Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Irish Property Obsession, British Landlordism and Myths

An image from a contemporary publication of the lynching and burning of a black man by an Irish mob in New York City in July 1863, during the Civil War Draft Riots. © Collection of the New-York Historical Society

Every country has its myths, which may partly reflect reality but more often than not are used to avoid what Al Gore might call an "inconvenient truth."

For example, the Irish obsession with property is often attributed to our historical experience of British landlordism.

The experience of many people with the grubby rental market with its leases of a maximum of a year, has more likely much more to do with it. Besides, we Irish have no aversion to being landlords.

When Irish farmers who get up to 80% of their income from public funds, make multi-million euro killings from the corrupt land rezoning system, which creates an artificial scarcity of land for development, they're very happy to become landlords of residential and commercial property. The latter is particularly popular as business tenants across the globe are less hassle prone than Joe Soaps.

Landlordism was part of a pernicious economic system as was slavery.

Landlordism has been an important part of our narrative of victimhood and we like other peoples have the same proclivity to airbrush out inconvenient truths.

When the Civil War broke out in the US, the Irish landlord system was still reeling from the impact of the Potato Famine of the 1840's. In New York, the Irish had become a force in the pro-slavery Democratic Party and strongly opposed the end of slavery because of the perceived economic threat from an influx of freed slaves.

In January 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation became law.

In his 1991 book, In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863, Leslie M. Harris wrote that: In March 1863, fuel was added to the fire in the form of a stricter federal draft law. All male citizens between twenty and thirty-five and all unmarried men between thirty-five and forty-five years of age were subject to military duty. The federal government entered all eligible men into a lottery. Those who could afford to hire a substitute or pay the government three hundred dollars might avoid enlistment. Blacks, who were not considered citizens, were exempt from the draft.

In the month preceding the July 1863 lottery, in a pattern similar to the 1834 anti-abolition riots, antiwar newspaper editors published inflammatory attacks on the draft law aimed at inciting the white working class. They criticized the federal government's intrusion into local affairs on behalf of the "nigger war." Democratic Party leaders raised the specter of a New York deluged with southern blacks in the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation. White workers compared their value unfavorably to that of southern slaves, stating that "[we] are sold for $300 [the price of exemption from war service] whilst they pay $1000 for negroes." In the midst of war-time economic distress, they believed that their political leverage and economic status was rapidly declining as blacks appeared to be gaining power. On Saturday, July 11, 1863, the first lottery of the conscription law was held. For twenty-four hours the city remained quiet.

On Monday, July 13, 1863, between 6 and 7 A.M., the five days of mayhem and bloodshed that would be known as the Civil War Draft Riots began.

The rioters' targets initially included only military and governmental buildings, symbols of the unfairness of the draft. Mobs attacked only those individuals who interfered with their actions. But by afternoon of the first day, some of the rioters had turned to attacks on black people, and on things symbolic of black political, economic, and social power. Rioters attacked a black fruit vendor and a nine-year-old boy at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street before moving to the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue between Forty-Third and Forty-Fourth Streets. By the spring of 1863, the managers had built a home large enough to house over two hundred children. Financially stable and well-stocked with food, clothing, and other provisions, the four-story orphanage at its location on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street was an imposing symbol of white charity toward blacks and black upward mobility.

At 4 P.M. on July 13, "the children numbering 233, were quietly seated in their school rooms, playing in the nursery, or reclining on a sick bed in the Hospital when an infuriated mob, consisting of several thousand men, women and children, armed with clubs, brick bats etc. advanced upon the Institution." The crowd took as much of the bedding, clothing, food, and other transportable articles as they could and set fire to the building. John Decker, chief engineer of the fire department, was on hand, but firefighters were unable to save the building. The destruction took twenty minutes.

Throughout the week of riots, mobs harassed and sometimes killed blacks and their supporters and destroyed their property. Rioters burned the home of Abby Hopper Gibbons, prison reformer and daughter of abolitionist Isaac Hopper. They also attacked white "amalgamationists," such as Ann Derrickson and Ann Martin, two women who were married to black men; and Mary Burke, a white prostitute who catered to black men. Near the docks, tensions that had been brewing since the mid-1850s between white longshoremen and black workers boiled over. As recently as March of 1863, white employers had hired blacks as longshoremen, with whom Irish men refused to work.

An Irish mob then attacked two hundred blacks who were working on the docks, while other rioters went into the streets in search of "all the negro porters, cartmen and laborers . . . they could find." They were routed by the police. But in July 1863, white longshoremen took advantage of the chaos of the Draft Riots to attempt to remove all evidence of a black and interracial social life from area near the docks. White dockworkers attacked and destroyed brothels, dance halls, boarding houses, and tenements that catered to blacks; mobs stripped the clothing off the white owners of these businesses.

Landlordism is not an explanation for our obsession with property today. Selective history and victimhood only perpetuates delusion.

We should be mature enough to accept both the positive and negative.

In the US almost a century after the rioting of 1963, an Irish-American dominated American politics like no other had done before him.

His name was Joseph Raymond McCarthy and he has also been airbrushed from our Pantheon of Heroes.