Entitled to Hunger: Frederick Douglass and the Famine Irish

Brian Peter Crowe

Brian Peter Crowe

The epigraphs above intimate a remarkable transformation in Frederick Douglass’s view of the Famine Irish, along with the generations of American Irish who followed in their wake.

On the cusp of the Famine, Douglass could profess sympathy for “the poor white children in our neighbourhood,” which almost certainly included many Irish immigrants (Narrative; ch. VII, 41).

His use of the first-person, plural possessive pronoun appears genuine as Douglass demonstrates an affinity for the Irish in much of his early writing and oration. In 1846, during his famous visit to Ireland, Douglass could “confess” that not even “half” of the Irish story had “been told,” implying that he could and would eventually help to tell it in full.

However, Douglass’s principal interests lie elsewhere amidst the sturm und drang of anti-slavery politics. He struggled throughout his career to maintain sympathy for Irish immigrants while attending to the more pressing goals of abolition, emancipation, and enfranchisement for African Americans.

In addition, Douglass’s concerns about anti-black racism, especially as it was exercised among Irish Americans, pushed him away from sympathy for the Irish towards resentment of them. After the Famine, Douglass would label the Irish American as a job stealer, “whose hunger and colour entitle him to special favour” above and beyond any deserved sympathy (Life and Times 367).

While one can understand how colour could privilege an Irish person in the nineteenth-century, most important here is the idea that, in Douglass’s view, both colour and hunger entitle the Irish over African Americans for reasons that even he would have difficulty explaining. Put simply, Douglass’s view of the American Irish — seeing them as both white and hungry — moves from admiration to anxiety and, ultimately, to anger.

Race is an obvious and undeniable advantage for Irish Americans throughout the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, but hunger requires much more consideration in order to see its benefits. In other words, if it was economically, politically, and culturally beneficial to be white in the nineteenth-century United States, how and why was it also rhetorically advantageous to be hungry?

The reasons for the development of Douglass’s position towards the Irish are explored in this article, which focuses on his encounter with the Famine and with related representations of hunger throughout his oeuvre, most specifically the three editions of his autobiography: ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’ (1845); ‘My Bondage and My Freedom’ (1855); and ‘Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written By Himself’ (1881).

This article’s guiding idea derives from Douglass’s own assertions about how hunger, distinct from yet attached to race, can be represented as a form of entitlement. Douglass’s turn away from initial identification with the Famine Irish is due in part to his recognition of hunger as a powerful rhetorical tool for soliciting sympathy that, in Douglass’s view, was held by the Irish almost exclusively.

The Famine, among other historical and cultural circumstances, forced Douglass to revise his autobiography so that he could maintain the sympathy of his audience members, whom the spectre of Irish hunger threatened to distract from his focus on anti-slavery and other forms of advocacy for African Americans. Ultimately, Irish hunger served to solidify for Douglass a clearer sense of who was (and who was not) considered to be worthy of sympathy in the nineteenth-century transatlantic sphere.

While his concerns with racial and economic justice remain paramount, Douglass’s anxiety about the social and rhetorical impact of Irish hunger is a critical component of his literary endeavours overall.

This Irish attachment to hunger, although limited by particular economic and cultural circumstances, has nonetheless appeared as a transhistorical phenomenon due to the Famine’s seminal impact as both historical reality and rhetorical trope.

Hunger as a sign of communal suffering became more associated with the Irish than with any other group in the antebellum era, and this association persisted throughout the nineteenth-century and even into the twentieth-century. Douglass, beyond most of his contemporaries, was well aware of the political potential and rhetorical efficacy of hunger, and he recognises hunger’s association with the Irish throughout the revisions of his autobiography.

Likewise, he realises that hunger, however much it affected the lives of both enslaved and free black persons, was not often affiliated in the common reader’s mind with African Americans. If anything, hunger was seen as peripheral to the slave experience.

For Douglass’s anti-slavery platform to be effective within the broader power relations at play in the nineteenth-century, slavery had to always trump hunger and other socioeconomic concerns.

In his attempt to solicit sympathy for the abolitionist cause, Douglass comes to worry that the Irish association with hunger threatens to preclude attempts by African Americans to identify it as an element of their own enslavement and continued oppression.

For African Americans, however hungry they were literally or figuratively, their rhetorical use of hunger as a means of soliciting sympathy had to contend with the Famine Irish and with subsequent generations of Irish Americans intent on achieving their own political and socioeconomic gains.

This article further suggests that the relationship between African Americans and Irish Americans throughout much of the nineteenth-century hinged on hunger, in juxtaposition with race, as an archetype of suffering.

This assertion stems in part from recent scholarship placing the Irish in what Nini Rodgers calls a “transatlantic jigsaw puzzle,” which “reveals that black slavery had a dramatic impact both on the Irish who emigrated across the Atlantic and upon the economy at home [in Ireland]” (“Introduction” 2).

Like the sympathetic attachments created by the transatlantic abolitionist movement, sympathy relating to hunger has the potential to cross boundaries of nation, class, and race. As horrifying and destructive as the Famine was, the Irish in America were able to capitalise on their hunger because it helped them to solicit sympathy from Americans of all races.

As claims Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader scepticism toward others.” This definition of racism is most relevant to this chapter’s goal of tracing the role of hunger in soliciting sympathy.

Even as slavery remained the principal social problem of the antebellum era, African Americans had to contend with scepticism about their prospects while the Famine Irish, comparably speaking, were recipients of “broad sympathy.” This is not to say that the Irish were not also alienated from and victimised by the broader American public, nor that they themselves did not participate actively in the racist behaviour that dominated the nineteenth-century.

