History, History Column

An Act to Encourage Immigration

By Sarah Becker © 2017


An Act to Encourage Immigration


Abraham Lincoln, in his 1864 holiday proclamation, praised Almighty God for augmenting “our free population by emancipation and by immigration…” To immigrate: to enter and settle in a foreign country. To naturalize: to admit a foreigner to citizenship. In 1790 naturalization was limited to “any Alien being a free white person who shall have resided within…the United States for a term of two years.”

On July 4, 1864 the U.S. Congress “passed a bill to encourage immigration,” an Act President Lincoln signed into law the same day. The Act permitted foreign emigrants to enter as Alien contract labor “for a term not exceeding 12 months.” In 1864 America’s Civil War was ongoing and labor (common and otherwise) was in short supply. Particularly in the South’s pre-war cotton producing states.

The 1860 Census “showed the aggregate population of the United States amounted to 31,041,977, an increase of 8,449,921 as compared with 1850.” Slaves accounted for 12.9% of the total population. The increase in free men was 38%, “a material increase due to immigration from abroad.” Between 1845-1850 Ireland’s potato famine brought approximately 500,000 immigrants to the United States.

The Republican Party platform of 1860, the platform upon which President Lincoln was first elected, referenced immigration. The Party “opposed any change in our naturalization laws.” Especially as regards “free homestead policy” and or construction of “a railroad to the Pacific ocean.”

“Inasmuch as our country is extensive and new, and the countries of Europe are densely populated, if there are any abroad who desire to make this the land of their adoption, it is not in my heart to…prevent them from coming,” President-elect Lincoln said. Ninety-three million Americans are descended from Homesteaders.

In 1862 President Lincoln, an architect of a political-economic type, signed four Acts into law. They were the Department of Agriculture Act, the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railway Act, and the Morrill Act. He also released a preliminary copy of his Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln hoped to send skilled mechanics to Eastern manufacturers; to populate the homesteading West and agricultural South with farmers, laborers, free blacks depending, and femme soles.

“The mineral resources of Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, New Mexico, and Arizona are proving far richer than has been heretofore understood…,” President Lincoln told Congress in 1863. “I again [recommend] establishing a system for the encouragement of immigration.” Nevada was admitted to the Union in 1864.

“Although this source of national wealth and strength is again flowing with greater freedom than for several years before the insurrection occurred, there is still a great deficiency of laborers in every field of industry, especially in agriculture, and in our mines…,” Lincoln continued. Virginia—Spotsylvania County especially—mined gold, 1804-1947.

“While the demand for labor is much increased here, tens of thousands of persons, destitute of remunerative occupation, are thronging our foreign consulates and offering to emigrate to the United States if essential, but very cheap assistance can be afforded them,” Lincoln concluded. Twenty-five percent of the Union Army was foreign born.

In 1865, at War’s end, the Alexandria based, Union-friendly restored government of Virginia rejected a bill “to incorporate the Virginia Immigration and land Company…because the bill was a money making enterprise, [en route] to Wall Street.” It proposed “to confer ‘vested rights’ of unusual character upon the corporators.” Under the federal Alien contract labor law emigrants who pledged their wages to third parties to repay their transportation costs typically finished in debt.

The larger, reassembled Virginia Legislature passed an Act to Promote and Encourage Immigration into the State in 1866. Why? “To induce and encourage the immigration into Virginia of [sober and industrious] laborers [and their families] from Europe, [especially England and Scotland];…to cause to be published such information as will show the natural resources of this State,…and for the purpose of acquiring lands to be re-sold to parties arriving from abroad.”

Post-Civil War, Virginians chose either the restoration of labor or ruin. “It is…delusional to hope that immigrants…will…come into Virginia and remain merely as laborers,” Virginia’s Land and Immigration Company wrote in 1868. “But as actual settlers—as landed proprietors, they will only come, and come by the thousands….” The Company offered to sell land “to actual settlers, [especially British and German], on such terms as will induce them to come…” Virginia rejoined the Union in 1870, before “peace and prosperity” had wholly “dawned.”

“We have not one-quarter the population in Virginia that we ought to have,” Governor Gilbert C. Walker said in 1872. “I go heart and soul for keeping our young men at home, but we want others to help us build up the Commonwealth. The importance of immigration is generally conceded…We want no pauper immigrants, nor others to break down Virginia. We can keep that class out. What we want are honest, industrious, thrifty citizens—who will come and improve and build upon our lands. These we can easily obtain, from the North [87% of pre-war immigrants lived in the North] and from Europe.” Ten years later Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act; added a 50 cent head tax and said no to emigrant paupers, convicts and the insane.

“On the whole immigration last year was of a decidedly superior quality—substantial, intelligent, well-to-do material…out of which…will be developed a good class of citizens…possibly a millionaire or so,” The Washington Post reported in 1884. Why not the latter? In 1864, “the income of Wm. B. Astor of New York was $1,300,000; that of Cornelius Vanderbilt $575,551.”

In 1884 the newly-established Anti-Monopoly Party criticized corporate practices; fourteen Southern States formed a for-profit Association to “encourage foreign and domestic emigration;” a divided Republican Party nominated James G. Blaine for President; Congress created the U.S. Bureau of Labor, and the era of conspicuous consumption began. “Are not all the afflictions which labor is now enduring at the hands of millionaire law-makers quite in keeping with the record of the Republican Party and Congress from 1864?” The Washington Post then asked.

“If there is a nation on the face of the earth which might…build a wall upon its every boundary line, deny communion to all the world, and proceed to live upon its own resources and productions, that nation is the United States,” Republican Vice Presidential nominee John A. Logan said in 1884.

“While it is the policy of the Republican Party to encourage the oppressed of other nations…,” Logan continued, “the party has never contemplated the admission of a class of servile people who are…unable…to embrace any higher civilization than their own. To admit such immigrants would be to throw a rotating element into the path of progress. Our legislation should be amply protective…and if not [it] should be made so to the full extent allowed by our treaties with friendly powers.” The Foran Act banned Alien contract labor in 1885.

“Although Lincoln himself disavowed any sympathy with the nativists, and had actually invested in a German paper, many Republicans remained hostile to immigrants,” historian Doris Kearns wrote.

In 2013, the U.S. Census American Community Survey estimated that 29.6% of Alexandria’s population was foreign-born. This compares to 13% nationally, 3.2% citywide in 1960.

Visit President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers Home this July holiday and share stories of your ancestral arrival. Located in the District of Columbia American by Belief, a Cottage exhibit closes October 30, 2018.


Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com



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