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David Roediger, “‘Slaving like a Nigger’: Irish Jobs and Irish Whiteness”

January 15, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

“‘Slaving like a Nigger’: Irish Jobs and Irish Whiteness”

David Roediger

From Chapter 7, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, 1991. [PDF]

In 1856, Henry C. Brokmeyer, then a wage-earning immigrant German molder in St. Louis, wrote in his diary a question posed about one of his German-American friends: ‘”Why doesn’t he learn . . . a trade; and he wouldn’t have to slave like a nigger? ‘ Brokmeyer, who was to become not only independent of wage work but eventually lieutenant governor of Missouri, had picked up a pattern of usage common in American English since the 1830s. [61] Not only was nigger work synonymous with hard, drudging labor but to nigger it meant ‘to do hard work’, or ‘to slave’. ‘White niggers’ were white workers in arduous unskilled jobs or in subservient positions. [62]

But not all European immigrants had the same prospects to ‘learn a trade’, let alone to acquire independence from ‘slaving like a nigger’, by owning a workshop or a farm. English and Scandinavian immigrants were especially likely to achieve such mobility, while the Irish and Germans faced most directly the question of how and whether their labor was different from ‘slaving like a nigger’. But the Irish confronted the question much more starkly. Both before and after the famine, they were far more likely than the Germans to be without skills. The famine Irish infrequently achieved rural land ownership. Within large cities Irish-American males were skilled workers perhaps half as often as German-Americans, and were unskilled at least twice as often. Although frontier cities, perhaps attracting Irish migrants with more resources and choices, showed less difference between Irish and German occupational patterns, the Irish stayed at the bottom of white society. [63]

In larger Eastern cities the divergence was great. In Boston in 1850, according to Oscar Handlin, 22 percent of the German-born and 6 percent of the Catholic Irish-born worked in nonmanual jobs. 57 percent of the Germans were in skilled trades, as against 23 percent of the Irish. 47 percent of the Irish and only 12 percent of the Germans were unskilled. Handlin in fact argued that free Blacks were for a time both economically and socially more secure in late antebellum Boston than were the Irish. In New York City in 1855, Germans were about twice as likely to do nonmanual labor as the Irish, and the Irish were nearly five times as likely to be without skills. In Jersey City in 1860, over half of Catholic Irish American workers, and only one German-American in eight, did unskilled labor. [64] In addition, many skilled and ‘independent’ Irish-Americans were only nominally or precariously so. Concentrated in declining artisanal crafts, often as outworkers or as highly exploited apprentices, Irish artisans and petty employers in some areas experienced significant downward mobility as they aged. Irish stevedores frequently descended into the ranks of employed longshoremen, and small Irish building trades contractors into the ranks of laborers, from year to year. [65]

The prominence of Irish workers, especially women, in jobs involving service in households became especially pronounced. Christine Stansell’s work shows a dramatic ‘Irishization’ of such jobs, so that in New York City by 1850 three serving women in four were Irish-Americans. Faye Dudden’s Serving Women details the same trends in a broader study. Travellers took note of the change as one that placed Irish Catholics in servile positions. Thomas Hamilton, writing in 1834, found that ‘Domestic service . . . is considered degrading by all [Americans] untainted with the curse of African descent.’ He bet that Andrew Jackson could ‘not find one of his constituents, who, for any amount of emolument, would consent to brush his coat.’ The Scottish and British migrants quickly came to share this republican view, according to Hamilton. The Irish, he added, took setvile jobs. [66]

With the coming of the Irish into dominance in household work, much of the herrenvolk republican practice of avoiding the term ‘servant’ for whites fell into disuse. From the Age of Jackson, reformers in New York City set out to reshape the behavior of often Irish ‘domestic servants’. Thomas Hamilton’s account echoed this usage and, as Dudden observes, even when the term domestic came to be used by itself, servant was implied. An 1859 traveller found that native-born Americans still avoided calling domestic workers of the same background servile names but reasoned, ‘Let negroes be servants and, if not negroes, let Irishmen . . . . ‘ ‘Help’, Dudden comments, ‘were likely to deny the name of servant, while domestics usually had to accept that title. ‘ [67]

