Social Conditions

The presence of increasing numbers of Irish immigrants caused notable friction in many areas of Connecticut during the course of the nineteenth century. This was the fault of both native and immigrant parties and can be contributed to a variety of factors including the nativist tendencies of some locals, the fears held by many New Englanders regarding Catholicism, and the comfort newly-arrived immigrants gained from retaining long held customs rather than assimilate. Hogan writes of the two parties, “Both had their peculiarities, prejudices and blind spots.

Connecticut Yankees, who took great pride in calling their state the Land of Steady Habits, were scandalized by the invasion of hordes of poor Famine emigrants, worried about their jobs, about the rapid spread of the Catholic religion and about the growing political leverage of the Irish. For their part, the Irish were cliquish, clinging together in enclaves, often preferring to retain the customs of the ‘ould country’ rather than assimilate.”85 Many of the issues related to religion would persist long after Congregationalism was removed as the official state religion in 1818, and these and other social discomforts would not be resolved until the two groups had lived side by side for some time.86

Religious tensions frequently came to a head in the field of education, as throughout the nineteenth century it was incredibly common to find religious – read: Protestant – texts as part of the curriculum. This was rarely challenged among native populations as more often than not the only text a working-class family might own, if any, was a version of the Bible. Unsurprisingly, Catholic populations often took issue with such practices and either actively complained or simply withdrew their children from the local schools in favor of parochial institutions.

Natives commonly viewed such reactions as a threat to one of the pillars of American society, the public school system. Just such a controversy came to a head in Derby between 1853 and 1854, this illustrated by the Derby Journal, which published a series of letters between the editor, Thomas M. Newson, and an Irish Catholic resident, John Hartley, debating the subject. Newson spoke of public schooling stating that, “The children of citizens and those of foreign lands are invited to avail themselves of its benefits on equal terms,” yet noted that many Catholics refused to meet the system half way and instead demanded a portion of public funds to support their own institutions.

Hartley responded stating, “…that the contrary is true. Its benefits are not offered alike to the Romanist... He is asked to sacrifice his conscience by reading a Protestant version of the Bible which he cannot conscientiously do.”87 The situation soon became so heated that not only did Waterbury’s Rev. O’Neill – under whose jurisdiction Derby fell at that time – become involved, but a debate titled “Ought Protestants insist on the reading of the Bible in public schools attended by Catholic children” was held in Derby in November of 1854.88

Another arena in which religion became an issue was that of politics. Many natives were threatened by the political power potentially held by increasing concentrations of Irish constituents and the influence that those who possessed their favor might yield. The Catholic clergy was a frequent target of such fears. Hogan quotes the Hartford Courant and New Haven Palladium citing complaints regarding, “The throng of bigoted Irish with no knowledge of the working of republican institutions, with no acquaintance with even the theory of self- government in a democracy... led by priests only one degree advanced beyond them in civilization,” and the “known fact that the Romish clergy of our own state and elsewhere have for years past interfered more or less with our elections.”89

Other nativist newspapers wrote of instances in which Irish congregations had allegedly been threatened with mortal consequences should they diverge from the political agenda of their clergymen, or argued that naturalization should be denied any immigrant who placed the pope’s civil supremacy over those of secular rulers.90

Fears regarding the political consequences of Irish immigration also had secular origins and implications. A common theme was that which referenced the type of favoritism or cronyism often associated with political machines such as that made famous by New York’s Tammany Hall and the influence of William “Boss” Tweed. Editorials from the period frequently cited concerns regarding efforts on the part of politicians – the blame primarily falling on the Democratic Party – to court Irish voters through systematic quid pro quo treatment.91 A citizen who was identified as “Fair Play” wrote the New Haven Palladium in June 1853,

It is well understood that the democracy made large advances towards our Irish fellow citizens during the late presidential election and they have since been casting about to see how they could pay the great debt which they owe to them.

One holds the responsible position of letter carrier; another, Mr. B. Healy, has just been nominated in the Second Ward for common councilman and a similar nomination is expected in the Fourth Ward and it is said that several are disappointed in their expectations of lighthouse keeper which has just been given to Mr. Thompson, a Yankee ... If these men have been selected because they are the best men in the Democratic Party for these offices, then I would not find a word of fault; but if they were selected for the purpose of paying them for party services not as Americans, but as foreigners, then I for one protest against proscribing the hundreds of American citizens in the Democratic Party who are, to say the least, equally competent as those which have been selected ... There are men who have spent from 10 to 40 years in the service of the Democratic Party but have never been complimented with an office of any kind. Is this fair?92

These conditions prompted a backlash from concerned – and in many cases, paranoid – citizens that resulted in a brief period of high-visibility success for the nativist Know-Nothing Party. In 1854, citizens in Irish-heavy New Haven elected wealthy industrialist Chauncey Jerome on a Know-Nothing ticket, and in elections that fall the party successfully seized legislative seats in 48 towns across the state. The year also saw New Haven host a gathering of the nativist American Party, which the Hartford Courant identified as “one of the largest political meetings that has been held in this city for several years.” This success carried into the state’s gubernatorial election the following year, when after the popular vote failed to produce a majority, the General Assembly selected the American Party candidate, William T. Minor of Stamford, as governor as the result of a 177 to 70 vote.93

During his two terms in office Minor pushed forward a slate of nativist legislation, including calling for the extension of the period of residency before naturalization and supporting a law that denied voting rights to individuals who were unable to read the state constitution. The character of Minor’s opinions towards the foreign-born population of Connecticut were clearly outlined in his inaugural message, this delivered to the State Legislature in May 1855.

Minor’s comments allude to the influx of Irish immigrants, which he identified as a “large mass of aliens, some of them tinctured with the social infidelity of continental Europe, very many of them blind followers of an ecclesiastical despotism, a large majority of them without correct ideas of the duties appertaining to citizens of a republican government and by early prejudices totally unfitted to learn them – differing in language, in national customs and feelings and scattered all over the country, still with tenacity holding on to and observing these customs – and from among them as appears from the statistics of crime and pauperism in the different states in this Union, comes a majority of the inmates of our prisons and almshouses.”94

What may have been Minor’s most sensational and flagrantly anti-Irish action came in the fall of 1855 when he disbanded six of the state’s predominantly Irish militia companies, this despite the fact that the majority of the members were naturalized United States citizens. Of his decision he wrote, “Military Companies organized as foreign Companies and composed entirely of the foreign born, are believed to be detrimental to the military interests of our State and their continuance inconsistent with the spirit of our Institutions.”

While the state’s standing Adjutant General, John C. Hollister, resigned after being informed of the Governor’s  intention, as did his successor, Justin Hodge, the dissolution of the militias was finally carried out by Joseph D. Williams on September 25, 1855. This included Company F of Hartford, Company C of Norwich, Company D and Company E of New Haven, Company B of Birmingham/Derby, and Company B of Bridgeport. The New Haven City Guards, a largely German organization, were not impacted.95

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