The American Census of 1850

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

« Chapter XXV. | Contents | Appendix I. »

Chapter XXVI.

The Census of 1850—Irish Contingent to the Population of the Union—Character of Former Irish Emigrations—The Political Refugees of 1848—Father Mathew's Visit—Military Companies—Position and Requirements of the Irish in America

THE decennial census, just taken, seems likely, when digested, to show a total population of nearly 24,000,000 in the Union, including an Irish contingent of some 4,000,000, at the close of the year, 1850.

If we are to estimate the influence of this element in the composition of American character, we must not only take its past success on this continent, but the achievements of its emigrants in Europe and South America, into consideration. Especially should we consider their agency of antagonism in the British system.

Edmund Spenser, whose work on Ireland displays many reflections of wonderful originality, gives expression to this very thought. He says he has often thought that Ireland was reserved to be a judgment on England, and that by her hand England would be humbled.

For seven hundred years, the Almighty, for his own ends, has kept those two islands in a state of warfare and hostility, England influencing Ireland, and Ireland controlling England. Richard the Second's Irish wars produced the wars of "the Roses," which occupied England a century. Brace, beaten and banished from his own country, finds a shelter in Ireland, and returns from Rathlin to conquer at Bannockburn. Henry VIII. becomes a reformer and king of Ireland, and it costs his daughter £20,000,000, and, it is said, a broken heart, to subdue the northern chiefs. Ireland fights for the Stuarts who robbed her, and goes into exile, as if for the express purpose of meeting and routing the armies of Britain at

Fontenoy and Dettingen. The Irish emigrate to America, and help to take this continent from England in 1775, as they now help to keep it anti-British in temper and policy.

Is it too much to expect this result from such an element in the great republic? Before you say "Yes," remember the work of our exiles performed in one generation, when they turned their steps not to the New World beyond the ocean, but to the shores of the Mediterranean.

They were either students in search of schools, or soldiers in search of fighting. The former reckoned on the bourses founded by professors and D.D.'s from home; and the soldiers, poor fellows, counted on the countenance of those who were gone before them to get them something to do! Both classes worked hard, and both won fame and rank. It is easier to follow the soldier class, who left their mark wherever they went.

Of these, two became Marshals of France (Sarsfield and O'Brien); two Marshals of Austria (Kavanagh and Prince Nugent); five Grandees of Spain (O'Sullivan, Lawless, Gardiner, O'Riley, and O'Donnell); two Marshals in Russia (Lacy and Browne.)

Of general officers, it would be hard to muster the lists. The Irish governors of important posts are more easily enumerated. One Browne was Governor of Deva, for Austria; another, Governor-General of Livonia for Russia; Count Thomond was Commander at Languedoc; Lally was Governor of Pondicherry; one Kavanagh was Governor of Prague; another, of Buda; O'Dwyer was Commander of Belgrade; Lacy, of Riga; and Lawless, Governor of Majorca.

Of the civil offices attained by these emigrants, we find that Kavanagh, Baron Linditz, and Count Nugent, were Aulic Councillors; Marshal Maurice Kavanagh was Chamberlain of Poland; Colonel Harold, Chamberlain of Bavaria; Sutton, Count of Clonard, Governor of the Dauphin, in France; the Marquis M'Mahon was one of the first French agents to these states, for which service he received the badge of the Revolutionary Order of Cincinnatus, from Washington and the French Order of St. Louis, from Louis XVI.; Patrick Lawless, Ambassador from Spain to France; Dominick O'Daly, Ambassador from Portugal to France; and Nugent, Minister of Austria at Berlin; and Clarke, Duke de Feltre, Minister of War, in France.

In Spanish America, the Captains General O'Higgins of Chili, O'Donoju of Mexico, and O'Donnell of Cuba; the Supreme Director O'Higgins; the Generals O'Riley, O'Brien, and Devereux; the Colonels McKenna, O'Leary, O'Connor and O'Carroll, were all men of one generation—all Irishmen by birth or parentage.

