This weekend, I saw Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln, which brilliantly chronicles the last few months of the life of the sixteenth American president.  In January 1865, President Lincoln, who had just won re-election to a second term, faced two huge tasks: to end the Civil War and to guide congressional ratification of the 13th Amendment, which would make slavery illegal.  In addition to examining Lincoln’s steadfast character, the complexities of his relationships with his wife and children, and the horrors of war, the film focuses on Lincoln’s brilliant political mind as he shrewdly finds the votes necessary in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment.

 

As it seems increasingly likely that Congress will be debating and voting upon significant immigration legislation in the coming months, the film served as a good reminder that political horse-trading and partisan acrimony are not new phenomena.  A few particular lessons stood out:

 

  • First, politics is messy business.  Lincoln was not above the political fray in that sense; had he not discreetly offered patronage jobs to certain lame duck Democratic congressmen in exchange for their votes, the 13th Amendment would likely not have passed.  The “lobbyists” that Lincoln employs to help ensure the vote’s victory are rather unsavory characters, but they ultimately are instrumental in the bill’s passage.  Arm-twisting and horse-trading are a part of politics, both then and now, especially when individuals from different parties (and even from different factions within the same party) are needed to pass legislation.  If immigration reform is to pass in the current environment—with a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House of Representatives—the bill will have to be bipartisan, which will mean give-and-take from both sides.

 

  • In a similar vein, political pragmatism may require that advocates moderate their positions and their language.  In the film, staunch abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who led the Radical Republican wing of his party, could not publicly say on the House floor what he actually believed—that African-Americans deserved full equality and the right to vote, not just freedom from slavery—because public opinion would have swung against the Amendment.  In the contemporary immigration debate, some pro-immigrant groups feel strongly that undocumented immigrants have done nothing wrong and thus oppose any legislation that includes a fine or other penalty as a precondition to legalization.  Even if they are right (I don’t actually think they are; I think a fine is a fair way to distinguish legalization from amnesty), this sort of uncompromising stance would likely have the effect of driving away support from conservative and moderate voters, and ultimately kill a bill.  While I think there should be some core elements of legislation on which we should not compromise—for me, that would include some sort of legalization process and reforms to the visa system—no bill is going to fully satisfy everyone.

 

  • The film also illustrates a reality that I hope our legislators will take to heart: doing right requires courage.   One Democratic legislator whom Lincoln was lobbying to vote for the 13th Amendment, fearful of his own political future if he votes for the Amendment, honestly expresses, “I want to do right, but I ain’t got no courage.”  The truth is that there are many legislators in Congress today who, in private, will acknowledge that they know that a broad set of reforms to our immigration system, including a legalization process, is the right thing to do—but they fear the political consequences, particularly in Republican primary elections, if they vote in favor.  While I think these fears are overblown—Grover Norquist argues convincingly that Republican voters are actually pretty well split in their views on immigration, and that even among those who oppose legalization, few make their voting choices based on the issue—I want to believe that there are still elected officials who will do what they believe is right, whether or not it seems politically expedient.

 

  • Finally, Lincoln demonstrates the importance of presidential leadership, as Lincoln, nudged on by his wife, personally visits legislators who are on the fence in order to win their votes for the Amendment.  Legislation requires the approval of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but the President can influence how a legislator votes.  President Obama, who has said since before his first election that he supports Comprehensive Immigration Reform, now needs to expend every ounce of political capital necessary to pass a bill.

 

President Lincoln opposed the anti-immigrant forces of his day—the “Know Nothing” Party—on account of his commitment to the founding principle of the United States: “all men are created equal.”  At the time, Lincoln said, the society practically meant, “all men are created equal, except negroes.”  If the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings had their way, Lincoln said, the society would essentially be saying that “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners,” a reality Lincoln would not accept.

 

We need elected officials today who, like the Great Emancipator, will use their power to pursue justice, to ensure that the United States lives out the reality of our founding principles, which are built on the biblical truth that all people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”


Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief.  His blogs appear here on Mondays. 

 

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One Response to Lessons from Lincoln

  1. Dan Swanson says:

    Excellent piece Matthew! You highlight my reservation in bringing up US foreign policy just as the winds of change are beginning to change. But as compromised and short term a solution that it may be it should be very welcome to many of our friends who risked so much to go to the US. We can only hope it will be a stepping stone to a more just and humane US as it relates to other countries.

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