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German-Americans and Civil War Politics: A Reconsideration of the Ethnocultural Thesis

From: Civil War History
Volume 37, Number 3, September 1991
pp. 232-246 | 10.1353/cwh.1991.0047

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German-Americans and Civil War Politics: A Reconsideration of the Ethnocultural Thesis Walter D. Kamphoefner Within the last two decades, the so-called ethnocultural thesis has established itself as the new orthodoxy in nineteenth-century political history. According to this view, first advanced by Lee Benson and further elaborated by scholars such as Paul Kleppner, Richard Jensen, and Fred Luebke, political identification was strongly conditioned by ethnoreligious identity.1 This thesis applies to both the second American party system of the Jacksonian era and the third party system that emerged after realignment of the 1850s. The Whig party and its Republican successor, with their activist policies in both the economic and social arenas, were most attractive to social groups of a pietist religious bent, whereas the less activist, more pluralistic Democrats were more attractive to ritualists. Pietist confessions were products of the Second Great Awakening, Evangelical Protestant denominations which recruited adult members through emotional conversion experiences. Ritualist denominations, by contrast, were denominations that one was baptized into as a infant. Such groups were more hierarchical, stressing an educated clergy and a canon of Scripture, whereas the more egalitarian pietists stressed an inner light and a direct personal relationship with God. Though the ritualist mentality was typified by the largely immigrant Catholic church, it was shared by Protestant immigrants such as German Lutherans and by some native groups such as Episcopalians. Although the pietist mentality was strongest among the heirs of New England Puritanism, it was also 1 Lee Benson, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1961), 165-207; Paul Kleppner, The Cross of Culture: A Social Analysis ofMidwestern Politics, ¡850-Î900 (New York: Free Press, 1970); idem., The Third Electoral System, ¡853-Î892 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1979); Richard Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, ¡888-1896 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971); Frederick C. Luebke, ed., Ethnic Voters and the Election of Lincoln (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1971). Civil War History, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, ° 1991 by the Kent State University Press the ethnocultural thesis233 shared, for example, by Scandinavian and British immigrants of a Dissenter tradition. Religious emotion was injected into the political arena by pietist demands that the government serve as an agent of enforced civic righteousness by prohibiting alcohol, imposing a Puritan Sunday, outlawing slavery, and using the public schools as an agent of Protestant indoctrination and obligatory Americanization. But in the view of ritualists, private morality was the business of the church, not the government that arrogantly went beyond the laws of God in its fanaticism against alcohol and slavery. It was around such social issues, reinforced and personified by ethnic stereotypes, that partisan alignment revolved. With regard to German Americans, there is another historiographie tradition that has been challenged by the ethnoculturalists: a filiopietistic legacy or legend of unanimous support of the "freedom loving Germans" for Lincoln that was allegedly the decisive factor in the election of 1860. Such claims were based largely on statements from contemporary ethnic politicians such as Carl Schurz, or on dubious global calculations based on the number of German voters in various states and the assumption that all of them voted Republican.2 Scholars who have examined voting behavior and electoral issues more carefully have concluded that the legacy of nativism in the Republican party and anticlericism among its most articulate German leaders often proved to be insurmountable obstacles with rank-and-file voters of Catholic or other ritualist denominations. The ethnocultural thesis is a considerable improvement over previous class-based explanations of political affiliation advanced by the PopulistProgressive generation of historiography. While it must be granted that class and ethnicity overlap considerably—Yankee Protestant pietists were on average considerably better off than Irish Catholic ritualists—careful research with individual-level data has demonstrated, for example, that Irish Catholic merchants voted more like other Catholics than like other merchants, and that even within the same wealth and occupational categories there was considerable contrast in the party affiliation of pietists over against ritualists.3 While there is much evidence in support of the ethnocultural school's viewpoint, its interpretation remains deficient on several...