What Happens Next in 6 Minutes with Larry Bernstein
What Happens Next in 6 Minutes
President Lincoln and Immigration

President Lincoln and Immigration

Speaker: Harold Holzer

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Harold Holzer

Subject: President Lincoln and Immigration
: Author, scholar, and professor
Reading: Brought Forth on This Continent: Abraham Lincoln and American Immigration is here

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Larry Bernstein:

Welcome to What Happens Next. My name is Larry Bernstein. What Happens Next is a podcast which covers economics, politics, and history. 

Today’s topic is President Lincoln and immigration.

Our speaker is Harold Holzer who won the Lincoln Prize for his book Lincoln and the Power of the Press. Harold has a new book entitled Brought Forth on This Continent: Abraham Lincoln and American Immigration.  I want to learn from Harold why Lincoln encouraged more Europeans to move to the US. Many were Catholics from Ireland and Germany who were generally viewed as potential Democratic voters. How did Lincoln persuade the immigrants to fight and support the Republicans during the civil war?

Harold, please begin with your opening six-minute remarks.

Harold Holzer:

I am very glad to be here to talk about my book Brought Forth on This Continent: Abraham Lincoln and American Immigration, which I started working on in reaction to a presidential campaign of 2016, which seemed to focus on immigration. I was happy to know that Abraham Lincoln's work in immigration was substantial and substantive, and that it had not been written about. His main theme in his political life was the eradication of slavery and immigration was more of a political sidebar to him, but it was enormously consequential in America.

In the 1840s, two events occurred that spurred a flood of migrants. One was the Irish potato famine of 1844,which sent millions of Irishmen to the United States seeking food. And the other were the failed German liberal political revolutions on the continent in 1848 that sent millions of Germans to the United States in search of freedom. We had the food seekers and the freedom seekers converging in big cities and small towns. The Irish tended to stay in big cities, and the Germans tended to move to rural locations and start farms, which is a reverse of what they had done in Europe. The Irish were sick of farming and the Germans were sick of the big city. 

The United States became a melting pot. And what was astounding at the time was that there were no walls, no ICE, no razor wire, no restrictions. If you came in, you simply registered your arrival, your date of birth and your country of origin, and five years later you could apply for American citizenship and get it. 

Not everyone liked the system. There was a nativist movement, known as the Know-Nothings that flared up in the 1850s and brought out a rather ugly side of American culture resistant to Catholics and all foreigners. But the tradition held fast, and I wanted to see what role Lincoln played in that movement. Lincoln becomes the last pro-immigration president until Lyndon Johnson. He pushes and passes a liberalization of immigration at the height of the Civil War, perhaps because so many men had died or gotten ill in the war. And the labor force was dwindling. He was a bold, pro-immigration president and a policy that did not last in the United States. 

23% of Lincoln’s Union Army was born overseas, primarily Irish and German, but also Scandinavian, English, Canadian, Swiss, all in ethnic regiments for the most part, which increased the pride factor. They helped swell the ranks of the fighting force, and they established their citizenship by offering their blood. 

Even Lincoln did flirt a little bit with the nativist movement in the 1850s because Nativists were also generally anti-slavery. And Lincoln wanted them in his big political tent. So, there were some negatives through the period when he's seeking office and getting elected to the presidency. But he did push back publicly against nativism throughout his 15 years in national life.

It does have echoes for today. We're at an inflection point on immigration. Something is going to have to be done, either open borders or closed borders or some control in between. And if we're creating new national policy, we have an obligation to look at American history for the lessons that teaches us about the present. And that's what I've tried to do with the subject of Lincoln and immigration.

Larry Bernstein:

Historians apply questions of today to the past. When you study the French Revolution, historians through time focus on what's going on at the time. If it's World War ii, they're focusing on that as it relates to the French Revolution. If it's a Marxist-Leninist period, they focused on Marxist Leninist theory and immigration is hot now in the United States, so let's apply it and understand it as it relates to Abraham Lincoln. Why do historians do that? 

