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For years, the general assumption among many historians who study Missouri has been that its German population staunchly opposed the institution of slavery and harbored progressive views on race for the time. Kristen Layne Anderson, in her Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Nineteenth-Century America, seeks to not only give Germans the full examination that they deserve but to also demonstrate how their views on slavery and race were far more complicated, and not quite as advanced, as many have believed. Anderson argues that German attitudes over slavery and race changed over time from their initial arrival in Missouri when they often avoided the institution and engaged in the racial stereotyping of African Americans. But once the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in 1854, she explains how the German population began [End Page 435] to more actively oppose slavery out of a concern for their own interest in acquiring farmland and moving West. As sectional tensions worsened, Germans began to question the racial basis of slavery and saw it as a threat to the nation with the onset of the Civil War. As the war progressed, these views led to anti-German sentiment among native-born whites and a sizeable minority of conservative Germans tempering their support of abolition. After emancipation, nevertheless, many German radicals favored education, the vote, and the end of racially exclusive laws for former slaves. While conservative German-Americans opposed these measures from the beginning, once African American men were enfranchised and began to vote against German interests, radical Germans cooled their support of these initiatives as well.
The scope of Abolitionizing Missouri demands that Anderson focus on the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction years—a clear strength of the book. Her title implicates that the book examines the entire state, but, as she explains in the introduction, the focus is primarily on the city of St. Louis. Although the second through fifth chapters are the best parts of the work, Anderson is generally able to effectively analyze the changing German views on slavery and race. By examining this important topic, she places herself within a cadre of historians, such as Aaron Astor, William C. Harris, and Christopher Phillips, among others, who have recently sought to uncover the largely unappreciated role of the Border States during the Civil War era.
The bulk of Anderson’s cited sources are from St. Louis newspapers. With multiple German language papers in the city, she was able to get a large amount of material from the editorials, news coverage, advertisements, and reader letters within the city’s German and English sheets. Throughout her chapters, Anderson also includes a number of charts to help conceptualize the population and election results in St. Louis. But the one flaw in this approach is that there are many points where she relies too heavily on newspapers and far less on her other sources. Moreover, there are places where a greater examination [End Page 436] of African American views would have been useful, especially as the latter part of the book draws a stark contrast between the postemancipation desires of both groups. The same could be said of some of the more-conservative Germans factions—additional information on Catholics, and especially Lutherans, would have greatly aided Anderson’s argument. Certainly, however, some of this information was not forthcoming from her sources, as Anderson explains with labor records. But even with these limitations, Abolitionizing Missouri achieves its goals and is a good book for anyone wanting to learn more about the German role in this period.
LUCAS VOLKMAN teaches at Moberly Area Community College in central Missouri. He is the author of Houses Divided: Evangelical Schisms, Society, Law and the Crisis of the Union in Missouri, which is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.