Francis Lieber was a German exile who became an important legal advisor to President Abraham Lincoln in 1861. A professor at Columbia University’s law school, he was one of the most eminent experts in the United States on international law and the laws of war. He wrote the code of conduct for United States soldiers in 1863 that was so influential that it was later incorporated into the Geneva Conventions on war.1
In 1864 Lieber was called upon by Lincoln not for his legal expertise, but for his help in winning the election that year. Lieber was not only a leader in the legal community, he was also a well-known and respected figure among German immigrants. Lieber agreed to help although he was amazed at the notion of the United States conducting an election in such troubled times. “If we come triumphantly out of this war, with a presidential election in the midst of it, I shall call it the greatest miracle in all the historic course of events,” he wrote in 1864.2
The Democratic Party was sharply divided between War Democrats like August Belmont and Peace Democrats. Geoge McClellan, a War Democrat, found that trying to appease both factions was like riding horses headed in different directions.
At their convention that summer the opposition Democratic Party nominated George B. McClellan as its candidate for president. He had been a popular, if only marginally successful, commander of the Army of the Potomac, the nation’s largest field command. Lincoln had removed him from his post as much for his opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation and his politicking as for his lackluster military performance. The former general was paired by the Democrats with an anti-war running mate and a controversial “Peace Plank” in the party’s platform that would have ended the war with slavery still intact.3
Poster for the McClellan campaign.
Lieber contributed a pamphlet that was published in English and German entitled Lincoln or McClellan: Appeal to the Germans in America. Tens of thousands of copies of the pamphlet were distributed, more than the daily circulations of most big city newspapers, and it was excerpted and reprinted in the German-language press across America.4
Lincoln had always seen the German immigrant voter as crucial for the anti-slavery cause. Few immigrants owned slaves, and the many German Liberals were ideologically opposed to slavery in any form. Lincoln had studied German so that he could give speeches in that language to German audiences and he had purchased a German newspaper to spread his message during the 1860 presidential campaign. The Republicans’ bilingual approach to politics during Lincoln’s ascendency would be unmatched for many years thereafter.5
The German version of Lieber’s pamphlet used German typeface.
In his eight page pamphlet, Francis Lieber wrote that immigrants lived in a country where the place of their birth did not deprive them of full citizenship rights. He reminded them that immigrants were often more civic minded than the native born because they “became citizens by the choice of our mature years, and not by the accident of birth.” Immigrants from the monarchies of Europe understood that the “entire political existence of this rests upon the free ballot; and he who has the right, has also the duty to vote.”6
Lieber was aware that the names of American political parties led to confusion among new immigrants. “The great majority of those who come from Germany to America are Democrats in the true sense,” he wrote, “and when they find in this country a large party, which for years has been called the Democratic Party, many allow themselves to be deceived by the mere name.” In fact, most Germans had been Democrats in the 1850s. They had only begun moving towards the Republicans with the rise of Lincoln.7
The very first reason Lieber gave for opposing the Democrats is that they were secretly aligned with the anti-immigrant Know Nothings. Lieber wrote to his fellow immigrants:
The assemblage which gathered at Chicago, and nominated General McClellan for the Presidency, …calls itself the Democratic party — and of what sort of people was this mixed-up convention composed? In the first place, a great proportion consisted of old “Know-nothings.” They openly proclaimed themselves such. Can you, Germans, vote on the same side with these men, whose only principle has been to shut in your faces the gates of this wide continent, to which their own fathers came from Europe, or else, as you are here already, to take from you the right of citizenship? Will you vote with those who, like their friends, the rebels, would load you with infamy, and who speak of you as the offscouring of the earth? The Know-nothings plot in secret. They have their lodges, and form a secret society. Is that, in a free country, democratic? Freedom, above all, rests on publicity.8
Although many modern historians mistakenly believe that the Know Nothings were more anti-Irish than anti-immigrant, the evidence from the time indicates a great fear of the xenophobic movement among Germans of all religious and political stripes. Germans had been attacked and killed by Nativist mobs. Accordingly, being branded as a Know Nothing was political death for those seeking the support of German voters. The fact that the Republican Party also included many Know Nothings was irrelevant to Lieber in his role as ethnic persuasionist.9
Following this appeal to immigrant fear of the Know Nothings, Lieber turned to German immigrant aspirations. “What are the ideas which most animate the German in Germany,” he asked. Germany at the time was a set of disunited minor principalities that was the victim of frequent invasions by the surrounding Great Powers of Europe. What Germans dreamt of, he said, “are the unity of Germany and civil freedom.”10
The Democrats in the United States stood for the opposite dream. “Shall,” Lieber asked, the German voter “give his vote for those who would see the country torn asunder in fragments while the cause of human slavery should triumph?” Disunion and slavery were the enemies of the German immigrant.
