Urbanities

William J. Stern
How Dagger John Saved New York’s Irish
Spring 1997

We are not the first generation of New Yorkers puzzled by what to do about the underclass. A hundred years ago and more, Manhattan’s tens of thousands of Irish seemed a lost community, mired in poverty and ignorance, destroying themselves through drink, idleness, violence, criminality, and illegitimacy. What made the Irish such miscreants? Their neighbors weren’t sure: perhaps because they were an inferior race, many suggested; you could see it in the shape of their heads, writers and cartoonists often emphasized. In any event, they were surely incorrigible.

But within a generation, New York’s Irish flooded into the American mainstream. The sons of criminals were now the policemen; the daughters of illiterates had become the city’s schoolteachers; those who’d been the outcasts of society now ran its political machinery. No job training program or welfare system brought about so sweeping a change. What accomplished it, instead, was a moral transformation, a revolution in values. And just as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in the late eighteenth century, had sparked a change in the culture of the English working class that made it unusually industrious and virtuous, so too a clergyman was the catalyst for the cultural change that liberated New York’s Irish from their underclass behavior. He was John Joseph Hughes, an Irish immigrant gardener who became the first Catholic archbishop of New York. How he accomplished his task can teach us volumes about the solution to our own end-of-the-millennium social problems.

John Hughes’s personal history embodied all the virtues he tried so successfully to inculcate in his flock. They were very much the energetic rather than the contemplative virtues: as a newspaper reporter of the time remarked of him, he was “more a Roman gladiator than a devout follower of the meek founder of Christianity.” He was born on June 24, 1797, in Annaloghan, County Tyrone, the son of a poor farmer. As a Catholic in English-ruled Ireland, he was, he said, truly a second-class citizen from the day he was baptized, barred from ever owning a house worth more than five pounds or holding a commission in the army or navy. Catholics could neither run schools nor give their children a Catholic education. Priests had to be licensed by the government, which allowed only a few in the country. Any Catholic son could seize his father’s property by becoming a Protestant.

When Hughes was 15, an event he was never to forget crystallized for him the injustice of English domination. His younger sister, Mary, died. English law barred the local Catholic priest from entering the cemetery gates to preside at her burial; the best he could do was to scoop up a handful of dirt, bless it, and hand it to Hughes to sprinkle on the grave. From early on, Hughes said, he had dreamed of “a country in which no stigma of inferiority would be impressed on my brow, simply because I professed one creed or another.”

Fleeing poverty and persecution, Hughes’s father brought the family to America in 1817. The 20-year-old Hughes went to work as a gardener and stonemason at Mount St. Mary’s college and seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Working there rekindled in him a childhood dream of becoming a priest, and he asked the head of the seminary, John Dubois, if he could enroll as a student. Dubois, a French priest who had fled Paris during the French Revolution armed with a letter of recommendation from Lafayette, turned him down, unable to see past his lack of education to the qualities of mind and character that lay within. This was no ordinary gardener, Dubois should have recognized; indeed, as he went back to his gardening chores, Hughes wrote a bitter poem on the shamefulness of slavery and its betrayal of America’s promise of freedom. Not one to forget a slight, Hughes harshly froze Dubois out of his life when he became prominent and powerful. Indeed, in later years, Hughes won the nickname of “Dagger John,” a reference not only to the shape of the cross that accompanied his printed signature but also to his being a man not to be trifled with or double-crossed.

With the good luck that marked his career, Hughes met Mother Elizabeth Bayley Seton, who visited Mount St. Mary’s from time to time, and impressed her deeply with all those talents that Dubois had failed to see. A Protestant convert to Rome who had become a nun after her New York blueblood husband died, Mother Seton was a powerful influence on American Catholicism and was canonized as America’s first and only native-born saint after her death. When she wrote to Dubois, recommending the un- educated immigrant laborer for admission to the seminary, her prestige carried the day. Ad-mitted in September 1820, Hughes graduated and was ordained a priest in 1826. His first assignment: the diocese of Philadelphia.

