Lincoln championed immigrants’ inalienable rights

Jason Silverman is the Ellison Capers Palmer Jr. Professor of History at Winthrop University and author. His latest book looks at Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts about immigrants.
Jason Silverman is the Ellison Capers Palmer Jr. Professor of History at Winthrop University and author. His latest book looks at Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts about immigrants.

Long before the Grand Old Party adopted its infamous Southern Strategy, Republican politicians proudly declared their allegiance to the “Party of Lincoln.” Old Abe faded from the Republican pantheon after political strategists realized they could capitalize on the bitterness white Southerners harbored toward President Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats who enacted landmark civil rights reforms during the 1960s.

Jason Silverman is the Ellison Capers Palmer Jr. Professor of History at Winthrop University and author, coauthor or coeditor of 10 books, including two on immigration in the South. His latest book is an intriguing study on an aspect of the man that largely had escaped the attention of authors of some 6,000 previous Lincoln biographies. And while the subject might seem a tad esoteric, it couldn’t be timelier, given the heated debate over immigration in the ongoing presidential campaign.

Because Lincoln didn’t keep a diary, most of what Silverman has unearthed relating to his thoughts about immigrants comes from newspapers of the day, recollections of contemporaries or letters.

Anti-immigrant sentiment during the mid-19th century was even more mean-spirited and hateful than what is being spewed from mouths of president wannabees today. Between 1846 and 1855, 3 million people entered the United States, a wave more impactful than any that has occurred in the memory of Americans living today. True, 11 million or more undocumented immigrants are estimated to live in the U.S. currently, but their arrival spread over decades. Moreover, the U.S. population was less than 20 million in 1846.

In response to these unwanted newcomers, a splinter group, the American Party, arose from the old Whig Party. The rabidly anti-immigrant – and anti-Catholic – movement soon became known as the Know-Nothing Party. (While that name might apply to some front-runners in the 2016 presidential race, it actually was derived from members’ penchant for secrecy.)

The author writes that Lincoln won the loyalty of his German-born constituents by derailing legislation promoted by the Know Nothings that would have curtailed immigrants’ right to vote. Most historians would concede that Lincoln was among the most skilled politicians to occupy the White House, and his defense of immigrants helped cement their support.

Chest-thumping conservatives might be relieved to learn that Lincoln was not immune from biases of his day. He repeatedly stated that blacks were intellectually inferior and frequently made Irish immigrants the butt of his jokes. Although he adamantly opposed war against Mexico on constitutional grounds, he held Mexicans in low regard, referring to them in a public debate as “a race of mongrels” and on another occasion as “greasers.”

Silverman argues, however, that Lincoln believed that no person should be denied inalienable rights as stated in the Declaration of Independence and that the country should welcome people so long as they were willing to work.

“It is not in my nature,” he said shortly before his inauguration, “when I see a people born down by the weight of their shackles – the oppression of tyranny – to make their life more bitter by heaping upon them greater burdens. … If there is any abroad who desire to make this the land of their adoption, it is not in my heart to throw aught in their way to prevent them from coming to the United States.”

On a personal level, Lincoln frequently reached out to immigrants, including people of color. Silverman maintains that Lincoln’s tolerance of newcomers likely was sparked by two trips he made down the Mississippi as a young man. He couldn’t help but be affected by encounters with freed blacks and the French- or Spanish-speaking individuals he encountered in New Orleans. He developed a longtime friendship with a Haitian-born man he nicknamed Billy the Barber. Also, Springfield, Ill., had a large colony of Portuguese immigrants, and Lincoln knew many of them as legal clients, borrowers or employees.

“He practiced what he preached when it came to employing immigrants in and around his household,” Silverman writes, “and his attitude toward the foreign-born was not unlike that which he held toward the slaves in the South. To Lincoln, all were entitled to their natural rights and compensation for the work they accomplished.”

Silverman has written an insightful book about how Lincoln, whom many consider America’s greatest president, addressed an issue that was every bit as perplexing in his day as it is in ours.

Plumb is a former editor of The Herald.

‘Lincoln and the Immigrant’

By Jason H. Silverman

Southern University Press

160 pages, $24.95