11/25/2014 10:43 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

The "Immigration Proclamation?"

Allan Baxter via Getty Images

Lost in the current, ongoing debate over presidential powers and immigration policy is history -- which, as usual, is repeating itself, and offering eye-opening lessons for the present, if only someone in Washington would pause to look back.

Think of the parallels to an earlier day. The scene is the White House. Quietly, privately, the President of the United States reads his momentous draft executive order to his chief advisors. The situation he intends to address is out of control. Tens -- perhaps hundreds -- of thousands of people of questionable legal status have swarmed into the country. True, they are willing to perform the low-wage physical labor that few white citizens are willing to do, yet still they live in the shadows, still authorities have the power to find, detain, and deport these fugitives.

Congress has tried to act -- but produces a bill that will be difficult to enforce. Given a second chance to pass another measure, a delegation of influential Congressmen has balked. The situation seems hopelessly stalemated.

Now an off-year election is approaching, and so in the summer, advised that a major executive policy issue will be seen by many as an unconstitutional power grab and doom the party's chances of retaining Congressional majorities, and will appear to reflect the Administration's weakness, not strength, the President reluctantly blinks. He will postpone his order until prospects look brighter on the battlefield.

But in the case of Abraham Lincoln, slavery, and the American Civil War, the issue came to a head before Election Day after all. On September 22, 1862, just days after the Union army won the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln finally responded to political pressure from the left, ignoring contrary political pressure from the right, and issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. That particular executive order gave the Confederate states a hundred days to abandon their rebellion or face the permanent forfeiture of their property in slaves. At last, the tens of thousands of so-called "contrabands" -- enslaved people who had fled involuntary servitude on their own and fled into Union lines, or into Washington, D.C. itself -- would have some sort of legal status and protection. As of January 1, 1863, the proclamation decreed, enslaved people remaining in the Confederate states (and contrabands who had escaped on their own) would be "then, thenceforward, and forever free." The 19th-century equivalent of deportation -- the heinous Fugitive Slave Act -- would no longer be enforced.

Of course the Supreme Court might one day rule against the order -- and Congress might eventually pass a more sweeping (or more restrictive) law of its own -- but for now, the President had dared walk the fine political line between haste and delay and issued what he himself believed his most important act, and the most important act of the century.

Comparisons between Abraham Lincoln's 1862 Emancipation Proclamation and Barack Obama's 2014 Immigration Proclamation are of course imprecise. Today's Southern states are no longer in rebellion against the Northern ones -- at least not technically. But one cannot help comparing the two moments in American political and social history, even though President Obama, a lifelong admirer and student of Lincoln, has surprisingly failed to do so.

Even before Mr. Obama in a sense repeated history, he surely noticed that, as was the case with Lincoln and slavery, the progressive wing of his party had been beseeching him for months to act on his own to provide legal status for undocumented people. In Lincoln's case, newspapermen and clergymen had long been demanding executive action on slavery -- to no apparent effect. Lincoln did not exactly presage Obama's protest that he had no legal authority to act, but he did issue an eerily familiar protest when a delegation of Chicago ministers implored him in 1862 to use his executive authority to strike against slavery sooner rather than later. "What good would a proclamation of emancipation from me do, especially as we are now situated?" he exasperatedly asked his visitors. "I do not want to issue a document that the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope's bull against the comet." Not that he ever felt he lacked legal or constitutional authority, as President Obama apparently fretted in his own case, "for, as commander-in-chief of the army and navy in time of war," Lincoln insisted, "I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy." He had no "objections of a moral nature," either, and in the end, before the campaign season was over, he acted. The social impact was revolutionary; the political result punishing.

