The Abolitionist and the Liberator

Tuesday, January 24, AD 2012



Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist of 19th century America and Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, who led the fight to gain the right to vote for Irish Catholics in 19th century Ireland, have always been two of my heroes.  Most Americans tend to be unaware of the connection between them.

Throughout his life Daniel O’Connell had been an opponent of slavery, and made his sentiments known at every opportunity, calling upon Irish-Americans to attack the “Peculiar Institution”.  He was frequently quoted by opponents of slavery in the United States.  While a boy and a slave, Douglass had heard one of his masters curse O’Connell for attacking slavery, and Douglass knew that he must love O’Connell if his master hated him so.  In 1846 Douglass went to Ireland for four months and went on a speaking tour.  O’ Connell was seventy-one and had just one more year to live.  Douglass was a mere twenty-eight.  However, a firm friendship quickly sprung up between them.  O’Connell, perhaps the finest orator of a nation known for oratory, heard the eloquent Douglass speak in Dublin and proclaimed him the “Black O’Connell”.

The wretched condition of most of the Irish moved and shocked Douglass as this passage he wrote in a letter to William Lloyd Garrison on March 27, 1846 reveals:

The spectacle that affected me most, and made the most vivid impression on my mind, of the extreme poverty and wretchedness of the poor of Dublin, was the frequency with which I met little children in the street at a late hour of the night, covered with filthy rags, and seated upon cold stone steps, or in corners, leaning against brick walls, fast asleep, with none to look upon them, none to care for them. If they have parents, they have become vicious, and have abandoned them. Poor creatures! they are left without help, to find their way through a frowning world—a world that seems to regard them as intruders, and to be punished as such. God help the poor! An infidel might ask, in view of these facts, with confusing effect—Where is your religion that takes care for the poor—for the widow and fatherless—where are its votaries—what are they doing? The answer to this would be, if properly given, wasting their energies in useless debate on hollow creeds and points of doctrine, which, when settled, neither make one hair white nor black. In conversation with some who were such rigid adherents to their faith that they would scarce be seen in company with those who differed from them in any point of their creed, I have heard them quote the text in palliation of their neglect, “The poor shall not cease out of the land”! During my stay in Dublin, I took occasion to visit the huts of the poor in its vicinity—and of all places to witness human misery, ignorance, degradation, filth and wretchedness, an Irish hut is pre-eminent. It seems to be constructed to promote the very reverse of every thing like domestic comfort. If I were to describe one, it would appear about as follows: Four mud walls about six feet high, occupying a space of ground about ten feet square, covered or thatched with straw—a mud chimney at one end, reaching about a foot above the roof—without apartments or divisions of any kind—without floor, without windows, and sometimes without a chimney—a piece of pine board laid on the top of a box or an old chest— a pile of straw covered with dirty garments, which it would puzzle any one to determine the original part of any one of them—a picture representing the crucifixion of Christ, pasted on the most conspicuous place on the wall—a few broken dishes stuck up in a corner—an iron pot, or the half of an iron pot, in one corner of the chimney—a little peat in the fireplace, aggravating one occasionally with a glimpse of fire, but sending out very little heat—a man and his wife and five children, and a pig. In front of the door-way, and within a step of it, is a hole three or four feet deep, and ten or twelve feet in circumference; into this hole all the filth and dirt of the hut are put, for careful preservation. This is frequently covered with a green scum, which at times stands in bubbles, as decomposition goes on. Here you have an Irish hut or cabin, such as millions of the people of Ireland live in. And some live in worse than these. Men and women, married and single, old and young, lie down together, in much the same degradation as the American slaves. I see much here to remind me of my former condition, and I confess I should be ashamed to lift up my voice against American slavery, but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over. He who really and truly feels for the American slave, cannot steel his heart to the woes of others; and he who thinks himself an abolitionist, yet cannot enter into the wrongs of others, has yet to find a true foundation for his anti-slavery faith.

It is a tribute both to Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell that their compassion was not limited to people like them, but extended to victims of injustice far removed from them.


In his memoirs published in 1882, Douglass recalled O’Connell:

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8 Responses to The Abolitionist and the Liberator

  • A fascinating post, Don! O’Connell certainly put Catholic Emancipation on the political agenda following the County Clare by-election of 1828, but to me the real heroes are the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel, the leaders of the Tory party who got the measure through Parliament. Peel had to give up his Oxford seat as a result:

    O member for Oxford, you shuffle and wheel!
    You have altered your name from R. Peel to repeal!

