Friday, April 8, 2016

Booknotes: Abolitionizing Missouri

New Arrival:
Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Nineteenth-Century America by Kristen Layne Anderson (LSU Pr, 2016).

Among all the non-Anglo American ethnic and racial groups that made common cause with the Union during the Civil War, none contributed more on the home front and the battlefield than native-born and immigrant Germans. Nevertheless, in a popular American imagination dominated by the astonishing crimes of 20th century German history, ethnic Germans receive nothing like the acclaim awarded Irish or USCT soldiers and all too often are casually mocked for running away at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg or for mindlessly following inept fellow German commanders like Sigel. On the other hand, those that do study Germans in the U.S. during the Civil War most often portray them in an overwhelmingly positive fashion as radical leaning Republicans, strong Abolitionists, and sincere supporters of black civil rights. Anderson's Abolitionizing Missouri offers a more diverse corrective to this common interpretation.

Her study is:
"the first analysis of the reasons behind [German support for Border State emancipation] as well as the first exploration of the impact that the Civil War and emancipation had on German immigrants' ideas about race. Anderson focuses on the relationships between German immigrants and African Americans in St. Louis, Missouri, looking particularly at the ways in which German attitudes towards African Americans and the institution of slavery changed over time. Anderson suggests that although some German Americans deserved their reputation for racial egalitarianism, many others opposed slavery only when it served their own interests to do so. When slavery did not seem to affect their lives, they ignored it; once it began to threaten the stability of the country or their ability to get land, they opposed it. After slavery ended, most German immigrants accepted the American racial hierarchy enough to enjoy its benefits, and had little interest in helping tear it down, particularly when doing so angered their native-born white neighbors.

Anderson's work counters prevailing interpretations in immigration and ethnic history, where until recently, scholars largely accepted that German immigrants were solidly antislavery. Instead, she uncovers a spectrum of Germans' "antislavery" positions and explores the array of individual motives driving such diverse responses.. In the end, Anderson demonstrates that Missouri Germans were more willing to undermine the racial hierarchy by questioning slavery than were most white Missourians, although after emancipation, many of them showed little interest in continuing to demolish the hierarchy that benefited them by fighting for black rights."

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