A Letter to John Mitchel

from French Republican exiles in New York (1854)

Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond. Eyre Crowe (1824–1910). 1861. Oil on canvas. Collection of Teresa Heinz.

Le Republicain, of New York, was started by two French exiles who had escaped from the notorious French penal settlement at Cayenne, otherwise known as Devil’s Island. They were but two of the 239 republican prisoners sent to the colony due to their opposition to Napoleon III’s coup d’état in 1851. This letter, authored by Alexandre Holinski, denounces Mitchel’s pro-slavery remarks. “In that paper we find the following letter to John Mitchel, which has been translated for the Evening Post. Read it! Those who advocate truth for the oppressed people of Europe are not all like Mitchel.” — The Liberator, 3 February 1854

Sir — Democratic Europe loved to place you in the first rank of the champions of liberty. In you, the defender of the rights of injured Ireland, every people and every race saw a defender for themselves. After your speech at San Francisco; after your formal declaration, that the general tendency of the old continent is to Republicanism, the Universal Republic thought that she might count upon you.

You yourself have been, for a long time, a martyr in a cause inseparable from the cause of universal humanity. Was it not natural to hope your sympathies belonged forever to the martyrs of every and any tyranny!

This hope, I might say this with certainty, has been strangely annihilated, by the second number of your Citizen. In answer to one of your countrymen, Mr. Haughton, who exhorted you to show yourself consistent in your principles, and to take ground in favour of the unhappy slaves of the United States, you say:-

“We are not abolitionists — no more than Moses, or Socrates, or Jesus Christ. We deny that it is a crime, or even a peccadillo, to hold slaves, to buy slaves, to sell slaves, to keep slaves to their work by flogging or other needful correction. ‘By your silence’ says Haughton, ‘you will become a participator in their wrongs.’ But we will not be silent when occasion calls for speech; and as for being a participator in the wrongs, we, for our part, wish we had a good plantation well stocked with healthy negroes in Alabama.”

What language, sir, and what a wish! A captive who has just broken bonds, comparatively light, and who declares that he is not an abolitionist, that is to say, that he desires to keep upon slaves the heavy fetters they wear! A man who proclaims Queen Victoria and her ministers outlawed from humanity, for their treatment of him and his, and who calls legitimate the hundred times more degrading, more poignant, more painful tortures of several millions of his fellowmen! To buy and sell these unfortunates, to force them to labour by the whip, or by some other punishment — this you approve of, ardent denouncer of the oppression of the Irish! Yet, your countrymen are neither bought nor sold like cattle, and no one has ever proposed to cure them of laziness by means of flagellation. No, the bloody lash of the driver has never torn the shoulders of your fellow-citizens, and they are not put up for sale in [an open] market, men, women, and children, at so much a head!

The Emerald Isle ought to consider itself lucky, that it is not under a government sufficiently enterprising to realise the comparison that you make in the same article between the condition of the Irish and slaves of Alabama — those slaves, a portion of which you covet. If that were the case, sir, there would be no more anxious agitation, no more hope of obtaining redress for your religious and political grievances, no more emigration, even. Those who desired to seek liberty in America, would be advertised, hunted down, thrown in jail, and given up to their owners, upon the arbitrary decision of any inferior judge. They would, then, according to you, be better lodged and better fed than they are now. I will admit this pretended advantage, and I ask your ragged and hungry Irish brethern, if they would buy clothes and bread at the price of their own persons? A thousand times no! would answer all these men, who are worthy of a better fate, if it were only because they aspire, not to the well-fed state of domestic animals, but to well-being, with liberty for its first condition.

If your words could be taken seriously; if tomorrow, I say, the British Government, convinced, like yourself, of the superior condition of the black slaves over the Irish, should attempt to carry out your theory, what would happen? This — that the most beggarly of your countrymen would rebel to die in poverty, but, at least, uncontaminated by the stains of abject slavery, even though servitude fed and clothed them.

A man of your talent, sir, should not make these imaginary parallels, which vanish on the slightest examination. And, if you will allow me to say it, in spite of the respect due to your brilliant talents, it is greatly presumptuous to compare yourself to Moses, Socrates, or to Jesus Christ, while breaking a lance in favour of slavery...[…]…

If Ireland alone interests you, you serve her cause badly, believe me, in separating it from that of the other victims of tyranny. You maintain her rights with a bad grace, when you deny the rights of a vast portion of humanity.

The joys of Ireland, at your deliverance, will be saddened to find you in open contradiction with her most illustrious patriot. I can hear from the tomb the angry voice of O’Connell, repeating his fine expression of 1837: “We are all the children of the same Creator, heirs of the same promise, redeemed by the blood of the same Saviour, no matter what caste, or colour, or faith we may belong.”

When your profession of faith crosses the Atlantic, the disappointment of your friends will be sad, as was that of the Democrats of the different nations assembled here in New York. In the stead of a journal which was, as we hoped, to have been the antidote to another Irish print devoted to despotism, you have given us, as it were a second edition of it.

Why does the Citizen compete with the Freeman’s Journal and Catholic register*? Is it because two papers are needed, one to uphold the cruelty of the odious Pius IX., and of the kings blessed by his bloody hand; the other to approve the cruelty of American planters; this one to rivet the chains of the blacks, the other to rivet the chains of the whites? The Freeman’s Journal and Catholic Register was, I think, competent to the double task.

Should the sale of the Citizen enable you to purchase a ‘well-stocked plantation’ in Alabama, we shall regret, for your own sake, to see you, an ex-martyr of liberty, living upon slavery. We shall regret, too, the fate of your unfortunate Helots, destined in advance to the whip.

I am sorry, sir, not to be able to subscribe this letter with a name better known. But in the absence of the chiefs, the obscure soldiers of the Universal Republic must do their duty.

Alexandre Holinski.


*The Freeman’s Journal and Catholic Register was an American Roman Catholic publication which James A. McMaster bought from Bishop Hughes in 1848. It remained Catholic, and popular amongst Irish Americans readers, but McMaster also pushed a pro-slavery, pro-Confederate, pro-secession, white supremacist policy. McMaster, a convert to Catholicism believed that

“the Catholic Church has her own methods. She interferes not with any human arrangement not in itself a sin. Human slavery is not such a sin-least of all is it sinful where it exists in the persons of a semi-savage race . . .”

This view also blatantly ignored Pope Gregory’s In supremo apostolatus of 1839. Furthermore, Albon P. Man Jr. has researched this newspaper’s leading role in inciting anti-black violence during the Draft Riots of 1863 and he has revealed that it

“warned that Negroes could not live in the same community with whites. Those that migrated to New York from the South were to be driven away, imprisoned, or exterminated.”