Irish Life in Ante-Bellum New Orleans

We know the Irish immigrants endured harassment and worse in New Orleans during the 1850’s. The Know Nothings achieved a great deal of influence in New Orleans during the ante-bellum years. In 1854, the American Party (aka Know Nothing party) killed two Irish men during harassment. The harassment was intended to suppress the Irish vote. The Irish generally supported the Democratic party. As the Whig party faded away, the American party succeeded to much of its ideology, but more so. In the 1854 election, the Know Nothing party gained control of City Hall. They forced out the Irish members of the police force. In 1856, violence erupted again and again, the American party candidate won City Hall.

But, how did the “average” New Orleanian feel toward the Irish? My family was part of the Irish community. No horror stories were passed down. But, does that mean some Irish avoided the bias? In her diary, Clara Solomon makes passing references to Irish New Orleanians. Her family was Middle class or upper middle class. Her father was Solomon Solomon, a merchant. The family also happened to be Jewish.

Mr. Solomon did not much care for the Irish. Yet, the family employed an Irish domestic, Ellen Deegan. They also had a domestic slave, Lucy. The family generally seemed fond of Ellen. Clara would complain when Ellen could not come to work, which occurred with some frequency.

When Mary, an Irish domestic for the Nathan family quit, Clara commented that her “thousand and one” aunts, uncles, and cousins desired her services at home. Clara was annoyed. She commented that Irish families tended to be large. She said the problem with Irish domestics was they tended to have “such a quantity of relations.” The Nathan family and the Solomon family lived close to each other and often visited with each other. Clara said she would miss Mary. Mary was an “estimable” girl, said the 17 year old.

Clara was engaging in some stereotyping. But, her comment actually rings true with my New Orleans, Irish ancestors. Four Price sisters all Irish, all married and all had children. It is remarkable that the four couples and their children did everything together. Two first cousins served in the same artillery regiment during the war. After the Civil War, if one cousin participated in some charity fund-raiser, there would always be another one or two other cousins also helping with the same fund-raiser.

The four families generally attended the same churches and the same schools. They always sponsored each other’s children in baptism. They even lived close to each other. Two sisters lived next door to each other. It was truly a community within a larger community.

In 1861, Solomon Solomon lost his temper, or almost so with the milk man. He was, said Clara, easily provoked when it came to Irishmen. The milk man gave Mr. Solomon too much change for a dollar. The father told him to leave. The Irish milk man said he would leave when he felt like it (emphasis Clara’s). As Clara said, that was impertinent. It was the Solomon house, not some public square. But, we can imagine how any Irish immigrant would feel when a landowner gets bossy. Most Irishmen would indeed push back. Mr. Solomon then ran inside the house. Clara thought he was going after his pistol. But, no, it was only to get his fire poker. Clara did not explain how this resolved itself, but she joins in. She said if she knew he was going after his poker, and not his pistol, she would have helped him. And, that was life for Irishmen in ante-bellum New Orleans.

Elliott Ashkenazi, ed., The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1995), p. 53, 287.

The Irish Immigrants Preferred the Democratic Party

From early on, the Irish immigrants preferred the Democratic Party. For one thing, the Democrats actively courted the Irish vote. Coming from a country like Ireland, where the party in power, the Whig party, barely acknowledged their existence, this was significant. Too, the Democrats talked often about the value of the “common man.” The Democrat rhetoric appealed to the Irish immigrant.

Indeed, the Whig party in England had consciously and deliberately ignored the famine in Ireland. They were content to take little or no action, trusting in the powers of the free market to save the Irish from starvation.

In 1832, Andrew Jackson ran for office. Descended from an Irish immigrant, his campaign apparatus touted his Irish connections. His opponent, John Quincy Adams, was supported by newspapers that frequently described the Irish as “Hessian flies [and] cancer worms.” Those same newspapers attacked the rebels in the Irish 1798 rebellion. And, of course, Adams’ party was the Whig party. In the minds of many immigrants, it was the Whigs in England who “killed” them with the famine. Through the 1840’s the Whigs engaged in anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Through the 1830’s and 1840’s in New Orleans, the Democrats reminded the Irish voters that “Whiggery” was the same as nativism. That is, the Whigs were the same as anti-immigration fervor. The Irish immigrants were often reviled in American newspapers.  It is not surprising they would prefer the Democrats throughout the South.

Today, we wonder why the Irish in the South served in the Confederate army and why some Irish immigrants in the North avoided the draft. One significant reason was the aversion and distrust of the Republican party. The Republicans were former Whigs and worse, former members of the American (Know Nothing) party.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 2001), p. 94-96.

Rep. Davis Castigates Anti-Immigrant Fervor

In 1861, the Democratic party had wide support across the South. Even today, some people believe erroneously that the Democratic party alone supported slavery. But, certainly, the Democrats largely supported the extension of slavery. Yet, The Democrats also generally embraced the Irish and German immigrants in the decades leading up to the Civil War. In the decades of the ante-bellum era, the German and especially the Irish immigrants were seen as repugnant by many native Anglo Americans. A young Congressman, Jefferson Davis, was friends with prominent Irish immigrants in Vicksburg, Mississippi. His plantation was near Vicksburg.

The future president of the Confederate States of America earned a measure of fame among immigrants everywhere when he attacked the nativist members of Congress and their attempt to restrict immigration. As a freshman Representative in 1844-1845, he castigated the nativist members for their “sordid character [and] their arrogant assumption.” He argued that instead of restricting immigration, Congress should make becoming a citizen easier. It was one of the ironies of American history that a well-known supporter of immigrants was also a large slave owner. No one said ante-bellum politics were simple.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Univ. of North Carolina Press 2001), p. 102.