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FactCheck: No, "Irish slaves" did NOT build the White House

FactCheck debunks a false claim that has gone viral after a major speech by Michelle Obama, last night.


ONE OF THE biggest moments of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last night was this line in US First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves”.

It has captured the imagination and attracted the praise of many, but also caused a degree of consternation, with some observers rejecting Obama’s remarks, and some even claiming that the White House was built by “Irish slaves”.

(Remember if you see a dubious claim going viral, email factcheck@thejournal.ie or tweet @TJ_FactCheck, so we can check it out and stop the spread).

Claim: “Irish slaves” built the White House
Verdict: FALSE

  • There were no Irish chattel slaves in the US
  • The available evidence indicates Irish immigrants who worked on the White House were a mix of paid labourers and indentured servants.

What was said:

Here’s Michelle Obama’s speech in full. The most relevant section starts at 11.26.

Source: PBS NewsHour/YouTube

…Today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.

In response, a number of Twitter and Facebook users have claimed that the presidential residence was in fact built by “Irish slaves”.

There was a similar backlash after the First Lady made the claim during a commencement address at City College New York last month.

Here are just a few examples of the “Irish slaves” contention, which has gone somewhat viral since last night.

irishslaves Source: For a full-size version of this image, click here

The Facts

Slaves did build the White House, but they weren’t alone in that labour. 

According to the White House Historical Association – and as pointed out last night by the US fact-checking organisation Politifact – African Americans, both freed and in slavery, “[provided] the bulk of the labour that built the White House, the United States Capitol, and other early government buildings”.

Stonemason Collen Williamson trained enslaved people on the spot at the government’s quarry at Aquia, Virginia. Enslaved people quarried and cut the rough stone that was later dressed and laid by Scottish masons to erect the walls of the President’s House.
The slaves joined a work force that included local white laborers and artisans from Maryland and Virginia, as well as immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and other European nations.

While slaves were joined in the work by white, European workers, it should be noted that they appear to have exclusively performed the most difficult physical labour in the process – cutting the rough stone from a local quarry.

The man who designed the White House was Irish, and owned many of the slaves who worked on it

James_Hoban_circa_1800_-_Crop Irish architect James Hoban, who designed the White House and owned slaves who worked on it. Source: White House Historical Association/Wikimedia Commons

A “carpentry roll” for the “President’s House” shows James Hoban being paid a total of 27 pounds and 8 shillings, for hiring out four slaves named only as Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel, for a combined total of 74 days’ labour during May 1795.

Hoban, a well-known architect of that era, who designed the White House, was from Callan in Co Kilkenny, and according to Clarence Lusane’s The Black History of the White House, based his design for the White House on Leinster House in Dublin.

The same document shows that Hoban’s business partner Pierce Purcell, also from Ireland, received 10 pounds and 10 shillings for 28 days of carpentry work performed by a slave named only as “Tom”.

african-americans-1790s Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Irish immigrants did take part in construction, but they weren’t “slaves”

The same document shows carpenters named Michael Dowling, Samuel Curtis, John Brown and John Dickey, being personally paid for their labour.

Hoban and Purcell were also paid for the labour of two indentured servants named John McCorkill and Peter Smith.

Pierce Purcell was paid 26 pounds and five shillings for his own work that month.

Whatever the exact composition of the Irish (or white European) labourers who worked on the White House, none of them were “slaves”.

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The Irish historian and leading expert in the history of slavery, Liam Hogan has done years of extensive and detailed research of contemporary accounts and primary source material (contracts, sales, slave auctions, etc…) and has previously written, along with other historians, that:

We know that Europeans who were forcibly deported from England, Scotland and Ireland to the Caribbean in the mid-17th century cannot be accurately described as “slaves.” They were indentured servants.
The difference is not merely a matter of words. Colonial servitude was temporary and non-hereditary, with legal personhood, while colonial slavery was perpetual and hereditary, with sub-human legal status.

In short, there were no Irish chattel slaves in the US, notwithstanding the very difficult conditions endured by many Irish indentured servants, whose total number during that era is estimated to have been around 10,000, at most.

And those Irish immigrants (or at the very least white immigrants) who worked on the White House appear to have been a mix of paid labourers and indentured servants.


Obama Police Shot Baton Rouge Source: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/PA Images

It is indisputable that slaves built the White House. And although it is also true that they were joined in the project by free black workers and white Europeans, they did form the “bulk of the labour”, and performed the most physically demanding tasks.

Since Michelle Obama didn’t claim that the White House was built exclusively by slaves, we rate her claim TRUE.

The claim that “Irish slaves” built the White House is demonstrably FALSE, even if it’s articulated alongside a recognition that enslaved black people took part in its construction.

There were no Irish chattel slaves in the US, and the available evidence shows that those Irish immigrants who helped build the White House were a mix of indentured servants and labourers who were paid a wage for their work.

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie

About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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