What Would Lincoln Do About Immigration

By A.M. Settineri.

The Congress of the United States voted an extension on current spending in order to delay the potential shutdown of the government until December 21st. Government shutdowns, real or imagined, have become a common issue for Americans. While the actual incidence of government shutdowns is minimal, the threat of one can rile even the most complacent of citizens into a fury. President Trump’s responses to government shutdowns have ranged from enthusiastic to apathetic: “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess [sic]!” he struggled to articulate in May 2017; “I’d love to see a shutdown,” he stated, according to the New York Times in February 2018; “If it happens, it happens,” he said, regarding a possible shutdown later on in September, according to PBS News Hour.

The sticking point in spending negotiations that have led to shutdowns, or the threat of one, is immigration. Trump famously campaigned on the idea of a border wall between Mexico and the United States, and more specifically on the claim that he would be able to force Mexico to fund it. The current stick in the spoke is the 5 billion dollars the president is asking for to pay for the wall. Aside from the gross lack of necessity of a wall, the gall of this current budget dispute is the President’s hypocrisy.

So. What would Abraham Lincoln do?

Lincoln, like Trump, was a Republican, the first Republican president, in fact. Current Republicans love to mention this when taking heat from Democrats accusing the GOP of racism and bigotry, and with President Trump’s antagonism to DACA, or his persistence regarding a border wall, this heat is both steady and relevant. But the Party of Lincoln in 1860 was wildly different from its current iteration; the Republican platform of 1860 would contain little to hold the interest or sympathy of modern Republicans.

The party was formed as a reaction to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854, which threw the potential new states of Kansas and Nebraska into violent uncertainty regarding whether or not they would allow slavery. This repeal was spearheaded by Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas, whose famous asseveration that he “don’t care whether slavery is voted up or voted down” was both heavily ridiculed by Lincoln in their debates, and also holds a depressing similarity to Trump’s “If it happens, it happens.”

Opposition to the repeal brought together an interesting amalgamation of Americans, from the Free-Soilers, to the Know-Nothings, to the dying but well-populated Whig Party. Though there were significant differences among these factions, what all agreed on was that the repeal of the Missouri Compromise was, as a statement made by Northern clergymen in 1854 declared, “a breach of faith eminently unjust to the moral principles of the community, and subversive of all confidence in national engagements….” The government’s reversal of a policy—which had satisfied all parties and stood for thirty-four years to balance the most hotly debated issue in the United States—was seen as a cowardly, hypocritical move designed to favor small but powerful lobbies, and further undermine the meaning of Liberty in a land founded upon that most inherently progressive of ideals.

This, then, was the Republican Party. Committed to the extinction of slavery, and to the notion that the government should encourage the ideal of the Declaration: “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Lincoln held a great deal of respect for the Declaration, the Constitution, and the law. This respect earned him much denigration in the eyes of ardent abolitionists, who felt the prairie lawyer from Illinois to be too soft in his condemnation of slavery. After all, he avowed many times, both before the Civil War and during it, that he was willing to retain slavery in the states in which it then currently existed, in order to preserve the Union. Yet he always believed that, by respecting the laws, at least the ones in place before the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, slavery would die a natural death, and ultimately become extinct in the United States. This was his stated ambition. It was only his esteem for the law and the Constitution that prevented him from adjoining himself to radical abolitionism.

Lincoln once said, “Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them.” What would Lincoln think about Trump’s opposition to DACA? How would he feel about reducing the number of people to be granted asylum, or to be admitted to the country?

When it appeared that Lincoln would lose the 1864 election—the first popular election ever held during a civil war—some advisers told him that he could ensure himself a second term by back-pedaling on the Emancipation Proclamation. That, as it was a war measure, Lincoln only had to ensure frightened white Northerners that the Proclamation’s authority would end as soon as the war was over. While Lincoln acknowledged the limited legality of the war-time measure, he was committed to the everlasting liberty of those people nominally freed by the Proclamation. In a letter to James C. Conkling in August, 1863, Lincoln confronted anti-Emancipation sentiment by stating, simply and clearly, that “the promise being made, must be kept.” DACA is a promise to young immigrants. And Lincoln would, undoubtedly, declare that it must be kept.

As for the border wall; as for the current anti-immigration sentiment of Trump’s administration, and of modern Republicans, Lincoln had some comments on immigrants during a speech in Chicago on July 10, 1858:

These 4th of July gatherings I suppose have their uses. If you will indulge me, I will state what I suppose to be some of them. We are now a mighty nation… We run our memory back over the pages of history for about eighty-two years… We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves—we feel more attached the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit… But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole…. We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men… If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none… but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.

Extras: Music Memories