Irish-American workers also suffered an association with servile labor by virtue of their heralded, and at least sometimes practiced, use as substitutes for slaves within the South. Gangs of Irish immigrants worked ditching and draining plantations, building levees and sometimes clearing land because of the danger of death to valuable slave property (and, as one account put it, to mules) in such pursuits. Frederick Law Olmsted’s widely circulated accounts of the South quoted more than one Southerner who explained the use of Irish labor on the ground that ‘niggers are worth too much to be risked here; if the Paddies are knocked overboard . . . nobody loses anything. ‘ [68]

Irish youths were also likely to be found in the depleted ranks of indentured servants from the early national period through the Civil War. In that position they were sometimes called ‘Irish slaves’ and more frequently ‘bound boys’. The degraded status of apprentices was sometimes little distinguishable from indenture by the 1840s and was likewise increasingly an Irish preserve. [69] In New York City, Irish women comprised the largest group of prostitutes, or, as they were sometimes called in the 1850s, ‘white slaves’. [70] Given all this, the tendency to call Irish workers ‘Irish niggers’ is hardly surprising.

Irish-Americans needed ‘nigger work’. As the Southern historian U.B. Phillips put it, the dangerous jobs in which Irishmen substituted for slaves ‘attracted those whose labor was their life; the risk repelled those whose labor was their capital.’ The same might be said about indentured servitude, domestic service by married women, prostitution and other hard jobs for which Irish-Americans desperately competed. Irish-Americans could not simply say, as many other white Americans could, that Blacks were suited to menial or subservient jobs. They bitterly resented comments by some of the elite that Blacks made better servants. As Rasia Diner has remarked, even after the Civil War Irish anti-Chinese agitation was predicated in large part on the need to defend Irish domestic servant women from competition from Chinese males. [71]

Job competition has often been considered the key to Irish-American racism. From Albon Man to Bruce Laurie, historians have emphasized that Irish workers, especially on the docks and shipyards in cities like Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and above all New York City, fought to keep away Blacks as job competitors and as strikebreakers. Many such direct incidents of Irish violence to intimidate Black workers did occur, especially during the Civil War, and there is some justification for Laurie’s view that in Philadelphia Irish gangs undertaking racist violence were exercising job control. [72] But to go from the fact that Irish workers really fought with Blacks over jobs on occasion to the proposition that Irish racism was really a cover for job competition is an economic determinist misstep that cuts off important parts of the past. Why, for example, when Irish Catholic immigrants said that they feared the ‘amalgamation of labor’ should historians hearken to their emphasis on labor and not to their emphasis on amalgamation? [73]

Moreover, to say that Irish-Americans acted as militant white supremacists because of job competition only invites the further question: why did they choose to stress competition with Black workers instead of with other whites? In 1844, Philadelphia Irish Catholics who mobbed Blacks to clear them from dockworking jobs had themselves recently been removed from handloom weaving jobs via concerted actions by Protestant weavers. [74] Why did they not mob the Protestants? In most cities, even when we consider only unskilled work, the Irish had far more German American competitors than Black ones. Why was the animus against working with Blacks so much more intense than that of against working with Germans? Indeed, as Harold Brackman has argued, the main competitors of the Irish for unskilled work were other arriving Irish. [75] Why, given the strength of ‘countyism’ in Ireland and the patterns of intra-Irish factional fighting for canal-building jobs in the 1830s, did race and not time of emigration or county or even kin network become the identity around which Irish dockworkers in New York City could mobilize most effectively in the 1850s and during the Civil War? [76]

By and large, free Blacks were not effective competitors for jobs with the Irish. A small part of the urban labor force, negligible in most Midwestern cities, they at best held on to small niches in the economy and small shares of the population, while the immigrant population skyrocketed in the 1840s and 1850s. Discrimination of the ‘No Irish Need Apply’ sort hurt Irish opportunities. Sometimes, as in an 1853 New York Herald ad reading ‘WOMAN WANTED – To do general housework . . . any country or color will answer except Irish . . . . ” such job prejudice was scarcely distinguishable from racial discrimination. [77] But what was most noteworthy to free Blacks at the time, and probably should be most noteworthy to historians, was the relative ease with which Irish-Americans ‘elbowed out’ African-Americans from unskilled jobs. By 1850, for example, there were about twenty-five times as many Irish-American serving women in New York City as Black serving women. [78]

