Scroll to bottom for complete list of The Immigrants’ Civil War articles.Join us on Facebook.
Rumors circulated during Lincoln’s 1860 run for the presidency that he was a secret Know Nothing. The Democrats charged that the Republicans were just Know Nothings in disguise and that Lincoln had been a member of an anti-immigrant lodge.
Lincoln began his political career as a member of the Whig Party, which had a conservative anti-immigrant faction. Lincoln soon aligned himself with the liberals who rejected nativism; that group included prominent anti-slavery men like Massachusetts’ Senator Charles Sumner and New York Governor William Seward. Seward went so far in his immigrant advocacy as to call for the United States to be an “asylum” for “the immigrant and exile of every creed and nation” and Sumner had once stopped an anti-Irish riot in Boston.1
Lincoln during the 1860 presidential campaign. (Wikimedia)
When the Whig Party began to dissolve in the 1850s over the issue of slavery, many of the conservatives joined the Know Nothings’ “American Party.” In 1855, Lincoln wrote to an ally, Owen Lovejoy, that the local Know Nothing leaders “are mostly my old political and personal friends.” But rather than join the Know Nothings, Lincoln said he awaited the day when their party was “entirely tumbled to pieces.”2
Lincoln clearly regarded the nativists with disgust, comparing them to slavery advocates. He told Lovejoy that “of [the Know Nothings’] principles I think little better of them than I do of those of the slavery extensionists.” Lincoln hoped old Whigs could be won away from the Know Nothings and made to see that slavery, and not immigration, was the great threat to American freedom.3
Lincoln rejected the notion that he should join the seemingly powerful Know Nothings in their anti-Irish and anti-German crusade, writing that “I do not perceive how anyone professing to be sensitive to the wrongs of the negroes, can join in a league to degrade a class of white men.”4
Lincoln understood that for his new anti-slavery party to be successful, it would have to enlist Know Nothings, but he wrote that he would only “fuse” with them “on ground which I think is right, which does not include Republicans adopting Know-Nothingism.”5
A month after the letter to Lovejoy, Lincoln wrote to one of his closest friends, Joshua Speed, on the same subject. Speed wanted to know where Lincoln stood politically after the break-up of the Whig Party. “I am not a Know Nothing. That is certain. How could I be?” Lincoln answered.6
Lincoln continued, with a note of despair:
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]7
Lincoln viewed the willingness of Americans to degrade immigrants as the opposite side of the same coin that allowed them to enslave blacks. Both impulses were contrary to the plain meaning of the Declaration of Independence, a document he would establish as the well-spring of emancipation eight years later in his Gettysburg Address. If the Founders said, “All Men Are Created Equal,” Lincoln insisted that Americans take them at their word.
The Democrats would repeatedly try to tie Lincoln to the Know Nothings. In 1858, when Lincoln was running for the Senate, rumors circulated that he was a nativist. He responded unequivocally: “I am not, nor have ever been, connected with the party called the Know-Nothing party.”8
On July 10 of that year, Lincoln gave a speech explaining his understanding of the place of immigrants in the Founders vision contained in the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln noted that Fourth of July celebrations had turned into exercises in ancestor worship in which descendants of the Founding generation heralded the great deeds of their illustrious grandparents. This narrative left out immigrants and their children, he said. Lincoln explained:
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 [of the Revolution] 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…9
Lincoln said that immigrants may not be the physical descendants of the Founders, but they are their spiritual heirs:
When [immigrants] 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; 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.10
Lincoln rejected the then-common view that American liberty was limited to white Anglo Saxons. He said that according to this widely-held “construction [of the Declaration of Independence], you Germans are not connected with it…” He urged his listeners to understand that if the rights of immigrants or blacks were curtailed, then all citizens would also have their liberties at risk. Lincoln asked:
I should like to know, if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle, and making exceptions to it, where will it stop? If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? If that Declaration is not the truth, let us get the statute book, in which we find it, and tear it out!11
Lincoln’s opposition to the Know Nothing program of immigrant exclusion was not merely ideological, it was also practical. When a large number of Republicans in Massachusetts supported a Know Nothing bill that barred naturalized citizens from voting for two years after they became citizens, Lincoln wrote in opposition:
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 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.12
It is interesting to note that Lincoln did not seem to consider speaking languages other than English to be a disqualification for voting. As we will see in an upcoming article, Lincoln conducted both politics and government in other languages besides English.