    Daniel O’Connell once remarked of Peel that his smile was like the gleam of a brass plate upon a coffin, but his ministry of 1841-1846 was of momentous significance and he is the architect of the modern Conservative Party, which despite the PC posturings of its current leader, best enshrines the moral values which must inform our society.

    Thank you for directing me to Amanda Foreman’s ‘World on Fire’ which I persuaded someone to give me as a Christmas present. She seems to have an American readership in mind, hence her use of the term ‘banquet’ instead of ‘dinner’ and a couple of unfortunate references to British warships as ‘the HMS …’ (cringe, cringe). I wonder if American readers might find it a bit Anglocentric, however.

    I have gained a lot from your coverage of American politics – not really understood in Europe.

  • With all due respect to Mr. Douglass, and to you, Don, this passage reads like the sort of nonsense one would expect to read at NC Reporter:

    “Where is your religion that takes care for the poor—for the widow and fatherless—where are its votaries—what are they doing? The answer to this would be, if properly given, wasting their energies in useless debate on hollow creeds and points of doctrine, which, when settled, neither make one hair white nor black.”

    What hogwash! We were treated to the same sort of attacks on the Church by the so-called progressive Catholics during the debates over the new Roman Missal: “Why are we spending so much time debating the words of the Creed – ‘consubstantial’? Really? No one even knows what that means! – when there is so much suffering in the world?”

    Examples can be found here:

    The truth is that the Church can walk and chew gum at the same time. It can (and has throughout its entire 2000+ year history) debate creeds and still care for the poor. To accuse the Church in Ireland of not being there for the poor is outright calumny. The Church was ALL they had, and did what it could to alleviate their suffering.

    Whatever Mr. Douglass’ virtues as an abolitionist, in this instance, at least, he was either grossly misinformed or a liar.

  • Douglass was not a Catholic Jay, and I would note that his comment was not directed solely against the Church. The poverty in 19th Century Ireland among Irish Catholics was absolutely incredible to behold, especially during the potato famine, and it shocked most foreign visitors and not just Douglass. In other writings on Ireland, Douglass laid the blame for much of the poverty at the feet of the British government, and at the alcoholism that was rampant through all sections of Ireland at the time. The man also only spent four months in Ireland so he hardly had time to become expert on what the Church was doing to alleviate poverty. My guess is that his statement was uttered out of shock that such poverty was possible in a nation that purported to be Christian. Throughout his life Douglass was an outspoken advocate of Irish independence, so he certainly had no prejudice against Irish Catholics. As to his virtues as an abolitionist, they were great, as he was a walking refutation of the theory prevalent at the time that blacks were naturally inferior to whites.

  • “The man also only spent four months in Ireland so he hardly had time to become expert on what the Church was doing to alleviate poverty.”

    Then he probably should’ve kept his mouth shut regarding aspects of the situation about which he was ignorant.

    My problem with ALL progressives, even ones who are right about such things as slavery, is that religion is all to often for them a cheap scapegoat.

  • Douglass had the additional misfortune of being owned by extremely pious slaveholders during most of his life as a slave, and witnessing another nearly beating another slave to death over a minor infraction. The only one who treated him with any decency was a man who never made any profession of religious belief. While contacts with religious abolitionists helped over time, he had little patience with professed belief that was not matched with words.

  • “not matched with *actions.*”

    In linking to this post, I also link to Douglass’ “Narrative,” the first account of his life in slavery. It makes a difference when reading him here.

    Douglass was a remarkable man, and not afraid to change his opinions, startling even those who were staunch political allies. He alienated a lot of radical abolitionists when he broke with them over whether the Constitution was a slave-enabling document beyond redemption. He came to the conclusion that it was not, and shocked Garrison by arguing against him on that point in public.

  • “Then he probably should’ve kept his mouth shut regarding aspects of the situation about which he was ignorant.

    My problem with ALL progressives, even ones who are right about such things as slavery, is that religion is all to often for them a cheap scapegoat.”

