Editor’s Note: Daniel Fried is a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative and Eurasia Center. He is a former US ambassador to Poland, assistant secretary of state for Europe and National Security Council senior director for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion articles at CNN.
In 1855, Abraham Lincoln took on the American Party — an anti-immigration movement often referred to as the “Know-Nothings” — in a powerful letter that seems sadly relevant today.
He wrote, “Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began 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 pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
Earlier this week, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, provoked an outcry when he subordinated Emma Lazarus’s great poem about the Statue of Liberty, which reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Cuccinelli expanded and distorted the famous line and said, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” He also added that the poem referred to “people coming from Europe.”
At issue is not how to define “public charge” under 21st-century conditions but the broader definition of what it is to be an American.
There have been two competing definitions of American identity since the foundation of this nation, and that tension is felt to this day. One was based on the Declaration of Independence’s revolutionary assertion that “all men are created equal.” The other is based on the conviction that America is a nation rooted in blood, in ethnicity. The first definition was America in principle; the second was America in practice.
The Constitution, for all its virtues, shamefully incorporated the institution of slavery and, by implication, accepted the definition of America as a white man’s republic. Later, Vice President John C. Calhoun argued that “all men are created equal” was not meant literally, and his denigration of the Declaration was the cornerstone of Confederate ideology. In 1852, Frederick Douglass highlighted the gap between American ideals and the harsh reality in the famous speech, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”
But America in principle proved durable and compelling. American history can be read as a moral progression, through which these principles become more perfectly realized. Abraham Lincoln helped bring America back to the idea of equality by arguing, most famously in the Gettysburg Address, that the Declaration of Independence was the country’s true founding document. Lincoln helped usher in the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, and the Civil War became both a war of freedom’s rebirth, as well as a war to restore a flawed Union.
For Lincoln, the equality of all people was literal. His last speech pushed for voting rights to be extended to African Americans and he also embraced immigration in universal terms. While immigrants can’t trace their ancestry back to the early settlers and founding fathers, Lincoln argued in 1858 that when they accepted the Declaration’s principle of equality, they “have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.”
Lincoln thus defined America by its faith in and commitment to the Declaration’s core principle of human equality. On this basis, his new nation could embrace enslaved people from Africa, children of the Mayflower, and immigrants from Europe, China, and all countries of the Earth, as equals. In 1869, at the height of Reconstruction, cartoonist Thomas Nash depicted just this sort of American nation in his then-famous drawing, “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner,” showing Uncle Sam and Lady Columbia hosting people from all over the world at the American table of bounty and equality.
Lincoln’s principles, derived from the Declaration of Independence, bring together emancipation and immigration. So does the Statue of Liberty. It was originally conceived (by the French abolitionist Edouard de Laboulaye) as a monument to the abolition of slavery, symbolized by the broken chains and shackle at Lady Liberty’s feet. In a way, the Statue of Liberty celebrates the ability of the American republic to fight a civil war, remain a democracy, and emerge a freer, more perfect union. And such an America could bring in millions of immigrants and make them her own, as they, as we, helped build the country. Emma Lazarus’s words justly form part of the American creed.
The slow realization of America’s principles is only half the story. In reality, the Republican Party gave up on Lincoln’s vision and abandoned Reconstruction. White rule and Jim Crow imposed itself on the South through violence and terror. Immigrants met nativist reactions, suspicion and racism, and discriminatory quotas. But America in principle reasserted itself when Jim Crow laws were struck down in the 1950s and 1960s, and with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, it’s no coincidence that immigration quotas based on nationality were lifted in 1965.
And now we see another check to America’s founding principles. Ken Cuccinelli says he wants only immigrants able to “stand on their own two feet.” I suspect that would-be immigrants who walk 2,000 miles to reach our southern border, who take jobs in poultry plants at minimum wage or less, are quite capable.
There is nothing wrong with secure borders, or immigration rules, or even a reasonable interpretation of the long-standing prohibition against immigrants who in fact risk becoming a “public charge.”
But there is everything wrong with reinterpreting America’s creed and its founding principles to undo the Declaration’s core principle, Lincoln’s return to that principle, and the Statue of Liberty’s inspiring expression of it. America in practice has its ugly side, in history and today. But American in principle can rescue us yet.