Immigrants Give America a Foreign-Policy Advantage

History proves they can help the U.S. keep other countries in check.

A woman pays homage to undocumented migrants from El Salvador and their journey to the U.S.
A woman pays homage to undocumented migrants from El Salvador and their journey to the U.S. (Jose Cabezas / Reuters)

It has often been thought that the composition of the American public, consisting as it does of immigrants from so many lands, is a vulnerability in foreign policy—that, for example, German immigrants would harbor affinities for their land of origin and become disloyal during the world wars. The argument was taken to a shameful extreme with the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. What has received less attention is the extent to which America’s immigrant fabric can be a foreign-policy advantage, even a threat to other countries. That is what British Prime Minister Palmerston feared, and what President Lincoln stoked, to forestall British recognition of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The result was an important inhibition on Great Britain, then the most powerful state of the international order.

The subject has particular resonance now, when the President of the United States overtly considers immigrants a security threat, seeking to ban immigrants from Muslim countries, dramatically restricting the numbers of refugees admitted from war-torn countries, and arguing for money to be diverted from the Pentagon budget to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, claiming “enemy combatants [are] pouring into our country.” This pinched view of immigrant communities solely as a risk fails to capitalize on one of our country’s signal advantages. At the moment of our country’s greatest vulnerability, during the early years of the American Civil War, immigrants in the United States actually held back foreign interference—and thereby helped make America the strongest country in the world.

As America became economically and politically stronger in the 19th century, other countries had opportunities to impede its rise. From 1861 to 1865 the United States was profoundly vulnerable to meddling from outside powers as the Union fought secession by the Southern states. The period from 1861 to 1863 was especially propitious for intervention, since Union armies were losing most engagements, and the North had not yet embraced slavery’s abolition or become the industrial juggernaut it would as a consequence of the war effort.

The British government clearly saw the possibilities of working against the United States in its time of crisis. In 1860 Britain was unquestionably the strongest state in the world, holding 68 percent of the wealthiest continent’s riches and a dominant military. Britain had not only the means but also the motive to interfere. Prime Minister Palmerston noted that “if the North and South are definitively disunited and … at the same time Mexico could be turned into a prosperous monarchy, I do not know any arrangement that would be more advantageous to us.”

In 1861 Britain’s rulers had considerable discomfort with America as a revolutionary power. This was not because America was at that time exporting its revolution, but simply because of the ideology America represented: It was the rabble of every other country empowered by the franchise. Americans broadly understood and celebrated themselves in the same terms. As The New York Times crowed in 1862, “our friends—that there could be no grander tribute paid to the genius of the republic—are the dumb masses.”

British attitudes toward America cleaved along class lines. As described by the U.S. minister to Britain, Charles Francis Adams, “the great body of the aristocracy and the commercial classes are anxious to see the United States go to pieces. The middle and lower classes sympathize with us.”

Palmerston exemplified this disdain for America in all its political, economic, and cultural dimensions. He ruminated with satisfaction in 1855 that “a British force landed in the Southern part of the Union, proclaiming freedom to the blacks would shake many of the stars from their banner.”

On the eve of the American Civil War, there was in Britain a general sense of America as an emerging rival and concern about retaining Britain’s advantages over it. British reformer Richard Cobden estimated that three-fourths of the British House of Commons would vote in favor of actions by Britain to “dismember” the United States.

The confluence of British interests in favor of recognizing the Confederacy was strong: appreciation by elites of the threat a rising America posed for Britain, politically and economically; economic complementarity of cotton-producing Southern plantations with British industry; direct competition from Northern industries with British manufacturers and traders; a cultural attraction to the South on the part of British aristocrats; virulent anti-Americanism on the part of key political actors, as well as a broad cultural anti-Americanism among elites; and the savory delight of watching the United States rend itself asunder, with the Southern states making the same arguments against the North that Britain’s North American colonies used in breaking from the British Empire.

In 1861, Palmerston assured Queen Victoria that “Great Britain is in a better state than at any former time to inflict a severe blow upon and to read a lesson to the United States which will not soon be forgotten.”

It would not have taken much in the early years of the American Civil War for Britain to tip the balance toward Confederate victory, either. Several options were available that incurred little risk of pulling Britain into the war or damaging Britain’s strategic interests. Extending diplomatic recognition might have by itself been enough to definitively disunite America. The Union even gave the British government several legitimating opportunities in the way it crafted the terms of blockading Southern ports against international commerce or provoked a crisis by boarding the British ship Trent, and taking Southern emissaries prisoner in 1861.

