There are more biographies of Lincoln than of any other American. Twice as many books have been published about Lincoln as about George Washington. Of the six thousand Lincoln biographies, not one is devoted to his relationship with immigrants, until now.
Jason Silverman has written a short, scholarly, and eminently readable book, Abraham Lincoln and the Immigrant, that examines Lincoln’s personal relationships with immigrants, his integration of the immigrant into his understanding of the Declaration of Independence, and his practical political handling of immigrant communities. At just over a hundred pages, it can easily be read in a few nights, yet it will leave you thinking for weeks.
Lincoln’s early life on the prairie isolated him from contact with the nation’s swelling immigrant tide. Then he moved to Springfield, the new state capital. He came into contact with the city’s growing German community, and took a special interest in Portuguese Protestant refugees who had come to the area seeking religious liberty. As a young politician he courted the Swedes who established independent farming settlements in Illinois and who affectionately called Lincoln the “son of the workingman.”
When famine hit Ireland, Lincoln contributed money to feed the hungry. When anti-Irish riots erupted in Philadelphia, he sponsored a resolution in his local political club calling for an end to violence against immigrants and Catholics. Reporting on the meeting, a newspaper, opposed to him, wrote that Lincoln “expressed the kindest and most benevolent feelings towards foreigners,” and called him “sincere and honest” in his concern for immigrants.
Professor Silverman does a nice job of tying Lincoln’s developing vision of a multicultural America in to his street-level interactions with immigrants. Lincoln knows immigrants are building America because he sees them building settlements. He feels their love of liberty because he hears them speak against slavery. At a time when many native-born Americans were blind and deaf to immigrants, Lincoln sought them out, listened to them, and embraced them.
The book touches on some of the immigrants Lincoln worked with. Theodore Canisius was one of Lincoln’s Germans. Canisius put out a German-language newspaper owned by Lincoln. The future president understood that politics had to be carried to the immigrant in a language that he would understand. Unlike modern Know Nothings who decry the use of any language but English, Lincoln knew that American democracy must speak many tongues.
Lincoln’s friendships with immigrants helped him transcend his era’s prejudices against Jews, Catholics, those who could not speak English, and those with “foreign” ideas. He even spent time learning German so he could at least say a few words to his state’s most numerous immigrants in their native language.
The book also discusses Lincoln’s problematic relationship with Irish immigrants. Know Nothing attacks had made the Irish solidly Democratic voters, and Lincoln was unfairly tagged by the Democratic press as a Know Nothing. The fact that Lincoln had steadfastly resisted Know Nothing efforts to take over the Republican Party was not enough to win over the Irish voter.
In any event, Lincoln saw the transformation of Springfield through immigration. A small governmental center when he moved there, by the time he left to be sworn in as President in 1861, 20% of the city’s population was Irish and nearly the same percentage was German. More than half of Springfield’s residents were immigrants. Silverman does a fine job of describing how the changing demographics of the Illinois capital put immigration on Lincoln’s agenda.
Silverman’s volume describes Lincoln’s presidential efforts to mobilize immigrants for the Union war effort, encourage immigration during the war, and manage the increasingly rebellious dissident Irish community in New York. Perhaps the most important part of the book, however, is Professor Silverman’s analysis of Lincoln’s philosophy of immigration and the place of the immigrant within the American democracy.
Silverman’s book is part of a series called the Concise Lincoln. In spite of its brevity, it is filled with little-known information, revealing quotations from Lincoln and those who knew him, and insightful analysis. Reading it will make you hungry for a full-blown five-hundred page study of Lincoln and the Immigrant.
Lincoln and the Immigrant (Concise Lincoln Library) by Jason H. Silverman published by Southern Illinois University Press 160 pages (2015)
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:
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.