Recognized as a born leader from his early seminary days, he first came to prominence in Philadelphia as an eloquent and courageous crusader against bigotry. Between 1820 and 1830, immigration had swelled the U.S. Catholic population 60 percent to 600,000, with no end in sight. The new immigrants were mostly Irish—impoverished, ignorant, unskilled country folk, with nothing in their experience to prepare them for success in the urban environs to which they were flocking. Hughes believed that the relentless barrage of anti-Catholic prejudice that greeted them in their new land was demoralizing the already disadvantaged immigrants and holding back their progress.

The “nativists,” as the highly organized anti-Catholics were called, included Protestant fundamentalists who saw the Catholic Church as the handiwork of Satan and superstition, intellectuals who considered Catholicism incompatible with democracy, ethnocentric cultural purists who believed the United States should be a land for Anglo-Saxons, and pragmatic citizens who thought it not worth the trouble to integrate so many culturally different immigrants. The nativists counted among their number many of America’s elite, including John Jay, John Quincy Adams, John Calhoun, Stephen Douglas, and P. T. Barnum, all of whom spoke publicly against the Catholic Church and the threat to liberty that allowing Catholics into the country would create. In Boston a mob led by Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher, the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, burned a convent to the ground; church burnings were common. Samuel Morse tapped out rumors of Catholic conspiracies against liberty on his Atlantic cable long before such trash circulated on the Internet. Books depicting concupiscence in convents and sex in seminaries were everywhere.

Hughes was outraged. He didn’t want Catholics to be second-class citizens in America as they had been in Ireland, and he thought he had a duty not to repeat the mistakes of the clergy in Ireland, who in his view had been remiss in not speaking out more forcefully against English oppression. Resistance was imperative. He began a letter-writing campaign to the newspapers, decrying what he saw as a tendency toward chauvinistic nationalism in his new country. In 1829, for instance, outraged by an editorial in a Protestant religious newspaper about “traitorous popery,” he fired off a missive to its editorial board of Protestant ministers, calling them “the clerical scum of the Country.” During the 1834 cholera epidemic in Philadelphia, which nativists blamed on Irish immigrants, Hughes worked tirelessly among the sick and dying, while many Protestant ministers fled the city to escape infection. After the disease subsided, Hughes wrote the U.S. Gazette that Protestant ministers were “remarkable for their pastoral solicitude, so long as the flock is healthy, the pastures pleasant, and the fleece lubricant, abandoning their post when disease begins to spread dissolution in the fold.” He pointed to the work of the Catholic Sisters of Charity, who had cared for cholera victims without regard for their own safety, and wondered where all the people who spoke about perversion in the convents had gone during the epidemic.

The next year he became a national celebrity when a prominent and well-born Protestant clergyman from New York named John Breckenridge challenged him to a debate. The American aristocrat and the articulate, combative priest, who had developed a large following among Philadelphia’s Irish immigrants, did not disappoint their fans. Breckenridge luridly conjured up the Catholic Church’s Inquisition in Spain, tyranny in Italy, and repression of liberty in France. Americans, he said, wanted no popery, no loss of individual liberty. Hughes countered by describing Protestant tyranny over Catholic Ireland. He related what had happened at his sister’s grave. “I am an American by choice, not by chance,” he said. “I was born under the scourge of Protestant persecution, of which my fathers in common with our Catholic countrymen have been the victim for ages. I know the value of that civil and religious liberty, which our happy government secures for all.” Regardless of what had happened in Europe, he said, he was committed to American tolerance.

Hughes’s performance against a man of Breckenridge’s stature made him a hero with America’s Irish. Not long thereafter, when John Dubois, Hughes’s former teacher and now bishop of New York, grew sick and frail, Rome appointed Hughes, just over 40 years of age, coadjutor-bishop of the New York diocese, which then included all of New York State and part of New Jersey. He was consecrated a bishop in the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral—still standing on Mott Street—on January 7, 1838. James Gordon Bennett, the famous Scottish-born editor and publisher of the New York Herald, was one of the rare souls among New York’s 60,000 Cath-olics (out of a total population of 300,000) who weren’t Irish. He harrumphed that Catholic rituals were pure poetry, especially episcopal consecrations, but to hold such a ceremony before the “general run of New York Irish was like putting gold rings through a pig’s nose.”

