The Chair of Abraham Lincoln


Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, 9 February 1864, by Anthony Berger. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Assume for a moment that the present status of undocumented immigrants in the US is exactly what we want it to be: except for the criminals, we want them working in the country (in spite of our self-righteous talk about walls and mass deportations); but we don’t want to legalize their status—no amnesty and no path to US citizenship. In these times of deplorable political rhetoric, one does well to find guidance in the bosom of Abraham Lincoln, who was once branded “Abraham Africanus I” by a Copperhead political pamphlet.

Lincoln understood the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court as a cog (“piece of machinery so to speak”) in an effort by the Southern states to “declare the perfect freedom of the people, to be just no freedom at all.”

Here is Lincoln’s analysis of the decision:

The working points of that machinery are:

First, that no negro slave imported as such from Africa, and no descendant of such slave can ever be a citizen of any State, in the sense of that term as used by the Constitution of the United States.

The point, according to Lincoln, was to deprive African-Americans from the following provision of the Constitution: “The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States.”

Secondly, that “subject to the Constitution of the United States,” neither Congress nor a Territorial Legislature can exclude slavery from any United States territory.

This would, in Lincoln’s words, lead “individual men” to “fill up the territories with slaves, without danger of losing them as property.”

Thirdly, that whether the holding of a negro in actual slavery in a free State, makes him free, … the United States courts … will leave to be decided by the courts of any slave State the negro may be forced into by the master.

Lincoln concludes by warning against the aggregate tendency of these stipulations:

We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and we shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.[1]


The Underground Railroad. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Elizabethan playwrights—including Shakespeare, whom Lincoln admired—were wont to resort to the practice of application (the selection of a story from the past “intending the application of it to this time”) in order to elude the vagaries of government censorship and to perceive their own world through aesthetic distance.[2]

In the 19th century, the economic benefits of slavery to slave-owners depended on 1) the presence of the slaves in states and territories; 2) the maintenance of the slave population in bondage (the whip and the lynching ritual); and 3) the denial of Constitutional rights to the slaves. In our time, the economic benefits (to us) of “illegal” immigration depend on 1) the presence of immigrants in the country; 2) the maintenance of a silent, underpaid class of inhabitants through the whip of demonization and the threat of deportation; and 3) the denial of the rights of citizenship. We have substituted chattel slavery for wage slavery: blacks were once enslaved because they were considered inferior; immigrants are now enslaved because they are declared illegal.

As the election of 2016 approaches, we may do well to keep in mind Lincoln’s “Memorandum on Probable Failure of Re-election” (Aug. 23, 1864):

This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.[3]

As with the slave in olden times, the fate of the immigrant may determine the fate of the Union.



First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln, oil on canvas, 1864, by Francis Bicknell Carpenter. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

[1] Abraham Lincoln, “’House Divided’ Speech at Springfield, Illinois,” in Andrew Delbanco, ed., The Portable Abraham Lincoln (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 88-97.   Lincoln’s emphasis.

[2] Ian Donaldson, Ben Jonson: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 188.

[3] Delbanco, 315.


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