World

The Deadly Business of Restricting Immigration

BROUGHT FORTH ON THIS CONTINENT: Abraham Lincoln and American Immigration, by Harold Holzer

THE LAST SHIPS FROM HAMBURG: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia’s Jews on the Eve of World War I, by Steven Ujifusa


Fears that the immigration of non-Protestant “lower races” would weaken, if not destroy, America’s moral fiber, prosperity and peace are as old as the Republic itself. As the prolific author Harold Holzer tells us in “Brought Forth on This Continent,” his exhaustive account of Abraham Lincoln and 19th-century immigration politics, Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts took to the floor of the newly established House of Representatives in 1797 to declare that he did “not wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all parts of the world” who might “come here with a view to disturb our tranquillity.”

A century later, another Massachusetts congressman, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, warned his colleagues that the “mixture” of Anglo-Saxons with races of “less social efficiency and less moral force” would result in the decline of “a great country and a great people.”

While xenophobia remains a constant in American life, anti-immigrant rhetoric often grows harsher, and campaigns to close the U.S. border intensify, when more non-Protestant immigrants seek entry to America. From 1845 to 1854, famine and political turmoil brought almost three million European immigrants to these shores, the majority of them Irish and German Catholics. Some 400,000 people arrived in 1854 alone.

That year, secret societies of anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothings made their political ascent and scored huge electoral victories across the nation. (When asked what they were talking about in their meetings, the Know-Nothings routinely answered, “I know nothing.”) Northern Know-Nothings were anti-immigrant and antislavery, fearing that both the Catholic Church and powerful slaveholding interests threatened to destroy the white Protestant “free America” they felt duty-bound to protect.

Lincoln, Holzer makes clear, detested these nativists and their fevered anti-Catholic rhetoric. But, a cagey politician above all else, he refused to publicly condemn them. On several occasions, he joked that he was not even sure the Know-Nothings existed or, if they did, that they posed any real danger to the Republic, statements that some observers took to be tacit approval of the group’s anti-immigrant bigotry.

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