Claiming Irish people were slaves ignores degrees of freedom

Swift: ‘All government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery’

‘When Frederick Douglass toured Ireland as the Famine was beginning, he saw and was touched by the suffering of the Irish poor. He saw some parallels with the slavery he had escaped in Maryland.’ Photograph: MPI/Getty Images

‘When Frederick Douglass toured Ireland as the Famine was beginning, he saw and was touched by the suffering of the Irish poor. He saw some parallels with the slavery he had escaped in Maryland.’ Photograph: MPI/Getty Images

 

Did you hear about the Irish republican who said that under the British the Irish were slaves? No, not Gerry Adams in 2016, Patrick Pearse in 1916: “There were and are only two alternatives: an enslaved Ireland and a free Ireland.”

In his three pamphlets written in the months leading up to the Easter Rising, Pearse quoted extensively from Lawlor, Davis and Wolfe Tone, all of whom use the language of slavery. That does not mean that the Irish experience in the 18th and 19th centuries was identical to the experience of black slaves as depicted in films such as Django Unchained. To understand why, we need to examine where this use of language came from.

The man Pearse called the father of Irish separatism, Wolfe Tone, was influenced by Jonathan Swift. Swift’s Drapier’s Letters, written in the 1720s, were aimed against the Westminster decision to introduce new copper coinage into Ireland. However as the letters continued, they questioned the power claimed by the parliament in Westminster to force decisions on Ireland and to over-ride laws made by the Irish parliament in Dublin, using the language of slavery. In his Letter addressed to “the People of Ireland”, Swift is explicit about what he means by slavery: “all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery”.

In his next letter addressed to Robert Molesworth, Swift reasserts this definition and gives his sources : “I had been long conversing with the Writings of your Lordship, Mr Lock, Mr Molineaux, Collonel Sidney and other Dangerous Authors, who talk of Liberty as a Blessing...”

The English republican Algernon Sidney, John Locke and Robert Molesworth all wrote contrasting the freedom of living under a limited government with the slavery of being ruled by an absolute monarch. Molyneux took the further step of equating an absolute monarch with Westminster’s absolute rule over Ireland without consent, the position adopted by Swift. No wonder that £300 was offered in 1724 for the name of the author of the Drapier Letters, or that Tone might find this idea inspirational and apply it more widely than Swift or Molyneux did.

However, this definition of slavery is political. Pearse’s IRB colleague Sean McDermott called the Irish Parliamentary Party “dastards, cowards and slaves”. Pearse quoted Wolfe Tone’s “What miserable slaves are the gentry of Ireland!” in 1694 Molesworth called the nobility of Denmark “slaves”, since their monarch had absolute power over them. None of these references are suggesting that Irish Parliamentary Party MPs, or Irish gentry, or Danish nobles lived and worked in the same conditions as chattel slaves.

Wolfe Tone’s fellow United Irishman Thomas Russell also described the Irish as slaves. Yet he made clear the African slave trade was different. It was “a system of cruelty, torment, wickedness and infamy” so monstrous the Irish should not support the British war against France.

A century earlier when Molesworth wanted to describe the complete lack of freedom of the Danish peasants who are tied to the land, he says “they are all as absolute Slaves as the Negroes are in Barbados”.

For these writers, it is clear that there are different types of slavery. Molesworth’s protégé, Francis Hutcheson, argued that all human beings are equal. They all have particular rights: the right not to be arbitrarily attacked or killed, the right to own property and to marry according to their own choice, among others. These rights belonged to all including the indentured servant or the criminal.

However, although these rights also belonged to the chattel slave, according to the law in many countries they were merely property with no rights. Hutcheson refuted arguments put forward to justify this, and concluded: “No damage done or crime committed can change a rational creature into a piece of goods void of all right, and incapable of acquiring any, or of receiving any injury from the proprietor.”

If these rights were not recognised by law then the person lacking rights is at the mercy of others. Owners of chattel slaves could and did rape, torture and murder their “property”, all perfectly legally. This is why campaigns for civil rights were, and are, so important.

It’s easy to accept that there are degrees of freedom. Over history, and today, some have been more free than others. However it’s less obvious that there are degrees of slavery. This is the key problem with the use of the term: it’s easy to treat it as a unitary thing. It’s easy to slide into thinking that if the Irish were slaves, then they must have been treated as the chattel slaves in America were. But they weren’t.

It would be unjust to say that then the mistreatment the Irish did receive didn’t matter. But it is equally unjust to appropriate the suffering of the chattel slave. When Frederick Douglass toured Ireland as the Famine was beginning, he saw and was touched by the suffering of the Irish poor. He saw some parallels with the slavery he had escaped in Maryland.

He also saw that the two situations had important differences which were lost in the political use of the term “slavery”. In 1845 he told an Irish crowd: “If slavery existed in Ireland it ought to be put down, and the generous in the land ought to rise and scatter its fragments to the winds. But there was nothing like American slavery on the soil on which I now stand. Negro slavery consisted not in taking away a man’s property, but in making property of him.”

Cathy Barry is a philosophy graduate who blogs at IrishPhilosophy.com. She is one of the speakers at the “What is a Republic?” conference, to be held at Maynooth University on May 23rd.

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