- Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Nineteenth-Century America by Kristen Layne Anderson
The field of German American studies was long dominated by German American historians. Not surprisingly, the German immigrants who arrived in waves throughout the nineteenth century come off rather well in these filiopietistic accounts. This is especially true in regard to the Civil War and emancipation, where Germans not only proved loyal to the Union, but spearheaded the abolitionist cause—a product of their general love for freedom and equality. But as in most good stories, fact and myth were swirled together. It took a later generation, armed with data and distance, to point out that this was all much more complex, that Germans were far from monolithic and therefore needed nuance. This was accomplished through immigration studies, which quickly pointed out how diverse these "Germans" (there was no Germany until 1871) were in terms of political ideology, religion, regional origins, employment, and so on. Carefully curated voting records revealed that Germans did not vote for Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party en masse and that a strong body of conservatives remained loyal to the Democratic Party throughout the 1850s, the war, and Reconstruction. So how to reconcile the difference?
Kristen Layne Anderson is one of several historians offering an explanation. As Anderson has it, German Americans, or at least those living in and around St. Louis, Missouri, often did join the Union ranks and many supported emancipation, but there are major caveats: Anderson is interested in tracing German attitudes toward African Americans and how these two groups pushed emancipation to the forefront in Missouri; however, for the Germans this goal only developed gradually and unevenly. Anderson argues that when they arrived, most Germans accepted the prevailing racial hierarchy in Missouri. It was only with the shifting political winds of the tumultuous [End Page 77] 1850s, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act in particular, that Germans performed a new calculus. Pragmatically, Germans saw the chance to join the rising Republican Party, clear western lands for free white settlement, and rid themselves of slave masters. Thus, Anderson concludes, Germans altered their position "when it benefitted their own community to do so" (3). And even then, Anderson reminds, many Germans never fully committed to black equality.
The major theoretical thrust that emerges is racial consciousness. As earlier whiteness studies have indicated, German, Irish, and other immigrants, like those in St. Louis, found themselves in a strict racial hierarchy. If they remained immigrants who rejected or disobeyed this hierarchy, they risked losing out on the benefits of their white skin. Anderson argues that Germans in St. Louis only challenged the status quo after it became practical, opposing slavery "primarily for its negative effects on white society" (29). Anderson performs yeoman work to demonstrate the politicization of Germans in St. Louis following the advent of the Free Soil movement, the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, and the Supreme Court's Dred Scott ruling—all of which convinced many Germans that for white Americans (themselves included) to succeed, particularly in the West, slavery must end.
Here again, though, Anderson reminds that Germans in St. Louis did not act uniformly. Some supported colonization of slaves, radicals argued for full citizenship, and conservatives rejected calls for emancipation altogether. Navigating these complexities, Anderson adeptly guides us through the push for emancipation in Missouri beginning in 1863, led in part by radical Germans. The amount of detail given to the state conventions on emancipation is impressive and unrivaled.
While emancipation did become a reality in Missouri, Anderson argues that new questions regarding African American suffrage, public transportation, and employment drove a deeper wedge between German Radical Republicans, who wholly supported full equality, and German conservatives, who claimed their whiteness by rejecting black citizenship. Leading into the postwar, then, meant this partition would continue "to shape how Germans approached the racial questions of Reconstruction" (111). Indeed, Anderson depicts the widespread abandonment of the Radical Republican agenda by the...