enduring animosity, but its absence. Race becomes a social fact at the moment that group identification begins to impose barriers to free competition among atomized and otherwise interchangeable individuals. Competition among Irish and African-American laborers failed to form a mutual appreciation of the need for unity because the competition among these two groups did not take place under normal circumstances, but was distorted by the color line. Slavery in the United States was part of a bipolar system of color caste, in which even the lowliest of “whites” enjoyed a status superior in crucial respects to that of the most exalted “blacks.” As members of the privileged group, white laborers organized to defend their caste status as a way of improving their condition as workers.

The initial turnover from black to Irish labor does not imply racial discrimination; many of the newly arrived Irish, hungry and desperate, were willing to work for less than free persons of color, and it was no more than good sense to hire them. The race question came up after the Irish had replaced African Americans in the jobs. Now it was the black workers who were hungry and desperate, and thus willing to work for the lowest wage. Why, then, were they not hired to undercut the wage of the Irish, as sound business principles would dictate? It is here that the organization of labor along race lines made itself felt. Only after the immigrants had established their place in America were they able to exert enough pressure on employers to maintain the factories as “white” preserves. In the labor market, “free” African Americans were prohibited by various means from competing with whites, in effect curtailing their right to choose among masters (a right that was pointed to by contemporary labor activists as the essential distinction between the free worker and the slave). Free black laborers were confined to certain occupations, which became identified with them. To be acknowledged as white, it was not enough for the Irish to have a competitive advantage over African Americans in the labor market; in order for them to avoid the taint of blackness it was necessary that no Negro be allowed to work in occupations where Irish were to be found.

Employment practices in the new industries had different consequences for African Americans, Irish, and native whites. Black workers were pushed down below the waged proletariat, into the ranks of the destitute self-employed. They worked as ragpickers, bootblacks, chimney sweeps, sawyers, fish and oyster mongers, washerwomen, and hucksters of various kinds. Native-born whites became skilled laborers and foremen. Irish immigrants were transformed into the waged labor force of industry. Access to the most dynamic area of the economy became a principal element defining “white” in the north.

There were several means by which the Irish secured their position as “whites.” The Democratic Party was one. Another was the riot, in which mobs swept through the streets destroying property and attacking individuals. The year 1834 alone saw sixteen riots, and the following year there were thirty-seven. No less a witness than Abraham Lincoln warned in 1837 that “accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the every-day news of the times.” The riots were often the work of “fire companies” organized along national or religious lines; it is significant that only black people were prohibited from forming such companies. In antebellum America a citizen (or potential citizen) was distinguished by three main privileges: He could sell himself piecemeal; he could vote; and he could riot. Among the causes of riots, antiblack sentiments were prominent. In one case, a committee investigating a riot identified the widespread belief that some employers were hiring black laborers over white, and it proposed to leave the solution “to the consideration and action of individuals.” Sometimes the targets were abolitionists, who were hated not so much for their opposition to slavery as for their insistence on equal rights for Negroes.

Related to the riot was the police. At first, the police forces of large cities were drawn from the native-born population, and Irish immigrants were excluded. The Irish, with reason, regarded the police as nativist mobs with badges, and hostilities between them were common. As the Irish gained political influence, however, they were admitted to the ranks of the police, and were thus empowered to defend themselves from nativist mobs (while carrying out their own agenda against blacks, who, of course, were still excluded). The Irish cop is more than a quaint symbol; his appearance marked a turning point in the Irish struggle to become “white” in America. A pithy summary of the change in the racial status of Irish-Americans is found in the following ditty, which circulated in Philadelphia following the 1844 Kensington riots between nativists and Irish (which saw the burning of a Catholic Church, General Cadwalader’s troops firing into a crowd, and a mob firing back from a cannon dragged from a ship docked nearby):

Oh in Philadelphia folks say how 
Dat Darkies kick up all de rows, 
But de riot up in Skensin’ton, 
Beats all de darkies twelve to one.

An’ I guess it wasn’t de niggas dis time 
I guess it wasn’t de niggas dis time,
I guess it wasn’t de niggas dis time,

Mr. Mayor, 
I guess it wasn’t de niggas dis time.
Oh, de “Natives” dey went up to meet, 
At de corner ob Second and Massa’ Street, 
De Irish cotch dar Starry Flag, 
An’ tare him clean up to a rag.
An’ I guess it wasn’t, etc.

De Natives got some shooting sticks,
An’ fired at dar frames and bricks, 
De Pats shot back an’ de hot lead flew, 
Lord! what’s creation comin’ to?

Oh, guess it wasn’t, etc.
Cat-wallader he walk in now, 
An’ wid his brave men stop de row, 
Den wicked rowdies went in town, 
An burn de St. Augustine’s down,

Oh, whar was de police dat time, Oh, whar was, etc.

Oh, den de big fish ‘gin to fear,
Dey thought the burnin’ was too near,
Dey call’d a meetin’ to make peace,
An’ make all white folks turn police.

If dey’d been a little sooner dat time
If dey’d been a little sooner dat time,
If dey’d been a little sooner dat time,

Mr. Mayor,
Dey might a stopt all dis crime.

SEE ALSO Dred Scott v. Sandford; White Racial Identity.


Allen, Theodore W. 1994. The Invention of the White Race. Vol. 1, Racial Oppression and Social Control. New York: Verso.

Ignatiev, Noel. 1995. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge.

Miller, Kerby. 1985. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Roediger, David R. 1999. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, rev. ed. New York: Verso.

Saxton, Alexander. 1990. The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Verso.

Noel Ignatiev