The Year of Decision

Posted on June 4, 2020

by Stephen Puleo

Voyage of Mercy is the remarkable story of the mission that inspired a nation to donate massive relief to Ireland during the potato famine and began America’s tradition of providing humanitarian aid around the world. Read on for an excerpt.

As Father Mathew’s pleas to Trevelyan went unheeded, as James Prendergast wrote to his children in Boston that “the [food] supply of the country…will soon be exhausted unless supplies are brought in from abroad,” as starvation and deep despair enveloped Ireland, Americans in the fall of 1846 focused inward and remained largely indifferent to the crisis in Ireland.

What relief efforts there were came in the form of small remittances from Irish immigrants in the United States or charitable contributions from Catholics whose parishes organized collection efforts. In truth, the whole idea of an Irish famine had come under a kind of boy-who-cried-wolf suspicion. Ireland had suffered its first major potato failure and severe food shortage in 1845, and calls for assistance in Boston and other Irish Catholic strongholds raised modest amounts of money, mostly in small donations. But when the full-fledged famine predicted in American press accounts failed to materialize in the first half of 1846, people in the United States began to suspect—and their suspicions were proven correct—that reports of extensive starvation had been exaggerated. The cause lost much of its urgency by late winter, and by spring and into early summer, the Irish potato crop was in full bloom—the “abundant harvest” that Father Mathew reported on in late July 1846.

Further, fundraising in 1845 and 1846 took on a political tone in Boston that hurt the cause. Relief efforts were organized by the local Repeal Association, whose members demanded Irish independence from England (the name emanates from a desire to repeal the 1800 Act of Union to create the United Kingdom of England and Ireland); they were supporters of Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, who spearheaded the independence movement in Ireland. The committee cited food shortages in Ireland as yet another example of British incompetence, claiming at a December 1845 meeting that because of the “fatal connection of Ireland with England, the rich grain harvests of the former country are carried off to pay an absentee government and an absentee proprietor.” True or not, most Irish believed the claim that mixing the repeal issue with charitable contributions soured many non-Irish Bostonians on the hunger relief effort.

Even after the terrifying overnight destruction of the crop that Father Mathew witnessed and reported on in early August 1846, Americans were slow to respond. Cities with large Irish populations, such as Boston, demonstrated their beneficence. Boston Catholics, most of them Irish, donated more than $150,000 (about $4.5 million today) to famine relief after recently installed Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick called upon his congregation to aid those who were suffering across the Atlantic.

But, unsurprisingly, non–Irish Catholics did not respond in great numbers. Certainly a sense of “disaster fatigue” had worked its way into the American mindset after overblown reports of famine earlier in the year; most U.S. residents, despite the fact that they were primarily farmers, did not make the conscious connection that a partially destroyed potato crop in 1845 left little or nothing in reserve after the nearly universal destruction in the summer of 1846.

But it was more than disaster fatigue that accounted for Americans’ apathy in 1846—it was a focus on their own future, their own destiny.

* * * * *

John L. O’Sullivan, sketched in 1874.
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons {PD-US-Expired}.

The phrase “Manifest Destiny” had first worked its way into the national lexicon a year earlier, in the summer of 1845—New York editor John L. O’Sullivan coined it to describe the vision of a vast and bountiful country stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with harbors and naval fleets on both coasts, and a network of rivers and railroads throughout the interior that would enable commerce and growth, elevating the United States to a world power. Such expansion was the will of God, O’Sullivan opined, and the best way to ensure the country’s continued prosperity, especially considering its population growth, its attractiveness to immigrants, and its promise to fulfill the dreams of natives and newcomers alike. A few years later, novelist Herman Melville reinforced the theme when he wrote: “We Americans are the peculiar chosen people—the Israel of our time.”

Map of Texas, Oregon, and California in 1846.
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

In 1846, when they were not focused on the war with Mexico following the 1845 annexation of Texas and disputes over the border, many Americans looked toward Oregon and the Pacific Coast, distant destinations that people viewed with a sense of adventure, romance, and redemption. Eventually—either frightened by cholera outbreaks in the East, shaken by lingering effects of the 1837 financial depression, emboldened to seek their fortunes, or simply hoping for a fresh start— thousands succumbed to the westward tug and embarked on the long and sometimes torturous overland journey. Historian Bernard DeVoto later called 1846 “the year of decision” to describe the restlessness of Americans; and this was two years before the Gold Rush, which would soon make the decision to head west much easier and change the primary destination of most travelers from Oregon to California.

Technological and scientific progress also captured Americans’ attention at home. The wonder of Samuel Morse’s telegraph, invented two years earlier, still evoked near disbelief for its ability to transmit messages almost instantly; the power of railroads to open distant commercial and passenger markets produced a sense of restlessness and economic optimism; in Boston, the first use of anesthetic ether during surgery by doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital offered the possibility of pain-free surgical procedures. Americans marveled at the new technology and wondered how many more breakthroughs were forthcoming.

But in the midst of the optimism, hovering over the nation was a large cloud, dark and menacing and swollen with the intractable issues of slavery and sectionalism that divided North and South. To this point, a series of political compromises had staved off a deluge, but for how long? The annexation of Texas, which joined the Union as a slave state, outraged northern abolitionists and other progressives. Abiel Abbott, a prominent northern clergyman and writer, called the Texas annexation “a great offense against humanity and a monstrous transgression of the law of God.” Now he and others feared that the war with Mexico, which many believed was President James K. Polk’s perverse interpretation of Manifest Destiny, would allow the South to spread slavery over vast new areas if the United States acquired additional territory.

In 1846, North-South war winds were not yet blowing with sustained force, but in certain pockets—Boston, Charleston, Washington, D.C.—warning breezes rustled the trees and thunder rumbled in the distance. A storm was gathering. Americans wondered: Was it imminent, and, if so, how destructive would it be?

For all of these reasons, as late as the fall of 1846, neither the United States government nor most of its people had taken more than a cursory glance at the suffering and desperation that was consuming Ireland.

* * * * *

If Americans at home looked elsewhere, the country’s diplomats abroad were indeed aware of the crisis, though they viewed it through the lens of economic opportunity rather than of human tragedy. George Bancroft, U.S. minister to London (he would later become the “father of American history” with his ten-volume work, History of the United States from the Discovery of the Continent), cabled President Polk and Secretary of State James Buchanan on November 3, 1846, noting that there was a large increase in British demand for American corn. He pointed to “the scarcity in Ireland and England consequent on the failure of the potato crop” and predicted that for at least two more years Britain would be “dependent on American exports.” The English would have no choice due to “the appalling distress occasioned by the famine in Ireland.”

Thomas Wilson, the American consular officer in Dublin, concurred, advising the president that the potato “will have to be replaced or supplied with that which can be procured in the cheapest terms.” It was therefore highly probable “that Indian corn from the United States will have to be imported in very large quantities.”

So as 1846 came to a close, the United States was focused on geographic expansion, economic growth, breakthroughs in communications and transportation, war with Mexico, the angst of slavery, and the path to its destiny.

The Irish crisis was but a footnote in the American story, except for its possible benefits to the U.S. economy.

Credit: Kate Puleo

Stephen Puleo is a historian, teacher, public speaker, and the author of seven books, including Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919; American Treasures: The Secret Effort to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address; and The Caning: The Assault that Drove America to Civil War.  A former award-winning newspaper reporter and contributor to American History magazine, the Boston Globe, and other publications, he holds a master’s degree in history and has taught at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Suffolk University.  He and his wife Kate reside in the Boston area.

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