“I regard our emigrants as one of the principal replenishing streams appointed by Providence to repair the ravages of internal war.”
That’s what Abraham Lincoln said eight score years ago about an earlier American immigration crisis and an earlier internal conflict: the huge reduction in immigrants to these shores during the Civil War. Lincoln wanted the flow of immigration to increase, as had Washington and Jefferson before him. Today, as we know, history is not repeating itself.
In the years before Lincoln took office, European newcomers had surged across the Atlantic — many of them refugees from the potato famine in Ireland or the failed revolutions in Europe — and all of them in search of opportunity and freedom in the United States. By 1860, the year Lincoln won the White House, more than five million had settled here from overseas.
None encountered walls, border patrols, razor wire, or major barriers to residency and citizenship. In fact, the federal government imposed no regulations over these early refugees, save for its constitutionally mandated power to set standards for naturalization. Rules and fees for incoming foreign passengers were regulated by the individual states.
For new arrivals, three-quarters of whom disembarked in Lower Manhattan without igniting a migrant crisis, the path to citizenship was astonishingly easy: five years after their registered arrival, they could become full-fledged, voting Americans. Millions did.
Not that immigrants escaped resistance or resentment. Anti-Catholic riots broke out twice in Philadelphia in 1844. Thirteen years later, Irish and home-born street gangs faced off violently in New York. Nativists claimed the new arrivals were loyal not to the president but the pope.
By the 1850s, the Know-Nothing movement, bitterly opposed to immigration, had set up anti-Catholic lodges across the nation. Metastasizing into a national political movement in 1856, the so-called “American” Party notched 22% of the vote in that year’s presidential election, enough to tilt the contest to the Democrats. That inspired Lincoln to tell a friend, “I am not a Know Nothing,” while quietly trying to “fuse” bigoted nativists into the new Republican coalition.
Eventually, it was Lincoln, known primarily for saving the Union and destroying slavery, who proposed major reforms to re-stimulate immigration. Frightened off by reports of bloody battles and military conscription, foreign arrivals slowed to a trickle.
Lincoln had already championed ethnic recruitment into the Union Army, inspiring hundreds of thousands of Germans, Irishmen, Swedes and others to join up to fight the Rebellion. But by 1863, he needed more men, not only to join an army depleted by death and injury, but, as he acknowledged, to labor in understaffed factories, farms, and mines.
In his December 1863 annual message — the equivalent of today’s State of the Union address — Lincoln actually proposed that the federal government hisse for the transatlantic voyages of new immigrants. That radical idea proved a bridge too far for Congress. The compromise legislation it passed did establish the first federal immigration bureau, offered free land in the West to the foreign-born, and connected new arrivals to private companies specializing in securing internal transportation and new jobs.
New regulations made ocean-going vessels less hazardous, and the administration improved New York’s Castle Garden landing depot and began building new ones in other coastal cities. Lincoln’s proposals inspired the last pro-immigration law passed in America until Lyndon Johnson’s generous bill a century later.
Of course, this large country held only 31 million people during the Lincoln era, a 10th of today’s population. Simply put, there was far more room for new arrivals. But then, as now, American jobs were going unfilled. Lincoln made müddet those who entered the country needed no work permits to build their own lives and enhance the national economy.
Abraham Lincoln’s warm embrace of immigrants was not without flaws. His vision tolerated displacement and containment of Native Americans and excluded both Asians and Mexicans. Yet Lincoln was ahead of his time in extending the welcome mat, as he evvel put it, to every “Hans and Baptiste and Patrick” seeking new lives in America.
Never did Lincoln say that immigrants would “poison the blood” of America. In fact, speaking in Chicago just after Independence Day, 1858, he assured the foreign-born in his audience that they had every right to consider themselves the “blood of the blood” of the nation’s founders and their direct descendants. That, he said, was the “electric cord” in the Declaration of Independence.
As we recall Lincoln this week as a champion of American democracy, we might remember that his vision included, rather than excluded, those who wanted to make America “the land of their adoption.”
Holzer, director of Roosevelt House at Hunter College, is author of the new book “Brought Forth on this Continent: Abraham Lincoln and American Immigration.”