How Lincoln Tackled Immigration

A review of Harold Holzer’s book on Lincoln’s immigration policy

By Nancy Spannaus*

Brought Forth on This Continent: Abraham Lincoln and American Immigration

Harold Holzer

Dutton/Penguin Random House, 2024

464 pp.

April 30, 2024—Political battles over immigration in the United States are not new. One of the most tumultuous periods in this regard was that between 1830 and 1860, when more than 10 million people emigrated to this country, radically shifting the demographic character of the population in many parts of the nation. Among those politicians forced to address the issue was, of course, Abraham Lincoln.

In his latest book, noted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer sets out to describe how Lincoln tackled this contentious issue. The author presents Lincoln’s evolution on this subject in great detail, taking special care to note his compromises with anti-immigrant groups like the Know-Nothings and his habitual use of ethnic jokes. But he stresses that, by the end of his life, Lincoln proposed the most pro-immigrant policy of any President up to that time.

A naturalization ceremony for immigrants in the Capital Rotunda in 2023.

Holzer draws no particular lessons for today from Lincoln’s policy path; he leaves that, as I will, to the reader. Yet it is hard to escape the parallels between the virulent anti-immigrant sentiment of the 1830-1850s, and that which circulates today.  It is also noteworthy, I believe, that, despite the horrible prejudice acted out at the time, the United States went on to follow the long arc of becoming a tapestry[1] of many ethnic currents, united by the common commitment to the touchstones which Lincoln himself espoused, i.e., the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

This book is a very timely, useful contribution which I believe should be used to inform our national debate.

Three Nodal Points

Within the mass of details on Lincoln’s relationship with various European emigrants, primarily the Germans, during his political career, Holzer identifies three nodal points, which I will describe in some detail. They occurred in 1844, 1854, and 1864.

The Philadelphia Anti-Catholic Riots

While not as severe as in Ireland, the conflict between Protestants and Catholics was a widespread problem in the British-American colonies and the early United States, at least from the time of the 1763 Quebec Act on. Yet the U.S. Constitution did not reflect any religious bias (religious tests for national office were outlawed), and President George Washington himself made it a point to foster good relations with a broad range of religious groups, attending events at both Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues, as well Protestant churches. Relationships between different faiths were often rocky, however, and with the huge influx of Catholic immigrants in the 1820s-1850s, they worsened dramatically. In the early 19th century, a large portion of those immigrants were Irish.

Fighting between Catholics and Protestants in Philadelphia, 1844.

Among the many murderous conflicts between Catholics and Protestants around the country was the series of riots in Philadelphia in May of 1844. The flashpoint — which version of the Bible was to be used in the schools – resulted in days of street fighting which brought numerous deaths, burning of buildings, and even the use of cannons by both sides. In an obvious pandering move, the Whig party blamed the Catholics for the mayhem, hardening the fault lines that already existed between them and the Democrats, who provided the political home for most Catholic immigrants.

On June 12 a meeting of Whigs in Springfield, Illinois broke the pattern, however. Whig leader Abraham Lincoln drafted a resolution which called for a rejection of hostility “to foreigners and Catholics,” and stated that “all attempts to abridge or interfere with these rights (of conscience), either of Catholic or Protestant, directly or indirectly, have our decided disapprobation, and shall ever have our most effective opposition.”

According to Holzer, Lincoln’s stance on this question was consistent throughout his political life.

The Know-Nothings

The Whig Party, however, was a different matter. Noting that those Americans who hated and feared immigrants also tended to oppose the spread of slavery,[2] the Party was inclined to court their support. The anti-immigrant sentiment took on organized political form in the 1840s with the emergence of the Native American Party, along with the semi-secret society called the Know-Nothings. The Know-Nothings later emerged as the American Party, and succeeded in electing hundreds of people to office across the country. Whig Millard Fillmore, who acceded to the presidency following the death of President Zachary Taylor, ran for President on the Know-Nothing ticket in 1956.

