Abolitionist movement

2011-05-16 10:45:45

  • Immigrant Opposition to Abolitionism
  • Immigrant Support of Abolitionism
The Event: Widespread and diverse movement that sought to end slavery in the United States
Date: Early nineteenth century to 1865
Significance: Debates over slavery touched every aspect of American life during the decades leading up to the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). As was the case with Americans in general, immigrants could be found on all sides of the issue. Some immigrants became active abolitionists, but ethnic, political, and economic issues often kept recent immigrants fromplaying a major role in the efforts to end slavery. Abolitionism was strongest in the Whig Party, and later in the Republican Party. However, because immigrants did not find these parties congenial, only a small number of recent immigrants played a significant role in the antislavery movement.
Between 1800 and 1860, nearly five million immigrants came to the United States, mostly from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia. Most of these immigrants settled in northern states, and those who went to the South tended to settle in cities, where they became laborers, artisans, or small businessmen. Few recent immigrants had the money to become slave owners, but some immigrants did own slaves. There were also others who defended slavery although they were not directly involved with it, and still others who were active in the antislavery movement.
Abolitionism was strongest in the Whig Party, and later in the new Republican Party that emerged during the mid-1850’s. Before the Civil War, most immigrants joined the Democratic Party, because the Whig and the Republican parties had many evangelical Protestant members, and their reformist platforms were perceived as anti-immigrant. This connection of ethnicity and religion with party affiliation meant that recent immigrants generally did not become part of the political parties in which abolitionism flourished. Therefore, relatively few immigrants were prominent abolitionists.

Immigrant Opposition to Abolitionism

Often on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, immigrant laborers—like their native-born counterparts—were generally not supportive of the abolitionist movement. Many feared that freed slaves would compete with them for employment. However, just as relatively few immigrants were actively involved in the abolitionist movement, few were active defenders of slavery or outspoken critics of the abolitionist movement. Nevertheless, there were exceptions. For example, John Mitchel, who had been banished from Ireland for his revolutionary activities, eventually became a slaveowning farmer in Tennessee and a vocal defender of the slave system. When Tennessee was being occupied by Union forces during the Civil War, Mitchel spent four months in prison for his outspoken support of the Confederacy.
The Germanimmigrant Francis Lieber is a good example of the ambiguous position on slavery that many immigrants held. Lieber was a liberal activist in Germany before migrating to the United States in 1827. Although he had often spoken out against slavery, when he moved to Columbia, South Carolina, he bought two slaves to serve as family servants. He justified this by saying he would treat them better than others might, and that they would be educated and uplifted by contact with his family. Nevertheless, he continued publicly to maintain that American slavery was “a great evil and misery.”

Congressional Act Prohibiting the Slave Trade to the United States

The following passage is excerpted from the 1807 act of Congress that banned the importation of African slaves to the United States and its territories.
An act to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States. . . .
Be it enacted, That from and after the first day of January, one thousand eighteen hundred and eight, it shall not be lawful to import or bring into the United States or the territories thereof, from any foreign kingdom, place, or country, any negro, mulatto, or person of color, with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such negro, mulatto, or person of color, as a slave, or to be held to service or labor.
Section 2: And be it further enacted, That no citizen or citizens of the United States, or any other person, shall . . . for himself, or themselves, or any other person whatsoever, either as master, factor, or owner, build, fit, equip, load, or otherwise prepare any ship or vessel, in any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, nor shall cause any ship or vessel to sail from any port or place within the same, for the purpose of procuring any negro, mulatto, or person of color, from any foreign kingdom, place, or country, to be transported to any port . . . within the United States, to be held, sold, or disposed of as slaves, or to be held to service or labor. . . .
Approved, March 2, 1807

Immigrant Support of Abolitionism

Economic concerns led some immigrants to fear competition for jobs from freed slaves, but other immigrants came to believe that they shared common class interests with the slaves. Immigrants who had risen above the lowest levels of the working-class poor did not feel they were in competition with free blacks for employment and were often more sympathetic toward the condition of the slaves. Many German immigrants, who tended to be artisans, skilled workers, or small businessmen, were more actively antislavery. The black abolitionist Frederick Douglass saw poor Irish immigrants as “a great obstacle” to the efforts to end slavery, but he considered German immigrants to be “our active allies” in the struggle.
After the failure of the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, many politically radical Germans came to America, where many of them become outspoken critics of slavery. Immigrants who had been active in the effort to end slavery in the British Empire also became abolitionists in America. For example, the Reverend George Bourne was a British Presbyterian minister who became a pastor in a Virginia church around 1815. However, he was fired by this church soon after he published The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable (1816), which argued that slavery violated biblical principles. Bourne then moved to the North and became an active abolitionist. He on the board of the American Anti-Slavery Society when it was founded in 1833.
In general, immigrants were not unlike native-born Americans in the antebellum era in their attitudes toward the abolition of slavery. They were found on every side of the debate, and they based their positions on economic interests, philosophical or theological principles, or general humanitarian ideals.
Mark S. Joy
Further Reading
Berlin, Ira, and Herbert G. Gutman. “Natives and Immigrants, Free Men and Slaves: UrbanWorkingmen in the Antebellum American South.” American Historical Review 88, no. 5 (December, 1985): 1175-1200. Excellent study by a major scholar of American slavery and a leading labor historian.
Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Classic work on the rise of the Republican Party and its connection to antecedents such as the Free Soilers and the Know-Nothing Party. Especially helpful in showing why immigrants did not feel at home in this new party during the 1850’s.
Morrison, Michael A., and James Brewer Stewart, eds. Race and the Early Republic: Racial Consciousness and Nation-Building in the Early Republic. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Collection of essays that are helpful for understanding attitudes toward race among abolitionists, the general American public, and European immigrants.
Osofsky, Gilbert. “Abolitionists, Irish Immigrants, and the Dilemmas of Romantic Nationalism.” American Historical Review 80, no. 4 (October, 1975): 889-912. Excellent study that shows how the abolitionist movement hoped to attract the support of Irish immigrants and why this attempt was largely a failure.
Roediger, David R. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the AmericanWorking Class. London: Verso, 1991. Excellent study of the attitudes of working-class Americans toward race.
Wittke, Carl. The Irish in America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956. Standard study on Irish immigration; gives some examples of prominent Irish immigrants on both sides of the slavery and sectional debates.
See also: African Americans and immigrants; American Colonization Society; History of immigration, 1783-1891; Irish immigrants; Know-Nothing Party; Liberia; Nativism; Political parties; Slave trade.