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How the party of Lincoln lost its way on immigration

Abraham Lincoln believed a steady stream of immigrants could help feed America’s economic growth, particularly after the ravages of the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln believed a steady stream of immigrants could help feed America’s economic growth, particularly after the ravages of the Civil War.

One small sentence. That’s really all that is needed to explain it. Although much has been written about how the party of Abraham Lincoln became the party of Donald Trump, one burning issue today that prevails in the headlines is immigration.

This is a visceral issue for Americans as it ties into many and varied other such visceral issues as crime, jobs, rules of law and walls. There really is little ambiguity in the platform of the 2016 Republican Party.

Reflecting the opinions of its standard bearer, the platform that came out of Cleveland is, as Walter Ewing, a researcher at the American Immigration Council, recently wrote, “deeply flawed.” It reflects “a fundamental lack of understanding not only of how the U.S. immigration systems work, but why and under what conditions people migrate.”

Surely the world of today is different from the world in which Abraham Lincoln lived or could even have imagined.

But Ewing is correct when he describes the language and ideas of the current Republican Party platform as “punitive, inflammatory and impractical.” Assuredly, Lincoln would not understand the underlying sentiment behind this language and these ideas. It wasn’t in his nature to be punitive or exclusionary.

Long before he spoke about the evils of slavery, Lincoln spoke about the need for free labor, and he consistently articulated an economic philosophy that relied heavily upon immigrant labor. Lincoln saw immigrants as the farmers, merchants, and builders who would contribute mightily to the economic future of the United States.

Lincoln pushed for the first, last and only law in American history to encourage immigration. Lincoln’s Act to Encourage Immigration was passed on July 4, 1864. “I regard our emigrants as one of the principal replenishing streams which are appointed by Providence to repair the ravages of internal war, and its wastes of national strength and health,” he wrote.

America opened up its doors to immigrants, if only for a short time.

So what could possibly be the one sentence that explains it all? Lincoln assisted in the writing of the 1864 platform for National Union Party (or the Republican Party as it called itself then) in its convention at Baltimore. He insisted that the following sentence be included in their platform: “That 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 by a liberal and just policy.”

That is what Lincoln and the Republicans of 1864 stood for. Scores of op-ed pieces have been written comparing the Republican Party of then with its counterpart of today.

But that one sentence explains the difference on the seemingly all-encompassing issue of immigration. One hundred and fifty-two years hence notwithstanding, this is a significant difference in tone, demeanor and philosophy.

Pandering political rhetoric and humane action need not always be inconsistent and Lincoln demonstrated that. Perhaps it is time today’s politicians learned that lesson as well.

Jason H. Silverman is the Ellison Capers Palmer, Jr. Professor of History at Winthrop University. His latest book is “Lincoln and the Immigrant.”

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