Jason H. Silverman is the Ellen Capers Palmer Jr. Professor of History at Winthrop University. This interview is based on his new book, Lincoln and the Immigrant (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Lincoln and the Immigrant?
JS: About five years ago I was about to start teaching the history department’s capstone seminar course which is required of all graduating history majors. Because Abraham Lincoln has been an integral part of my work for many years I decided to concentrate on his life and times for the course. As I was preparing the syllabus I wanted to list some suggested topics for the major research paper that is required in the course. I really didn’t want everyone to do the same topics, or topics about Lincoln that had been done many, many times. As it happened, the topic of immigration in the United States was dominating the news as it does now as well and I thought that perhaps that would be a neat topic for a student to pursue. But, the more I looked for some recommended sources for the students, the less I found. I simply could not believe that of the 16,500, and counting, books on Lincoln that NOTHING had ever been done on this aspect of Lincoln. But, when I became convinced that that was the case I sent out a query on one of my list-servs just to make sure I wasn’t missing something, or someone wasn’t about to publish a book on that topic. The response was pretty convincing. Some pretty prominent names in Lincoln studies said it was a great idea and that I should do it because it is very important. So, I did!
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Lincoln and the Immigrant?
JS: Lincoln’s relationship with, and exposure to, immigrants and people of different ethnicities from a relatively young age shaped his ideology about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as well as his interpretation of liberty and freedom. Long before he articulated his opinions about slavery, Lincoln spoke about the role and place of immigrants in America and their importance to the labor supply needed for America to progress in industry and farming.
JF: Why do we need to read Lincoln and the Immigrant?
JS: Well, the obvious reason and most simplistic is because it has never been done before! But, my book covers a very important dimension, and hitherto overlooked, part of Abraham Lincoln’s life. From his flatboat rides down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, to his neighborhood in Springfield, to the White House, Lincoln interacted with Germans, Jews, Irish, Scandinavians, and to a lesser extent Mexicans and Asians. Many of them were poor, as he had been in his youth, and would become his supporters. He never denied the right of immigrants to rise as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and which he himself accomplished. Although his language was at times typical of a 19th century western American, he harbored no animosity to immigrants, quite unlike most Americans at the time, including many in his own political party, be it the Whigs or later Republicans. I hope that readers of my book will come away from it with not only a new interpretation of Abraham Lincoln, but also with some fresh insights for today as they wrestle with similar immigration issues.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American Historian?
JS: I was one of those very rare undergraduates who knew from day one of his freshman year that he wanted to teach history. Because I played football in high school and college, my initial plans were to coach football and teach history at the high school level. But when it came time to graduate I was enjoying the study of history too much so I went on to work on a master’s degree and revised my plans to teach at the junior or community college level. And when I obtained that degree I decided to continue my studies and obtain a Ph.D. That was 34 years ago! I started my career at Yale University of all places, and for the last 31 years have taught at Winthrop University.
JF: What is your next project?
JS: I am now working on a companion volume to my Lincoln and the Immigrant book. I want to look at Lincoln’s 19th century reputation in the lands from whence the immigrants came. I think it will be fascinating to see the drastic change in how Lincoln was perceived pre- and post-assassination.
JF: Thanks, Jason!
And thanks to Abby Blakeney for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner