It is the first day of December, 1862. The Civil War has proven more costly and extensive than anyone had imagined when it began. It’s outcome is very uncertain. Abraham Lincoln stands before a joint session of Congress to deliver what we now call the State of the Union.
No one seriously doubts that the War is being fought over two thoroughly intertwined issues: States’ Rights and Slavery. Lincoln knows that, were one forced to choose a single cause, it would be slavery because states’ rights would not be a war-worthy issue were it not for slavery being the issue over which the states are divided.
Lincoln addresses one argument against freeing the slaves in terms which fit much of our own debate over immigration today.
It is insisted that [the slaves] presence would injure, and displace white labor and white laborers. If there ever could be a proper time for mere catch arguments, that time surely is not now. In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and in eternity.
trump and his folk argue that immigrants displace US workers. Ask him why the majority of his employees are immigrants, and he says it is because he can’t get enough US citizens to apply. One would think, if there were an ounce of integrity in him, trump would at least have the decency to stop his ridiculous argument, since he himself is the living proof that it is a mistaken argument.
Lincoln, calling on Congress to formally approve the Emancipation Proclamation, ends his message with these wise words:
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We – even we here – hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just – a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.
In 1630, as a small fleet of immigrants neared the shores of the New World, John Winthrop preached a sermon to his fellow passengers aboard the ship Arbella. In it he inspired commitment to the daunting task of establishing a new colony on spiritual foundations by reminding his friends that the whole world was watching to see whether a true democracy is possible and can be realistically grounded on biblical foundations. He said that the new colony “shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”
Abraham Lincoln knows full well that the grand American experiment is still being watched and its outcome still being tested.What he does not say but is known by all Americans at the time, is that the seeds of America’s destruction, if that is what the Civil War means, were sown as far back as 1619, not in Plymouth with the Pilgrims, but with the purchase in Jamestown of 20 African slaves.
And what he does not say is that the problem of slavery was so difficult a challenge to the Founding Fathers that they simply pulled the old political trick known in philosophical terms as “kicking the can down the road,” leaving the matter unresolved.
And what Lincoln, for all his wisdom (oh how I wish we had political leaders today who seek wisdom!), did not say and did not even imagine, is that a century and a half after the Civil War, the issue is still not resolved. Sure, we have ended slavery but many people in our nation have nurtured in their hearts and in their children the ugly racism that underlies slavery. And even worse, we have a presidential candidate who does much of that nurturing for us. How very sad for America.