New Book Explores President Lincoln’s Relationship with Immigrants

Thanks to the so-called “24 hour news cycle” that has dominated the media for the last few decades, the national debate over immigration has never been more visible. At any given moment, we can turn on our televisions and choose between dozens of news channels featuring an array of talking heads debating the merits of immigration reform, or check our smart phones for instant updates on the latest controversial remarks about immigrants from a presidential hopeful.

The constant presence of media in our lives is a relatively recent phenomenon and can lead to the impression that immigration only became a hot-button topic in the modern era. But a new book released this month, detailing President Abraham Lincoln’s opinions on immigrants, reveals that the issue of immigration was as highly charged 150 years ago as it is today.

The book, Lincoln and the Immigrant, is the pet project of author Jason Silverman, who is a professor of history at Winthrop University. Silverman decided to write the book while researching sources for his students and discovering a dearth of materials about Lincoln and his relationship with the immigrant community during his presidency. In a recent interview with John Fea, Professor of American History at Messiah College, Silverman noted, “… I simply could not believe that of the 16,500 and counting books on Lincoln that nothing had ever been done on this aspect of Lincoln.” Silverman went on to explain that he felt compelled to write the book in order to educate readers on a lesser known aspect of Lincoln – his exposure to a wide variety of immigrants in his early life shaped his support for immigration at a time in history when most Americans were openly hostile to anyone not native born. “[F]rom his flatboat rides down the Mississippi River … to his neighborhood in Springfield, Illinois, to the White House, Lincoln interacted with Germans, Jews, Irish, Scandinavians, and … Mexicans and Asians. Many of them were poor, as he had been in his youth, and would become his supporters … he harbored no animosity towards immigrants, unlike most Americans at the time.” [See The Author’s Corner with Jason H. Silverman, by John Fea, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, 17.Sep.2015.]

As detailed in Lincoln and the Immigrant, Lincoln’s support for immigrants during his presidency led to a piece of legislation that remains unique to this day. On July 4, 1864, he signed into law the Act to Encourage Immigration, which still stands as the first and only law passed to ever actively encourage immigration into the United States, rather than restrict it. The law was signed at a time when America was at a turning point; the Civil War was raging, and the national debate over slavery remained fierce. Lincoln rallied behind the immigrants who supported him in his early political career in hopes that they would join the Union war effort and the growing abolitionist movement working to end the institution of slavery. He also recognized the strong work ethic and diverse skills offered by the immigrant community, and realized what an invaluable asset they would be to a post-Civil War nation, struggling to rebuild its economy. [See New Book Examines Lincoln’s Personal Relationship with Immigrants, by Patrick Young, Long Island Wins, 30.Sep.2015.]

While the national debate over immigration may seem like a strictly 21st century conversation, Lincoln and the Immigrant reveals that it has always been part of our cultural identity. Lincoln took a stand for immigrants at a time when they were particularly misunderstood and undervalued, and by welcoming them into our nation, the United States gained from their skills, work ethic, and ingenuity for generations.


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