Lincoln’s Republican Platform Encouraged Immigration

Lincoln scholar explains how the first Republican president valued immigration.

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One small sentence.  That’s really all that is needed to explain it.  Although much has been written about how the party of Abraham Lincoln became the party of Donald Trump, one burning issue today that prevails in the headlines is immigration.  This is a visceral issue for Americans as it ties into many and varied other such visceral issues as crime, jobs, rules of law, and walls.   There really is little ambiguity in the platform of the 2016 Republican Party.  Reflecting the opinions of its standard bearer, the platform that just came out of Cleveland is, as Walter Ewing, a Senior Researcher at the American Immigration Council, recently wrote, “deeply flawed.”  It reflects “a fundamental lack of understanding not only of how the U.S. immigration systems work, but why and under what conditions people migrate.”

As one who has taught college students for thirty-four years, I know full well the perils of presentism, the often misguided notion that you can judge people and events of the past by the world in which you currently live.  Surely the world of today is different from the world in which Abraham Lincoln lived or could even have imagined.  But Ewing is correct when he describes the language and ideas of the current Republican Party platform as “punitive, inflammatory, and impractical.”  Assuredly, Lincoln would not understand the underlying sentiment behind this language and these ideas.  It wasn’t in his nature to be punitive or exclusionary.

Still, accepting the argument that the world is a dangerously different one from Lincoln’s time, long before he spoke about the evils of slavery, Abraham Lincoln spoke about the need for free labor, and he consistently articulated an economic philosophy that relied heavily upon immigrant labor.  From his earliest speeches on, Lincoln saw immigrants as the famers, merchants, and builders who would contribute mightily to the economic future of the United States.  Consequently, Lincoln pushed for the first, last, and only law in American history to encourage immigration.  Unfortunately, this law tends to be regularly overlooked by scholars and pundits.  Lincoln’s Act to Encourage Immigration was fittingly passed on July 4, 1864.  “A liberal disposition towards this great national policy is manifested by most of the European States,” wrote Lincoln, “and ought to be reciprocated on our part by giving immigrants effective national protection.   I regard our emigrants as one of the principal replenishing streams which are appointed by Providence to repair the ravages of internal war, and its wastes of national strength and health.”  Congress responded to Lincoln’s request and America opened up its doors to immigrants if only for a short time.

Professor Silverman is the author of the first book-length scholarly study of Lincoln's immigration policies.
Professor Silverman is the author of the first book-length scholarly study of Lincoln’s immigration policies.

So what could possibly be the one sentence that explains it all?  Lincoln assisted in the writing of the 1864 platform for National Union Party (or the Republican Party as it called itself then) in its convention at Baltimore.  He insisted that the following sentence be included in their   platform  stating:  “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.”

That is what Lincoln and the Republicans of 1864 stood for.  Scores of essays and op-ed pieces have been written comparing the Republican Party of then with its counterpart of today.  But therein that one sentence explains the difference on the seemingly all-encompassing issue of immigration.  One hundred and fifty-two years hence notwithstanding, this is a significant difference in tone, demeanor, and philosophy.  That fact is inescapable and, while Lincoln himself like many nineteenth-century western Americans occasionally spoke in derogatory terms about some ethnic groups, his actions often belied those harsh words with kind actions.  Pandering political rhetoric and humane action need not always be inconsistent and Lincoln demonstrated that.  Perhaps it is time today’s politicians learned that lesson as well.

Jason Silverman
Jason Silverman

Jason H. Silverman is the Ellison Capers Palmer, Jr. Professor of History at Winthrop University.  His latest book, Lincoln and the Immigrant, is the only full-length study of that topic in the great pantheon of Lincoln literature which is some 16,500 volumes and counting. 

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The senior member of the Department of History at Winthrop University, Dr. Silverman has served Winthrop for over 31 years as a specialist in the History of the old South and Civil War. Dr. Silverman received his undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia and his graduate degrees at Colorado State University and the University of Kentucky. Before coming to Winthrop, Dr. Silverman was a member of the faculty of Yale University, where he taught for four years. Author or editor of 11 books, Dr. Silverman has won numerous awards for his teaching and three of his books have been nominated for national book awards. Among his teaching awards, he has received Winthrop's Outstanding Junior Professor Award, been named the University's Distinguished Professor, received the Pi Kappa Phi Excellence in Teaching award three times and, in 1990, became the first person in Winthrop's history to be named South Carolina Professor of the year. In 2014, Dr. Silverman was named the inaugural Ellison Capers Palmer, Jr. Professor of History at Winthrop. His most current project, Lincoln and the Immigrant, was published September 15, 2015 by Southern Illinois University Press as part of their Concise Lincoln Library Series. This volume inspired an exhibit at the Lincoln Cottage at the Soldier's Home in Washington, DC, where Dr. Silverman served as a content consultant. He is currently working on a companion volume detailing President Lincoln's reputation in 19th century Europe. For eight years, Dr. Silverman also served two elected terms on the Rock Hill School Board.