We Are the Revolutionists: German-Speaking Immigrants and American Abolitionists After 1848
German Americans, Abolitionism, German Revolution of 1848
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  than they were on December 31 ” (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 opponent of the 1850 Fugitive [End Page 559] Slave Law, Sherman Booth, whom she left because of his conviction for seducing their fourteen-year-old babysitter. Already friends, both women thus pooled their resources and conjoined their households. They eventually went to Europe and became strong public supporters of abolitionism and the Union effort in the Civil War. Confident in the influence they could have, they formed “a bicultural writing team” that sought to persuade Europeans of the compatibility of their struggles for freedom with that of the African American slave. They had some impact and may have had more so but for the fact that even the world of radical abolitionism could not handle an all-female propaganda team working beyond the control of their husbands. Their close relationship ended only when Booth returned to America to be near her daughter. Her desire to transcend the burdens of family imposed on mothers could not overcome her wish to see her family one last time as she was in poor health, thus ending a remarkable trans-Atlantic partnership.
Indeed, Booth’s untimely demise at the end of the Civil War (ten months after returning to the United States) symbolizes for Honeck the decline of the German–American radical alliance for abolition and equal rights. With slavery abolished and the vote granted to “negroes,” many American liberals believed that African Americans could work on their own now to rise in the world. They saw the war’s conclusion, unlike Germans such as Heinzen and Anneke, as an end rather than a beginning. Without their prominent American allies, radicals like Heinzen and Anneke became disillusioned with U.S. potential as the leader for enlightenment values. They became isolated too from the mainstream German American community who embraced post-Reconstruction white racial unity, leading Honeck to conclude that, “Most Forty-Eighters had become abolitionists as Germans . . . but most ended up as white German Americans” (188). Nonetheless, telling their story is valuable. In this well-written book Honeck has highlighted the importance of a continued Atlantic world and, also, how the connections between German and American radicals were an important element of America social reform movements before the Civil War. [End Page 560]
David T. Gleeson is a reader in history at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. He is completing a book on Irish immigrants in the Confederacy to be published by the University of North Carolina Press.