- Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Nineteenth-Century Americaby Kristen Layne Anderson
Kristen Layne Anderson's Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Nineteenth Century Americaanalyzes Civil War–era German immigrants' thought about race and slavery. Focusing on the German immigrant community in St. Louis, Anderson makes a strong argument that the German response to slavery and race in Missouri was pragmatic rather than idealistic, with Germans primarily seeking their own self-interest in deciding how to respond to these contentious issues. [End Page 415]
Abolitionizing Missouridescribes a border-state German community that, rather than being united in its ideological commitment to freedom and equality, was only partially committed to emancipation and equality for African Americans. Using primarily German-language newspapers, supplemented by English-language newspapers and census and election returns, Anderson argues that most Missouri Germans united behind the Union during the Civil War and embraced a free soil–style antislavery position throughout the late 1850s. But only the most radical of these Germans sought anything approaching equality for African Americans, and only did so during the war and the years immediately before and after the conflict. Driven more by self-interest than ideology, the German community of St. Louis was largely indifferent to the plight of enslaved Americans before the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) made slavery more threatening to the westward immigration of the free soil German community. This same community was largely dismissive of the ongoing oppression of freedpeople during Reconstruction due to fears that African Americans would vote against German interests. Furthermore, even during the wartime peak of German support for emancipation, an intensifying division between more radically egalitarian and antislavery Germans, who became targets of nativism, and their more conservative counterparts, who actively sought to distance themselves from the radical Germans, limited overall German support for racial freedom and equality. Rather than being committed to liberty, the St. Louis German population was influenced by and accepting of the racial prejudices of the general white population of the Civil War–era United States, largely because they acutely felt the necessity of finding their own precarious place as immigrants within a society founded on racial hierarchy. As such, Anderson argues, even as St. Louis Germans adopted a more antislavery position than that of their native-born neighbors, they did so out of a desire to advance their own opportunities within their new nation, to protect that new nation from the threat of division by slaveholders, and to insulate their community from nativism, rather than out of a commitment to liberal ideals.
With Abolitionizing Missouri, Anderson succeeds in using one community to detail the diversity within immigrant German thought regarding race and slavery, and to show how that diversity was shaped within a local context and by the interactions of the German community with local and national events. This study also highlights the critical role of self-interest in influencing German thought and action, helping explain the internal division within the German community and the distinct shifts that German thought on race and slavery underwent during the middle of the nineteenth century.
Although Anderson's focus is on German self-interest, given the well-known importance of transatlantic liberal ideology to German immigrants, a stronger contextualization of St. Louis Germans within the framework and ideologies of liberalism and the revolutions of 1848 would have strengthened Anderson's analysis. Even with the focus limited to St. Louis, however, Anderson makes a strong case for significant diversity among German immigrants and for the central role of self-interest in [End Page 416]motivating German immigrants' thoughts and actions regarding race and slavery.