Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Class Conflict and Race Relations in 19th Century America

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Class Conflict and Race Relations in 19th Century America

Article excerpt


By Noel Ignatiev

Routledge, 233 pp., $25

Writing home to Ireland about the social unrest in Philadelphia in 1842, a laborer remarked: "We have had a serious time lately with the colored people and the whites, the catholicks being the worst of the two." Embedded in this unselfconscious account is a complicated understanding of race and class in 19th-century America.

Prior to the Civil War, "white" did not mean what it means today; that is, a mixture of people without regard to national origin, language, or religion. Noel Ignatiev reports that "white" meant people who do "white man's work."

Protestant Irish immigrants, who made up the majority of immigrants from that country in the early 19th century, were mostly laborers and mill hands. In other words, they were not "white." Indeed, when the first Congress of the United States voted in 1790 to allow only "white" persons to become naturalized citizens, it was not clear just who was "white."

In the vulgar language of the time, the Irish were regularly called "niggers turned inside out," and blacks were occasionally dubbed "smoked Irish." Practically speaking, the Irish seem to have existed in an intermediate category, neither black nor white.

When Irish-Catholic immigrants came to the United States to escape the hardships of the Irish famine, the antagonism between them and the Irish-Protestant immigrants was reestablished on American soil. Competition for the low-skilled jobs heightened religious conflicts.

As intra-Irish discord grew, so did the friction between people of Irish extraction and African-Americans. Eventually, black workers were driven out of the manufacturing and mill work that Irish Catholics were willing to take.

One might think that Irish Catholics would feel some solidarity with African-Americans. Throughout most of the 18th century, Ireland's laws forbade Catholics from serving in Parliament, voting in elections, teaching in schools, or renting land worth more than 30 shillings a year. …

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