O’Connell was disappointed at the reluctance of some of his fellow Irishmen in the United States to support abolition. In 1843, while facing imprisonment by the British government for convening a Repeal meeting at Contra, he penned an eleven page denunciation of slavery, and of those who tolerated it. His message was uncompromising and unequivocal:
How can the generous, the charitable, the humane, and the noble emotions of the Irish heart have become extinct amongst you? How can your nature be so totally changed as that you should become the apologists and advocates of the execrable system which makes man the property of his fellow man – destroys the foundation of all moral and social virtues – condemns to ignorance, immorality and irreligion, millions of our fellow creatures …? It was not in Ireland that you learned this cruelty...
Over the broad Atlantic I pour forth my voice saying come out of such a land you Irishmen, or if you remain and dare continue to countenance the system of slavery that is supported there, we will recognize you as Irishmen no longer!
William Lloyd Garrison, the leading American abolitionist, said of O’Connell’s denunciation, “I do not remember anything finer from the lips of any European or American patriot.”
Until his death in 1847, O’Connell remained an outspoken proponent of immediate abolition and an advocate of treating freed slaves as the equals of white men. Even following his death, his influence continued. In the struggle for hearts and minds that preceded the American Civil War, the speeches of O’Connell were widely reprinted in the Northern states, bringing him to a new generation of abolitionists.
In 1875, centenary celebrations for O’Connell took place throughout the world. Some of the largest were located in the United States. In Boston, valedictory tributes to O’Connell were made by the three leading American abolitionists: William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillip and John Greenleaf Whittier. They each honored O’Connell as the most important abolitionist of the age.
In Ireland and Britain, Daniel O’Connell is remembered as the Liberator of Irish Catholics, but he also played a significant role in liberating slaves both in the British Empire and in North America. Moreover, his inclusive, egalitarian and humanitarian approach truly made him both a friend and champion of the slave.
In the words of Frederick Douglass, “The fire of freedom was burning in his mighty heart.”
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