After the consecration, John Hughes was ready to lead. Unsystematic, disorganized, impulsively charitable, unable to keep his checkbook balanced, vain enough to wear a toupee over his baldness and combative enough to have to apologize to a valued colleague for “a certain pungency of style” in argument, Hughes was also, in the words of future president James Buchanan, “one of the ablest and most accomplished and energetic men I had ever known.” Hughes’s first New York crusade was to get his flock educated, so that they could benefit from the new nation’s almost limitless opportunity. He passionately believed that the future of the Irish in America depended upon education: indeed, he knew it firsthand from his own experience.

He immediately stirred up a war over the city’s schools, then run by the Public School Society. Though the society received state funding, it was essentially a private Protestant organization that taught Protestantism and used the Prot-estant Bible. Worse, from Hughes’s point of view, it had pupils read such books as The Irish Heart, which taught that “the emigration from Ireland to America of annually increasing numbers, extremely needy, and in many cases drunken and depraved, has become a subject for all our grave and fearful reflection.” Hughes (with the support of New York’s 12,000 Jews) wanted an end to such sectarian education, and he wanted, above all, state aid for Catholic schools, just as the state had funded denominational schools before 1826 (with no one dreaming of calling such aid unconstitutional). The outcome of the struggle pleased no one: the Maclay Bill of 1842 barred all religious instruction from public schools and provided no state money to denominational schools. On the night the bill was passed, a nativist mob ransacked Hughes’s residence, and the authorities had to call out the militia to protect the city’s Catholic churches.

Having at least partly reformed the public schools to help those Catholic children who attended them, Hughes threw his energies into building a Catholic school system that would educate Catholic children the way he thought they should be educated. No need was more urgent, in his view. He did not believe that a society hostile to the Irish and certain they were incapable of accomplishment would produce schoolteachers and administrators interested in and good at teaching Irish children. “We shall have to build the schoolhouse first and the church afterward,” he said. “In our age the question of education is the question of the church.”

Hughes’s schools emphasized not just the three Rs but also a faith-based code of personal conduct that demanded respect for teachers and fellow students. Parents had to attend meetings with teachers and do repair work and cleaning in the schools. These schools then, as now, produced children capable of functioning in the mainstream of American life. By the end of his tenure, the original boundaries of Hughes’s dio-cese contained over 100 such schools. Not content to build just primary and secondary schools, he founded or helped to found Fordham University and Manhattan, Manhattanville, and Mount St. Vincent colleges.

In 1845 Hughes began to face his greatest challenge. That year the potato crop failed completely in Ireland, and the Great Famine struck, lasting until 1849. The worst famine in the history of Western Europe, it brought complete social collapse to Ireland and caused some 2 million Irish to flee to the United States between 1845 and 1860, not primarily for religious freedom and economic opportunity but to reach a place where they might eat. Most arrived at the port of New York after crossing the Atlantic on what they called “the coffin ships.” As Thomas Sowell so vividly describes this journey in Ethnic America, the Irish packed into the holds of cargo ships, with no toilet facilities; filth and disease were rampant. They slept on narrow, closely stacked shelves. Women were so vulnerable to molestation that they slept sitting up. In 1847 about 40,000 died making the voyage, a mortality rate much higher than that of slaves transported from Africa in British vessels of the same period.

In New York they took up residence in homes intended for single families, which were subdivided into tiny apartments. Cellars became dwell-ings, as did attics three feet high, without sunlight or ventilation, where whole families slept in one bed. Shanties sprang up in alleys. Without running water, cleanliness was impossible; sewage piled up in backyard privies, and rats abounded. Cholera broke out constantly in Irish wards. Observers have noted that no Americans before or since have lived in worse conditions than the New York Irish of the mid-nineteenth century.