One obvious reason that the Irish focused so much more forcefully on their sporadic labor competition with Blacks than on their protracted competition with other whites was that Blacks were so much less able to strike back, through either direct action or political action. As Kerby Miller has argued, Irish Catholic immigrants quickly learned that Blacks in America could be ‘despised with impunity’. They also learned that free Blacks could be victimized with efficacy. Even the wholesale wartime atrocities against Blacks in the 1 863 draft riots did not draw any opposition for assembled crowds nor vigorous prosecutions by municipal authorities. The attempt of Irish-American dockworkers in New York to expel German longshoremen from jobs under the banner of campaigning for an ‘all-white waterfront’ – perhaps the most interesting and vivid antebellum example of the social construction of race – reflects in part ill-fated Irish attempts to classify Germans as of a different color. But it also suggests how much easier it was for the Irish to defend jobs and rights as ‘white’ entitlements instead of as Irish ones. [79]

Had the Irish tried to assert a right to work because they were Irish, rather than because they were white, they would have provoked a fierce backlash from native-born artisans. As it was, in major cities North and South immigrants comprised a majority or near-majority in artisanal jobs by the 1850s. Despite their concentration in unskilled labor, Irish Americans were also a large percentage of the artisan population and of the factory-based working class, especially in sweated and declining trades. [80] Native-born artisans often complained that Irish and German immigrants undermined craft traditions and sent wages down by underbidding ‘American’ workers. Historians as diverse in approach as Robert Fogel and W.J. Rorabaugh have held that the native-born workers were at least partly right in connecting the immigrants with a downward spiral of wages and a loss of control over work. Similar arguments have linked Irish immigration with the lowering of wages and the undermining of a promising labor movement of native-born women textile workers. [81] By no means is the case connecting Irish immigration with the degradation of native-born workers the only one that can be made. Edward Everett Hale observed at the time that with the coming of the Irish, ‘Natives [were] simply pushed up into Foremen . . . , superintendents, . . . machinists’ and other skilled occupations. Hale’s view has some defenders among modern historians, but the important issue here is that many native-born artisans, rightly or wrongly, paired the arrival of the Irish with unfavorable changes in their crafts and wages and participated in both anti-immigrant riots and anti-immigrant political movements. By casting job competition and neighborhood rivalries as racial, rather than ethnic, the Irish argued against such nativist logic. [82]

Thus, the struggle over jobs best explains Irish-Americans’ prizing of whiteness if that struggle is considered broadly, to include not only white-Black competition but white-white competition as well. Similarly, we must widen the focus from a struggle over jobs to include an emphasis on the struggle over how jobs were to be defined to understand more fully why the Irish so embraced whiteness. Specifically, the spectre of ‘slaving like a nigger’ hung over the Irish. In Ireland, peasants with small holdings had commonly described loss of a parcel as a descent to ‘slavery’. [83] Irish-Americans did not mind referring to Britain’s ‘enslavement’ of Ireland. Sometimes, as in the 1856 presidential campaign, they insisted on it. Would-be friends of Irish-Americans as diverse as Edward Everett Hale, Orestes Brownson and the labor reformers of the Voice of Industry all alluded to the British imposition of slavery or worse on Eire. Irish-Americans were also receptive to appeals from Democratic politicians who emphasized the threat of ‘white slavery’ in the United States and were cool to Republican attempts to portray talk of ‘white slavery’ as reckless and demeaning to white workers. [84]

But there were few specific attempts by the Irish or their friends to talk about a specifically Irish-American ‘slavery’ – a distended metaphor, as Frederick Douglass pointed out, but considerably less so than the generalized concept of ‘white slavery’, which was used. Immigrants, so hopeful of escaping slavery in Ireland, were hesitant to acknowledge a specifically ethnic defeat in the Promised Land, and real differences between the suffering in Ireland and that in America discouraged use of ‘Irish slavery’ to describe both situations. [85]

Most important, Irish-American Catholics did not want to reinforce popular connections of the Blacks and the Irish. If they could live with being called ‘white slaves’, it was harder to abide being called ‘Irish niggers’. When Irishmen repeated jokes about slaves complaining that their masters treated them ‘like Irishmen’, the laughter had a decidedly tense edge. [86] But it was difficult to get out from under the burden of doing unskilled work in a society that identified such work and (some craft jobs) as ‘nigger work’. If they were to sever this connection, the Irish could not just achieve a favorable labor market position vis-a-vis Blacks. They had to drive all Blacks, and if possible their memories, from the places where the Irish labored. Frederick Douglass warned the Irish worker of the possibility that ‘in assuming our avocation he ,also assumed our degradation. ‘ Irish workers responded that they wanted an ‘all-white waterfront’, rid of Blacks altogether, and not to ‘jostle with’ African-Americans. [87] They thought that, to ensure their own survival, they needed as much.