To North America, within seventy years, we have contributed ten majors general, five commodores, a president, two vice-presidents, six authors of the Constitution, nine signers of the Declaration, upwards of twenty generals of brigade, and an immense amount of minor officers, and rank and file to the army. Considering that till yesterday all education was limited to a caste, in Ireland; considering how the individual is oppressed in the defeat of his nation; considering the more fortunate lot of the self-governing countries, with whose native sons our emigrants have had to compete in the old world and the new, the achievements of her exiles are a glory and a promise, precious to Ireland.

It seems wonderful that so many mere Irishmen, in the same century, should force themselves, by dint of service, into so many important posts, in such old countries, and over the heads of so many native rivals. They all emigrated poor—their land, if they inherited any, being confiscated. They had, as it were, to beg their education, literary and military, and to serve long and hazardous probations, before they attracted the attention of kings. Still, that they did rise, and that they kept the vantage-ground they gained, is apparent as the day.

The Irish emigrants of to-day are the kith and kin of these men of history; and, we think, there are causes working for them, which will produce results not unworthy of the past.

The arrival of a number of educated men, of their own nation, to settle among them, is one such cause. Chiefly barristers and journalists, if they remain true to the cause of their race, (as there is no reason, in any instance, to doubt,) they may exercise an immense influence for good over the general fortunes.[1]

The visit of "Father Mathew" to this country is another source of hope for us. That unwearied preacher of temperance has visited all the districts where the Irish emigrants abound, and in less than two years has pledged over three hundred thousand persons to live sober and peaceful lives.

What a life his has been! Unlike too many modern reformers, who insist on their theories with all the heat of proselytism, and utterly neglect the details of good, his lips have not grown white in theorizing, but in exhorting and blessing multitudes, individual by individual. Those of whom society and the laws despair,—who are often considered as hopelessly beyond the Christian pale,—for these he has, hoping and toiling, worn his life away. Truly may it be said of him, as Grattan said of Kirwan, "in feeding the lamp of charity, he exhausted the lamp of life."

Next to intemperance, ignorance is the emigrant's worst foe. From ignorance, faction, quarrels, partisanship, losses innumerable flow. To found adult schools, circulating libraries, and debating rooms; to make good use of our newspaper press; to prepare cheap and suitable books for a neglected people; these are the solemn obligations resting upon the educated and wealthy of our Irish-American citizens.

Every Celt has an inherent taste for rhetoric and the arts. Witness the long array of poets, artists, and orators, produced even in these latter days of our provincialism. To elevate, purify, and direct wisely these natural tastes, should be the main purpose of all the educational institutions we may create.

The profession of arms has, also, a natural attraction, for this race. In old Ireland, every man was a soldier, but in modern Ireland, England punishes the study of arms as she does felony. We must revive the taste for tactics, wherever, on this continent, there are an hundred of us together.

There are men enough ambitious of command in every city. But, to command, it is necessary to learn; to learn slowly, patiently, practically; to learn through years of service, as the young draper, Ney, and the drummer boy, Bernadotte, learned how to be marshals, and to stand next to Napoleon; to learn to command themselves first and others after; to learn self-control, quick thinking, and ready action; to learn to discriminate wheat men from chaff men—to discover an officer among the privates, and to lift him up to his rank without exciting ill-will in others. In a word, the policy of military life is as essential as the policy of civil life; and men in field and camp, city and congress, are, after all, made of the same identical stuff, and subject to the same kindred defects and passions.

It is said, Irishmen will not serve under Irish officers, though they will under English, French, or American. What is the inference? That the fault is in the Irish officers, not in the men. If it is not to the service, or to officers, as officers, they object, it must be to the particular character of this particular class. If we look long at it, we find that where an Irish captain or colonel is just, firm, and friendly with his men, they obey him as any other officer. In the Mexican war, no Irish soldier but was proud to follow General Shields. Wherever the officer is not obeyed or respected, the explanation will be found to be, that he, not the men, are to blame.

