Lincoln and the Immigrant

This book by Professor Jason Silverman looks at Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with and attitudes toward immigrants. It’s part of the Concise Lincoln Library series from Southern Illinois University Press. We learn, “Lincoln spent a considerable amount of time pondering the future and place of immigrants in American society, and studying his thoughts on this subject can inform and edify us on his views on slavery and freedom as well. … there is most assuredly a connection between Lincoln’s views on slavery and his long-held beliefs about immigration, and we can gain some valuable and revealing insights by examining the sixteenth president’s views on the immigrant in American society.” [p. 2] Professor Silverman writes, “During the twenty years before the Civil War, more than four million immigrants, mostly from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia, entered the United States. Additionally, many migrated across the newly defined Mexican border. Processing procedures at such ports as New York’s Castle Garden were inconsistent and inhumane. As millions of Catholics arrived, it struck fear in many American Protestants. Consequently, in the 1850s nativist anti-Catholicism cropped up around the country in popular literature featuring stereotypes and supporting the politics of the anti-immigrant Know Nothing, or American, Party. While they were not serious contenders for national political power, many Know Nothing governors, mayors, and congressmen built their careers on opposing immigration” [pp. 2-3]

According to Professor Silverman, “From an early age, however, Lincoln developed awareness and a tolerance for different peoples and their cultures. While no doubt a product of his time, Lincoln nevertheless refused to let his environment blind him to the strengths of diversity, and throughout his legal and political career he retained an affinity for immigrants, especially the Germans, Irish, Jews, and Scandinavians. His travels at a young age down the Mississippi River to the port of New Orleans exposed him to the sights, sounds, and tastes of a world he hitherto only could have dreamed about. More important, however, it established a foundation for his beliefs and a sympathy that he retained for the rest of his life when it came to the foreign-born, as well as the enslaved.” [p. 3]

Lincoln brought his sympathy for immigrants to the new Republican Party. “When the Republican Party was formed in 1854, some Know Nothings drifted into the new party and wanted Republicans to adopt an anti-immigrant stand. Lincoln refused. When he ran for president, Lincoln opposed any change in the naturalization laws or any state legislation by which the rights of citizenship had previously been accorded to immigrants from foreign lands would be abridged or impaired. He advocated that a full and efficient protection of the rights of all classes of citizens, whether native or naturalized, both at home and abroad, be guaranteed.” [p. 4]

He also tells us, “Lincoln understood the challenges that immigrants faced in both rural and urban America. He had worked the land with his own hands for fifteen years, surveyed it for five, and spent nine-tenths of his life in agricultural areas. As a lawyer practicing land law at times and as a politician representing a rural district, he had to pay attention to the national debate over the future of public lands, to issues linked to real estate taxes, to the relationship between town and country, and to the importance of the foreign-born as their presence increased in the American labor force.” [p. 6]

“The Civil War,” Professor Silverman writes, “not only diverted thousands of Americans from civilian to military pursuits but also drastically reduced immigration. At first the Lincoln administration tried to confront the situation through unofficial State Department efforts and by aiding the work of state agents. But by the end of 1863 Lincoln decided to do more and directly asked Congress for assistance. His annual message to Congress that year requested that it devise a system for encouraging immigration. He spoke of the flow of immigrants from the Old World as a ‘source of national wealth’ and pointed to the labor shortage in both agriculture and industry and to the ‘tens of thousands of persons, destitute of remunerative occupation,’ who desired to come to America but needed assistance to do so. His conclusion showed that in spite of slavery and the war, Lincoln could still be a perceptive observer of the American need for immigrant labor. It was in such context that he said, ‘It is easy to see that, under the sharp discipline of civil war, the nation is beginning a new life. This noble effort demands the aid, and ought to receive the attention and support of the government.’ Congress responded favorably to the presidential request, and in time immigrants contributed in a major way to the advent of the American industrial revolution, ‘beginning a new lie’ not only for themselves but also for their adopted country.” [p. 7]

We also learn, “To Lincoln, America never ceased to be the land of opportunity, and he welcomed newcomers to its shores long before the Statue of Liberty represented the immortal words of Emma Lazarus. Early in 1861, on his way to Washington, Lincoln spoke in Trenton, New Jersey, about the Revolutionary War and the battle there in which George Washington had defeated the Hessians. His thoughts drifted back to his first childhood readings in history. ‘You all know,’ he said to the New Jersey Senate, ‘for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others. I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for. I am exceedingly anxious that the thing which they struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come; I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original ideal for which the struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.’ ” [pp. 8-9]

The book is organized to follow Lincoln’s raiding consciousness regarding immigrants. Beginning with “Uncertainty,” covering Lincoln’s first contacts with immigrants, it moves to “Awakening,” which looks at Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, and his relationship with and support of the German and Portuguese communities there. In “Enlightenment,” we see how Lincoln in the 1850s opposed the Know Nothings while simultaneously opposing slavery. With “Wisdom,” we look at Lincoln in the White House and how he rewarded the German immigrants with patronage jobs but was bitterly opposed by many Irish immigrants, who flocked to the Democratic Party for the most part, though Lincoln did what he could to bridge the gap between him and the Irish, such as “Ever the pragmatic politician, LIncoln called on the archbishop [John Hughes] to request advice on Catholic chaplains during the Civil War. He also made Hughes an emissary to Europe, sending him to the Vatican, England, and France in 1861 and 1862 to urge nonintervention in the war.” [p. 97] The last chapter, “Certainty,” is a general assessment of Lincoln and immigrants. “For Lincoln, a just society did not require the elimination of personal prejudice, but rather it required the rendering of such prejudices as irrelevant to the public sphere. Such ideals still hold valuable lessons for a nation that has grown ever more complicated and diverse since Lincoln’s death, with regard to not only color but also language, national origin, religious belief, and sexual preference. To conceive of a prejudice-free society in such an environment–where even one American would witness the multiplicity of belief systems and subcultures and judge them as equal to his or her own–would seem a naïve, utopian fantasy to a pragmatist like Lincoln. As a politician, and as an individual, Lincoln chose when, where, and to what extent he would provide his support to those who needed it. Consequently, taken as a whole, some of his statements on immigration and ethnicity seem at odds with others. But one thing cannot be ignored: Abraham Lincoln treated most people and groups with equal consideration. Certainly he was not immune to many of the common thoughts of his time regarding people of different colors and creeds. What set Lincoln apart from most of his countrymen, however, was his ability to look past what his society told him a person or group must be like and trust his own assessments instead. This is precisely what most Americans of Lincoln’s generation could not do then, and many cannot do now. And perhaps therein lies the former reail-splitter’s greatest contribution.” [p. 130]

Like the other books in the Concise Lincoln Library, this book is short, can be read in a single sitting, and brings us the latest in Lincoln scholarship in a well-written, accessible form. The book is really well done, and I can recommend it for students of the war.


  1. patyoungcarecen2019 · · Reply

    Good book. Glad you reviewed it.

  2. […] Al Mackey reviews Lincoln and the Immigrant, one of my favorite recent books on Lincoln. Mackey writes that “The book is really well done, and I can recommend it for students of the war.” […]

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