Certainly the venomous opposition response that greeted the Lincoln emancipation announcement bears similarity to the loud Republican outcry against the recent Obama declaration. Lincoln, said the anti-administration New York World, was "adrift on a current of radical fanaticism." Expressing "alarm and dismay," Chicago Times charged that Lincoln had "cut loose from the constitution." Just as today's immigration hardliners are warning ominously of an uncontrollable wave of new immigrants, Lincoln-era emancipation opponents warned of "servile insurrections" that would pit slaves against their longtime masters.

In his next annual message to Congress -- the 19th-century equivalent of today's State of the Union addresses -- Lincoln did much as President Obama has recently suggested: dared the House and Senate, if they were dissatisfied, to act on their own. Go further, he suggested: compel the pro-Union Border slave states not covered by his military order to liberate their own slaves even if Congress had to compensate them with payment. And if the presence of free black people made Congress or white Americans anxious, invite people of color to colonize areas of South America or Africa (not Lincoln's finest moment, to be sure, though it represented the last time he suggested this impractical idea). "We can succeed only by concert," he declared in that famous Congressional message. "It is not 'can any of us imagine better?' but 'can we all do better?' ... The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion." Will President Obama challenge Congress to "rise to the occasion" when he delivers his own State of the Union Message early next year? He must--if he wants history to repeat itself.

And as history shows, just as Lincoln asked, Congress did ultimately "do better." In February 1865, the lame duck House of Representatives (on its second try) joined the Senate and voted to send to the states a constitutional amendment banning slavery not just in the Confederacy, but everywhere in the country. Lincoln did not live to see the amendment ratified that December. But few Americans at the time doubted that without his executive action three years earlier, Congress might never have grappled with an issue it had long sidestepped -- indeed, for many years leading up to the Civil War, had gagged entirely from mere debate and discussion on Capitol Hill.
Lincoln -- and Congress--met their obligations to deal with the major social issue of their day, too late for some, too soon for many. Can today's Congress respond to a presidential order by "doing better?" That part of American history has yet to be recorded.

It might be noted, as a coda, that in his day Abraham Lincoln also dealt adroitly with the issue of foreign immigration. He refused to dignify the astonishingly large "Know-Nothing" Nativist movement that poisoned American politics in the 1850s -- attracting many followers. "I am not a Know-Nothing," he wrote in 1855. "That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?" Later in the decade, when anti-foreigner politicians proposed imposing a two-year residency requirement before immigrants could earn the right to vote, Lincoln joined a movement to oppose the restrictions. "Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them," he declared. "I have some little notoriety for commiserating the oppressed condition of the negro; and I should be strangely inconsistent if I could favor any project for curtailing the existing rights of white men, even though born in different lands, and speaking different language from myself."

To be fair, Lincoln favored immigration primarily when it involved foreigners likely to migrate west and vote Republican -- like liberal, anti-slavery Germans. He was somewhat less sympathetic to the inflow of Irishmen who tended to cast their lot with the more conservative Democrats.

Indeed, so convinced did he become that all immigrants held the key to, as we might say today, flipping red states to blue -- that is, making Illinois, Indiana, and other western areas more anti-slavery, more progressive, and thus more Republican -- that Lincoln bailed out a German-language newspaper in his home base of Springfield, Illinois, secretly becoming de facto publisher, and requiring only that it preach Republican party gospel through the presidential election of 1860. The new Illinois Staats-Anzieger did precisely that -- so well that once the contest was won, Lincoln, now President-elect, relinquished his ownership rights and as a bonus rewarded his German-American editor with a diplomatic post in Vienna. He never learned to read German. But he knew precisely how to read the politics of immigration -- whether future citizens might be white men from overseas, or black men from the South, all searching for what he called the "universality of freedom."

Speaking in Ohio on his 52nd birthday in 1861 -- as he headed toward Washington for his inaugural (President Obama would retrace part of that route as a symbolic nod to history in 2009), Lincoln reiterated: "I esteem foreigners no better than other people, nor any worse. They are all of the great family of men."

Perhaps that message needs remembering -- and repeating.


Harold Holzer is the author of the new book Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion, published by Simon & Schuster.