I spent my morning touring Ford’s Theatre and the Lincoln Continuing Education Center in DC.
The site of Abraham Lincoln ‘s assassination, Ford’s Theatre now is run by the National Park Service. A free tour includes admission to an excellent museum featuring the story of Lincoln and his presidency, with vintage photos and artifacts, including the gun used to shoot Lincoln at the theater in 1865.
A tour of the theater itself includes a ranger on stage, telling the story of April 14-15, 1865, from both the perspectives of Lincoln and his killer, John Wilkes Booth. After the talk, the tour continues across the street at the Petersen boarding house, where Lincoln was taken after he was shot, and where he died. An interpretive center next door offers more Lincoln artifacts and exploration of his impact on future generations.
One of his best remembered quotes, which started this post, framed the tour for me. It made me consider the current culture war with different eyes. Is it a continuation of the argument we as a people have been having since the beginning? Who has a right to call themselves American? What does that mean?
In the beginning, only white, male, property owners were considered for citizenship in the fledgling republic that would be come the United States. Fierce debate rang out in the state houses and taverns over who, exactly, should be allowed citizenship. The question of whether the nation’s slaves should be considered a part of the populace for taxation purposes was settled with a compromise, under which each was considered three/fifths of a person.
According to the Lincoln exhibit at Ford’s Theatre, Lincoln, himself, detested slavery, but could see no legal, constitutional way to end it prior to the declaration of war. His Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, and the 14th Amendment passed in 1868 restored full personhood and citizenship to the formerly enslaved. It also invoked penalties for states who disallowed the vote to all their male citizens.
Women did not get the right to vote as citizens in the United States until 1920.
My point is that the current cultural argument over who should be citizens is not a new argument. The vitriol involved isn’t new, either. But the grand experiment of the Republic does require those conversations to be ongoing, and paths to citizenship to be addressed. The only current residents of the United States who are not descended of immigrants are the Native Americans.
The rest of us have to accept that we are citizens by accident of fate and the hard work of our ancestors. Should we deny others the opportunities we take for granted today? Should we deny asylum for those fleeing desperate situations? Can we, in good conscience, deny others the opportunity to become citizens?
As wealthy as the U.S. appears to be, it does not have infinite resources. Most objections to new immigration can be firmly rooted in economics and racism, rather than philosophy.
But it’s worth a second look at the philosophy, too.
In Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he finishes by explicitly stating his resolution for the future of the country. He was speaking on a battlefield that had seen enormous carnage in the deaths of United States citizens from both sides of the divide at the time. He tells the assembled audience this:
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”
Are we building up, or tearing down, by engaging in this cultural war?