During the course of my doctoral studies, which focused on a systematic comparison of mid-nineteenth-century American planters and Irish landlords, I became increasingly impressed by the importance of the many transnational connections between the two agrarian elites and their contexts. Perhaps the most notable of these connections were those that stemmed from mass migration from Ireland to the United States. In the half century before the American Civil War (1861-65) over two million Irish emigrants settled in the U.S. The exodus of these people had a dramatic effect on both their home and host countries. In Ireland, dislocated by the effects of economic depression and famines, emigration from rural districts helped to facilitate the widespread reorganisation of agriculture. In America, since Irish immigrants settled mostly in the urban centres of the U.S. Northeast and Midwest, their influx affected the balance of power between the ‘free North’ and the ‘slave South,’ thereby exacerbating the antebellum sectional crisis that led to the secession crisis, the creation of the Confederacy, and the Civil War. My postdoctoral research project explores these developments in transnational perspective, thereby demonstrating historical connections between the causes of Irish emigration and the origins of the American Civil War.
In January 2018, in order to develop this project, I travelled to Washington, D.C., with the aid of an IAAS Early Career Travel, Research, and Conference Bursary. My two week trip included participation in the American Historical Association’s annual conference and subsequent research at the Library of Congress. At the AHA meeting, I delivered a paper that provided an overview of my research to date, arguing in particular that Irish immigration became increasingly worrisome to Southern planters during the course of the antebellum period, fuelling their paranoia about the long-term security of slavery within the United States and encouraging the rise of Southern nationalism. This paper was part of a panel I organised, titled “Race, Class, and Nation Building in the Euro-American World: Connections and Comparisons Between the United States, Ireland, Southern Italy and Russia, 1815-1900.” Chaired by Professor Peter Kolchin (University of Delaware), the panel also included Professor Enrico Dal Lago (NUI Galway) and Dr. Amanda Brickell Bellows (New York Historical Society), whose papers respectively explored similarities and differences between specific aspects of American, Italian, and Russian history. Professor Andrew Zimmerman (George Washington University) provided comments. As a whole, the panel demonstrated that the transnational connections that are the focus of my current research are part of a much wider constellation of parallels, contrasts, and links between nineteenth-century America and Europe, which have recently begun to be systematically explored by scholars and which should continue to provide fruitful ground for historical research for decades to come. The feedback that I received on my ideas was both constructive and stimulating. Additionally, attendance at the AHA allowed me to attend many panels on subjects related to my own and to converse with scholars working on complimentary issues or using similar methodologies and sources.
After the AHA conference concluded, I spent the remainder of my trip conducting primary research at the Library of Congress. One of my main aims was to find out more about antebellum Irish immigrants’ evolving attitudes toward the South’s ‘peculiar institution.’ To do so, I looked especially at many Irish American newspapers spanning from the early nineteenth century to the late antebellum period. These included the Shamrock, the Exile, the Irish American, and the Irish News. While the views on slavery articulated in these organs were heterogeneous, they provide clear evidence that the subject became increasingly central to not only the U.S. national conversation, but also to Irish American discourse as the antebellum period advanced. To compliment my interest in Irish American views of Southern slavery I also spent time in the Library of Congress investigating antebellum Southern slaveholders’ attitudes toward Irish immigration. As such, I examined the letters and diaries of several prominent planters, and I also read through a selection of Southern newspapers. While more research on this subject is necessary, it was apparent from the sources I consulted that the fact the free states were attracting more immigrants than the South was a serious concern to many planters in the decades before the Civil War.
Together, attendance at the AHA conference and research at the Library of Congress have provided me with new ideas, contacts, and sources, while also stimulating my desire to pursue promising new avenues of research. Ultimately, I hope that this project will lead to articles in suitable peer-reviewed scholarly journals on Irish immigrants’ relationship with Southern slavery and transnational connections between developments in Ireland and the antebellum U.S. sectional crisis. In turn, these articles will contribute to a monograph that will examine similarities, differences, and connections between American slavery and Irish landlordism. By helping to facilitate my recent trip to Washington, D.C., the IAAS Early Career Travel, Research, and Conference Bursary has aided with a step toward these goals.
Dr Cathal Smith is based in the History Department at NUI Galway