Hughes harbored no illusions about the newcomers. “Most move on across the country—those who have some means, those who have industrious habits,” he observed; “on the other hand, the destitute, the disabled, the broken down, the very young, and the very old, having reached New York, stay. Those who stay are predominantly the scattered debris of the Irish nation.” Lost in a land where many didn’t want them, violent, without skills, the Irish were in need of rescue. This was Hughes’s flock, and he was prepared to be their rescuer.

New York’s Irish truly formed an underclass; every variety of social pathology flourished luxuriantly among them. Family life had disintegrated. Thomas D’Arcy McGee, an exiled Irish political radical, wrote in The Nation in 1850: “In Ireland every son was a boy and a daughter a girl till he or she was married. They were considered subjects to their parents till they became parents themselves. In America boys are men at sixteen. . . . If [the] family tie is snapped, our children become our opponents and sometimes our worst enemies.” McGee saw that the lack of stable family relationships was fatally undermining the Irish community.

The immigrants crowded into neighborhoods like Sweeney’s Shambles in the city’s fourth ward and Five Points in the sixth ward (called the “bloody sixth” for its violence), which Charles Dickens toured in the forties and pronounced “loathsome, drooping, and decayed.” In The New York Irish, Ronald Bayor and Timothy Meagher report that besides rampant alcoholism, addiction to opium and laudanum was epidemic in these neighborhoods in the 1840s and 1850s. Many Irish immigrants communicated in their own profanity-filled street slang called “flash talk”: a multi-day drinking spree was “going on a bender,” “cracking a can” was robbing a house. Literate English practically disappeared from ordinary conversation.

An estimated 50,000 Irish prostitutes, known in flash talk as “nymphs of the pave,” worked the city in 1850, and Five Points alone had as many as 17 brothels. Illegitimacy reached strato-spheric heights—and tens of thousands of abandoned Irish kids roamed, or prowled, the city’s streets. Violent Irish gangs, with names like the Forty Thieves, the B’boys, the Roach Guards, and the Chichesters, brought havoc to their neighborhoods. The gangs fought one another and the nativists—but primarily they robbed houses and small businesses, and trafficked in stolen property. Over half the people arrested in New York in the 1840s and 1850s were Irish, so that police vans were dubbed “paddy wagons” and episodes of mob violence in the streets were called “donnybrooks,” after a town in Ireland.

Death was everywhere. In 1854 one out of every 17 people in the sixth ward died. In Sweeney’s Shambles the rate was one out of five in a 22-month period. The death rate among Irish families in New York in the 1850s was 21 percent, while among non-Irish it was 3 percent. Life expectancy for New York’s Irish averaged under 40 years. Tuberculosis, which Bishop Hughes called the “natural death of the Irish immigrants,” was the leading cause of death, along with drink and violence.

Inflamed by this spectacle of social ruin, nativist sentiment grew and took a nastier, racist turn, no longer attacking primarily the superstition and priestcraft of the Catholic religion but rather the genetic inferiority of the Irish people. Gifted diarist and former mayor George Templeton Strong, for example, wrote that “the gorilla is superior to the Celtic in muscle and hardly their inferior in a moral sense.” In the same vein, Harper’s in 1851 described the “Celtic physiognomy” as “simian-like, with protruding teeth and short upturned noses.” Cel-ebrated cartoonist Thomas Nast constantly depicted the Irish as closely related to apes, while Orson and Lorenzo Fowler’s New Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and James Redfield’s Outline of a New System of Physiognomy gave such ideas the color of science.

By 1850 the New York City lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) was filled with Irish, most of them probably hallucinating alcoholics. Doctors of the day had a different view, speculating that insanity grew from degeneracy and violation of the moral law. Compounding the problem, according to Ralph Parsons, superintendent of the asylum, the Irish were people of exceptionally bad habits. They were, he said, of “a low order of intelligence, and very many of them have imperfectly developed brains. When such persons become insane, the prognosis is unfavorable.”

Hughes’s solution for his flock’s social ills was to re-spiritualize them. He wanted to bring about an inner, moral transformation in them, which he believed would solve their social problems in the end. He put the ultimate blame for their condition squarely on the historical oppression they had suffered at the hands of the English, which he said had caused them “to pass away from the faith of their ancestors,” robbing them of the cultural heritage that should have guided their behavior. But that was in the past: now it was time for them to regain what they had lost. So he bought abandoned Protestant church buildings in Irish wards, formed parish churches, and sent in parish priests on a mission of urban evangelization aimed at giving the immigrants a faith-based system of values.