Holzer presents Lincoln as taking a highly pragmatic attitude toward the Know-Nothings, essentially hoping that they would soon disappear and courting them to come into the Whig Party. As a leader of the party, he felt constrained. Thus, his sharp attacks on the party’s xenophobia were initially made in private. And sharp they were, as this quote from an 1855 Lincoln letter to his friend Joshua Speed indicates:

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by 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.” When it comes to this, I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].

But, as the conflict over the issue intensified, Lincoln’s attack on anti-immigrant policies did not remain private. In February of 1856 – a year when he was actively campaigning for the Republican presidential ticket – Lincoln had a meeting with anti-slavery newspaper editors in Illinois, who were known to also be anti-immigrant. At that meeting, he offered and succeeded in passing a resolution which pledged to “welcome the exiles and migrants from the Old World, to homes of enterprise and of freedom in the new … with merit, not birthplace, the test.”

How Lincoln Tackled Immigration
The Know-Nothings wrapped their hatred of immigrants under the mantle of patriotism.

In 1859, the issue which drew Lincoln out was the effort of the Massachusetts government, then headed by a Know-Nothing governor, to expand the amount of time immigrants had to wait to gain citizenship ( to 21 years!) and the right to vote. Again, Lincoln’s statement came in the form of a letter, which he authorized to be made public, and was widely reprinted. In it he wrote:

[A]s I understand the Massachusetts provision, I am against its adoption in Illinois, or in any other place, where I have a right to oppose it.  Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them.  I have some little notoriety for commiserating the oppressed condition of the negro; and I should be strangely inconsistent if I could favor any project for curtailing the existing rights of white men, even though born in different lands, and speaking different languages from myself.

Indeed, Holzer emphasizes that Lincoln consistently opposite limiting rights to suffrage, quoting him as saying “I want to lift men up – to broaden rather than contract their privileges.”

Immigration Reform

On his rise to the Presidency, Lincoln relied heavily on his support from the German immigrant community. He sponsored a German-language newspaper, hired German-born newspaper editor John Nicolay as his private secretary, and enjoyed the benefit of intense campaigning by German supporters (the most prominent exception was August Schonberg, known later as August Belmont, head of the Democratic Party). Lincoln’s German supporters even published a biography of him in their language.

How Lincoln Tackled Immigration
An ad in a German paper urging immigrants to enlist in the Union Army.

Once in office, and waging war against the secessionists, Lincoln did his best to bring a broader swath of immigrants into the campaign for the Union. An estimated 150 Union military units were German, but there were thousands of other immigrants in the Army as well – Poles, Swiss, Italians, Scandinavians, and Irishmen.[3]

At the conclusion of 1863, when the outcome of the war was still in doubt, Lincoln took a new initiative to solidify immigrant support. In his annual address to Congress in December, he laid out a plan to provide Federal aid for those who emigrated to the United States. He combined this with a requirement that those who came to this country with the intention of becoming citizens, actually serve in the military. The upfront reason was the shortage of manpower, both in the Army and in the factories and the fields. But at the same time, Lincoln directly attacked anti-immigrant prejudice, declaring that immigrants “ought to receive the attention and support of the government.” He followed up by submitting an Act to Encourage Immigration to Congress.

Lincoln’s proposal met a mixed reception.  It was opposed by many in his own party as encouraging the “dregs” of European society to come to these shores.  Negotiations finally led to the passage of the bill by providing a loan program instead of outright assistance. Lincoln signed the bill on July 2, 1864.  Holzer calls Lincoln’s initiative the “apex of Lincoln’s own long evolution on the immigration issue.”

A monument to the Irish Brigade at the Gettysburg National Battlefield.

The encouragement of immigration was also part of Lincoln’s presidential re-election campaign.  The platform of the 1864 electoral Union Party called for the nation to encourage “foreign immigration, which in the past has added so much to the wealth, development of resources and increase of power to the nation, the asylum of the oppressed of all nations, should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.”

Lincoln’s last act in favor of immigration was his proposal in his Annual Message of 1864 to enact measures that would protect emigrants from fraud, which was reportedly widespread in the loan program of the 1863 Immigration Act. The updated bill also eliminated the demand that immigrants sign up for military service. It would not be enacted until June of 1865, but President Johnson did sign it into law.

