“Land of Opportunity”: Lincoln on Immigration

The issue of immigration has been getting a lot of attention recently, both in North America and in Europe.  It was also a hot topic back in Abraham Lincoln’s day!

From a young age, Lincoln would have been well aware of the fact that the United States was a country of immigrants.  His own family was descended from Samuel Lincoln who emigrated from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637.  He would also have realized that the only people who could truly call themselves natives of the land were the Indians, one of whom had shot and killed Lincoln’s own grandfather – and namesake – on the frontier of Kentucky long before young Abe was born.

In Lincoln’s day, our young country was growing quickly – a doubling of the population every 25 years or less – in large part due to immigration.  Given the ever-expanding size of our territory and economy, we were needing more and more workers, but some of our citizens were concerned because many of the newer immigrants were from Ireland or Germany.  Nearly all of the former and many of the latter were Roman Catholic, raising suspicions about whether they would be loyal to our democratic republican form of government.  This led to the rise of nativist political parties, including the so-called “Know Nothings”, who wanted to make it more difficult for immigrants to become citizens and to vote, and also to exclude foreign-born persons from holding any public office.  [Interestingly, exactly 100 years after Lincoln’s election as President, the great-grandson of eight of these Irish immigrants would become our first Catholic President.]

Lincoln’s good friend Joshua Speed wrote to him in 1855 to ask whether he had joined the Know-Nothing camp, as some of his political allies had done.  Lincoln responded as follows: “I am not a Know-Nothing.  That is certain.  How could I be?  How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of 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 pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Then when Lincoln was running against Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate in 1858, both of them spoke in Chicago shortly after the Fourth of July holiday.  Noting that about half of our population had either come from Europe themselves or were descended from people who had come after our country’s founding, Lincoln said that these people should not feel that they were any less a part of our country than those descended from people present at its founding.  “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 men who wrote that Declaration, 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.”

Lincoln’s actions back up his words.  Many German immigrants had moved to Illinois, and they were naturally drawn to the newly established Republican Party due to its opposition to the spread of slavery.  Lincoln courted their vote, even purchasing a German-language newspaper to ensure that his message reached this vital constituency.

As President, Lincoln advocated for the recruitment of Catholic priests – and later, Jewish rabbis – to serve as chaplains.  And in his annual message to Congress in December, 1863, he asked that body to again consider “the expediency of establishing a system for the encouragement of immigration” given the increased demand for workers in our ever-expanding country coupled with the fact that “tens of thousands of persons, destitute of remunerative occupation, are thronging our foreign consulates, and offering to emigrate to the United States if essential, but very cheap, assistance can be afforded them.  It is easy to see that, under the sharp discipline of civil war, the nation is beginning a new life.”  Congress responded by passing an act to encourage immigration on the following July 4 and appropriated $25,000 to that end.

That same summer, the Republican (National Union) Party re-nominated Lincoln for President and included in its platform a resolution “that foreign immigration, which in the past has added so much to the wealth, development of resources and increase of power to this nation, the asylum of the oppressed of all nations, should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.”

The new act was apparently successful, because that fall, Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation counted the increase in population due to immigration as one of the blessings of God of the previous year.  However, a new problem soon arose: frauds being perpetrated against the immigrants in their journey and settlement here.  Lincoln would have none of that, and requested in his next annual message (December, 1864) that the act be amended to provide the necessary protections by the national government.  He also wished to make it clear that the new immigrants would not be involuntarily subjected to military service.

All of this is not to say that Lincoln would necessarily be in favor of every pro-immigration proposal which has been suggested in our time.  The context and issues are entirely different.  But I believe that it does give us an accurate picture of what Lincoln’s general attitude toward immigrants and refugees would be, even toward those who are different from the majority population in ethnicity or religion.  As his law partner and friend Billy Herndon testified, Lincoln “had no prejudices against any class… tolerating – as I never could – even the Irish”, even though this group was disliked by many and voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party and therefore against Lincoln.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

September 26, 2015