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What would Abraham Lincoln say to Donald Trump about religion, politics and being a ‘Know Nothing’?

Trump speaks at the Lincoln Memorial. How would Lincoln respond? REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

As the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump could learn a lot from his party’s first president, Abraham Lincoln. He should start with religion and immigration, topics on which he has appealed to fear and bigotry rather than “the better angels of our nature” as Lincoln did.

Trump has called for a ban on immigration and travel to the U.S. by Muslims and advocated surveillance of mosques within the U.S. In effect, he has equated the religion of one-fifth of the world’s population with terrorism, created a religious test for entry to the U.S., and identified American Muslims as subversives who bear watching.

As a historian of the Civil War era, I find Trump’s position eerily familiar. Religion and immigration were explosive issues in the years before the Civil War. The response of one of that time’s leading Republicans, Abraham Lincoln, offers sage advice to Donald Trump and the rest of us.

An appeal to hysteria

Lincoln. usnationalarchives/flickr

In the 1850s, a surge of immigrants from Ireland and Germany, most of them poor and many of them Roman Catholic, sparked fears every bit as great as terrorism does today.

Americans were overwhelmingly Protestant, and most Protestants embraced a hatred and fear of the Roman Catholic Church deeply rooted in Anglo-American culture. They feared that the new immigrants would swell the ranks of the poor, increase public drunkenness, weaken the Protestant culture that made the nation exceptional and take jobs from Americans. Furthermore, they worried Catholic obeisance to Rome threatened the democratic process and American sovereignty.

At the time the issue of slavery disrupted the Whig and Democratic parties and a nascent Republican party coalesced around opposition to slavery, another insurgent political movement appeared poised to become a dominant force. It was the American Party, popularly known as the Know Nothing Party. The group received its name because it emerged as a secret society. Members were instructed to tell those who asked about its activities, “I know nothing.” Given the party’s bigotry, the name is one of the great double entendres in U.S. history.

Know Nothing leaders appealed to anti-Catholic hysteria, promising to protect Protestant America from Catholic immigrants by restricting immigration, lengthening the time necessary for immigrants to achieve citizenship, deporting “foreign” paupers and restricting office-holding to native-born Americans. In language as provocative in its day as Trump’s is today, the Know Nothings proclaimed “Hostility to all papal influences,” “War to the hilt on political Romanism” and “death to all foreign influences, whether in high places or low!”

The Know Nothing platform.

Lincoln watched the rise of the Know Nothings with disgust. As an antislavery Whig who was making his way to the Republican Party in the mid-1850s, Lincoln believed that their xenophobia threatened the nation’s founding principles – the very principles that led him to oppose slavery.

“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid,” Lincoln wrote to his friend Joshua Speed in 1855. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men are created equal, but “We now practically read it as ‘all men are created equal, except negroes,‘” Lincoln wrote. Should the Know Nothings prevail, Lincoln continued, “it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’” He concluded with disgust: “When it comes to this, I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”

Lincoln identified the principle of equality as the nation’s defining value. By 21st-century standards, his definition was limited, but he never doubted that it was foundational. At its core, Lincoln understood equality to mean recognition of the dignity of the individual. It was a principle essential to the nation’s democratic polity and a social system that allowed people – like him – from humble backgrounds to succeed. It meant that treating individuals as proxies for groups – whether ethnic or religious – violated American values.

Lincoln believed that America’s commitment to equality and human dignity made it great. He criticized those who denied that the Declaration of Independence applied to African-Americans as “blowing out the moral lights around us.” In announcing his support for emancipation as president, he argued that it would preserve America’s role as “the last best hope of earth.”

If Donald Trump wants to “make America great,” he can learn a lot from Lincoln. He can begin by following Lincoln’s example and appeal to “the better angels of our nature” rather than fear. He should realize that we are at our best when we respect individual dignity, not when we stigmatize groups because of their race, sex, identity or religion.

Or he can join the Know Nothings. The party enjoyed a meteoric rise in 1854 but splintered over slavery and fizzled in the 1856 presidential election. Today Lincoln is remembered for expanding our understanding of freedom and equality. In contrast, the Know Nothings’ appeal to fear and bigotry reminds us only of our worst instincts.

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