Immigrant America, 1850

Carl Schurz

Carl Schurz

All of yesterday’s talk about the immigrant vote could benefit from some particulars so I resolved to find them. I hoped that the 1850 census would, as the 1860 census does, not just list immigrant populations but also break them down by their nation of origin. So late Wednesday night I went to the census bureau website in hopes of getting the state by state tabulations and found myself thwarted by the October 2013 federal government shutdown. Thanks for that, House Republicans. My inconvenience does not compare to the problems the shutdown caused for federal employees, contract workers dependent on federal grants, scientists relying on those same grants, or just about anyone else’s difficulty, of course. I did get the data the next day, at which point I discovered that the scans of the census tables for 1850 do not match the quality of those for 1860. Back to the University of Virginia’s census browser I went.

I hoped to find in 1850 a plethora of data and went to work with dreams of getting the total white male population, subtracting out those below 21, and treating that as a fair approximation of the number of voters in each state. Then I could pull out from that the foreign-born, and ideally just the German, population of voting age. That would not give me a perfect count of the size of their vote, but would get something closer to the set of all possible German-American voters for the Democrats to alienate with Kansas-Nebraska. Unfortunately the census of 1850 lacks that level of detail. I could only find the total foreign-born population for each state. As that includes men and women alike and none of those women could vote at the time, it would not compare apples to apples with the total white male population. However, the census did give me the total white population and the total foreign-born population. But proceeding with the knowledge that the figures only get us a general indicator, the census yields ample pertinent facts.

In 1850, the census found 2,234,602 (11.50%) foreign-born people out of a white population of 19,429,185. That doesn’t sound like very much. The nation had more slaves. The immigrants could become at least notionally equal citizens before the eyes of the law, of course, but less than 12% hardly seems like a decisive percentage for future elections. The national totals do not reveal the sectional and state-level complexities. Drilling down one level and looking at sectional aggregates tells a more complicated story.

Immigration in the North

Immigration in the North

The foreign-born 11.50% did not spread themselves out evenly. Fully 85.98% lived in the North, 655,955 (29.35% of the national total) in New York alone. Fitting the stereotype, everybody came in through New York. It housed 34.14% of the North’s immigrant population. The second runner-up in the North, Pennsylvania, could muster only 303,417 (15.79% of the North’s total and 13.58% of the nation’s.) But look at it from the point of view of a politician standing for office in New York: Would you want to alienate 21.52% of the population that counts come election time? In Pennsylvania, you risk losing 13.44%. In Wisconsin, you fear the wrath of a whopping 36.25%.

Immigration in the South

Immigration in the South

Down South, however, the foreign-born count for only 5.07% of the population. The most immigrant-heavy state, Louisiana, can match New York fairly close at 26.71% foreign born. But Louisiana’s exception proves the rule. Nowhere else in the South can one find a state more than Missouri’s 12.94% foreign-born. In absolute numbers, the Show Me state beats Louisiana thanks to its higher population. Other states with high numbers of foreign-born, for the South, include half-free Maryland (12.25%) and frontier Texas (11.48%). Everywhere else clocks in below eight percent.

Clearly, Southern politicians have much less to fear from the wrath of immigrants. This leads to a natural political calculus: Southern men, especially Lower South men, could generally pursue a course that alienated large numbers of immigrants without it greatly impacting their political future. Northern Democrats had no such similar luxury. Even in Southern states with large numbers of immigrants, the competing interest of expanding slavery and, especially for Missouri, powerful local imperatives, could further soften the blow. Why not enrage the Germans? Only the Northern Democracy would pay the price.

Of course down the road, those immigrants would end up in Union armies. Latter-day pretend Confederates sometimes call them Lincoln’s socialist mercenaries. At least one German revolutionary turned Union general, Carl Schurz, observed the Kansas-Nebraska debates from the gallery. Allen Nevins quotes him on the spectacle:

I had seen the slave power officially represented by some of its foremost champions-overbearing, defiant, dictatorial. … I had seen in alliance with the slave power, not only far-reaching material interests and a sincere but easily intimidated conservatism, but a selfish party spirit and an artful and unscrupulous demagogy making a tremendous effort to obfuscate the moral sense of the North. I had seen standing against this tremendous array of forces a small handful of anti-slavery men faithfully fighting the battle of freedom and civilization. I saw the decisive contest rapidly approaching.

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