SLAVERY

It has been frequently said that the Irish in America were, as a rule, in favour of slavery. Were it said that they were, as a rule, against slavery, the statement would be much nearer to the truth. I never heard an Irishman in a Northern State say one word in its favour. Some with whom I spoke were enthusiastic approvers of its extinction at any cost or sacrifice, as purging the country of a great evil, if not a great sin; while others, less enthusiastic, or more reflecting, held that its gradual extinction would have been wiser, more politic, and not likely to produce the difficulties and embarrassments which sudden emancipation was but too certain to create; not alone because the Slave-owning States were unprepared for so sweeping a revolution, but that the slave himself was unsuited to the abrupt cessation of all restriction or control whatever. These Irishmen regretted the existence of slavery, and justly regarded it as a fatal legacy left by England to the people of America; but they were rather in favour of gradual, yet inevitable change, than of violent or reckless revolution. I repeat, I never heard an Irishman in a Northern State speak in favour of slavery as an institution.

Then as to Irishmen in the South; I must equally assert, that I never heard an Irishman in a Southern State, not to say approve of, but justify slavery. Southern Irishmen believed, perhaps more strongly than their countrymen in the North, that neither the circumstances of the country nor the character, capacity nor training of the negro was suited to sudden emancipation; but they at the same time expressed themselves as having always been in favour of gradual and prudent abolition—the final extinction of that which they felt to be a cause of grave social injury and national weakness, and likewise a fruitful source of political trouble, possibly ultimate convulsion. But these Southern Irishmen took their stand on the fundamental principle of State sovereignty, as guaranteed by the Constitution, and denied that Congress had any light whatever to interfere with the institutions of individual States. They held,—and in this they had the sympathy of a vast number of their countrymen in the North,—that the emancipation of the slave, especially regarding it in its present results, was hardly worth the torrents of generous blood shed in its accomplishment. Still, they are satisfied at seeing an end to a cause of weakness and contention between different portions of the Union, though they know the South has to pass through some further tribulation before things can settle down into perfect order and tranquillity.

This is the result of my information on this point, derived from unreserved communication with Irishmen at both sides of the line.

And as to the policy of the Catholic Church with respect to slavery, I cannot do better than subjoin the following interesting communication from an eminent ecclesiastic, who affords as much information upon the subject as I can venture to press into this note.

Bishop England wrote a series of letters on Domestic Slavery, in which he undertakes to show the position of the Catholic Church on that question. The 'abolitionist' party had then caused great excitement at the South. They were resisted on two grounds: first, because the interference of other States, or of Congress, in that question would have been subversive of the American system of government, the question being one of those reserved to the authority of each State, which on such a point was sovereign. To try interference with them from without their own States would have been an invasion of their rights, as much as if it had been done by the British Parliament. Second, because emancipation, even if desirable, should be conducted with precautions which the Abolitionists were unwilling to listen to.

Besides those who resisted him on these grounds, there were, of course, many who defended slavery as in itself a desirable condition of things, especially for the coloured race.

Bishop England did not belong to the latter class; and in a note to the last letter of the series alluded to he defines his position as follows. He was obliged to interrupt the course of letters he intended publishing, and on the 23rd of April 1840, he writes as follows to the editors of the 'United States Catholic Miscellany,' in which they were published:—

'Gentlemen,—My more pressing duties will not permit me for some weeks to continue the letters on the compatibility of domestic slavery with practical religion. I have been asked by many a question which I may as well answer at once, viz. Whether I am friendly to the existence or continuation of slavery? I am not. But I also see the impossibility of now abolishing it here. When it can and ought to be abolished, is a question for the legislature, and not for me.' (See his Works, vol. iii. p. 190.)

Anyone acquainted with the state of feeling on this subject in Charleston at the time, cannot but feel that a great amount of courage was necessary to say even that much.

On his return from Europe some time after, he informed one of his most intimate friends that he intended resuming the subject, and showing what were the rights of slaves, as Christians and as men, what were the duties of masters; and that he intended giving the slaveholders a lecture, such as they never had received before. In the published letters he was anxious to show them that the Catholic Church had never declared the holding of slaves to be in itself sinful; that the Encyclical Letter of Gregory XVI., which had given rise to the controversy, condemned the capture of free men, and taking them unjustly into slavery, as war had done on the coast of Africa, but did not affect domestic slavery under all circumstances. His intention was to show what rights the slave necessarily retained, which masters and legislatures were bound to respect and to protect; and having first cleared himself from the charge of abolitionism in its political meaning as then understood, he intended to be frank and full in this subject. It is to be regretted that sickness, and then death, prevented the carrying out of this idea. I have no doubt that he would have been a powerful advocate of the poor slave in his rights as to personal protection, and religious liberty, and in his family relations, reducing the master's claims merely to his labour, for which compensation was given in food, clothing, &c.; and even the system that denied him the power of disposing of them as he pleased, would have been shown to be fraught with many evils, and a change loudly called for as soon as circumstances would admit of it.

I would refer to two other facts, showing the position of the Catholic Church in the South with regard to slavery. One was a sermon preached, I think, in New Orleans, while the Southern Confederacy was at the moment of its highest prospect of success, by Bishop Verot of Savannah. He first undertook to prove that slavery was not essentially sinful, and he answered the objection made against it. But then he went on to show in what condition it could be tolerated amongst Christians. He showed what were the rights of slaves, and the obligations of masters, in a manner which would have deprived it of its chief horrors. This during the reign of the Confederacy!

During the same time Bishop M'Gill published a book at Richmond, in which he stated it as his opinion, that the calamities under which the country was suffering might be attributed to a chastisement of Heaven for the manner in which the slaves were left unprotected in their marriage relations.

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