With unerring psychological insight, Hughes had his priests emphasize religious teachings perfectly attuned to re-socializing the Irish and helping them succeed in their new lives. It was a religion of personal responsibility that they taught, stressing the importance of confession, a sacrament not widely popular today—and unknown to many of the Irish who emigrated during the famine, most of whom had never received any religious education. The practice had powerful psychological consequences. You cannot send a friend to confess for you, nor can you bring an advocate into the confessional. Once inside the confessional, you cannot discuss what others have done to you but must clearly state what you yourself have done wrong. It is the ultimate taking of responsibility for one’s actions; and it taught the Irish to focus on their own role in creating their misfortune.

Hughes once remarked that “the Catholic Church is a church of discipline,” and Father Richard Shaw, Hughes’s most recent biographer, believes that the comment gives a glimpse into the inner core of his beliefs. Self-control and high personal standards were the key—and Hughes’s own disciplined labors to improve himself and all those around him, despite constant ill health, embodied this ethic monumentally. Hughes proclaimed the need to avoid sin. His clergy stated clearly that certain conduct was right and other conduct was wrong. People must not govern their lives according to momentary feelings or the desire for instant gratification: they had to live up to a code of behavior that had been developed over thousands of years. This teaching produced communities where ethical standards mattered and severe stigma attached to those who misbehaved.

The priests stressed the virtue of purity, loudly and unambiguously, to both young and old. Sex was sinful outside marriage, no exceptions. Packed together in apartments with sometimes two or three families in a single room, the Irish lived in conditions that did not encourage chastity or even basic modesty. Women working in the low-paid drudgery of domestic service were tempted to work instead in the saloons of Five Points, which often led to a life of promiscuity or prostitution. The Church’s fierce exhortations against promiscuity, with its accompanying evils of out-of-wedlock births and venereal disease, took hold. In time, most Irish began to understand that personal responsibility was an important component of sexual conduct.

Since alcohol was such a major problem for his flock, Hughes—though no teetotaler himself—promoted the formation of a Catholic abstinence society. In 1849 he accompanied the famous Irish Capuchin priest, Father Theobald Mathew, the “apostle of temperance,” all around the city as he gave the abstinence pledge to 20,000 New Yorkers.

A religion of discipline, stressing conduct and the avoidance of sin, can be a pinched and gloomy affair, but Hughes’s teaching had a very different inflection. His priests mitigated the harshness with the encouraging Doctrine of the Sacred Heart, which declares that if you keep the commandments, God will be your protector, healer, advisor, and perfect personal friend. To a people despised by many, living in desperate circumstances, with narrow economic possibilities, such a teaching was a bulwark against anger, despair, and fear. Hughes’s Catholicism was upbeat and encouraging: if God Almighty was your personal friend, you could overcome.

Hughes’s teaching had a special message for and about women. Women outnumbered men by 20 percent in New York’s Irish population partly because of famine-induced emigration patterns and partly because many Irish immigrant men went west from New York to work on building railways and canals. Irish women could find work in New York more easily than men could, and the work they found, usually as domestics, was steadier. Given the demographic facts, along with the high illegitimacy rate and the degree of family disintegration, Hughes clearly saw the need to teach men respect for women, and women self-respect.

He did this by putting Catholicism’s Marian Doctrine right at the center of his message. Irish women would hear from the priests and nuns that Mary was Queen of Peace, Queen of Prophets, and Queen of Heaven, and that women were important. The “ladies of New York,” Hughes told them, were “the children, the daughters of Mary.” The Marian teaching encouraged women to take responsibility for their own lives, to inspire their men and their children to good conduct, to keep their families together, and to become forces for upright behavior in their neighborhoods. The nuns, especially, encouraged women to become community leaders and play major roles in church fund-raising activities—radical notions for a male-dominated society where women did not yet have the right to vote. In addition, Irish men and women saw nuns in major executive positions, managing hospitals, schools, orphanages, and church societies—sending another highly unusual message for the day. Irish women became important allies in Hughes’s war for values; by the 1850s they began to be major forces for moral rectitude, stability, and progress in the Irish neighborhoods of the city.

