Antebellum Echo

Joey, a colorblind admirer of Lincoln's eloquence.

“There’s something cursed, it seems to me, about a country where men have owned men as property.  The stink of that corruption never escapes the soul, and it is the stink of future evil.” ­– Investigating Magistrate Bibikov, in Bernard Malamud’s 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Fixer.

Soon we will bicycle south into Virginia and Tennessee.  Only two lifetimes ago, these states fought a war to defend the right of European immigrants and their descendants to own, as property, African immigrants and their descendants.

Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession referred to federal “oppression of the Southern slaveholding states”.  The governor of Tennessee called for secession to protect the right to own slaves.  Maryland and Delaware, two states on our route, permitted slavery until 1864 and 1865, respectively.  (To be fair, these states had abolitionists too.)

The North also perpetuated slavery.  For example, New York allowed it until 1827; when civil war loomed, New York trading interests favored the South, which In 1860 supplied 75% of the world’s cotton.  Illinois audiences cheered when U.S. Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln said he did not accept racial equality.  Free Iowa had slave-owning residents.

The corruption was everywhere.

Its results were manifold.

Foremost was the horrendous treatment of Africans and their descendants.  America’s fundamental document, the Declaration of Independence, was undermined.  Law and religion were twisted to justify slavery and its brutality.  Slavery led to a war in which about 750,000 men1 in 10 American men of military age – died before their time.  After the war, the abuse of former slaves and their descendants continued legally for 100 years.  Generations of Americans were impoverished by slavery, war, violence, hatred, and Jim Crow laws that crushed and discarded the talents of millions.

All because some Americans treated other Americans as less than fully human.

Today we prohibit (although we haven’t ended) most forms of persecution, and its lesser cousin discrimination, based on race, religion, gender, national origin, etc.  But one group remains outside the community, with its abuse enshrined in American law:  resident foreigners denied a route to authorized status.

They aren’t criminals, or terrorists, or freeloaders.

They are your spouse, sibling, parent, child, schoolmate, co-worker, friend, neighbor, born abroad, living here outside the law because of an invented quota or rule.  They are denied the respect our country gives to criminals and traitors.

Does natural law allow a foreign-born bird to be here but not an innocent self-supporting human?  Does the Bible or Koran let us bankrupt a foreign farmer by stealing her customers with subsidized American corn, then starve her by denying her permission to work here?  Does free market doctrine say that an outstanding foreign worker can’t be hired unless a government agency chooses to give its blessing?

No.  And no.  And no.

In 1858, in the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, Abraham Lincoln expressed the common view that if blacks and whites could not be equal, he (a white man) preferred that whites have the superior position.  But Lincoln continued (emphasis in original):

“… I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the [black man] is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man.  I agree with Judge Douglas that he is not my equal in many respects . . .  But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

In Lincoln’s day and for generations afterward, a European could simply come to America (no visa required) and become a citizen.  Yet under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, African Americans were not and could not become U.S. citizens.  (This changed only when the Constitution was amended after the Civil War.)

Nevertheless, Lincoln acknowledged the right of these non-citizens to earn a living.  He recognized that the Declaration of Independence applied to “all men” – in modern terms, “all persons” – and that “inalienable right[s]” aren’t for Americans alone.

We do not belittle the suffering of America’s slaves and their descendants when we say that the evil that oppressed them continues.  Our federal government hunts down and breaks up American families – innocent children, good honest women and men – because of artificial immigration rules.  Governments in states like Arizona, Georgia, Alabama – and, perish the thought, perhaps Tennessee – want to drive out American families that have foreign-born members, by making the people too miserable to remain.  We treat them as pariahs.

Shame on us for letting this sorry history repeat itself.