the irish in america -- 3/14/22

Today's selection -- from Inside Money by Zachary Karabell. The seemingly perpetual strife between England and Ireland drove a little-known but prosperous linen merchant from Belfast to Baltimore to begin an American banking dynasty:

"Alexander [Brown was] primed for the life of a prosperous linen merchant and broker in Belfast, had it not been for the Irish rebellion of 1798. Not for the first time and not for the last, Ireland was rent by sectarian conflict combined with resistance to English rule. United Irishmen -- a movement that included both Catholics and Protestants and was inspired by the American and French revolutions -- rebelled after years of trying to move peacefully toward independence from the British Crown. They looked to the French, embroiled again in war with the British, for aid. The French were willing but not able. The rebellion ended badly for the Irish, who were not only slaughtered at the battle of Vinegar Hill but who also then fragmented violently into Protestant versus Catholic and Protestant versus Protestant factions. Much of the fighting took place in the counties surrounding Belfast and sharply disrupted the linen business.

"Apolitical though he was, Alexander could not escape the collateral damage of the rebellion and its violent defeat.

"For reasons that remain obscure Alexander, went into hiding and then rather suddenly left the country in 1800 and sailed for Baltimore along with Grace and his eldest son, William, leaving is three younger sons still in school in Yorkshire. The rebellion and its bloody suppression had taken a toll on his business, and like many, he almost certainly confronted pressure to choose a side. Alexander managed to stay alive and preserve some of his wealth, and he decided that a sectarian Ireland riven by strife and ruled by an increasingly repressive British army was not where he wanted to be.

"He left no record of how be engineered the move, but even if he had, it is unlikely he would have waxed maudlin or bemoaned the sudden shift. Life was life. Crises were inevitable. How one managed those was what mattered.

"At the turn of the nineteenth century, Baltimore was a major port and the commercial gateway for Virginia and the states to the south. Fine Irish linens were much in demand among the plantation barons and for those who strove for the finer things. Linen was supple and durable, especially valuable in the humid climate of the American South. The American cotton industry was still in its infancy; most of the southern plantations produced tobacco. Soon enough, cotton production would explode and cotton textiles would supplant the linen trade, causing severe economic disruption in Ireland, for which Alexander bears some indirect responsibility. As Brown Brothers became the major facilitator of the southern cotton trade after 1820, which ran through Liverpool and not Belfast, Alexander helped undercut the very business that had made him in the first place.

"The choice of Baltimore was not only economic, however. Alexander had family there; a distant in-law of Grace's had immigrated in the 1780s, followed by Alexander's younger brother Stewart, whose son by the same name would later become an integral part of the firm. Stewart settled in Baltimore to facilitate the family's linen trade, and that smoothed the way for Alexander to abandon his business in Ireland, book passage to the United States and establish himself as a linen importer in the New World.

"There is some irony in the fact that Alexander left an Ireland bitterly divided between Catholic and Protestant to move to the one community in the United States that had a substantial Catholic populace. Maryland was founded by George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, and then overseen by his son Cecil as a haven for Catholics trying to avoid persecution in the fractious England of the mid-seventeenth century. For more than a century, the colony (much like most of the early settlements outside of a few towns that barely could be called cities) was almost entirely agrarian. The city of Baltimore wasn't developed until the early eighteenth century, and it fast became the most important mid-Atlantic port in the colonies. By the time Alexander arrived in 1800, it had more than 20,000 inhabitants and was firmly established as one of the commercial centers of the new country, along with Philadelphia, New York and Boston to the north, and French New Orleans to the south."



Zachary Karabell


Inside Money


Penguin Press


Copyright 2021 by Zachary Karabell


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