Lincoln also turned down work as a lawyer when it was in support of the Know Nothing cause. Years after Lincoln’s assassination, an attorney recalled trying to engage Lincoln as co-counsel on a case to deprive some immigrants of the vote. Lincoln told him, “I am opposed to the limitation…am in favor of its Extension-Enlargement…to lift men up and broaden them.” Lincoln told the lawyer that when it came to immigrants voting, he wanted to “give ‘Em a chance” in their new country.13
Lincoln was very aware that his position on immigration could cost him votes. The Know Nothings refused to support him in 1854 when he told their party bosses, who styled themselves “Native Americans,” that “we pushed [the original Native Americans] from their homes and now [we] turn upon others not fortunate to come over as early as…our forefathers.” He told them that he “was not in sentiment with this new party [the Know Nothings]” because it “was wrong in principal.”14
Historian Bruce Levine describes Lincoln’s view of the Know Nothings:
Lincoln’s hostility to nativism sprang from a commitment to democratic principles that had grown (and continued to grow) over the years…[Lincoln] identified anti-foreign and anti-Catholic as fundamentally…opposed to his deepening commitment to the democratic tenets represented by the Declaration of Independence.15
Lincoln himself said as much in a fight with the Know Nothings in the drafting of the 1858 Illinois Republican platform. When a German newspaper editor proposed a resolution that pledged the party not to discriminate on the basis of “religious opinions, or place of birth,” Lincoln seconded the motion saying that the ideas of the immigrant’s proposal were “already in the Declaration of Independence.”16
This new article published in December 2011 sketches out Lincoln’s views on the Know Nothings: “‘The Vital Element of the Republican Party:’ Antislavery, Nativism, and Abraham Lincoln” by Bruce Levine, The Journal of the Civil War Era 1 (2011)
1. “‘The Vital Element of the Republican Party:’ Antislavery, Nativism, and Abraham Lincoln” by Bruce Levine, The Journal of the Civil War Era 1 (2011), Kindle location, 780-837.
2. Lincoln to Owen Lovejoy, Aug. 11, 1855, Library of America Lincoln Vol. 1, pp. 357-358. Lovejoy’s brother, a prominent (and martyred) abolitionist, had been an anti-Catholic militant himself.
3. Lincoln to Owen Lovejoy, Aug. 11, 1855, Library of America Lincoln Vol. 1, pp. 357-358.
4. Lincoln to Owen Lovejoy, Aug. 11, 1855, Library of America Lincoln Vol. 1, pp. 357-358.
5. Lincoln to Owen Lovejoy, Aug. 11, 1855, Library of America Lincoln Vol. 1, pp. 357-358.
6. Lincoln to Joshua Speed ,Aug. 24, 1855, Library of America Lincoln Vol. 1, pp. 360-365.
7. Lincoln to Joshua Speed, Aug. 24, 1855, Library of America Lincoln Vol. 1, pp. 360-365.
8. Lincoln to Edward Lusk, Oct. 30, 1858, Library of America Lincoln Vol. 1, p. 826.
9. “Speech at Chicago,” July 10, 1858, Library of America Lincoln Vol. 1, p. 456.
10. “Speech at Chicago,” July 10, 1858, Library of America Lincoln Vol. 1, p. 456.
11. “Speech at Chicago,” July 10, 1858, Library of America Lincoln Vol. 1, p. 456.
12. Lincoln to Theodore Canisius, May 17, 1859. See also “Natural Rights, Citizenship Rights, State Rights, and Black Rights: Another Look at Lincoln and Race,” by James Oakes, edited by Eric Foner, Norton (2008) pp. 130-131.
13. William Herndon notes of interview with Charles Zane undated in Herndon’s Register of Informants, edited by Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis, University of Illinois Press (1998) p. 705.
14. “‘The Vital Element of the Republican Party:’ Antislavery, Nativism, and Abraham Lincoln” by Bruce Levine, The Journal of the Civil War Era 1 (2011), Kindle location, 954.
15. “‘The Vital Element of the Republican Party:’ Antislavery, Nativism, and Abraham Lincoln” by Bruce Levine, The Journal of the Civil War Era 1 (2011), Kindle location, 915-932.
16. “‘The Vital Element of the Republican Party:’ Antislavery, Nativism, and Abraham Lincoln” by Bruce Levine, The Journal of the Civil War Era 1 (2011), Kindle location, 915-966. Two different criticisms of Lincoln’s position on the Know Nothings have been raised. The first is that while Lincoln opposed the Know Nothings, he did not personally call out individuals. Since Lincoln hoped to enlist these men in the anti-slavery cause, he was happy to criticize their ideas, but unwilling to permanently alienate them over what he saw as their temporary derangement. The second criticism is nearly opposite the first. While Lincoln opposed restricting the rights of naturalized immigrants as citizens, he did not oppose state laws in the North that curtailed the rights of black men as citizens.
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
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites