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The Liberator: Daniel O’Connell and Anti-Slavery

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The story of the British anti-slavery and abolitionist movements has been dominated by the figures of Clarkson and Wilberforce. Yet, the success of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 benefited from the votes of Irish MPs. Christine Kinealy shows how Daniel O’Connell, Irish campaigner for Catholic Emancipation and Repeal of the Act of Union, played a prominent role in the anti-slavery movement.

One of the greatest contributions to the anti-slavery debate was made by the flamboyant and controversial Irish nationalist, Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847). Yet his role and that of Irish activists generally has been little recognized even by Irish historians. In the case of O’Connell, from as early as 1840 American abolitionists were claiming that his involvement in the debate exceeded that of either Thomas Clarkson  (1760-1846) or William Wilberforce (1759-1833). Twenty years later, as the United States hurtled towards civil war, the writings of O’Connell were reprinted, influencing a new audience of even more militant abolitionists. 

Opposition to slavery in Ireland had a long pedigree. As was the case in Britain, its most prominent Irish supporters were Protestant, notably Methodists, Quakers and Unitarians, and meetings were generally held in Nonconformist churches.  When Olaudah Equino (1745-1797), a freed slave who lived in England, visited Ireland in 1791, he was warmly welcomed and an edition of his biography was published there in the same year. In 1831, a Negroes’ Fund was established in Dublin, which was absorbed by the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society, established in 1837. The founders were Richard Allen (1787-1873) and Richard Davis Webb (1805-72), who were both Quakers, and James Haughton (1795-1873), a Unitarian. They increasingly favoured the approach of the American Anti-Slavery Society, led by  William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79), and which sought an immediate end to slavery, unlike the more gradual approach favoured by the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.   Many ordinary Irish men and women also opposed slavery, leading Frederick Douglass (1818-95), the escaped slave, to describe Irish abolitionists as ‘the most ardent’ in Europe during his visit there in 1845. Richard Madden, an Irish doctor, for example, was an expert witness in the Amistad trial in 1839 and 1840, and his evidence proved compelling on behalf of the slaves. However, the participation of Daniel O’Connell in the Irish anti-slavery movement propelled it into international prominence.

O’Connell’s involvement in the anti-slavery issue furthermore brought a Catholic voice to a debate that had long been associated with Protestantism in Ireland, and especially Nonconformism. Traditionally both Catholics and Nonconformists  had  been excluded from the political arena, with power resting in the hands of a small Protestant (Anglican) Ascendancy. Why was the contribution of O’Connell, who for most of his political life was an outsider and a dissident, so important? 

An Irish Catholic lawyer, O’Connell was one of the first generation of Irish Catholics to benefit from a relaxation of the repressive Penal Laws, which among other things, had debarred Catholics from voting or practising law. He experienced first hand the impact of three revolutions, in America in 1776, France in 1789 and Ireland in 1798. These events gave him a life-long abhorrence of the use of violence to achieve political ends, despite the frequent intemperance of his rhetoric. Throughout his long political career O’Connell remained committed to using only constitutional and legal methods to make his case, and was adept at exploiting his legal skills to out manoeuvre his opponents.

Both the Irish parliament before the Act of Union of 1800 and the reconstituted Westminster parliament after 1801 were exclusively Protestant. The exclusion of Catholics, who constituted the great majority of the Irish population, was a source of grievance to Catholics, especially to members of the educated middle class like O’Connell. In 1823 he helped to found the Catholic Association, which sought to win Catholic Emancipation – the right of Catholics to sit in the British parliament. O’Connell’s success in achieving Catholic Emancipation in 1829 brought him international recognition and esteem. It also meant that he was eligible to sit as an MP in the reformed House of Commons where he proved to be as adept at parliamentary business as he had been at organizing extra-parliamentary agitation. At Westminster, he played a significant part in the major debates of the day, including Parliamentary Reform, the amendment of the Poor Laws, repeal of the Corn Laws and the ‘slave question’. Although he was repeatedly elected as a candidate supporting the repeal of the Act of Union, he oscillated during his parliamentary career between supporting and opposing the Union with Britain. This inconsistency and his support for the Whig Party between 1835 and 1840 was disliked by some of his more radical supporters. In 1840, disillusioned by the limited rewards for his alliance with the Whigs, he revived the Repeal movement.

