Teachers, students, and history buffs alike gathered on January 24th for the annual Lincoln Symposium at HistoryMiami, cosponsored by The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. This year’s symposium revolved around the topic of President Abraham Lincoln and immigration— two subjects that do not usually go hand-in-hand but have a hidden and current connection not immediately seen.
The symposium kicked off with an introduction from David Lawrence Jr., noting that this is HistoryMiami’s 76th year of holding events and presented the keynote speaker: Harold Holzer, author of 51 books on the Civil War.
Holzer immediately stated that little was heard about immigration during Lincoln’s time period, but it is a timely issue that has been brought up in several different manners. Foreign arrivals sunk during the first two years of the Civil War, but numbers surely began to pick back up. In 1863, the U.S. had approximately 176 thousand immigrants, and by 1864, that number almost reached 200 thousand. Most immigrants were young men from England, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia, several of them joining the Union Army as soon as they arrived.
Holzer continued to link Lincoln and immigration by revealing Lincoln’s personal views on specific ethnicities, Congress’ conflicting actions towards immigrants, and the press’s critiques on Lincoln’s immigration decisions— such as gaining manpower for the Army by allowing immigrants in, even paying for transport. Holzer used several present-day examples that the audience could connect with, such as the Syrian refugee crisis and talks of the Mexican-American border.
Holzer concluded his keynote speech by reminding the crowd that although Lincoln favored immigration for the enhancement of the Union as stated in his fourth State of the Union Address (“God favored immigration”), his views weren’t impartial, for he had little sympathy for Asians, called Mexicans “mongols”, and was not in favor of Native Americans.
After a brief reception, the audience returned for a panel discussion centering around the conversation of Lincoln, immigration, and the meaning of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The panel included three experts in the field of United States history during Lincoln’s presidency and moderator Frank J. Williams.
As an introduction, the panelist recalled Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR) decision to help rescue the last European Jews in January of 1944, while they all agreed that FDR never had an emancipation moment like Lincoln. This statement set the tone for the rest of the panel discussion, ranging in topics from the Dred Scott case to Lincoln’s views on the present-day issues of immigration.
One of the buzzworthy items on the agenda was certainly the talk of the 14th amendment— all the panelists agreed that although this amendment was intended for slavery, not immigration, it ended up benefiting all, even resonating today.
The discussion moved towards an audience Q&A, and closed with one last Lincoln fact from the panel to tie him and immigration together, and to echo with the attendees until next year’s symposium: “Lincoln found American identity, not in the blood, but in belief.”
Photos and Story by Sharon Arana