John Mitchel in America: champion of slavery and anti-evangelical

Continuing some reflections on my rebel relative John Mitchel (1815-1875) prompted by commemoration events in Newry this week.

John Mitchel escaped from Van Diemen’s Land in 1853 and spent most of the remainder of his life in America [he returned to Ireland in 1874-5, got elected twice, was declared ineligible by special Act of Parliament and promptly died but that’s another story].

In the States he was a staunch supporter of the Confederate cause. He believed the South was a superior society to that of the North.

“The South and the North are two nations and cannot go on long together. Every year widens the breach and reveals the incompatibility of the two sections. I prefer the South in every sense. I do really believe its state of society to be more sound, more just, than that of the North.”

For Mitchel, the South’s struggle against the oppressive and industrial North was like Ireland’s against England. And part of that way of life was slavery which Mitchel unashamedly championed despite the reactions from friend and foe alike:

We deny that it is a crime, or a wrong, or even a peccadillo, to hold slaves, to buy slaves, to keep slaves to their work by flogging or other needful coercion …, 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.

And this stance brought him into head to head confrontation with evangelical abolitionists. One was the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin).  For Mitchel, English evangelicals and American abolitionists were hypocritical in their concern for slaves but ignored the oppression of their own working classes. He despised their ‘cant’.

He also was deeply suspicious of Enlightenment confident hopes for a better future as expressed in the American Constitution.

“I am not aware that every human being, or any one, has ‘an inalienable right to life, liberty, and happiness.’ People often forfeit life and liberty, and as to ‘happiness,’ I do not even know what it is. On the whole, I fear this is jargon.’

Cheerful fella, wasn’t he?

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