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Book Review: ‘Brought Forth on This Continent,’ by Harold Holzer; ‘The Last Ships From Hamburg,’ by Steven Ujifusa.


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.

For Lincoln, the primary goal was to build as large and powerful an antislavery political party as possible. If that required him to cozy up to Northern Know-Nothing extremists, so be it. He forged what Holzer calls “questionable alliances” in order to end the institution he privately abhorred.

And he succeeded in doing so. As the Know-Nothings fell apart, divided between Northerners who were antislavery and a Southern wing that was not, the Republicans absorbed within their ranks enough Know-Nothings to elect Abraham Lincoln president.

Holzer, who has written or edited dozens of books, has taken on a difficult task in this one. Immigration was not a major issue for Abraham Lincoln. He said and wrote little about it, other than during the Know-Nothing era, when, as Holzer shows, he might have condemned religious bigotry and xenophobia directly but chose political expediency over moral clarity.

Despite his hesitancy to take on the nativists in the 1850s, however, Lincoln eventually evolved into “an immigration advocate.” Holzer directs our attention to 150 or so words in Lincoln’s 6,100-word “Annual Message to Congress” from 1863, in which he called for government “attention and support” for the “tens of thousands of persons, destitute of remunerative occupation,” who yearned “to emigrate to the United States if essential, but very cheap, assistance can be afforded them.”

Holzer may give Lincoln too much credit here. Immigration advocacy, an element in the Republican platform that aimed at promoting business interests by increasing the size of the work force, lowering labor costs and lessening union influence, was never a major concern for a president fighting a civil war. Lincoln signed the 1864 “Act to Encourage Emigration” into law, but the bill was repealed three years later. The proportion of the foreign-born Americans rose modestly, to around 15 percent, where it remained through 1880.

This is roughly where Steven Ujifusa picks up the thread in “The Last Ships From Hamburg,” which focuses on Jewish immigration out of the Russian Empire from the 1880s through World War I.

Most studies of European immigration during this period begin at Castle Garden or Ellis Island, after the boat has pulled into harbor. Ujifusa provides us with the missing back story, the long trek across Europe, the journey across the ocean and the people who made it possible: Albert Ballin, the managing director of the Hamburg-America line; J.P. Morgan, who organized a rival trans-Atlantic shipping trust; and Jacob Schiff, who contributed millions of dollars to facilitate the passage of Russian Jews to European ports and westward to America.

Ujifusa’s central character is Ballin, one of the richest, most powerful and well-connected German Jews on the continent and a sometime confidant of the Kaiser. Ballin recognized early that in order to increase the flow of immigrants into and out of the port of Hamburg, he would have to segregate them from the city’s permanent residents, who feared that an ongoing invasion of Eastern Europeans would bring chaos and cholera.

To ease anxieties that small cities on the Russian border would be overwhelmed by unruly migrants, Ballin also erected and staffed crossing stations along the border where his customers were policed, examined, bathed and deloused before they were placed on trains headed to a self-contained emigrant village ghetto that the shipping magnate had established on an island near Hamburg.

Stuffing impoverished immigrants into steerage holds for passage to America was a lucrative business. Between 1881 and 1914, Ujifusa writes, some 10 million immigrants bought tickets for the trip across the Atlantic. Ballin accumulated a personal fortune equivalent to $55 million today, with an annual salary of $5 million.

As it had a half-century earlier, the increase in non-Protestant immigration triggered a new nativist campaign. Chinese immigration had been curtailed in 1882 when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting the entry of “skilled and unskilled” laborers. But European immigrants of all kinds were still arriving, to the dismay of the Boston Brahmins who worried about the quality of the nation’s “race stock” and founded the Immigration Restriction League in 1894 to protect it.

Ujifusa’s thoroughly researched and beautifully written history ends tragically with the outbreak of World War I and the suspension of steamship service across the Atlantic. Ballin died in 1918, having spent much of his life promoting Russian Jewish immigration to the United States. In the years that followed, Congress passed a series of restrictive laws including the Immigration Act of 1924, which cut off pathways out of those parts of Eastern Europe from which millions of Jews had once been able to escape.

Almost 100,000 people left Poland in 1921. The number fell to 1,500 by 1935. As a result of quotas put in place in the middle of the 1920s, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Jews — we will never know how many — were left trapped in lands where they and their families would, within less than two decades, perish in the ghettos, killing fields and gas chambers of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.

Here is another truth as old as the Republic itself: Anti-immigrant policies have consequences that reach far beyond the borders of the receiving nation.


BROUGHT FORTH ON THIS CONTINENT: Abraham Lincoln and American Immigration | By Harold Holzer | Dutton | 456 pp. | $35

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 | Harper | 365 pp. | $32



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