In “Lincoln and the Immigrant” Winthrop University historian Jason H. Silverman focuses on a topic that Lincoln considered vitally important and one that remains timely for Americans today.
He is the first historian to connect Lincoln’s attitudes toward foreigners and his evolving political ideology.
“Lincoln spent considerable time pondering the future and place of immigrants in American society,” Silverman argues, “and studying his thoughts on this subject can inform and edify us on his views on slavery and freedom as well.” Lincoln believed that all Americans – including white immigrants and black slaves – deserved the fruit of their labor and the chance to rise in life. As Silverman observes, Lincoln fashioned “an economic theory based on equal opportunity for all.”
Lincoln had good reason to reflect on immigration because the subject then, as today, was controversial. During the 1840s and 1850s over 4 million immigrants, the majority from Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia, came to the U.S. Others migrated across the Mexican border. Many Americans then (whose ancestors, of course, had been immigrants themselves) did not welcome foreigners, even Caucasians who spoke English.
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Many American Protestants feared the millions of Roman Catholics who migrated to the U.S. in the antebellum decades. The rise of anti-Catholic, anti-foreign sentiment culminated during the 1850s with the formation of a third party, the so-called Know Nothings. While never major players in American politics, the Know Nothings nevertheless elected governors, mayors and congressmen on anti-immigration platforms. Lincoln rose to prominence when the political culture of nativism was ascendant.
Silverman refuses to sugarcoat Lincoln’s racial and ethnic biases, his condescension toward minorities and his political pragmatism. Lincoln commonly employed racist jokes, puns, quips and ethnic stereotypes to court voters or to enliven anecdotes. Nonetheless, Lincoln was long committed to tolerance for different peoples and recognized diversity within minority groups.
Lincoln’s pro-immigrant, free land, and free labor stance stemmed from his expansive reading of the Declaration of Independence, which he considered an inclusive document. “As a nation,” Lincoln explained to a close friend in 1855, “we began declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners, and Catholics.”
Running for the presidency in 1860, Lincoln rejected amending state naturalization laws that had conveyed citizenship rights to immigrants. As Silverman explains, German-American leaders had played an instrumental role in Lincoln’s securing of the Republican nomination. During the 1860 campaign he aggressively sought the support of German voters, even publishing campaign literature and printing banners in their native tongue.
In February 1861, the president-elect addressed German workers, thanking them for their electoral support. “In regard to the Germans and foreigners,” Lincoln said, “I esteem them no better than any other people, nor any worse. ... Inasmuch as our country is extensive and new, and the countries of Europe are densely populated, if there is any abroad who desire to make this the land of their adoption, it is not in my heart to throw aught in their way to prevent them from coming to the United States.”
Silverman credits Lincoln with recognizing “the folly of racism and nativism in the face of the promise of equality.” The former rail-splitter generally rejected societal stereotypes and drew his own assessments of people of different colors and creeds. “This is precisely what most Americans of Lincoln’s generation could not do then, and many cannot do now.”
John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC Charlotte. His latest book is “We Ask Only for Even-Handed Justice: Black Voices from Reconstruction, 1865-1877.”
Lincoln and the Immigrant
Jason H. Silverman
Southern Illinois University Press, 159 pages