Yet Britain largely stayed out of the Civil War, declining to administer that devastating blow to American power and potential. The British government resisted not because it was intimidated by Union threats of war in retaliation, feared putting Canada at risk, thought the South would lose the war, was concerned with higher-priority foreign-policy problems, or could not—this early in the war—countenance aligning itself with a slaveholding Confederacy given abolitionist sentiment within Britain.

Because of its British immigrants, the U.S. was uniquely able to affect domestic politics within Britain. Historian Ephraim Douglass Adams posits that “the great crisis in America was almost equally a crisis in the domestic history of Great Britain itself.” Aligning Britain with the Confederacy risked aggravating two worrisome issues for the British government domestically: disaffection among urban workers still without political representation in Britain, and the deepening hostility of Scots and Irish living under British control. The British government worried that if they intervened, they would have a more difficult time controlling Ireland and Scotland. The majority of immigrants from Britain were to the North, and family ties to their homeland would further embitter Scots and Irish against British rule if Britain sided with the South.

America was unique as a foreign-policy problem because choices about it could resonate back to Britain’s own politics. In 1861 democratization in Britain had not much progressed from the 1832 reforms that expanded the franchise to only 20 percent of the men in Britain. The government feared stoking resentment among residents of major urban centers, since property requirements still prevented them from voting—only one in 24 Britons were enfranchised. Industrial workers, the newly urbanized and economically productive lower classes, were not among them.

The affinities of this newly urbanized industrial workforce in Britain had a cultural attraction to the dynamic, opportunity, and political enfranchisement of an industrializing American North. Attitudes were mixed early in the war, but they solidified after canny encouragement from the Lincoln administration, which sent ships of food for relief of unemployed British workers. President Lincoln also wrote to workers’ organizations encouraging common cause. As a result, even textile workers in Manchester—those most economically affected by the embargo—were staunchly opposed to the Confederacy by 1864. Lincoln’s fostering of that sentiment capitalized on Palmerston’s fear that his foreign-policy choices regarding intervention would reverberate back inside Britain.

Palmerston considered affiliation of an aristocratic British ruling class with a plantation proto-aristocracy in the American South to risk imperiling his ability to prevail in Britain’s own domestic debate about political participation—a delegitimization by association. Acting against the Union required weighing foreign-policy advantage against the risk of domestic damage, a calculation that America—because of its more participatory form of government—was uniquely able to impose.

The American government posed the threat of domestic insurrection in a second way, as well: secession by Ireland and Scotland. U.S. Secretary of State William Seward’s “spread-eagle nationalism,” which brandished American power, was unrestrained in seeking ways to inflate the cost to Britain of intervening. U.S. minister to Britain Adams characterized the American war as an internal insurrection, something Britain itself was concerned with because of the possibility for parallels with British subjugation of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. At the height of tensions between the two nations, an American diplomatic envoy ominously challenged, “Is England so secure in the future against home revolt or foreign ambition as to venture, now in our need, to plant the seeds of revenge?”

Kevin Phillips estimates that by 1860, 90 percent of migration from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales was to the American North. This represented a significant shift from the earlier immigration flow to the culturally more familiar South. While many states harbored political and religious exiles, America’s policy of citizenship and broad political representation gave British emigres direct influence in government policies far beyond what was possible in any other country. Palmerston was concerned about the effect of “the exiled Irishmen” making impossible cooperation between Britain and the United States. Immigration patterns created a strong affiliation by family as well as ideology between Britain’s working class and the industrial American North.

Irish Catholics were more sympathetic to the Southern cause, but large numbers of them also served in the Union Army, often comprising whole units. (One reason for hostility to the North was the high casualty rate those Irish units suffered.) English, Welsh, and Scottish immigrants were staunch Union backers, like their German counterparts. All of these communities might become conveyor belts of insurrection back to home countries—if the United States were able to “weaponize” them.

Ultimately, the Palmerston government remained neutral throughout the American Civil War because of the way Americans of British origin could affect domestic politics in Britain. Those immigrants had political rights their British relatives envied and were agitating to attain for themselves via the franchise in England, and in hopes for self-determination in Scotland and Ireland. Being an immigrant society could well be credited with saving the nation by forestalling British support to the Confederacy.

During the most dangerous time in American history, its values served to constrain the choices of its international adversaries by using the aspirations of their own citizens against them. The political liberties and economic opportunities afforded European immigrants in the United States turned out to be a powerful and unique foreign-policy advantage: Who the United States was as a domestic political culture effectively limited the foreign-policy choices of the hegemon of the international order.

This article has been adapted from Kori Schake’s new book, Safe Passage.