Harold Holzer:

”Those who don't understand history are doomed to repeat it.” That's why we teach history in schools. Although sadly, the history majors have decreased, as a result, civic understanding has decreased. We have a poorly informed electorate right now who are sadly untaught in American history. I like the quote “history doesn't always repeat itself, but it rhymes.” So, there are lessons to be learned. 

There was a perceived immigration crisis in the 1850s in the United States; there were 5 million foreigners. Many Catholics came ashore. It was white European. There was very little Asian immigration who were destined to work in the railroads. There was very little Latino immigration. 

So why should we deal with current immigration challenges uninformed when we have several examples, not just Lincoln's, but John Adams poor example, when he became president in 1797 signing, a Sedition Act that allowed the executive Willy-nilly to deport people, mainly Catholics who disagreed with him and who were friendly toward the French Revolution, which you just mentioned.

There's something to be learned and applied. It's not just a dusty story that lived once, it already lived in 1797 and then in the 1850s. And certainly, we had a disgraceful immigration policy in the late 19th century, and certainly by virtue of the 1924 act that restricted access by Jews and Southern Europeans and what prevented refugees from the Holocaust, from getting safe harbor in the United States. We have a good and a bad record on this, and we must consider it when we're looking at the challenges of now.

Larry Bernstein:

Many of us know in the history that you had Republicans against Democrats in the 1860 election, but parties were in flux in the period immediately prior to Lincoln's election, and it was really the Whigs versus the Democrats. The Know-Nothings was a strange new party that was being formed. Who were the Know-Nothings? What were they concerned about? Why did it ultimately fail?

Harold Holzer:

The Know-Nothings started in New York with a nativist movement in the early 1840s. 70% of immigrants came through Castle Garden in Lower Manhattan. This is before Ellis Island, before the Statue of Liberty allegedly lit the way to generations of immigrants. They all came to Castle Garden and registered there, and a lot of New York Blue Bloods didn't like it. Samuel Morse, whom we know as a society artist of pioneer of photography and on the side, he managed to invent the telegraph. He was quite an accomplished person, but he hated Catholics. And he wrote horrible screeds about Catholics poisoning American society.

James Harper, who founded Harper's Weekly ran for mayor of New York as a nativist to stop the flow of foreigners. It was a day in which the federal government had no constitutional authority to regulate immigration, only naturalization. States and cities could make rules like reducing the tonnage of ships because ship companies would rather displace passengers than valuable cargo. The cargo paid more than passengers, so tricks like that, or a dollar a head fee for new immigrants, which was a heavy lift for some Catholics. Nativism spreads to other cities. There were anti-Catholic riots in Boston and Philadelphia in the 1840s, and eventually the Know-Nothings evolve as a secret society of clubs. And allegedly the name comes because people hear all this noise late at night at people's homes, and they knock on the door and say, “what's going on?” And the person who answers the door says, “I know nothing.” That's the story. 

They elect congressmen, they elect governors. They elect a mayor of New York. The movement metastasizes both through riots and political organization until 1856. Now, this is a year, as you point out, the Whig Party is in serious precipitous decline. By 1856, the remnants of the Whigs plus anti-slavery Democrats form a new political party called the Republican Party. But in 1856, they nominate an explorer hero celebrity named John C Fremont, who's known as the pathfinder of the West.

The only problem is that Fremont has married a Catholic woman in a Catholic wedding ceremony, and that's a bridge too far. And the Know-Nothings meet at a national convention of their own and nominate a former president, Millard Fillmore, to be a national candidate for president, and he won 22% of the vote. He was one of the most successful third-party candidates in American history. 

Fremont and Fillmore split a lot of votes, one more Democrat gets elected, James Buchanan, and he's probably one of the worst presidents in American history. And it paves the way for 1860 and Abraham Lincoln as only the second, but the first successful Republican presidential candidate. Republicans like Lincoln don't openly denounce the Know-Nothings, they can't afford to, because as you've suggested, these parties are in flux. And as some sage once said about third party movements, they're like bees. They sting once and then they die. The Know-Nothings were not going to be a national movement after losing in 1856. Lincoln wanted nativists to focus on anti-slavery and join the Republicans. 

