What Would Lincoln Do?

Alan Zendell, February 12. 2017

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Perhaps in some alternate universe, he’s still there. Silly? Sure, but it makes me wonder what a man of his intellect and temperament might think and do today, with the benefit of 208 years of history under his belt. Since I’m not a historian, I turned to the work of some well-regarded people who are. This article draws heavily on materials posted elsewhere by Patrick Young, Bruce Levine, and Jason Silverman.

While today’s reality is different from that of the Civil War era, there are many similarities. The country then had been torn apart over the issue of slavery, and the tragedy of that terrible war sometimes masks other divisions that separated Americans. High on the list was immigration policy.

Like today’s Republicans, Lincoln’s were a coalition of diverse elements that included the Know Nothing Party, which was vehemently anti-immigration and anti-Catholic. Lincoln himself was accused of being a nativist and a Know Nothing, which he equated with being pro-slavery. He not only denied those charges, he asserted there was no way he could possibly be either. Yet, he needed the Know Nothings’ support.

The parallels with the issues Donald Trump faced in 2016 are clear. Trump’s own words caused many to label him a racist. Many others, myself included believed he was guilty of something far worse – pandering to some of the darkest elements in our society to gain their votes, a charge that was also leveled at Lincoln. So the question I posed to myself was – what’s the difference between the way Lincoln behaved while campaigning and in office and what we’ve seen of Trump?

While the 2016 campaign has been described as one of the most negative and disgraceful in our history, make no mistake. The political campaigns of the mid-nineteenth century were vitriolic and angry affairs, in which no punches were pulled. The same was true during Lincoln’s years as President, and I contend that the problems and challenges he faced were orders of magnitude more serious than what Trump has to deal with. Lincoln’s America was literally tearing itself apart. While Trump’s concerns about our borders are legitimate, there is no clear evidence that our country can only survive by isolating itself. Lincoln’s concern was an imaginary border that split the nation in two, with thousands of Americans on each side killing each other, causing far more havoc than all of the terrorist attacks in the last twenty-five years.

We can’t say for sure how Lincoln would have acted in today’s world. All we have to go by is the record of what he did in his own time.  As Jason Silverman wrote in August of 2016,

… while Lincoln himself like many nineteenth-century western Americans occasionally spoke in derogatory terms about some ethnic groups, his actions often belied those harsh words with kind actions. Pandering political rhetoric and humane action need not always be inconsistent and Lincoln demonstrated that.

Lincoln as President never denigrated, demonized, or belittled any racial, ethnic, or religious group. His public pronouncements were always dignified. He valued truth and he chose his words carefully. I think it’s safe to say that if he were President today he would behave the same way. He made excruciatingly difficult decisions that impacted the life of every American, but he always respected the central idea on which our nation was founded.

In 2012, Patrick Young wrote:

Lincoln viewed the willingness of Americans to degrade immigrants as the opposite side of the same coin that allowed them to enslave blacks. Both impulses were contrary to the plain meaning of the Declaration of Independence, a document he would establish as the well-spring of emancipation…in his Gettysburg Address.

We don’t know exactly what Lincoln would have said about preventing immigrants and refugees from certain countries from entering the United States, but we do know that he insisted that the following be inserted into his party’s platform for his 1864 re-election campaign (quoted from Silverman’s article):

…foreign immigration, which in the past has added so much to the wealth, development of resources and increase of power to this nation, the asylum of the oppressed of all nations, should be fostered and encouraged…

I’m confident that nothing occurring in our country today would cause Lincoln to change a single word of that.

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4 Responses to What Would Lincoln Do?

  1. David Bricker says:

    I agree with you that the last presidential campaign was nothing compared to some of those in our past. Forget about the 1800s, how about the 1790s? I just finished reading the Hamilton biography by Chernow, and did you know that John Adams called Hamilton an “immigrant bastard?”

    I’ve never been a big fan of the “What would Jesus do?” style of political debate. First of all, it suggests that someone from the past had a lifetime batting average of 1000 and could continue it into 2017. Not so sure about that. Certainly never thought that about Lincoln.

    But also, remember that his comments about immigration were tied to his pragmatic concerns of the day. He needed Irish immigrants to fill the Union army.

    But in the spirit of things, happy birthday to Honest Abe, and the Union and I’ll drink to that!

    • Joel Liebesfeld says:

      In a most generic sense, it could be stated that every U.S. President has been or should have been the leader of this country’s Public Policy development. Unfortunately, the development of or the enactment of Public Policy almost always polarizes one group or another and sometimes is the ignition source of extreme polarization, especially when such policy involves longstanding embedded biases.

      I recommend reading the “Killing of Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly to understand how sustained unfettered unjustifiable hatred by a group of people can mushroom into the implementation of extreme fanaticism. Approximately 750,000 American’s died in the Civil War.

      What do you think?.

      • alanpzendell says:

        I entirely agree. The President has a moral responsibility to address Public Policy in a responsible non-inflammatory manner. But what we’ve seen of Mr, Trump in his first month doesn’t look anything like that.

  2. alanpzendell says:

    Yes, Lincoln needed Irish and German immigrants. We need immigrants just as badly today. Whose children excel in our schools? Which families instill them with drive and ambition and sacrifice everything for their future success?

    And need aside, Lincoln wrote throughout his political life that the Declaration that all men are created equal with unalienable Rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness applied to all people in every country. That may be a little extreme for today’s world but it underlines his true beliefs.

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