    Douglass was a staunch upholder of the Constitution Jay, as Dale notes, and a fervent believer in free market capitalism. He wanted blacks to simply enjoy the rights and opportunities of all other Americans, and that strikes me as being a quite conservative position. He cannot be dismissed as a mere progressive. As to his comments, frankly the history of Ireland would have been a great deal better with less religious based hatred and a great deal more Christian charity. I am sure that Douglass did meet with some Protestants and Catholics in his visit to Ireland who seemed quite a bit more concerned with hating each other than in helping their poor countrymen. Such people, unfortunately, have never been in short supply in Ireland.

  • A minor point of correction. The issue of 1828 was not that Irish Catholics did not have the right to vote (they did, and the electors of County Clare voted for O’Connell) and in any case the franchise at that time was not a right – most Englishmen did not have it. It was that legislation dating back to the 17th century prevented Catholics from sitting in the House of Commons.

Was Lincoln a Reluctant Abolitionist?

Tuesday, November 15, AD 2011



Lincoln was first and foremost a politician, and the sincerity of politicians is always subject to question, but it is impossible after examining his speeches and private letters not to be convinced of his deep and abiding hatred of slavery.

His attitude towards slavery was well set forth in the following letter to A.G. Hodges on April 4, 1864:

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19 Responses to Was Lincoln a Reluctant Abolitionist?

  • Lincoln, like many politicians before and after, essentially supported the resettlement of blacks to Africa, which in hindsight would have been a better course than that which followed.

    The following link offers some perspective:

  • Abraham Lincoln displayed precious little reluctance to killing 600,000 Americans.

  • Henry Clay was in favor of it along with many others. It was a completely idiotic idea as the cost would have been astronomical, there was no suitable land available in Africa for such large scale colonization and blacks were unwilling to go. Lincoln was always in favor of colonization if it was voluntary and in the Civil War it became apparent that the idea was completely impractical.

  • “No suitable land in Africa?” It’s the world’s second largest continent. As for the “cost being astronomical,” it would have been better to pay it than to lose 600,000 lives to “free” them. Today’s racial divide is as wide as ever and the assimilation of black into a white culture has been an abysmal failure.

  • No suitable land Joe. American freed men transplanted to Liberia died like flies, which was one of several reasons why colonization was so unpopular among blacks. From1825-1867 a grand total of 13,000 former American slaves immigrated to Liberia. The idea that this was ever going to solve the problem of slavery in this country was idiotic in the extreme. Needless to say, most slave owners were completely opposed to any government purchasing their slaves and resettling them in Africa in any case. The whole concept was nothing more than a pipe dream.

  • “Abraham Lincoln displayed precious little reluctance to killing 600,000 Americans.”

    Yes, T.Shaw, it was all Lincoln’s fault that in order to maintain the precious civil right of holding other humans in bondage, Southern states seceded, and then it was Lincoln’s fault that they started a War that they were bound to lose.

  • On January 26, 1849 black abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave voice to the general feeling among American blacks about colonization proposals:

    “In view of this proposition, we would respectfully suggest to the assembled wisdom of the nation, that it might be well to ascertain the number of free colored people who will be likely to need the assistance of government to help them out of this country to Liberia, or elsewhere, beyond the limits of these United States—since this course might save any embarrassment which would result from an appropriation more than commensurate to the numbers who might be disposed to leave this, our own country, for one we know not of. We are of the opinion that the free colored people generally mean to live in America, and not in Africa; and to appropriate a large sum for our removal, would merely be a waste of the public money. We do not mean to go to Liberia. Our minds are made up to live here if we can, or die here if we must; so every attempt to remove us will be, as it ought to be, labor lost. Here we are, and here we shall remain. While our brethren are in bondage on these shores, it is idle to think of inducing any considerable number of the free colored people to quit this for a foreign land.

    For two hundred and twenty-eight years has the colored man toiled over the soil of America, under a burning sun and a driver’s lash—plowing, planting, reaping, that white men might roll in ease, their hands unhardened by labor, and their brows unmoistened by the waters of genial toil; and now that the moral sense of mankind is beginning to revolt at this system of foul treachery and cruel wrong, and is demanding its overthrow, the mean and cowardly oppressor is meditating plans to expel the colored man entirely from the country. Shame upon the guilty wretches that dare propose, and all that countenance such a proposition. We live here—have lived here—have a right to live here, and mean to live here.”