O’Connell’s involvement with anti-slavery began in 1824, when a Liverpool abolitionist, James Cropper, visited Ireland to enlist support. The previous year, while reviving   the agitation for Catholic Emancipation O’Connell had encouraged his followers to campaign to end slavery in the British empire. The anti-slavery movement had previously been associated with middle-class Protestants, but O’Connell’s involvement introduced the slave question to a mass movement whose backbone was formed from illiterate, Catholic peasants. The comparison between the misery of the Irish poor and of American slaves struck O’Connell, who described the latter as being ‘the saddest people the sun sees’, although visiting Ireland in 1845, Frederick Douglass was appalled by the poverty of the Irish people, likening their condition to that of the most degraded American slaves. When touring the United Kingdom, prior to a lecture in Cork, Douglass was referred to by O’Connell himself as ‘the Black O’Connell’, thus linking the two men in the public mind with the abolitionist cause. 

After 1824, O’Connell frequently lectured at Exeter Hall in London, where his oratorical skills brought him to the attention of a British audience. Following his election as an MP for Co. Clare in 1829 he also spoke in Parliament in favour of ending slavery in the British West Indies. As the leader of a group of forty-five Irish Repeal MPs, out of a total of 105 Irish representatives his was an important voice. Moreover, his advocacy skills were so persuasive that a group of British MPs who had interests in the British West Indies offered him their support on Irish issues, in return for his agreement to suppress his attacks on slavery. He refused. In that year, a group of black ex-slaves held a series of meetings in New York to pay tribute to O’Connell, suggesting that his fame on this issue had already spread beyond Ireland and Britain.  O’Connell’s relationship with his fellow Irish abolitionists was always ambivalent. He never formally joined the Hibernian Society, but instead paid his dues to the more conservative British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Although O’Connell enjoyed cordial relations with Haughton, a supporter of repeal, he and Webb disliked each other.

Following the passage of the 1833 Act to end slavery in the British empire, O’Connell became involved in the campaign to end apprenticeship – a system started in 1833 and regarded as a surreptitious form of slavery. It was abolished in 1838. Increasingly though, after 1833, the attention of opponents of slavery turned to America and O’Connell’s blistering attacks on American slavery won him admirers there, including William Lloyd Garrison and his colleague, Wendell Philips (1811-84). Garrison, who was based in Boston, had founded the Liberator in 1831. O’Connell’s activities and his speeches were printed regularly in  this newspaper, reaching the attention of growing numbers of abolitionists in the US. O’Connell’s international reputation and influence over recent Irish immigrants, who were an increasingly significant factor in American elections, made him a clear asset to the anti-slavery cause. However, his involvement in this campaign divided his followers, both in Ireland and North America, who believed that he should devote his energies to Irish issues. Even the Boston Pilot, the leading supporter of O’Connell in the United States, disliked his intercessions on the slave question, suggesting that his involvement was damaging the Repeal movement.

Although the British government supported abolition, they did not want to fall out with the American government over the issue, especially as diplomatic relations between the two countries were already tense due to border disputes in Canada. O’Connell was less restrained. In 1838 he snubbed Andrew Stevenson, the American ambassador, accusing him of being a ‘slave-breeder’. Stevenson, a wealthy Virginia landowner did not own slaves. He responded by challenging O’Connell to a duel – an offer the latter declined. Queen Victoria, who had met O’Connell for the first time only a few months earlier and had been enchanted by him, now regarded him as a political liability, fearing that his behaviour would damage Britain’s diplomatic relationship with the US.

While O’Connell now acquired iconic status in the eyes of some American abolitionists, his attack on the American ambassador drew the ire of newspapers in the southern states. It also angered politicians and churchmen who supported slavery. In 1839, Henry Clay, a prominent Whig politician who was running for President, criticized O’Connell in the American Senate. John Greenleaf Whittier, a Quaker poet and well-known abolitionist (1807-92), responded to Clay’s attack with an article in O’Connell’s defence. In it, he described O’Connell as the greatest politician in the British empire and suggested that the Irishman’s contribution to the abolition movement equalled those of both Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. O’Connell had become a central figure in the abolition debate, particularly in the United States. 

There is a charm in the name Daniel O’Connell all over the universe, and … Mr O’Connell could do more for the suppression of slavery in the US than any other man could do.

