The issues of 19th century slavery and 21st century undocumented immigrants are hauntingly similar. Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and letters have changed the way I approach immigration reform. Although Lincoln addressed social arguments, he approached emancipation of slaves mainly through a single overriding value: universal liberty.
Lincoln believed that the Declaration of Independence, which says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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,” gave liberty “not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world for all future time.”
His historical reading convinced him that the 1786 constitutional compromises with slavery were, in the minds of the framers of our government, only temporary, and that the Declaration “gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted form the shoulders of all men.” To Lincoln, all men are created equal is “a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors, everywhere.”
Lincoln’s liberty is simple: “[E]ach individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor, so far as it in no wise interferes with any other man’s rights.” In practice this means:
Freedom from intrusion. “But in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands, without asking leave of anyone else, she is my equal and the equal of all others.”
Freedom to earn. “I take it that it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can.”
Freedom to relocate. “I desire that if you get too thick here, and find it hard to better your condition on this soil, you may have a chance to [uproot] and go somewhere else.”
Freedom to try. “It is in order that each one of you may have . . . an open field, and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise, and intelligence.”
Why would we not want this for everyone—slaves and immigrants included? Here are the arguments Lincoln’s opponents offered and Lincoln’s responses:
Freeing slaves would wrong the citizen. “I say there is room enough for us all.”
Their bondage is legal. Such thinking “enables the enemies of free institutions with plausibility to taunt us as hypocrites.”
They harm citizen laborers. “Is it true, then, that colored people can displace any more white labor by being free than by remaining slaves?” Can immigrants take any more jobs by coming to the U.S. than by staying in their home countries and working in U.S. factories that move there?
Will universal freedom wrong you? Does denying freedom to others wrong them? If so, let people go and work where they wish.