We have now throughout the United States some twenty-five or thirty Irish companies. We have drilled men enough scattered through the militia to make as many more. There are, perhaps, in the several states, 50,000 natives of Ireland who have some smattering of military discipline. In New York City we have an Irish regiment, whose captains refute the imputation that Irish officers are not suited to command Irish soldiers.

To such officers, especially, some degree of military science is essential. No army, no regiment, can be manoeuvred without science. England has her Woolwich and other academies; France, her Polytechnique and other military schools; Russia has 200,000 students of military science in her schools of war. Even republican and anti-standing-army America has its West Point. Various works on tactics are easily had in this country, and ought to be had; for it is not inarching men through open streets, or defiling by a newspaper office, or presiding over a target excursion, that can alone make good officers. In these things, the merest popinjay might excel General Scott. But it is the reading military books,—the study of the lives of generals and guerillas,—of Washington and Marion, Wellington and Zumalacaregui, that will make an officer in the highest sense of the term. The officers of every Irish company will, we hope, have a small library of such books, well thumbed over.

We desire to see the military spirit of our ancestors revive and flourish among the Irish in America, because it will swallow faction,—because we now want, and will more and more want, all the practical science, military, mechanical and political, we can attain.[2]

Against the encroachments of landlordism it is necessary also to warn those who live in crowded communities. As no people have suffered from that terrible social despotism so much as ours, so none should resist its spread so resolutely. Every Irish emigrant should consider it the test of his manhood to have a house of his own,—altogether his own.

The frequent reading of the Declaration of 'Independence, and the Constitution under which we live, is also a duty. We cannot be good citizens, or wise electors, unless we refresh our principles at these fountains of American law and liberty. It is unnecessary to urge on our emigrants the importance of going through the forms of naturalization.

It might be improper to refer, in this place, to the most important of all topics, religion. Our emigrants have the benefit of the teachings of an increasing and improving priesthood, who will not suffer them to forget their spiritual obligations.

These wants of character being supplied, our emigrants, as a class, have but one thing more to overcome on this continent, British influence. For, disguise it as men may, that influence, whether exercised through laws, commerce, or books, is fundamentally hostile to all who bear the Irish name, apostates excepted.

The successive British governments never would study the Irish nature, and, hence, never could govern it. They despised our history, and insisted on it that the caricatures of cockney imagination were true portraits of Irish character. They shipped us laws, ready made, and punished us because we were not patient with the mis-fit. The key to all Ireland's modern wars, sorrows, and agitations, is, that those who had the power to shape her destiny, never had the conscience to study her capabilities.

We must resist every semblance of such conduct on the part of the public men and thinkers on this continent. Every attempt to caricature or proscribe, every effort to exalt the Anglo-Saxon over the other races here undergoing solution, we must resist with reason, argument, and if need be, with well-used suffrages.

All the more generous natures will be easily convinced that it is not a worthy course to judge the vanquished out of the victor's mouth; that, if Ireland has done her part on this soil, she deserves her history to be read here, her genius to be studied, and her national character to be respected. With such men, who compose, perhaps, a majority of this whole people, arguments such as these would generally be found availing:—

"There is no observation more true, than that men are the creatures of circumstance. Individual men are, perhaps, less so than nations. Nations are the creatures of their own geography, their history, and their imaginations. In this Union, the idea of sovereignty is the extent of the state. When the individual measures himself against the continent, he feels its sovereign supremacy. In England, the seat of sovereignty is in the sea. In France, the unity of the provinces is the monarchy of all.

"The Irish, also, who settle in America, are creatures of their own antecedents. The Atlantic works no miracle on them. They come to these shores, the production of British power. Disfranchised in their native land, the suffrage is a novelty to them; disarmed, the use of arms is a possession not understood; ruled by a class, they abhor the very semblance of class legislation; untrained to freedom, they make but a poor figure, at first, as freemen.

"The tendency of all class legislation is to obliterate in men the double sense of their rights and their duties. Deny their rights, and you destroy their duties; for rights and duties are two sides of the same medal, and the people that are jealous of their rights must necessarily be true to their duties.

