Irish Immigrants Supported the Democrats

Throughout the 1840’s and 1850’s, the Irish immigrants in the South (and North) supported the Democratic party. The support was almost universal. Emblematic of that support was the newspaper editor, Doctor James Hagan of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Dr. Hagan was from Ireland and he fully embraced the anti-Whig fervor of the Democratic party. In an age when newspaper editors often used over-the-top language, Hagan stood out for his personal attacks on Whigs. He believed Whigism represented anti-nativism. Certainly, many Whig politicians of the day were opposed to immigrants.

Hagan and John C. Calhoun, the famous slavery senator, founded the Vicksburg Sentinel newspaper. In person, Hagan was mannerly and friendly. But, with a pen in his hand, his rhetoric was bitter toward the Whigs. One of the Democratic issues of the day in the 1840’s was a national bank. Democrats opposed the creation of a national bank. In Mississippi, the governor, Alexander McNutt withdrew the charter for the Union bank of Mississippi, due to corruption. For years, the issue raged regarding whether to pay on the bank’s bonds. McNutt opposed payment of the bonds. Dr. Hagan supported him.

In 1841, Hagan approached the editor of the Vicksburg Daily Whig, a Whig newspaper, at a Vicksburg street corner. Edmund Flagg was the editor of the Daily Whig. Flagg believed Hagan was armed and intended to kill him. The Irish editor denied the accusation, but took offense. He challenged Flagg to a duel. Hagan wounded Flagg in the ensuing duel. He wrote soon afterward that, “you should feel little compunction in visiting on the head of the degraded puppy the utmost of our wrath.” Mr. Hagan felt no sympathy for his wounded foe.

A year later, Dr. Hagan went after another well-known Whig politician, Seargeant S. Prentiss, a nationally renowned orator from Mississippi. He described the Whig politico as a “blackguard,” a “rowdy,” and as a “cowardly braggart.” The new Democratic governor in Mississippi, Tilghman Tucker, then almost got into a duel with Prentiss when Prentiss refused to disassociate himself from Hagan’s remarks.

Mr. Hagan regularly attacked the Whigs for holding nativist views. He encouraged immigrants to become naturalized as soon as possible. During the nineteenth century, immigrants to the U.S. were not required to become citizens. In time, his invective caught up with the fiery Irish immigrant. The son of one of his victims, D.W. Adams, physically attacked Dr. Hagan on a Vicksburg street in 1843. They wrestled. Hagan had the young man by the throat. Adams drew his pistol and shot the editor. Hagan died instantly. Tried later, the young Adams was acquitted. The Vicksburg community collected money to erect a monument in Hagan’s honor. But, there is no record of the monument ever being built.

Both parties, the Whigs and the Democrats supported slavery in varying degrees. The Whig party would fold quickly in 1854, to be replaced by the new American (Know Nothing) party. And, still, both parties would support slavery in varying degrees. The Democratic party was supported throughout the South, up to and including 1861. The working man did generally support the Democrats. While the planter class universally supported the Whigs all across the South.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 2001), pp. 97-98.


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