Notes

61 . Henry C. Brokmeyer, A Mechanic’s Diary, Washington, D.C. 1910, 33. See also p. 112.

62 . DA, 2:1120 and 2:1867; DAE, 4:2479; Wittke, Irish in America, 125; Berlin and Gutman, ‘Natives and Immigrants’, 1188; Ira Berlin, Slaves without Masters: Free Blacks in the Antebellum South, New York 1974, 234-40.

63 . Nora Faries, ‘Occupational Patterns of German-Americans in Nineteenth-Century Cities’, in Harmut Keil, ed., German Workers’ Culture in the United States, 1 850 to 1920, Washington, D.C. 1 988, 3 7-5 1 , esp. 39; Conzen, Immigrant Milwaukee, 73.

64. See n63 above and Handlin, Boston ‘s Immigrants, 59, 69-70, 133 and 250-52 ; Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City” New York 1949, 214-17.

65 . See Susan E. Hirsch, Routs of the American Working Class: The Industrialization of the Crafts in Newark, 1800-1860, Philadelphia 1978, 47; Rorabaugh, Craft Apprentice, 133 and 140; Laurie, Working People, 159; Pernicone, ‘The “Bloody Ould Sixth”‘, 114-16; Bernstein, Draft Riots, 118-19.

66. Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860, New York 1986, 156-61 ; Faye Dudden, Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth Century America, Middletown, Conn. 1983 , 5-6; Thomas Hamilton, Men and Manners in America, Edinburgh 1834, 1:104-7; William Hancock, An Emigrant’s Five Years in the Free States of America, London 1860, 41.

67. Dudden, Serving Women, 5-6; Hamilton, Men and Manners, 1:104-7; Charles Mackay, Life and Liberty in America, London 1859, 1:243; Stansell, City of Women, 164; Ernst, Immigrant Life, 65; Handlin, Boston’s Immigrants, 61; Fonnisano, Political Parties, 181.

68. Roger W. Shugg, Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana, Baton Rouge, La. 1968, 90-93; Cedric A. Yeo, ‘The Economics of Roman and American Slavery’, Finanzarchiv 13 (1952): 466; Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey to the Seaboard Slave States: In the Yean 1853-1854, with Remarks on Their Economy, New York 1904, 100-101.

69. Dennis Clark, ‘Babes in Bondage: Indentured Irish Children in Philadelphia in the Nineteenth Century’, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 101 (October 1977): 475-86; Rorabaugh, Craft Apprentice, 133, 140 and 167-70; Clark, Irish in Philadelphia, 120; AG, 1:58 and 94.

70. Stansell, City of Women, 178 ; S.B . Flexner and H. Wentworth, eds, Dictionary of American Slang, New York 1975, 577; OED 2, 12:75.

71. Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, American Negro Slavery, New York, 1918, 302-3; Ernst, Immigrant Life, 67; Hasia Diner, Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century, Baltimore 1983, 91-93.

72. Man, ‘Irish in New York’, esp. 88-89; Man, ‘Labor Competition and the New York City Draft Riots of 1863’, Journal of Negro History 36 (October 1951): 376-405 ; V. Jacque Voegeli, Free But Not Equal: The Midwest and the Negro During the Civil War, Chicago 1967, 5; Laurie, Working People, 65-66 and 157; Steven J. Ross, Workers on the Edge: Work, Leisure and Politics in Industrializing Cincinnati, 1788-1890, New York 1985, 195; Philip S . Foner and Ronald L. Lewis, eds, The Black Worker: A Documentary History from Colonial Times to the Present, Philadelphia 1978, 1:274-77; Philip S. Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, New York 1976, 11.

73 . The Metropolitan Record, 14 December 1861 : as cited in Miller, ‘Green over Black’, 69; Litwack’s valuable North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1 860, 161-66, too singlemindedly connects job competition and Irish racism.

