Abraham Lincoln’s Oft-Overlooked Campaign to Promote Immigration to the U.S. (Harold Holzer, February 8, 2024, Smithsonian)

Between 1830 and the outbreak of the American Civil War in April 1861, millions of Europeans migrated to the U.S., forever upending the demography, culture and voting patterns of the nation, especially in its teeming urban centers. In the wake of such overwhelming change, resistance to immigration and immigrants metastasized until forces arose that were determined not only to restrict foreigners from entering the country but also to disenfranchise, demonize and, occasionally, terrorize those who had already arrived, settled and earned citizenship here. And still the refugees poured across oceans and borders to reach our shores, their growing numbers inevitably challenging, and ultimately redefining, what it meant to be American.

Only when the Civil War began did foreign migration to the U.S. slow significantly. Prospective immigrants understandably shrank from the notion of abandoning one troubled country to relocate to another. To some Americans, the reduction in new foreign arrivals came as an answered prayer. For decades, immigration, particularly by Catholics, had stirred resistance, resentment and, in some cases, violence, destruction and death. Politically, these tensions split and ultimately destroyed the old Whig Party, in which Lincoln had spent most of his political career, inspiring anti-­immigration nativists to form a political organization of their own. The realignment had driven many immigrants into the ranks of the Democrats, who welcomed new arrivals with a warm embrace and a swift path to citizenship and voter registration. The issue roiled the country and exposed an ugly vein of bigotry in the American body politic. And its intractability deflected mainstream attention from the country’s original sin: slavery.

Now Lincoln looked beyond the longtime national divide over immigration to propose his revolutionary idea. Although he reported in his message that refugees were “again flowing with greater freedom” into America, their numbers had yet to reach their robust, if bitterly contested, prewar levels. And the reduction was causing what Lincoln called “a great deficiency of laborers in every field of industry, especially in agriculture and in our mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals.” In other words, America could no longer rely on American workers to fill American jobs. Employers needed to look elsewhere—namely overseas—for labor.

True enough, the Lincoln administration had in a sense contributed to this crisis-­level “deficiency.” As many as a million men had now enrolled in the Union armed forces to fight the Confederacy, and since the spring of 1863, the newly introduced military draft had been wresting laborers from farms and factories and redeploying them into the Army. As Lincoln saw matters, their necessary absence from the home front now threatened national productivity—of civilian goods as well as war materiel. Whether the situation might ease longtime hostility to foreign laborers would be left for another day. First, Lincoln urgently wanted robust immigration to resume—even if the government had to provide the means to accelerate it.

As Lincoln forcibly argued in his message, the time had come to regard immigrants not as interlopers but as assets, not as a drain on public resources but as a “source of national wealth and strength.” He expressed it this way:

While the demand for labor is thus increased here, tens of thousands of persons, destitute of remunerative occupation, are thronging our foreign consulates and offering to emigrate to the United States if essential, but very cheap, assistance can be afforded them. It is easy to see that, under the sharp discipline of civil war, the nation is beginning a new life. This noble effort demands the aid, and ought to receive the attention and support, of the government.

Summoning his full rhetorical power, Lincoln concluded his 1863 annual message with a resounding salute to the Army and Navy, “the gallant men, from commander to sentinel, who compose them”—many of them, he might have mentioned, foreign-­born—“and to whom, more than to others, the world must stand indebted for the home of freedom disenthralled, regenerated, enlarged and perpetuated.” The key words were “regenerated” and “enlarged.”