Adding to the enlightening discourse concerning race in the nineteenth-century, this investigation into antebellum interpretations of hunger shows how racism was not always obvious to see. In other words, the Famine was a politically useful yet problematic topic for those who sought to promote abolitionism among the American public.

While relations between African Americans and Irish in the nineteenth-century were hardly happy, the African American response to the Famine highlights the very constructions of race and ethnicity that often involve such tension.

Hunger factors into this tension as both a sociological fact and a rhetorical device nearly as significant as the race itself. Race alone does not explain the relationship between African Americans and Irish in the nineteenth-century, nor do other complex modes of analysis such as class and nationality. This explanation of Irish hunger, then, offers insights into their complicated relationship with African Americans even beyond the antebellum era.

Of course, factors other than hunger alone affected the ability of the Famine Irish to make progress towards acceptance as Americans during the nineteenth-century. For instance, the fact that most Irish, at least the men among them, had access to the vote increased the likelihood that they would be included in the broader American community much more easily than former slaves and free African Americans.

An article from The North Star on May 5, 1848, reinforces this view of Irish suffrage and political usefulness: “Irishmen! […] We could not get on without them. […] They have votes, and they plunge into the heated contest, get their heads broke and their coats torn to pieces to secure the election of some person who probably cares nothing more about them than to secure their votes.”

Presumably, the “We” in this passage includes any American benefitting from the Irish, “who were labouring with zeal for their daily bread” (“Irishmen”). This anonymous writer’s apparent praise of the Irish is delivered for an audience that most likely includes African American readers of abolitionist periodicals.

One is left to ponder this writer’s motive, however, as such encomium must be calculated for political effect. The editors’ decision to include this portrait of Irishmen is intended in part to solicit sympathy for the editors’ own abolitionist cause.

The exclamation point after “Irishmen!” attracts a reader’s attention, and one is then prompted to consider the political and socioeconomic value of the Irish in America. However ironic it was that their votes went unappreciated by those they elected, Irish access allowed others (including mostly Democratic supporters of slavery) to better their circumstances in a country that did not yet appreciate Irish contributions.

While suffrage is an undeniably significant right that the Irish would eventually exercise to their own advantage, this article makes it clear that, at least in the 1840s, they were kept from accessing the fruits of their freedom as fully as other white male Americans.

In the considerable scholarship concerning African Americans and Irish in the nineteenth-century, there remains a dearth of analyses regarding responses to the Famine from across the Atlantic, specifically in regard to depictions of hunger.

Some of the most enlightening commentaries on the Famine, however, comes from former slaves and free black people in the United States. From famous figures like Frederick Douglass to lesser-known individuals, African Americans encountered Irishmen and Irishwomen both in Ireland and in America.

The views put forward in African American newspapers both reflect and diverge from other American attitudes concerning the Famine. Former slaves and free African Americans (among other abolitionists) saw the Famine and the subsequent Irish Catholic immigration to North America as catalysts for their own calls for social change.

Concern for Irish suffering was promoted through several African American newspapers, and this coverage suggests that the Irish were considered by many to be as much American as they were other, prompting some African American readers to reconsider their own social plight. African Americans could sympathise with Irish hunger but had to remain always cognizant of the need to solicit sympathy for their own worthy causes.

Language employed by African Americans and others in reference to the Irish and to their hunger tells much about how the phenomenon of the Famine was understood on a broader scale than analyses of race and class alone can provide. Among all Americans, expressions of sympathy for the plight of the Famine Irish were tempered by Nativism, anti-Catholicism, and ethnic prejudice.

American slaveholders, eager to reinforce racist ideologies and societal controls, were likely to place the Irish in a “competitive one-upsman- ship against African Americans” (Ferreira). The disadvantages of the Famine Irish were initially easier to see than their advantages, so they became both easy targets and apt archetypes for Americans of all races and classes. Irish labourers were especially susceptible to ridicule for the types of work they took on; some joked that other labourers “turned Irishman” whenever they were forced to complete a demeaning task on construction sites (Campbell 53).

While the racial implications of such a phrase are open to debate, one should also consider the psychological effects that the idea of turning Irish had upon African Americans and the Irish themselves.

To be Irish was to be dirty and desperate, but it was also frighteningly easy to turn towards Irishness if circumstances demanded. Some African Americans could thus psychologically benefit from placing the Irish below themselves in an imagined social hierarchy, yet as they viewed the Famine Irish, African Americans were confronted with the facts of their own material impoverishment.

While some African Americans derided the idea of deigning to perform Irish labour, they also worried about the fact that many jobs which could have gone to African Americans were being taken by the Irish. In the 1830s, domestic service jobs in New York and other major American cities were dominated by African Americans; by the 1850s, after the Famine, most were Irish (Diamond 452).

There was both a real and figurative fight being waged among free black people and immigrant Irish in the 1840s and 1850s, and hostilities would boil over — amidst other contributing circumstances — in the infamous Draft Riots during the Civil War in 1863.

In the rhetorical realm, much sympathy relating to hunger was reserved for the Irish. Real political and economic power was at stake as the Irish gained a foothold in the United States while African Americans struggled to obtain and maintain freedoms continually denied them. Perhaps above other groups in the antebellum era, African Americans could view the Irish experience as a reason to sympathise, but such sympathy came along with the danger that the issue of hunger became almost exclusively “Irish,” thus eliding African American suffering.

One must be careful, however, not to label the Irish as victims only. Undoubtedly, there were sufferers of disease and desperation among them, but there were also many who employed whatever agency they had to create lives for themselves in the United States (Anbinder 137). It must be said that no matter how hungry they were, the Irish always had access to whiteness.

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