  • I view the IHR as a suspect site. See Wiki entry on IHR or their own page “about us” where they put the word “Holocaust” in scare quotes.

  • Indeed Bob. They are a bevy of Holocaust deniers and “You know, Adolph really wasn’t that bad!” It has a colorful history:

  • I deleted your last comment Joe. This blog has zero tolerance for holocaust deniers and bashers of Jews.

  • Mr McClarey,

    You don’t have to be a holocaust denier or anti-semite to wonder about the wisdom of the Civil War and Abraham’s Lincoln’s part in it. As T. Shaw mentions above, the loss of over 600,000 American lives to have this fight, strikes me as a hard number to justify. Of course, I realize that no one knew it would take that many. But still, some of the blame surely belongs to Mr. Lincoln for those deaths.

    This is not to mention the utter havoc thrown upon the land as the war destroyed social fabric along with house and farm and town. The reintroduction of total war into civilized nations was also a grave consquence that resulted from this war.

    Would it have been so bad to see the southern states go there own way and create another version of America based on it’s own unique genius?

    The cause of this war is much deeper than most realize but the consequences are also deeper. I don’t know that that has been explored fully enough.

    Is the autonomous freedom that eventually came to slaves and likely would have come anyway within a few years due to technology, worth the cost of all the dead and wounded, the utterly destroyed social structure, the changed nature the Constitution, and the loss of the check on the central state that the individual sovereign states had been. Was it worth all that to throw the slaves off the land.

    I honestly don’t know.

  • We have fought and re-fought the merits of the Civil War on what seems like a semi-weekly basis. This post has nothing to do with the worthiness of fighting the war, but rather concentrates solely on Lincoln’s feelings with regards to slavery. Can we please return focus to that? Thank you.

  • I have no doubt that Lincoln was “personally opposed” to slavery. But he also knew that there was no Constitutional authority for the Federal government to interfere with the practice. The sad thing is, despite this knowledge, he cynically seized on emancipation as a war aim when the war was not going particularly well for the Union. Thus was an already Constitutionally suspect war to preserve the “Union” (yes, “scare” quotes, because a Union at the point of a bayonet is not much of a union) transformed into a war to free slaves, an aim which Lincoln himself knew was not constiutionally permissible.

    Thus we have the first large example in our history of Federal unconstitutional overreaching. That it occurred for an otherwise good cause should not blind us to the hazardous precedent it set.

  • Thus we have the first large example in our history of Federal unconstitutional overreaching.

    Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the United States overnight with the Louisiana Purchase – an action of such constitutional dubiousness that Jefferson contemplated submitting a constitutional amendment before his advisers suggested that it was inconvenient as it would doom the purchase.

    Fifty years later Chief Justice Taney handed down his decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, a decision far removed from both the constitutional text and even the context of the case that was before him – kind of like how your comment and Tim’s are not exactly germane to the topic of the original post. But we can’t have Lincoln’s name be mentioned on this blog without some carping from the usual corners, now can we?

  • I don’t doubt Lincoln’s personal convictions against slavery… he was not the only person who held these views, others like R. E. Lee also held them.

    It is just fairness to history and accuracy not to deify a man who, for whatever subjectively good reasons he may have had, ignored the Constitution when it suited him to do so.

    So, it IS germane to the topic: yes, Lincoln was an abolitionist, no he was not a reluctant one. He believed in it so much he ultimately surrended Constitutional government to the principle, and bathed the nation in blood.

  • No Tom, the ones who attempted to overthrow the constitution, in order to perpetuate slavery forever, were the secessionists, and Lincoln led the Union forces to victory to preserve the Constitution along with the Union. The ironic thing is that Lincoln was no threat to slavery where it existed in the states, so the Confederacy was created to fight against a non-existent threat to the Peculiar Institution.

  • The constitution is not what we wish it to be or imagine it to be; it is a written, clear document. Either it is followed in a particular circumstance or not.

    I can see no provision of the Constitution forbidding secession to the states. I can also find no provision authorizing the president to gather armies and invade the states militarily. Since the constitution is one of express, delegated powers with respect to the federal government, one must point to a provision of the constitution authorizing a president to invade several states, kill their citizens, blockade their ports.

    I submit you will not find such authority in an express provision of the constitution.

    On the other hand, you will equally find no provision forbidding the states from seceding. What power is not expressly ceded to the federal government is maintained by the state. There is no provision whereby the states ceded the power of withdrawing from the Union.