74. Laurie, Working People, 124.

75. Brackman, ‘Ebb and Flow’, 235-38; Leonard P. Curry, The Free Black in Urban America, 1800-1850, Chicago 1981 , 3-8, 14-36, 80, 259-61 and 293 n34. See also n63 above.

76. Peter Way, ‘ Shovel and Shamrock: Irish Workers and Labor Violence in the Digging of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal,’ Labor History 30 (Fall 1989): 498, 504-5; O’Hanlon, Irish Emigrant’s Guide, 82-84; Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, 3 22; Miller, ‘Green over Black’, 52; Ernst, Immigrant Life, 105.

77. Robert Ernst, ‘The Economic Status o f New York City, 1 850-1 863 ‘, Negro History Bulletin 12 (March 1949): 140, quoting the New York Herald; Handlin, Boston’s Immigrants, 62.

78. Stansell, City of Women, 156-57; Philip S. Foner, ed., The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, New York 1950, 2:249-50; Litwack, North of Slavery, 165-66; Commons et aI., Documentary History, 7:60-61; Ernst, Immigrant Lift, 131-33; Charles H. Wesley, Negro Labor in the United States, 1850-1925, New York 1927, 31-32; Rubin, ‘Black Nativism’, 199.

79. Miller, ‘Green over Black’, 18, 35; Bernstein, Draft Riots, 28, 119-20, 191-92 and 318, n88; Foner and Lewis, Black Worker, 1:164.

80. Berlin and Gutman, ‘Natives and Immigrants’, esp. 1191; Hirsch, Roots, 47; Rorabaugh, Craft Apprentice, 133 and 140; Wtlentz, Chants Democratic, 118-19; Lane, Solidarity or Survival?, 28.

81. Lane, Solidarity or Survival?, 24-30; Ernst, Immigrant Life, 103 and 261 n53; Rorabaugh, Craft Apprentice, 133, 140 and 167-71 ; Robert W. Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, New York 1 989, 354-69; on the mills, see Norman Ware, The Industrial Worker, 1840-1860, Boston 1924, 80-88, but also for more nuance, Thomas Dublin, ‘Women, Work and the Family: Female Operatives in the Lowell Mills, 1830- 1860’, Feminist Studies 3 (Fall 1975): 34-37; Jonathan Prude, The Coming of Industrial Order: Town and Factory Life in Rural Massachusetts, 1810-1860, Cambridge, Mass. 1983, 190
and 215; H.M. Gitelman, ‘The Waltham System and the Coming of the Irish’, Labor History 8 (Fall 1967): 227-53.

82. See Handlin, Boston’s Immigrants, 84; Gitelman, ‘Coming’, passim; David Montgomery, ‘The Shuttle and the Cross: Weavers and Artisans in the Kensington Riots of 1844’, Journal of Social History 5 (1972): 411-46.

83. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, 202 and 212, and Frank Walsh, ‘Who Spoke for Boston’s Irish? The Boston Pilot in the Nineteenth Century’ , Journal of Ethnic Studies 10 (Fall 1982): 27.

84. Gibson, New York Irish, 86-87; Edward Everett Hale, Letters on Irish Immigration, Boston 1852, 8; Voice of Industry, 7 May 1847; Thomas Ainge Devyr, The Odd Book of the Nineteenth Century; or, ‘Chivalry ‘ in Modern Days, Greenpoint, N.Y. 1882, 103; Irish-American, 21 January 1860; Murphy, Attitudes of American Catholics, 40-41 ; and Chapter 5 above.

85. Douglass, as reprinted in Herbert Aptheker, ed., A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, New York 1951 , 1:312; Miller, ‘Green over Black’, 81-83. However, see also Devyr, Odd Book, 164 and 168.

86. Wittke, Irish, 125; Rubin, ‘Black Nativism’, 199; Freeman’s Journal (New York), 4 November 1843.

87. Very suggestive in this connection are Paul A. Gilje’s comments on antebellum racism as, in part, a focus for a more general hatred and contempt for unskilled workers. The Irish obviously had an interest in keeping that focus on Blacks. See Gilje, The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763-1834, Chapel Hill, N.C. 1987, 165; Voegeli, Free But Not Equal, 66 and 106. For Douglass, see P. Foner, ed., Lift and Writings, 2 :249-50.

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