Abraham Lincoln’s “Forgotten” Act to Encourage Immigration

By Jason H. Silverman
Ellison Capers Palmer, Jr. Professor of History
Winthrop University

Lost in the media and scholarly attention to the sesquicentennial was one of President Lincoln’s signature pieces of legislation, The Act to Encourage Immigration, July 4, 1864 — the first and only major law in American history to encourage immigration. As immigration is in the daily news on global basis, this is a surprising omission of an act that he saw as the bright future of the United States. Long before he spoke about the evils of slavery, Abraham Lincoln spoke about the need for free labor, and he consistently articulated an economic philosophy that relied heavily upon immigrant labor. In his earliest speeches, Lincoln saw immigrants as farmers, merchants, and builders who would contribute mightily to the nation’s economic future. There seems to have been no significant pressure for a public role in immigration until, in his Annual Message to Congress on December 8, 1863, Lincoln called for government assistance:

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