If immigration seems a perennial problem Washington can’t seem to solve, there’s at least some comfort in knowing that, throughout its history, the U.S. has never quite figured out whether it wants to bar the gates or open the doors to newcomers from abroad.

Two recently published books, “Brought Forth on This Continent,” by Harold Holzer, and “The Last Ships from Hamburg,” by Steven Ujifusa, examine the roiling controversies surrounding two intense waves of immigration — from 1820 to 1860 and 1881 through 1914. Both highlight the hyperbolic rhetoric of long-deceased politicians, lobbyists, writers and other prominent public figures that eerily echo today’s strident anti-immigration voices.

Harold Holzer views early 19th century immigration through the eyes of Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president. Though known as the “Great Emancipator” for his pivotal role in ending African-American slavery, Lincoln was caught up in immigration controversy early in his early career as an Illinois state legislator, congressman and political party leader, when his cautiously pro-immigrant stance reflected both his political acumen and deep empathy for the underdog.

Between 1820 and 1860, about 1.7 million Irish and 1.5 million German immigrants entered the U.S., fleeing poverty, famine and political turbulence. Compared to an 1860 population of only about 31 million, this represented an enormous influx. It ignited vicious social and political backlash, particularly since many immigrants were Roman Catholic and the country’s populace was mainly Protestant.

An anti-immigrant (“nativist”) faction arose within Lincoln’s political party, the Whigs. Dubbed the “Know-Nothings,” they recoiled at the sight of the newcomers and feared their strength as voters if they became citizens. A Whig Wall Street lawyer and diarist described them as “wretched, filthy, bestial looking” and “the very scum and dregs of human nature.” A Maine Whig warned Henry Clay, the party’s losing 1844 presidential candidate, “The naturalization laws must be modified somehow, or we must sink under the weight of the worst of all European influences.” Citing unfounded rumors of voter fraud, he railed that “Irish paupers … marshalled by their infernal priests” had swarmed across the Canadian border to vote for Clay’s rival, James Polk.

Controversy over immigration splintered the Whig Party, with its Know-Nothing faction driving most new Irish and German voters into the arms of the Democratic Party. Lincoln, though viscerally opposed to any ethnic, religious or racial hatred, remained judiciously quiet on the subject to avoid alienating his Know-Nothing constituents. However, he revealed his true feelings in an 1855 letter to a confidante, writing, “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?”


The other polarizing issue of Lincoln’s day — whether slavery would be permitted to expand into the Western territories — soon shattered what was left of the Whig Party. By 1856, a new Republican Party had arisen in its place, uniting former Whigs, Free-Soilers (those opposed to slavery’s expansion) and foreign-born citizens. Lincoln became one of the party’s leaders and its nominee for the presidency in 1860.

Freed from the constraints of the Know-Nothings, Lincoln emerged as an enthusiastic supporter of immigration. As President-elect in 1861, he told an audience in Cincinnati, “if there are any abroad who desire to make this the land of their adoption, it is not in my heart to throw aught in their way, to prevent them from coming to the United States.”

It was a wise choice. Irish and German immigrants contributed substantially to the Union effort in the Civil War, as soldiers, farmers, merchants and laborers, as well as construction workers who built the first transcontinental railway (not to mention Lewiston’s mills and canals).

Steven Ujifusa sheds light on the complex forces which caused and facilitated a second great wave of European immigration totaling over 10 million people, 2.5 of them Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, between 1881 and 1914.

This Jewish immigration was propelled by the repressive policies of Russia’s last two czars, Czar Alexander III and Nicholas II. Both were reactionary autocrats who despised any notion of liberalism or representative democracy and harbored a special hatred for Jews. Russia’s Jews were barred from land ownership, residence in major cities, and professions like law and medicine. They were subjected to the periodic violence of state-sanctioned riots, and their children were forcibly conscripted into harsh decades-long military service. These pressures drove many to embark on the arduous journey to the United States.

Ironically, despite the government’s animosity towards them, Jews were barred from leaving Russia. However, a complex international network sprang up — comprised of German and British shipping executives, Anglo-American investment bankers, and wealthy Jewish philanthropists, to smuggle Jews out of Russia, transport them to European seaports (such as Hamburg, Bremen, Southampton, and Liverpool), and convey them aboard large steamships to the docks of Hoboken and the immigration processing center of Ellis Island in New York Harbor.


This was a profitable business but one that was also enabled by the charity of American Jews like Jacob Schiff, who helped raised the millions of dollars necessary to pay for voyages of impecunious immigrants and provide them with initial financial support once they arrived.

The shabby new immigrants drew scorn from Protestant blue bloods, such as Henry Cabot Lodge, and from pseudo-scientific racist eugenicists, like Prescott Farnsworth Hall, who wrote in 1901, “The attempt to improve race stocks in recent times has therefore taken the form, not of killing off the least fit, but of preventing coming into the State, either by being born into it or through migration.”

Yet the arrival of these supposed sub-humans led to a new flowering of literature, music, theater, science and medicine in America.

Hard as it may be to believe, Donald Trump’s immigrant-baiting speeches pale by comparison to the virulent rants of immigration opponents during these historic periods, but, like theirs, his dire predictions will prove over time to be totally wrong.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Shukie & Segovias in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 17 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at epsteinel@yahoo.com

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