Book Review: Brought Forth on this Continent: Abraham Lincoln and American Immigration

Brought Forth on this Continent: Abraham Lincoln and American Immigration. By Harold Holzer. Dutton, 2024. Hardcover, 456 pp. $29.47.

Reviewed by Max Longley

As United States immigration issues remain in the news on an almost daily basis, and with debate on the topic sure to take a prominent place again in this year’s presidential election, historians continue to value the past when seeking to understand current events. With the timely arrival of Brought Forth on this Continent: Abraham Lincoln and American Immigration, noted Lincoln historian Harold Holzer provides a new study that examines the Rail Splitter’s connections with European immigrants in the North before and during the Civil War.

The history of immigration, immigrants, and anti-immigrant movements in the Civil War era has received a considerable amount of scholarship over the past couple of decades. Studies on the antebellum period that explore the economic, social, and religious significance of large numbers of Irish, Germans, and other immigrant groups provide keen insights into the time period. Historians, too, have looked closely at the anti-immigration nativist movements that developed in response to pre-war immigration. The 1850s’ American Party (also known as the Know-Nothings) has received particular attention. Scholars studying the Civil War years have also predominantly examined the experiences of Irish and German-Americans, especially their military performance.

In addition, historians have grappled with the awkward overlap (in some cases) between nativism and antislavery. For example, large numbers of anti-Catholic Northern Know-Nothings, fearful of perceived Roman dominance, were also vehemently antislavery and hated the influence that the Slave Power exerted on national politics.

Holzer contributes to the pre-war immigration scholarship discussion by looking at how Lincoln navigated the shoals of immigrant and anti-immigrant politics. Like many others, Holzer focuses on the Catholic Irish-Americans and the non-Catholic German-Americans, arguably the two largest immigrant groups of the era. He also takes some notice of other immigrant groups like Italians, Scots, English, and briefly the Chinese.

There were two mutually hostile blocs of antislavery voters whom the Republicans wished to appeal to in the 1850s. First were the large numbers of Northern antislavery Know-Nothings. This group wanted to keep the territories free of slavery, but many were also open to appeals to preserve traditional North-South bonds among native-born Americans. Second were the liberal, non-Catholic German immigrants, who made up a large proportion of the German vote and also opposed the Slave Power, seeing it as an obstacle to their own liberal and free-labor aspirations. However, the Germans obviously opposed nativism and Know-Nothing demands on immigrant voting restrictions.

Privately, the pre-war Lincoln strongly supported the political and religious rights of immigrants. Publicly, however, the politically astute Lincoln felt the need to be more cautious in sharing his views on immigrant rights, which Holzer regrets. Lincoln threaded the needle by cautiously endorsing immigrant rights while accepting the good faith of Know-Nothings’ concerns. For example, in 1859, Lincoln secretly purchased a German newspaper in Springfield, Illinois, to potentially help promote his candidacy.

As for the Irish Catholics, who were solidly Democratic, Lincoln felt he could basically afford to write them off politically, until the war came. Lincoln’s pre-war sentiments and actions show that he was an enthusiastic teller of Irish jokes, narrowly avoided a potentially deadly duel in 1842 with Irish politician James Shields, and was an anxious observer of Democrats’ alleged use of the Irish to commit election fraud.

After he won the Republican nomination and the presidency — thanks in part to his strange-bedfellows’ appeal to ex-Know-Nothings and liberal Germans — Lincoln confronted the issue of getting immigrant support for the war.

Lincoln practiced wartime ethnic politics by giving many Germans and Irish communities their own military units and allowed them to select officers who were popular with those respective ethnic groups. In the Germans’ case, this meant frequently putting up with some incompetent officers, who were nevertheless idolized by their men and by German civilians. As for the Irish, the battlefield courage that the Sons of Erin displayed seemed to vindicate Lincoln’s now sympathetic approach to the ethnic group. However, many of the Irish opposed the war. When many Irish took part in the New York City draft riots, Lincoln opposed a plea for an investigation, for fear it might open wounds. Both the pro-war and anti-war Irish voters remained Democratic.

The German war experience combined misfortune on the battlefield with antislavery zeal in politics — a zeal which frequently outpaced Lincoln’s. Some incompetent German officers and a couple much-publicized instances of German soldiers fleeing the battlefield at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg damaged the German reputation for military prowess. Many Germans supported the war as a crusade against slavery. They were a key force behind Fremont’s radically antislavery, if quixotic, candidacy of 1864. After Fremont withdrew, though, the Germans overwhelmingly voted for Lincoln’s re-election.

Holzer also highlights Lincoln’s 1863-1864 quest to have Congress encourage additional European immigration. Such large U.S. military forces waging war created a labor shortage on the home front. Lincoln saw new immigrants as part of the solution. Lincoln even wanted to exempt new immigrants from the draft. Doing so better protected them from unscrupulous recruiters and kidnappers, reserving them for a needed civilian labor force. Congress eventually passed a somewhat watered-down variation of Lincoln’s proposed law.

Holzer’s research takes in such sources as archival collections, Internet databases, memoirs, and previous studies. He has also consulted the numerous German-language newspapers published in the U.S. in Lincoln’s era. The result expands on previous scholarship with an account of how Lincoln’s sympathies with European immigrants evolved into cooperation with immigrants in politics and war.

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