Larry Bernstein:

The Irish were urban people living in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, and they gravitate toward the Democrats. Lincoln tries to bring them into the Republican Party. Tell us about the partisanship of the Irish immigration.

Harold Holzer:

You respond to someone who loves you, right? You don't respond well to people who are hostile. The Whig party, especially in the East, was an elitist party. They didn't like immigrants flooding into Philadelphia or Boston, which we now think of as an Irish city. Same thing in New York. The Whigs were hostile to immigrants. The Democrats welcomed them at the docks, and they registered them as Democrats. And then a natural alignment grew between the religious parishes, and the political parishes; they fed on each other. The way the black church is so deeply political today. The Irish Church was deeply political in the 1840s and 1850s. So, it's just a matter of recruitment versus hostility.

The other thing that motivated the Irish is uglier and that is the Irish and the Free Blacks compete for the lowest wage jobs. The Irish are newcomers, they'll work in anything. Free Blacks are in constant competition. And you see that ugly strain throughout the Civil War until it explodes into the New York City draft riots, which is really an anti-black race riot. It's just brilliant recruiting on the Democrat's part and a little bit of racism in the message.

Larry Bernstein:

The Civil War starts and Lincoln drafts hundreds of thousands, if not a million men, to bear arms against the South for almost five years. And someone's got to work on those farms, work those factories. If those men are in the army, what better than new immigrants to take over those positions and get the work done. Is this the primary motivator for Lincoln to push for immigrants to move to the United States at that period?

Harold Holzer:

He recognizes the potential of immigrants in the labor force from early on. Lincoln is creating a political force out of the immigrant population, and they are filling jobs. He does two things aggressively during the Civil War. The first is a week after the Fort Sumter crisis. A huge rally is staged in Union Square, right under the statue of George Washington. The Irish and Germans said, we want to fight. We love our native country. We still want Irish freedom; we still want German freedom. And they pointed to the actual flag of Fort Sumter, which was hanging from the statue for this rally. It had been brought back from Charleston by Major Anderson. That flag is now our flag. 

Lincoln had millions of immigrants who had gravitated to the North not the South, because immigrants understood that there was more opportunity in the North. 90% plus immigrated to the North, and that was the power of the population that could be then thrown into the war to preserve the Union. 

What does the North have that the South doesn't have, lots and lots of factories. Lincoln calls for and the most remarkable policy initiative of his life on this subject. He calls on the government to pay for new European immigrants to come to the United States.

It's never been suggested before. It didn't succeed with Congress. Lincoln was undercut by his own Secretary of State in this effort, William Seward. But Lincoln did set up a private industry system wherein companies would loan money to prospective immigrants, and they would create a system of repayment over a period of years. And then Lincoln made Homesteads in the West available to non-citizen immigrants before they took the oath of citizenship. So, these were remarkable policies. Your main question is, did Lincoln believe all this stuff or was he desperate for renewed manpower? And the answer is, he always disguised his motives by making things very legalistic. He hated slavery. He always wanted it to die. But when he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, he said, I'm doing this as Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy to punish the South, to remove labor from the South and to confiscate property of those who are in rebellion against the United States. There's no heart in the written Emancipation Proclamation. There's no soul in it.

Larry Bernstein:

It's a terrible document. I remember as a child thinking, I read the Emancipation Proclamation, and I grew up in Illinois the Land of Lincoln and it's a legalese document I can barely understand. It doesn't use any of the rhetoric or style that Lincoln uses in his inaugural addresses or the Gettysburg Address. We know his talent for the use of biblical phrases or alternatively use of humor. And here we have a blasé, uninteresting legal document that you need to read several times to even understand if you're free.