"The naturalized citizen will not only have to cast off his British allegiance, but also to get rid of his British education. The effects of laws are known to remain after the laws have been long abolished; and it is of these enervating, humbling, debasing effects, the emigrant from Ireland has to rid himself.

"In this good work of transition from subjection to citizenship, the natives of free America should be the sponsors and catechists. Being themselves free, nothing is left for them so glorious to do as to impart their freedom to others.

"It is not worthy of this great nation to take its political philosophy at second-hand from any nation. England has endeavored to misrepresent America to Europe, and Europe to America. She tries to be the international intelligencer. She holds up contrary mirrors to opposite states, in which each shows to disadvantage in the eyes of the other. She 'speaks with a double-tongue contradictory languages.' It will not do to trust her as the interpreter of nations, still less as the limner of her own vanquished provinces.

"Whether we may wish it or not, one half of Ireland is here. We grieve that these laborious and obedient men were not possessed of a land of their own; you may regret that they possess already too much of yours. But whether we would alter it, or not, they are here. Here, by the immediate action of British misrule, here by the primal authority of man's first charter,—'Go forth, and fill the earth and subdue it.' We live in a world of facts, and this is one of its greatest. How, then, shall we deal with this great human force so placed at our disposal? Shall we, who do not suffer the obscurest stream to escape unused to the ocean, disregard what is of infinitely more value, the right use and direction of this moral Niagara, emigration? Physically, our emigrants are well-worked; nor do we underrate their value in that view. But are they not also of use as moral agents? Have they not memory, will, and reason? Have they not imagination, wit, and the desire to please and excel? Are we, democrats of the model republic, to regard men as machines, and to count them by the head, like cattle, rather than by souls, like Christians?

"O, believe me, American reader, ours is a people very teachable by those they love. Deal tenderly with their failings, they are a fallen race. Do not pander to their party prejudices, but appeal to their common sense and love of fair play. Do not make the weak, weaker, and the dependent, more dependent, but endeavor to fit them for equality, as well as liberty, so that the land may rejoice, and be secure in the multitude of its well instructed children."

"What constitutes a State?
Not high-raised battlements, or labored mound,
Thick walls, or moated gate;
Not cities proud, with spires and turrets crowned,
Not bays, and broad-armed ports,
Where, laughing at the storm, rich navies ride;
Nor starred and spangled courts,
Where low-browed baseness wafts perfume to pride.

Men who their duties know,
But know their rights; and knowing, dare maintain;
Prevent the long-aimed blow,
And crush the tyrant, while they rend the chain."

Such a presentation of the case of the recent emigrant, addressed to individuals or societies in America, could not long be made in vain. British prejudices would fade before it, and while the Irish would become more American, on the disappearance of that hostile influence, America in temperament and policy would become insensibly more Irish.

No people,—not even the natives of New England,—have a greater interest in the preservation of the Union, than the Celts in America. What we never got from England, we have here,—equal laws and equal justice. And now, if, as seems the fact, our ancient and implacable enemy, through the agencies of corruption and flattery, seeks to undermine this Union,—our refuge, liberation, and relief,—the Irish in America, as a mass, as one man, must choose their place under the Constitution. The Union gives us homes, suffrages, and wages; the Union gives us peace, plenty, and equality; the Union protects our altars, confers our lands, accepts our services in peace and war, and educates our children. The Union abolished the local persecutions of the Puritans and the Huguenot in Maryland and Massachusetts. The Union burns no convents, sacks no graves, outrages no rite of religion, nor does it insult any of its sacred teachers. By the Union, therefore, we, too, "stand or fall, survive or perish," and, with Andrew Jackson, our motto as American settlers is, "THE UNION, IT MUST BE PRESERVED."

« Chapter XXV. | Contents | Appendix I. »


[1] Of the political refugees of 1848, the great bulk are settled in New York city. There are some, however, in several other states and cities.

[2] Oliver Byrne, of New York, the distinguished engineer and mathematician, has done more than any other man to infuse into his emigrant countrymen a military spirit.