In her new book, “Freedom at Niagara: German-American Activism in the Abolition of Slavery,” Delta Township-based author Lynne Breen tells the unvarnished story of slavery in the United States through the eyes of German-Americans who helped bring the practice to an end.
Breen said she was inspired by another book, “Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies,” by Ginger Strand, which details how runaway slaves crossed the Niagara Railway Suspension Bridge in upstate New York on their journey to freedom in Canada.
“When I was writing my own book, ‘How German Ingenuity Inspired America,’ I learned even more about the German bridge builder John Augustus Roebling, and I began wondering if there were other German-Americans who were involved in the anti-slavery movement,” she said.
Roebling was an ardent abolitionist, and his suspension bridge was used by the likes of Harriet Tubman to help slaves enter Canada, where slave catchers could not legally travel.
Breen’s curiousness paid off. It’s likely that you’ve never heard the names of most of the individuals she profiles. About Charles Follen, who was a German-born Harvard professor, she writes, “Clearly, Follen — who had embraced his generation’s German ideas of liberty and freedom — was ahead of his time in his adopted country.”
Breen uses these philosophies of liberty and freedom to help readers understand the basis of German-Americans’ activism.
“Germans who came to this country were liberal-minded individuals who saw inequality and tried to end it,” she said.
The book is illustrated with dozens of historic paintings and artistic renderings, which Breen gathered from museums across the United States. The author also provides extensive endnotes detailing sources for the information she used.
In the book, Breen presents a concise history of slavery in the U.S. prior to the Civil War. For most, there will be cloudy memories of high school history classes and the concepts of the Missouri Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Acts and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Breen shines a light on how many of our first presidents owned slaves and how certain political policies led to the South’s control of Congress. She also points out how students were probably never taught about the Yellow House in Washington, D.C., where slave owners visiting the nation’s capital could house their slaves for 25 cents a day, or the slave pens that surrounded the National Mall.
“It was much worse than I ever thought, how much the federal government was complicit,” Breen said. And that was coming from someone with a bachelor’s degree in history.
One group Breen writes extensively about is the Forty-Eighters, Germans who immigrated to America in 1848 after failed revolutions and social reform movements in their home country.
Breen tells how many of the free-thinkers who made their way to America became part of a broad network of German-language newspapers that became crucial to the abolitionist movement. In 1848, there were around 88 German-language newspapers in the U.S., but by 1890, that number had risen dramatically.
One of the most outspoken Forty-Eighters was Carl Schurz, who settled in Wisconsin after immigrating to the United States. Breen discusses how Schurz recognized the importance of the German bloc in voting, formed a friendship with Abraham Lincoln, became a Union officer during the Civil War and served as the U.S. ambassador to Spain for a short period.
“Freedom at Niagara” is Breen’s third book delving into her German-American heritage.
Her first book, “I’ll See You Again, Lady Liberty: The True Story of a German Prisoner of War in America,” tells the story of Ernst Floeter, a prisoner of war who returned to America after World War II and became a successful photographer in Grand Ledge.
Her second book is a sweeping look at the vast contributions made by Germans in United States, titled, “How German Ingenuity Inspired America: More Fun, More Beauty, More Freedom.”
Breen said that she wrote these books in part to combat the bad rap German-Americans had after World Wars I and II.
“I want to show that Germans are good people,” she said.
Her next book, already underway, explores how Germans helped America get through World War II.
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