At a time when many Germans were in the working class, Lieber warned that the Southern slave owners were a “would-be oligarchy” who were struggling not only to keep their black slaves, but also to deprive white workers of any control over the government.11
“The Southern slaveholders,” he wrote in a passage edged with class conflict, “are fighting for that which was for so long a time the prerogative of the owners of the soil, the privilege of using the working man, whether white or black, as the instrument of their power, their pleasure, and their arrogance.” Under slaveholder rule, he predicted, the “working man is to bear all the burdens of the state, but he is to have no rights in it. It is for him to obey, and for the rich man alone to rule.”12
Lieber ended his flyer by answering the question new citizens often ask, “If I am not entirely in agreement with either candidate, should I still vote?” Lieber wrote to the doubtful voter:
My friends, let us vote for Lincoln. Many of you doubtless say that he has done some things which you do not like, or that sometimes he has not acted with sufficient promptitude. But the simple question before the people now is, shall Lincoln or McClellan be the next President? No other man can be elected; and now is there a German who can hesitate, or one who can be so indifferent as not to vote for either. The one candidate is national, the other is not. The one is for freedom and for the removal of that which is the disgrace of this century — he is opposed to slavery, which has brought upon us the demon of civil war. The other would preserve slavery. The one is out-spoken and candid; is the other so? The one is for all the citizens of this great country, whether they were born here or not; the other owes his nomination in a great degree to the Know-Nothings.13
Lieber’s pamphlet played to German idealism and helped it triumph over German cynicism.
Video: Francis Lieber and Abraham Lincoln
1. The Life and Letters of Francis Lieber edited by Thomas Perry published by James R. Osgood and Company (1882); Lincoln or McClellan: An Appeal to the Germans in America by Francis Lieber published by Loyal Publication Society (1864); Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle For The 1864 Presidency by John Waugh published by DeCapo Press (2001); Abraham Lincoln: Volume 2 by Michael Burlingame published by Johns Hopkins Press; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald published by Simon and Schuster; 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History by Charles Bracelon Flood published by Simon and Schuster (2009); Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image by Joshua Zeitz (2014); Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History by John Fabian Witt (2012)
2. Abraham Lincoln: Volume 2 by Michael Burlingame published by Johns Hopkins Press p. 646.
3. The Battle For The 1864 Presidency by John Waugh published by DeCapo Press (2001)
4. Lincoln or McClellan: An Appeal to the Germans in America by Francis Lieber published by Loyal Publication Society (1864)
5. Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion by Harold Holzer (2012)
6. Lincoln or McClellan: An Appeal to the Germans in America by Francis Lieber published by Loyal Publication Society (1864)
7. Lincoln or McClellan: An Appeal to the Germans in America by Francis Lieber published by Loyal Publication Society (1864)
8. Lincoln or McClellan: An Appeal to the Germans in America by Francis Lieber published by Loyal Publication Society (1864)
9. Lincoln or McClellan: An Appeal to the Germans in America by Francis Lieber published by Loyal Publication Society (1864)
10. Lincoln or McClellan: An Appeal to the Germans in America by Francis Lieber published by Loyal Publication Society (1864)
11. Lincoln or McClellan: An Appeal to the Germans in America by Francis Lieber published by Loyal Publication Society (1864)
12. Lincoln or McClellan: An Appeal to the Germans in America by Francis Lieber published by Loyal Publication Society (1864)
13. Lincoln or McClellan: An Appeal to the Germans in America by Francis Lieber published by Loyal Publication Society (1864)
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites