“The Naturalization Question …”

September 17, 1859

John McLenan

“The Naturalization Question …”

German Americans; Immigration; Military Impressment; Presidential Administration, James Buchanan; Presidential Cabinet, Secretary of State; Tammany Hall, Isaiah Rynders; U.S. Foreign Policy;

Cass, Lewis;


Last May.


Mr. Cass. "Very sorry indeed; but can't help you, Mr. ___, Mr. ___, Mr. ___, what's your name."

As The Fall Elections Approach.

Mr. Cass. "Protect you, dear Old Hans? Why, of course! I say, Rynders, wave that buntin' a little higher!"

In the late 1850s, a diplomatic controversy developed between the United States and certain European governments, particularly Prussia and other German states.  Naturalized American citizens who returned temporarily to their countries of origin on business or personal trips were being forced into military service in their homelands.  The German-American community demanded that the administration of President James Buchanan take immediate and decisive steps to secure the safe return of the conscripted men, and to ensure that such impressments ended.  

This cartoon contrasts the reactions of Secretary of State Lewis Cass in the spring and fall of 1859.  At first, Cass refused to recognize any obligation of the American government to intervene on behalf of the conscripted American immigrants.  However, the German-American vote was important to the Democratic Party, and as the 1859 state and municipal elections approached, Cass changed his mind, declaring that the American government would protect the rights of its citizens abroad.  On the left, Cass rudely blows his nose while refusing to assist the German-American who begs at his feet.  On the right, Cass warmly welcomes a German back to the United States, as Isaiah Rynders of Tammany Hall waves a banner in celebration.

Harper's Weekly brought the issue to the attention of the general public in 1858, supporting the immigrants' cause when other major publications sided with the State Department's noninterventionist policy.  "It is not generally known in this country that every native of any one of the fifteen or twenty odd German States of Europe becomes, by the mere act of birth, liable to military duty in the army of his native State."  The problem for German immigrants to the United States, and subsequently for the American government, derived from the fact that German law did not permit Germans to become citizens of other nations (i.e., expatriation).  If you were born a Prussian, you were a Prussian citizen for life, and therefore subject to mandatory military service.

Secretary Cass's response in May 1859 was that while there is no distinction between native-born and naturalized citizens within the United States (except for the constitutional prohibition on a foreign-born president), a naturalized citizen may still have legal obligations he must meet if he returns to his native land, and over which the American government has no jurisdiction.  Harper's Weekly compared "Mr. Cass's idea of citizenship" with "a bad cold, which yield[s] to a change of air, and leaves no trace behind."  The journal also contrasted the secretary with President James Madison, who declared war on Britain in 1812 partially in reaction against the impressment of American citizens into the British Navy, and to Secretary of State William Marcy (1853-1857), who successfully insisted on the return of a Hungarian applicant for American citizenship, Martin Koszta, conscripted by Austria. 

The latter case made headlines in 1853, and whipped up patriotic fervor.  This was partly due to the dramatic intervention of Captain Duncan Ingraham, commander of the U.S.S. St. Louis, who forced the Austrians at gunpoint to deliver Koszta to a neutral third party (the French) for negotiations.  It was also because of American sympathies with Hungary's failed 1848 revolution against Austrian rule, with which Koszta was associated.  Americans had enthusiastically welcomed Louis Kossuth, the exiled leader of the Hungarian nationalist movement, during his tour of the United States in 1851-1852.  Playing on that sentiment, Harper's Weekly ended the 1858 editorial:  "Remember Martin Koszta."

Harper's Weekly urged the Buchanan administration or Congress to place an embargo on German imports until American citizenship was recognized in the German states.  The newspaper also called for a Congressional inquiry into the matter, and expressed pleasure in reporting that Senator George Pugh, a Democrat from Ohio (which had a large German population), had requested to see the State Department correspondence on the matter of compulsory enlistment of American citizens abroad.  By the summer of 1859, the newspaper was calling naturalization a farce for not protecting the rights of naturalized citizens abroad, and a fraud for breaking the contract of naturalized citizenship that clearly granted those rights. 

Then, Secretary Cass reversed the State Department's policy.  The specific case involved Christian Ernst, who had emigrated from Hanover (Germany) with his family when he was 10 years old.  In February 1858, he became a citizen of the United States, and the next month visited his birthplace in Hanover.  He was soon conscripted into the Hanover army, leaving his family and business to suffer in the United States.  On July 8, 1859, Cass sent a dispatch to the American minister instructing him to demand Ernst's release, with which the Hanoverian government readily complied.  More broadly, the secretary of state explicitly stated that naturalized citizens had "all the rights, privileges, and immunities which belong to a native-born citizen, in their full extent ... both at home and abroad."

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Naturalization Question …”
March 4, 2024

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