    These are fairly simple, unremarkable observations. We are supposed to be a government of law, not men. Lincoln upset that by ignoring the Constitution and invading the south.

    You may like that Lincoln did what he did, or believe it was required by some kind of necessity, or had good results that outweighed ignoring the constitution for a time, but it cannot be imagined that it was done consistent with the express terms of the constitution.

  • In order for a right of secession to exist Tom it would have to be expressly set forth in the Constitution. The Founding Fathers of the Confederacy clearly agreed with that contention, since they rejected, when drafting the Confederate Constitution, a right of secession to be set forth as called for by the South Carolina delegates. It is difficult to read a right of secession into the Federal Constitution when it contains the following provision:

    “Section 10
    No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation;”

    Why put such a provision into the Constitution if states could leave the Union at will? Additionally, other than the 13 colonies, all the other states, except Texas, were created by the Federal government under the Constitution. How could these creations of the Federal government have any existence apart from it? James Madison, the father of the Constitution, held that no right to secession existed. On the theoretical question of secession, I will defer to Robert E. Lee.

    “Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for “perpetual union,” so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession. Anarchy would have been established, and not a government, by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the other patriots of the Revolution. . . . Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved, and the government disrupted, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people; and, save in defense, will draw my sword on none.”

    As for rebellion, the Constitution gives the Federal government power to act under Section 8:

    “To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union,
    suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;”
    The Insurrection Act of 1807 gives the President the following power:

    “Whenever the President considers that unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages, or rebellion against the authority of the United States, make it impracticable to enforce the laws of the United States in any State or Territory by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, he may call into Federal service such of the militia of any State, and use such of the armed forces, as he considers necessary to enforce those laws or to suppress the rebellion.”

    When it comes to the Civil War, I am always happy to debate these issues on behalf of Lincoln and the Union from a legal standpoint because I believe their case is strong. In a larger sense, I agree with these sentiments of another Confederate general John B. Gordon:

    “And the repeated manifestations of General Grant’s truly great qualities–his innate modesty, his freedom from every trace of vain-glory or ostentation, his magnanimity in victory, his genuine sympathy for his brave and sensitive foemen, and his inflexible resolve to protect paroled Confederates against any assault, and vindicate, at whatever cost, the sanctity of his pledge to the van-quished-will give him a place in history no less renowned and more to be envied than that secured by his triumphs as a soldier or his honors as a civilian. The Christian invocation which came from his dying lips, on Mount McGregor, summoning the spirit of peace and unity and equality for all of his countrymen, made a fitting close to the life of this illustrious American. Scarcely less prominent in American annals than the record of these two lives, should stand a catalogue of the thrilling incidents which illustrate the nobler phase of soldier life so inadequately described in these reminiscences. The unseemly things which occurred in the great conflict between the States should be forgotten, or at least forgiven, and no longer permitted to disturb complete harmony between North and South. American youth in all sections should be taught to hold in perpetual remembrance all that was great and good on both sides; to comprehend the inherited convictions for which saintly women suffered and patriotic men died; to recognize the unparalleled carnage as proof of unrivalled courage; to appreciate the singular absence of personal animosity and the frequent manifestation between those brave antagonists of a good-fellowship such as had never before been witnessed between hostile armies. It will be a glorious day for our country when all the children within its borders shall learn that the four years of fratricidal war between the North and the South was waged by neither with criminal or unworthy intent, but by both to protect what they conceived to be threatened rights and imperilled liberty; that the issues which divided the sections were born when the Republic was born, and were forever buried in an ocean of fraternal blood. We shall then see that, under God’s providence, every sheet of flame from the blazing rifles of the contending armies, every whizzing shell that tore through the forests at Shiloh and Chancellorsville, every cannon-shot that shook Chickamauga’s hills or thundered around the heights of Gettysburg, and all the blood and the tears that were shed are yet to become contributions for the upbuilding of American manhood and for the future defence of American freedom. The Christian Church received its baptism of pentecostal power as it emerged from the shadows of Calvary, and went forth to its world-wide work with greater unity and a diviner purpose. So the Republic, rising from its baptism of blood with a national life more robust, a national union more complete, and a national influence ever widening, shall go forever forward in its benign mission to humanity.”