[Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Nineteenth-Century America by Kristen Layne Anderson (Louisiana State University Press, 2016). Hardcover, tables, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:206/286. ISBN:978-0-8071-6196-8. $48]
It is a popularly held belief that the Germans of Civil War-era Missouri were uniformly supportive of Radical Republican politics, including the abolition of slavery and the extension of full citizenship rights to black males. While there is more than a little truth to this, Kristen Layne Anderson's Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Nineteenth-Century America clearly demonstrates that German-American social and political views were a great deal more qualified and diverse. Some scholars have even adopted a position on the opposite end of the spectrum, arguing that Germans, far from being exceptionally "radical," instead generally adopted the mores and political attitudes of their native-born neighbors wherever they settled in the country. This scholarship is also challenged in the book.
In making Abolitionizing Missouri a more manageable project in terms of scope, Anderson's study group is confined to the Germans of St. Louis, where they were both large in number (and in voting power) by the advent of the Civil War and notorious for their radical politics. There were also flourishing German language newspapers in the city that were not at all shy about promoting partisan political ideology, making their content and editorials rich sources of contemporary views for researchers like Anderson to mine.
According to the author, the St. Louis Germans of the 1830s and 1840s, while predominantly anti-slavery, did not actively oppose it. Like their colleagues in the native press, German newspapers advertised slave auctions and escape notices, but few Germans owned slaves or desired to do so. While the German population of St. Louis was certainly well aware of the institution (in the city, most slaves were hired out on a contract basis), the insular nature of their communities at that time meant that many did not see, let alone interact, with free or enslaved blacks on a regular basis. They generally did not see slavery as affecting their own interests. This attitude abruptly changed in the mid-1850s with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the violence that occurred along their own western border. With the territories potentially open to slavery, the Germans of St. Louis now felt their own economic futures directly threatened. Fearing that wealthy slaveowners would grab up all the best land and shut out immigrant opportunities, they were attracted to the new Republican Party, one of its cornerstones being the blocking of slavery's expansion.
Much like 1854 was the antebellum moment that sparked German political activism, 1863 was the year that was the turning point in German majority views on outright abolition. While many Germans supported freeing the slaves much earlier in the war (ex. the press offered widespread support for John C. Fremont's 1861 order confiscating the slave property of rebels), outright clarion calls for immediate emancipation became much more strident in the radical press after the Emancipation Proclamation (which excluded Missouri) was issued. Here, Anderson ably outlines the divisions within the German community, with the small but significant conservative element counseling gradual emancipation with compensation. Conservative Germans also became more politically assertive during the late war period, arguing that the radicals, who did not oppose the importation of black refugees into the city and were enthusiastic about arming freed slaves for army service, seriously threatened the peace and security of the Border States. The more moderate Germans also feared even stronger nativist backlash resulting from the radicals's sustained opposition to Missouri's conservative provisional governor Hamilton Gamble and their constant attacks on the state's loyal slaveowners, many of whom sacrificed as much as any other Missourian for the Union cause.
Though the German radicals of Missouri remained strong advocates of emancipation and basic civil rights for blacks during the war, they failed to secure black male suffrage when a new, entirely rewritten state constitution was created (the Drake Constitution of 1865). That event would have to await the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. Their principled objections to the constitution's explicit racial and religious elements were also ignored by other Republicans. Meanwhile, conservative Germans, as well as a growing number of the radical element, feared that the interests of black voters would not be aligned with those that most concerned Germans. Like many native born Democrats, they doubted the black population's capacity for full citizenship and also viewed the citizenship movement as a cynical ploy by the most extreme radicals to create a large new Republican voting bloc. Oddly, many Germans simply assumed blacks favored a puritanical form of religion hostile to German culture, which already struggled with existing Sabbath and temperance laws. Moderates also opposed racial equality in access to public transportation, hotels, and education. According to Anderson, the renewed press for black suffrage by the Missouri Republican Party in 1868 (which failed in St. Louis and everywhere else in the state) led to the majority of Germans abandoning the party altogether. The radicals were forced to concede that the majority of their constituents held hostile views regarding black suffrage that were remarkably similar to those of their native white neighbors. By 1872, amid faltering support among their fellow Germans, even the radicals were questioning whether the Republican Party as a whole supported German concerns as much as it claimed to serve black interests. Anderson's well supported interpretation that German self-interest, specifically regarding the benefits of being a member of white society and the realization that full racial equality carried risks to their own precarious standing in society, ultimately trumped ideology is persuasive.
There isn't much to complain about in the book. In examining German Missourians, the exclusive focus on urban immigrant society might seem too narrow on the face of it. There were significant numbers of rural German communities in Missouri, even some located near to what most consider the region called "Little Dixie" (ex. Cole Camp), and their views on emancipation and black citizenship may or may not have been quite different. Given the strong persistence of urban-rural divides in American politics, this is a reasonable concern. Also, the German refugees from the 1848 revolutionary wars in Europe seemed to have comprised one of the staunchest components of the Radical Republican movement in Missouri, and some discussion of how the backgrounds and experiences of these "Red Republicans" informed their views on race and politics in America might have proved a fruitful addition to the conversation.
In some ways, as exhibited above, Anderson's study is a marriage of sorts of the scholarship's two most contrasting general views of nineteenth-century German immigrants, with one side arguing that Germans were near universal proponents of Radical Republican ideology and the other that the newcomers tended to adopt the attitudes of their native-born neighbors. The book clearly shows that being "anti-slavery" meant different things at different times for the German community in Missouri, and the reasons behind supporting the abolitionist movement for many proved to be an evolving act of pragmatic self-interest rather than disinterested ideological purity. Embracing and splendidly weaving together issues related to civil war, politics, ethnicity, racial identity, immigration, civil rights, and other topics important to the work of today's scholars, Abolitionizing Missouri is a highly recommended contribution to the literatures of a myriad of prominent social history disciplines. It is an especially valuable revisionist history (in the best meaning of the term) of the role played by German Missourians in the opposition to slavery and promotion of racial equality in the Civil War era.
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