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  • We Are the Revolutionists: German-Speaking Immigrants and American Abolitionists After 1848
  • David T. Gleeson (bio)

German Americans, Abolitionism, German Revolution of 1848

We Are the Revolutionists: German-Speaking Immigrants and American Abolitionists After 1848. By Mischa Honeck. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. Pp. 236. Cloth, $69.95; paper $24.95.)

Mischa Honek uses four fascinating case studies to illustrate the influence of radical German immigrants on antebellum American politics. Placing these immigrants in the context of their political coming of age in the tumultuous 1840s in the German states, Honeck vividly shows the continued importance of an Atlantic world of ideas beyond the 1820s. Of course the significance of Germans in the antebellum and Civil War eras has been recognized, and prominent migrants such as Carl Schurz have received serious attention. Honeck, however, seeks to look beyond the archetypal German American refugee success story to examine those who received a more mixed reaction in the United States and who themselves often became disappointed with the conservative nature of American society.

The first case study will be of particular interest to historians of the South. “A Firm Phalanx of Iron Souls: Free Men on Texas Soil,” assesses just how radical Texas Germans were in the years before the Civil War. Texas did indeed admit a large number of German immigrants after 1848, many of them imbued with the values of the liberal revolutions. Honeck, as the subtitle of his book makes clear, focuses on the relationship between a German radical and a leading abolitionist, in this case Adolf Douai, editor of the San Antonio Zeitung, and renowned [End Page 558] travel writer and critic of the South and its “peculiar institution,” F. L. Olmsted. Olmsted was in constant contact with Douai in the mid-1850s, and with the latter’s efforts to raise the “Society of Freemen” in Texas, which in its national forum had declared slavery “an evil that ought to be abolished and demanded equal rights for blacks” (43). Internal disputes between the abolitionists, German and native, as well as within the German community in Texas, however, doomed the movement’s chance of serious influence. The growing sectional tensions over slavery and secession in the latter 1850s and early 1860s ultimately silenced open opposition to the proslavery consensus in the Lone Star State. Those antislavery Germans, like Douai, who did not flee the state faced imprisonment and worse for even rumored opposition to the Confederacy.

Despite their closeness, German and American radicals had their tensions. Divisions between natives and Germans often reflected the fact that the Germans were more radical in their views of religion. Douai, for example, hoped that the Enlightenment, though born in Europe, could reach its fulfilment in the free and democratic United States. Organized religion, he thought, was an impediment to this golden enlightened future. Similarly, Karl Heinzen, a German radical and newspaper editor from Boston, had a close relationship with Wendell Phillips but was never afraid of criticising Phillips for his religiosity. He also thought that American abolitionists in general were too mild in their views on prosecuting the war and too moderate in their view of Abraham Lincoln after the Emancipation Proclamation. Heinzen, who wanted to “break every yoke” (137) of injustice wherever he saw it, reacted to Lincoln’s move toward ending slavery by describing it as “cruelty” (160) because it declared some slaves free, but others not, and the ones it did “are no less in chains on January 1 [1863] than they were on December 31 [1862]” (160). This extremism against Lincoln chagrined most abolitionists and most German Americans. No matter; Heinzen refused to compromise, ultimately undermining some of his influence. While Heinzen did have some clout with his compatriots in Boston, the overwhelming majority came to disagree with him.

Heinzen was undoubtedly the most significant of the “Revolutionists” both in ideological and political terms, but perhaps the most interesting relationship described is that of Mathilde Franziska Anneke and Mary Booth. The former was the wife of a prominent 1848 refugee who left her in the United States for a life of adventure back in Europe. The latter was the spouse of abolitionist and active...


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