When Hughes went beyond spiritual uplift to the material and institutional needs of New York’s Irish, he always focused sharply on self-help and mutual aid. On the simplest level, in all parishes he encouraged the formation of church societies—support groups, like today’s women’s groups or Alcoholics Anonymous, to help people deal with neighborhood concerns or personal and family problems, such as alcoholism or finding employment. In these groups, people at the local level could exchange information and advice, and offer one another encouragement and constructive criticism.

Hughes worked hard to get jobs for his flock. The nuns in his diocese became employment agencies for Irish domestics: rich families knew that a maid or cook recommended by the nuns would be honest and reliable. The nuns encouraged Irish women to run boarding houses for new immigrants and to become fruit and vegetable vendors. Irish women came to dominate the city’s produce business, and some went on to succeed with their own grocery stores.

Hughes encouraged the formation of the Irish Emigrant Society, out of which the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank later grew. The society helped find people jobs in sail making, construction, carriage repair and maintenance, and grocery stores. The society expected those it sponsored to behave properly on the job and work conscientiously, so as to reflect credit upon their patron. Those who misbehaved in-curred the wrath not only of their employers but of the Emigrant Society and the parish priest, both unembarrassed about using shame to encourage good behavior.

When it came to charity, Hughes had nothing but contempt for the way New York officials went about it, warehousing the poor in the municipal almshouse and giving them subsistence levels of food, shelter, and clothing until they died, usually of typhus, ty-phoid fever, consumption, or cholera. Hughes dismissed this approach, which made no effort to re-moralize the demoralized poor, as “soupery.”

By contrast, Hughes imported church groups that had shown elsewhere in the world that they could help solve tough social problems. The most famous was the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a group of laymen who gave personal service to the poor. They visited prisons, organized youth groups, and taught reading and writing. Whenever they provided food, clothing, or shelter, they required the recipients, when possible, to work in return. An order of nuns, the Sisters of Mercy, worked closely with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, visiting the city’s almshouses and prisons and urging the women in them to find work and to conduct themselves according to Church teachings. They founded their own home for immigrant girls, a halfway house between dependency and work, where they provided spiritual guidance, taught such basic skills as cooking and cleaning, and helped women find jobs, usually as domestics.

Faced with perhaps as many as 60,000 Irish children wandering in packs around New York City—not attending school, not working, not under any adult supervision—Hughes encouraged the formation of the Society for the Protection of Destitute Catholic Children, known as the Catholic Protectory, which was in a sense the forerunner of Boys Town. To rescue these children, who in the words of the Protectory’s head, Dr. Levi Ives, were “exposed to all the horrors of hopeless poverty, to the allurements of vice and crime in every disgusting and debasing form, bringing ruin on themselves and disgrace and obloquy,” the Protectory purchased a 114-acre farm near Westchester and erected buildings for boys and girls. The mission was clear: the Protectory staff believed that, in Ives’s words, “by proper religious instruction and the teaching of useful trades they could raise the children above their slum environment.” Ives had no doubt that the children had to be taught sound values before they would have a chance at a productive life.

Though the Protectory received some city and state money, the Irish themselves provided its main support with enthusiastic private contributions. Hughes and Ives made it clear that these children were the community’s responsibility: their own Irish parents—not the nativists or the unfeeling city—had abandoned them to their plight. The Irish, as Hughes and his priests and nuns tirelessly taught, had a moral responsibility to give money to this cause, as well as to the Church and all its other charitable organizations. For Hughes, such community self-help and personal responsibility were the essence of Christian charity.