Harold Holzer:

Well, the most frequently used word in the emancipation is “whereas,” which you're absolutely right does not ring the bells of freedom. But my former boss in politics and government, Mario Cuomo, used to say, you speak in poetry, and you govern in prose. And that's what Lincoln was doing there because he wanted to write a document that would be sustained by a potentially hostile Supreme Court. We know that ultimately the court rules on things like this, and he wanted it to be bulletproof. So he wrote it as a legal document as a commander in chief acting under his war powers to confiscate property. And it's dehumanizing, but it held up in the court, and it was followed two and a half years later by a constitutional amendment. It's interesting he didn't care about the rhetoric in this case. 

And the same with immigration. He wrote an immigration bill that was dry. He based his radical proposal for paid immigration on the basis of manpower shortages, not on the basis of making America live up to the promise of the Declaration.

Larry Bernstein:

Lincoln thought the war would end quickly, but it takes five years, and 700,000 men die. It's a catastrophe. And Lincoln on a moral and religious level questions himself at every point. But very rarely do we ask the historical question, was the Civil War a mistake? Were there other nonviolent options to achieve most of the objectives? Were there other paths that could have been chosen? How should we evaluate Lincoln and the decision to have an unconditional victory?

Harold Holzer:

It is still debated hotly. Was the Union willing to be permanently half slave and half free? I don't think Lincoln was, and it was the Southerners who were intractable, not the Union. I think the Union would've negotiated under Lincoln to postpone decision day on slavery in the states where it already existed. When Lincoln talked about it, the only time he talked about the distant end game, he said 1900. He was willing for compensated emancipation to gradually emancipate slaves in Union slave states for 35 more years. So he was not totally averse to discussion. But once the war started, once the Confederates make clear that they will not return to the Union, they will insist on a separate country. And even if they would talk about reunification, would have to be with slavery restored after 1863? Lincoln will not step backward on emancipation. Could there have been a compromise in 1861? Maybe. Think of what it was like for a federal installation to be fired on by a state, and as hostile on act as that was the, in the next couple of days, Lincoln calls up 75,000 troops to march into the South, which the South considers so hostile and act that Virginia and North Carolina join in secession.

To give you a shorthand summation here, Lincoln might've compromised. I don't think the Confederacy would've compromised. And once the war begins, slavery is doomed, and Lincoln is going to be its executioner.

Larry Bernstein:

I end each podcast on a note of optimism. What are you optimistic about as it relates to Lincoln and immigration?

Harold Holzer:

I'm optimistic to quote a former president that the arc of history bends toward freedom and progress. I think the cure for anxiety is participation. I think the cure for suspicion is voting and letting the chips fall where they may. Let people participate and have their say. And we've survived weak, foolish, nasty presidents, and we've benefited from great presidents. And the country is stronger than people are saying. That's the optimism I'm clinging to. There'll be lots of bumps and crises in the future. We've been equally divided for a long time, and we've managed to sustain ourselves and move along. Things are better than the doomsayers are saying.

Larry Bernstein:

Thanks to Harold for joining us today.

If you missed last week’s podcast, check it out. The topic was Enforcing Non-Competes. We had two speakers to discuss the FTC’s recent rule curbing the use of non-competition agreements in employment contracts. 

Michael Wexler is an IP partner with the law firm Seyfarth and Josh Soven is a partner in antitrust at Paul Weiss. Michael and Josh discussed whether the Federal courts would strike down this new rule because the FTC may lack the authority to regulate employment contracts, which has historically been a matter of state law. 

Twenty-four states have already prohibited non-competition agreements for low-skill and low-compensation employees. We discussed a more nuanced state law solution.

I would like to make a plug for next week’s podcast about the future of Copyright. Our speaker will be David Bellos who is a Professor of Literature at Princeton.  David has a new book entitled Who Owns This Sentence: A History of Copyrights and Wrongs.

You can find our previous episodes and transcripts on our website whathappensnextin6minutes.com. Please subscribe to our weekly emails and follow us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.  Thank you for joining us today, good-bye. 

Check out our previous episode, Enforcing Noncompetes, here.

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