O’Connell was one of the few Catholics to attend the Convention. In his speeches, he referred to an Apostolic Letter, written by Pope Gregory XVI in the previous year, to demonstrate the Catholic Church’s opposition to the institution. O’Connell and other abolitionists regarded the letter as an unequivocal condemnation of slavery, particularly American slavery. Its ambiguous wording also meant that it could be interpreted to be more simply a condemnation of the slave trade. Nonetheless, O’Connell’s marshalling of the Pope’s Letter in the debate provided a mechanism for promoting the Catholic Church as a defender of humanitarian issues that affected non-Catholics. In reality, the impact of the letter was to demonstrate that the international Catholic Church was divided on the issue, while it placed bishops in the southern states of America in a difficult situation. The controversy that followed confirmed the view of some Protestant evangelicals that Catholicism had no place in the anti-slavery movement.

A follow-up to the London Convention was the drawing up of ‘An Address of the People of Ireland to their countrymen and countrywomen in America’, which appealed directly to Irish-Americans to support abolition. Although the Address was mostly the work of Haughton and Webb, two Irish Protestants, the involvement of O’Connell and Father Mathew (the leader of the Irish Temperance Movement), who not only were Catholic but who had international reputations, was important. Members of the Hibernian Society and the Repeal movement took the Address from door to door in Ireland, collecting in total over 60,000 signatures. At the end of 1841, the Address was given to the American Anti-Slavery Society, who distributed it widely. It proved to be even more controversial than the Pope’s Letter. 

O’Connell responded by promising to draw up a public address to Irish-Americans on the issue. Garrison, who attended the Convention, was in no doubt about O’Connell’s pre-eminence in the abolition movement, describing him as ‘the most wonderful of the statesmen and orators of the age’. His view was shared by Charles Lenox Remond, a black abolitionist visiting England, who wrote ‘No nation or people possess a superior to Daniel O’Connell’. Nevertheless, the praise of the American abolitionists disguised some of the underlying tensions within the anti-slavery movement and among O’Connell’s own supporters.

The message contained in the Address was unequivocal. It described slavery as a blot on America’s greatness. What O’Connell, who had never visited the United States, and other middle-class Irish abolitionists had failed to realize was the impact of their intervention. Anti-slavery did not have mass support in the United States and the abolition movement was regarded by many as  too radical, not least because abolitionists sometimes also promoted women’s rights and social reform. To support the cause, therefore, could make Irish immigrants, especially first generation ones, appear ungrateful and unpatriotic to their adopted country and its institutions. Furthermore, many of the poorer Irish immigrants feared that freed blacks would compete for their jobs. A number of newspapers refused to publish the Address, and there were some suggestions that it was a forgery. Even the Boston Globe published it reluctantly, making it clear that it viewed the document as an unwarranted interference in the politics of another country. John Hughes, the Bishop  of New York, who was Irish-born and an admirer of O’Connell, expressed a similar view. He believed that support for abolition would jeopardize the livelihood of poorer immigrants and could result in an anti-Irish backlash.

Opposition to the Address, though, was strongest among some of O’Connell’s most avid followers. Since 1840 the Repeal movement had been spreading in the US and some of its most dedicated support was in southern cities such as New Orleans, which possessed large Irish communities. The Repeal societies in Louisiana, Baltimore and Albany publicly condemned the Address, and it resulted in the Philadelphia Repeal Society splitting into two. At the National Repeal Convention held in 1842, O’Connell was warned that if he continued to champion abolition he would lose support in the US. The American Repeal Convention held the following year refused to discuss the slave question on the grounds that it was too controversial and that it exposed Irish immigrants to accusations of being disloyal citizens.

The impact of the Address was not what O’Connell had expected. It did not help abolition and divided the Repeal movement. Furthermore, it damaged O’Connell’s personal standing in the eyes of Irish-Americans, at a time when militant abolitionists, including Lloyd Garrison and Philips, were themselves criticizing O’Connell for accepting money from American Repeal societies that refused to condemn slavery. O’Connell justified the taking of this money by arguing that it was sent by people who loved Ireland more than they loved slavery. He further retaliated by accusing Lloyd Garrison and some of his fellow abolitionists of being anti-Catholic – an accusation not without foundation. Throughout 1843 though, O’Connell was increasingly pre-occupied with the Repeal movement, having declared this to be the year in which Repeal would be achieved. He undertook a punishing schedule of speaking at mass meetings throughout Britain and Ireland on the issue, while still performing his duties as an MP.

