Monday, October 25, 2010

Lincoln on the Tea Party's ancestors

Government wasn't working very well for many people in the United States in the 1840s and 50s. In retrospect that's not surprising as the nation was on a the verge of the horrible civil war that ended with Black slaves freed and industrial capitalism in the saddle. New political movements appeared to voice the discontents of the pre-war period; a popular anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic group called itself the American Party, but was more frequently labelled the "Know Nothings" for its injunction to its adherents not to talk about it to outsiders. Joe Miller, Sharon Angle, and Christine O'Donnell would understand ... It's members were not ignorant, so much as privileged by education and class, and worried about what they saw as newly arriving, dangerously assertive foreign laboring hordes.

Other political stirrings were also going on that eventually led to the formation of the Republican Party. People's political allegiances were not very fixed. In this context, Illinois politician Abraham Lincoln thought to write a letter to his friend Joshua F. Speed denying that he could be a Know-Nothing.

How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.

As a nation we begin by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners and catholics."

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.

The spelling is Lincoln's. For Lincoln, "liberty" (an archaic word it seems these days) was indivisible. The nation went on the fight a war over that. Our proudest moments have been those when we extended liberty -- to newcomers, to women, to all races and all belief systems.

Unfortunately, the party Lincoln later helped found seems to have given itself over to today's Know-Nothings -- a motley assortment of racial exclusionists, Muslim bashers, cultural warriors and economic hucksters.

I owe the Lincoln quote to Peter Schrag's excellent history, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America.

The Lincoln statue pictured looms over Interstate Hwy. 80 in Wyoming.

1 comment:

Kay Dennison said...

The insanity that pervades our country today frightens me. Thanks for reminding that we can survive the idiots.

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