On August 24, 1855, Abraham Lincoln ended a letter to his
close friend Joshua Speed with these words:
I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.
This is Lincoln’s most famous statement on Know-Nothings and
nativism. Yet this letter alone cannot convey the entirety of his
views of ethnicity, Know-Nothings, immigrants, and nativists.
Abraham Lincoln had an enormously complex conception of
immigrant and ethnic groups. Many men of his era saw every
ethnic group, every immigrant—whether Irish, Jewish, German,
Swedish, or American Indian—as the same. Lincoln, however,
saw each group as distinctive, each with its own history, its own
needs, and its own contributions to American society. Because he saw the diversity of these groups, rather than simply jumbling them together as “foreigners” or “savages” like many of his day, Lincoln had an unusual conception of individuals of different ethnicities, as well as their groups, as a whole. Lincoln
assembled this conception from his many dealings with individual immigrants, ethnic groups, and those factions for or against them in American society—as citizen, as politician, and as President.