On the Level of Principle

Holzer’s treatment of Lincoln’s evolving policy on immigration is very nuanced, acknowledging his hesitancies and noting his constant jokes, which frequently relied on stereotypes of the Irish, among others, although they were never mean-spirited. It sometimes seemed to me that he was bending over backwards to point out Lincoln’s weaknesses.

One of those which he asserts is Lincoln’s alleged propitiation of those who feared that the freed Blacks would threaten their jobs and wages. Yet Holzer never mentions the section of Lincoln’s 1862 Address to Congress where he directly counters those fears in the context of announcing the imminent Emancipation Proclamation. Here is the relevant section:

I can not make it better known than it already is that I strongly favor colonization; and yet I wish to say there is an objection urged against free colored persons remaining in the country which is largely imaginary, if not sometimes malicious.

It is insisted that their presence would injure and displace white labor and white laborers. If there ever could be a proper time for mere catch arguments, that time surely is not now. In times like the present men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and in eternity. Is it true, then, that colored people can displace any more white labor by being free than by remaining slaves? If they stay in their old places, they jostle no white laborers; if they leave their old places, they leave them open to white laborers. Logically, there is neither more nor less of it.

Emancipation, even without deportation, would probably enhance the wages of white labor, and very surely would not reduce them. Thus, the customary amount of labor would still have to be performed—the freed people would surely not do more than their old proportion of it, and very probably for a time would do less, leaving an increased part to white laborers, bringing their labor into greater demand, and consequently enhancing the wages of it. With deportation, even to a limited extent, enhanced wages to white labor is mathematically certain. Labor is like any other commodity in the market—increase the demand for it and you increase the price of it. Reduce the supply of black labor by colonizing the black laborer out of the country, and by precisely so much you increase the demand for and wages of white labor.
But it is dreaded that the freed people will swarm forth and cover the whole land. Are they not already in the land? Will liberation make them any more numerous? Equally distributed among the whites of the whole country, and there would be but one colored to seven whites. Could the one in any way greatly disturb the seven? There are many communities now having more than one free colored person to seven whites and this without any apparent consciousness of evil from it. The District of Columbia and the States of Maryland and Delaware are all in this condition. The District has more than one free colored to six whites, and yet in its frequent petitions to Congress I believe it has never presented the presence of free colored persons as one of its grievances. …

Lincoln’s unfortunate support for colonization (to be later abandoned) aside, there is no question but that he is trying to counter the fears of those whites who believe the freed slaves would take their jobs.

Lincoln photographed by Alexander Gardner in 1865

But there is an even more fundamental point which Lincoln made in regard to foreign emigration to the United States, which Holzer discussed at length, but I would emphasize even more. The statement raises Lincoln’s policy to the level of a principle which I believe holds true today.

It came in a July 1858 speech celebrating the Nation’s birthday and the Declaration, the document on which Lincoln asserted he based all his political beliefs. Although I have cited this many times, and my blog features a post specifically dedicated to this speech, I feel compelled to cite it once again:

… We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves—we feel more attached the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. In every way we are better men in the age, and race, and country in which we live for these celebrations.

But after we have done all this, we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French, and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.

If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none; they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are.

That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world. …

*Nancy Spannaus is the author of Defeating Slavery: Hamilton’s American System Showed the Way, and Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics.

[1] I got the “tapestry” formulation from Judge Charles Thomas, who spoke at the recent Virginia250 event. For more on his presentation, click here.

[2] The expressed reason for their antipathy to slavery was the fact that its introduction was generally accompanied by lower wages, demands for policing, and a general lowering of living standards.

[3] Lincoln’s recruitment of the Irish, including the famous Irish Brigade of Thomas Meacher, contrasts with his early conflict with this ethnic group, which generally adhered to the Democratic Party. A valuable resource on this evolution can be found in the book Lincoln and the Irish by Niall O’Dowd.


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