The Irish Abolitionist: Daniel O'Connell


Finally, O’Connell brought a Catholic dimension to a movement that had, up to that time, been overwhelmingly associated with Protestant evangelicals. Unlike the evangelicals, he did not regard slaves as heathens who would benefit from being converted to Christianity, but as men and women who could not reach their potential until they were free.  Overall, O’Connell brought a more inclusive and humanitarian dimension to anti-slavery agitation.

After 1829, O’Connell used his presence in the British House of Commons, and his considerable oratorical skills, to agitate for the ending of slavery in the British Empire. His arrival in the British parliament caused disquiet amongst those MPs who supported slavery. A group of them even offered O’Connell support on Irish issues in return for his silence on abolition. He responded, “Gentlemen, God knows that I speak for the saddest people the sun sees, but may my right hand forget its cunning and  may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth before, to help Ireland, I keep silent on the negro question.”

In 1833, the British parliament voted to end slavery in the British Empire. O’Connell’s elation was tempered by two facts: slave-owners were to be given over £20,000 in compensation, and the ending of slavery was not to be immediate, but replaced by a system of ‘apprentice-ship,’ that is, slavery by another name. O’Connell led the opposition to what he regarded as a betrayal of the slaves, and demanded of the House of Commons, “Was that what the Negro expected? Was that what the country so long sought for and expected?” O’Connell’s unrelenting campaign meant that the apprenticeship system was ended in 1838.

In 1839, O’Connell became embroiled in a controversy that attracted widespread attention on both sides of the Atlantic. O’Connell publicly refused to recognize the American Ambassador in London, Andrew Stephenson, on the grounds that he was a “slave-breeder.” Stephenson responded by challenging the 65-year-old to a duel. The duel was never fought, but the resulting dispute ran for months in the Irish, British and American newspapers. It also caused disquiet at the highest political levels. The British Foreign Office, no supporter of O’Connell, expressed concern at the venom being heaped on him by some sections of the American press. Queen Victoria, however, despaired that her Irish subject was creating an international diplomatic incident. Her apprehensions were well-founded. Henry Clay, an American, pro-slavery senator, publicly condemned O’Connell’s interference in the slavery question. In contrast, Stephenson’s behavior was criticized in the House of Congress by John Quincy Adams, himself an abolitionist.

An unexpected outcome of this controversy was that Frederick Douglass, when in Ireland a few years later, referred to this incident and explained how O’Connell’s actions had inspired him. He explained: “I heard my master curse him, and therefore I loved him. In London, Mr. O’Connell tore off the mask of hypocrisy from the slave-holders, and branded them as the vilest of the vile, and the most execrable of the execrable, for no man can put words together stronger than Mr. O’Connell.”

O’Connell’s argument with Stephenson had made him the scourge of American slave-owners but, according to Douglass, it had elevated him to the hero of American slaves. Moreover, the Stephenson controversy demonstrated that O’Connell had become a central figure in the abolition question in the United States. 

In 1840, the first international Anti-Slavery Convention was held in London. O’Connell’s participation confirmed his reputation as the most influential abolitionist in the world. The Americans who attended the Convention were particularly fulsome in their praise, with William Lloyd Garrison describing O’Connell as “the most wonderful of the statesmen and orators of the age.” Another delegate, Charles Lenox Remond, a black abolitionist, was also charmed, writing that, “No nation or people possesses a superior to Daniel O’Connell.”

The success of the London Convention, but primarily O’Connell’s contributions, persuaded Remond to turn Irish support into something more permanent. Together with James Haughton and Richard Webb, two Irish Abolitionists, he composed “An Address of the People of Ireland to their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America.” The Address was signed by O’Connell, leading people to assume he was the author. It described slavery as a blot on American greatness and it appealed directly to Irish-Americans to support abolition. Members of the Hibernian Anti-slavery Society took the Address from door to door in Ireland, collecting signatures. By 1842, they had gathered over 70,000.

The Address was then taken to Boston by Remond. However, the Address caused dissent and division within the immigrant communities. Asking Irish immigrants to support the Address meant unwittingly encouraging them to criticize the American government and thus appear both ungrateful and unpatriotic. Bishop John Hughes of New York urged Irish Americans not to sign the Address on the grounds that supporting abolition would expose them to being caught between their loyalty to their country of birth and that to their adopted country.