Although O’Connell did not attend the second International Anti-Slavery Convention held in London in June 1843, he continued to speak out against slavery. Anti-slavery reports were also read at the weekly meetings of the Repeal Association in Dublin. This angered a number of his Repeal supporters in the US. The issue came to a head in August 1843 when Repealers in Cincinnati wrote to O’Connell, telling him that while slavery was abhorrent, the abolitionist approach was increasing antagonisms within the country by making slaves more discontented. They also stated that American prosperity depended on the existence of slavery. The Cincinnati Letter, as it became known, was widely published. Its arrival coincided with the preparations for the final – and largest – Repeal meeting of the year, to be held at Clontarf, near Dublin. However, the British government banned the meeting at the last minute. O’Connell’s acquiescence with this decision disappointed some of his followers and threw the Repeal movement into further disarray. It was both a political and personal defeat for O’Connell and, from this point, the initiative increasingly passed to a group of his followers known as Young Irelanders. Nonetheless, only four days after the Clontarf meeting should have taken place, and despite facing imprisonment for sedition, O’Connell issued a spirited response to the Cincinnati Letter, which he read at a meeting of the Repeal Association. His long reply contained practical advice about the economic implications of freeing slaves and it outlined the positive benefits it would bring to America. It also suggested that there were laws higher than those contained in the American Constitution.

The sentiments expressed in the Cincinnati Letter had been voiced by American Repealers before, but O’Connell’s public rejoinder may have been a means of deflecting attention from the impact of the Clontarf debacle. His didactic and uncompromising reply was widely published in the US. Rather than reassure Irish-Americans, it angered many of them, resulting in the dissolution of a number of Repeal associations in the southern states. By the end of 1843, therefore, the Repeal movements in Ireland and America were deeply divided. O’Connell’s personal prestige was only saved by the fact that the British government imprisoned him in May 1844. He was sixty-nine and, despite a life devoted to political activism, he had never broken the law. The wave of public sympathy expressed for O’Connell helped to overshadow the disappointment and anger felt at his handling of the Clontarf meeting and the Cincinnati Letter.

O’Connell was released from prison in September 1844, but his health and political authority were declining and he increasingly allowed management of the Repeal movement to pass to his lacklustre son, John. The final years of O’Connell’s life coincided with the onset in 1845 of the Great Famine in Ireland. At this stage, O’Connell had again abandoned his quest for a repeal of the Act of Union and was seeking to form an alliance with Lord John Russell’s Whig Party. He died in Genoa in May 1847, en route to see Pope Pius IX, before this union was formalized. Although O’Connell never made it to Rome, his heart was taken there for burial and his other remains were returned to Ireland. He was widely mourned.

At the time of O’Connell’s death, the two great political causes of his latter years – repeal of the Act of Union and anti-slavery – appeared to be no closer to being achieved than they had been twenty years earlier. Nonetheless, his legacy to both debates was impressive. In the United States, the slave question increasingly dominated politics in the 1850s and the inability of successive presidents to resolve it brought the country to civil war in 1861. Throughout these years, the writings of O’Connell were reprinted regularly, including his response to the Cincinnati Letter. Now sentiments that had previously been regarded as inflammatory were being used to marshal support for the Union cause, especially among the large numbers of Famine and post-Famine Irish immigrants.

In August 1875, celebrations took place to mark the centenary of O’Connell’s birth. Some of largest gatherings took place in the US, where he was extolled for his role in ending slavery. In Boston, three of the best-known abolitionists of the day – John Greenleaf Whittier, Wendell Philips and William Lloyd Garrison – spoke in his honour. Their tributes were fulsome, giving no indication of earlier disputes, but with O’Connell being ascribed a central role in the abolition campaign.

In the US today it is as a crusader against slavery that O’Connell is remembered and celebrated, although his contribution to this debate is less recognized by Irish and British historians. Arguably, his role in helping to free slaves in the British empire and in North America was one of the finest achievements of the Irish Liberator.

Further reading

  • Christine Kinealy, Lives of Victorian Figures. Daniel O’Connell, (Pickering and Chatto, 2007)
  • Daniel O’Connell, Daniel O’Connell Upon American Slavery: and Other Irish Testimonies (American Anti-Slavery Society, 1860)
  • J.R. Oldfield, Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: the Mobilization of Public Opinion against the Slave Trade, 1787-1807 (Manchester University Press, 1995)
  • Nini Rodgers, Equiano and Anti-Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Belfast (The Belfast Society, 2000)
  • Nini Rodgers, Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, 1645-1865 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

Christine Kinealy is a Professor at the University of Central Lancashire and at Drew University, NJ.



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