By 1850 the city’s Catholics had become so numerous that Rome made New York an archdiocese and Hughes an archbishop. He received the pallium, the woolen band that was the symbol of his new authority, directly from Pope Pius IX, a sign of the growing importance within the Church of American Catholics in general, of New York’s Catholics in particular, and of Hughes himself. As the 1850s wore on, the archbishop began to conceive a plan that would give magnificent, concrete expression to the rise of New York’s Catholics. He would build a great cathedral, financed by the Catholics themselves, as proof to the Protestant elites that the Irish, too, knew how to make New York the premier city of the world. More important, such an accomplishment would give an enormous boost to the morale of the Irish community itself—which, however poor, was not too poor to achieve something grand.

Hughes laid the cornerstone on August 15, 1858, before a crowd of over 100,000, their imaginations fired by the hugely ambitious project. He had raised only $73,000 of the project’s estimated $1.5 million cost (a figure that ultimately rose to over $4 million, a staggering sum for the nineteenth century). But Hughes believed that if you took on a challenge, you would perforce rise to meet it. St. Patrick’s was finished in 1879 by his successor, John McCloskey, who raised the final $172,000 by holding a giant fair in the nave of the new cathedral for 42 days.

In 1863, with construction of the cathedral suspended because of the Civil War, the worst urban rioting in United States history broke out among the Irish in New York. Over 1,000 people were killed in three days. The Irish were enraged that the Union army was drafting them in disproportionate numbers because they could not afford the then legal practice of buying their way out of military service. Irish boys, who made up about 15 percent of the Union army, were suffering horrific casualty rates since they were commonly used as frontline troops against better-trained and better-led Confederate soldiers. In addition, rumors spread that once the slaves were freed, they would take Irish jobs or live off taxes on the Irish. The rioting Irish attacked blacks, nativists, and, on the third day, anybody who was around.

A then-dying Archbishop Hughes summoned the leaders of the rebellion to meet with him. However disturbed he might have been that the Irish were being called on to do so much of the dying in the struggle against the South, he supported the war and was totally opposed to slavery, having preached against it since his ordination as a priest in 1826. He told the riot leaders that “no blood of innocent martyrs, shed by Irish Catholics, has ever stained the soil of Ireland” and that they were dishonoring that impeccable history.

The riot leaders went back to their neighborhoods, and the violence melted away. The riot saddened the dying archbishop: he felt he had failed as a prelate. His friend and loyal subordinate, Bishop McCloskey, was saying the prayers for the dying when the end came for Hughes on January 3, 1864.

He had not failed, of course. The Draft Riots of 1863 were the death rattle of a destructive culture that was giving way to something constructive and edifying.

Though just 30 or 40 years before, New Yorkers had viewed the Irish as their criminal class, by the 1880s and 1890s the Irish proportion of arrests for violent crime had dropped from 60 percent to less than 10 percent. The Irish were the pillars of the criminal justice system. Three-quarters of the police force was Irish. The Irish were the prosecutors, the judges, and the jailers.

Alcoholism and drug addiction withered away. By the 1880s an estimated 60 percent of Irish women, and almost a third of the men, totally abstained from alcohol. Many Irish sections in the city became known for their peacefulness, order, and cleanliness—a far cry from the filth, violence, and disease of the Five Points and Sweeney’s Shambles of mid-century. Gone, too, was the notorious Irish promiscuity of those years; New York’s Irish became known by the latter part of the nineteenth century as a churched people, often chided by the press for their “puritanical” attitudes. Irish prostitutes virtually disappeared in the city, as did the army of Irish youths wandering the streets without adult supervision. Irish family life, formerly so frayed and chaotic, became strong and nourishing. Irish children entered the priesthood or the convent, the professions, politics, professional sports, show business, and commerce. In 1890 some 30 percent of New York City’s teachers were Irish women, and the Irish literacy rate exceeded 90 percent. In 1871 reformer “Honest” John Kelly became the leader of Tam-many Hall, and with the election in 1880 of shipping magnate William Grace as mayor, the Irish assumed control of city politics.

How important a figure was John Hughes in American history? Suppose the mass immigration from Ireland of the mid-nineteenth century had turned into a disaster for the country. How likely is it that the open immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would have been permitted? Nativism would have won, and America would be an unrecognizably different country today—and an immeasurably poorer one.

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