Class Conflict and Race Relations in 19th Century America


By Noel Ignatiev

Routledge, 233 pp., $25

Writing home to Ireland about the social unrest in Philadelphia in 1842, a laborer remarked: "We have had a serious time lately with the colored people and the whites, the catholicks being the worst of the two." Embedded in this unselfconscious account is a complicated understanding of race and class in 19th-century America.

Prior to the Civil War, "white" did not mean what it means today; that is, a mixture of people without regard to national origin, language, or religion. Noel Ignatiev reports that "white" meant people who do "white man's work."

Protestant Irish immigrants, who made up the majority of immigrants from that country in the early 19th century, were mostly laborers and mill hands. In other words, they were not "white." Indeed, when the first Congress of the United States voted in 1790 to allow only "white" persons to become naturalized citizens, it was not clear just who was "white."

In the vulgar language of the time, the Irish were regularly referred to using epithets typically directed toward blacks, and blacks were occasionally dubbed "smoked Irish." Practically speaking, the Irish seem to have existed in an intermediate category, neither black nor white.

When Irish-Catholic immigrants came to the United States to escape the hardships of the Irish famine, the antagonism between them and the Irish-Protestant immigrants was reestablished on American soil. Competition for the low-skilled jobs heightened religious conflicts.

As intra-Irish discord grew, so did the friction between people of Irish extraction and African-Americans. Eventually, black workers were driven out of the manufacturing and mill work that Irish Catholics were willing to take.

One might think that Irish Catholics would feel some solidarity with African-Americans. Throughout most of the 18th century, Ireland's laws forbade Catholics from serving in Parliament, voting in elections, teaching in schools, or renting land worth more than 30 shillings a year. In the United States, economic conditions and prejudice often propelled Irish immigrants and African-Americans to live in the same neighborhoods and share daily experience.

But the Irish-Americans did not choose to emphasize their similarity with African-Americans. In what promises to be a controversial book, Ignatiev proposes that the Irish instead elected to become "white." In effect, Irish Americans seized historical opportunities to set themselves up as whites. Many Irish-Americans volunteered to take up arms when the Civil War broke out, but resented the enlistment of black soldiers and the likely emancipation of the slaves.

By taking low-skilled and textile-mill jobs that blacks might have held, the Irish seemed to push black workers into destitution. In attempting to better their lot, the Irish participated in the widespread movement to keep blacks from joining trade unions.

Each of Ignatiev's chapters takes up a different subject and is highly readable on its own. Still, the transition from one historical moment to the next is frequently awkward and confusing. While scholars debate the strength of Ignatiev's evidence, general readers will welcome Ignatiev's even-handed presentation of a sensitive subject.

His goal is to represent the textures of lived experience, rather than to speak in stale abstractions. In so doing, he has gathered together some morally repugnant songs, poems, newspaper accounts, and illustrations, inserting them between two covers whose cantankerous title demands to be noticed. This decision threatens to bring more sparks than light.

The ultimate challenge of Ignatiev's text is to think beyond initial visceral responses and to focus on the historical evidence. This book requires the reader to understand the author's larger critique and the dark dynamics of American class conflict.

*This story was changed to remove a specific example of a racial epithet.

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