Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter in 1855 to Joshua F. Speed that became famous for the future president’s stand against the anti-immigration Know-Nothing Party.
Lincoln and Speed met during the 1830s and remained friends even though their views differed on slavery. Speed grew up on a plantation and owned slaves. A turning point in Lincoln’s life that rekindled his interest in politics was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and opening the territories to slavery. It was in this context that the 1855 letter was written.
In referring to the nativist Know-Nothing Party—which came out of a secret society in the 1850s and was primarily anti-Catholic, xenophobic, and hostile to immigration—Lincoln used his letter to make his point of view very clear:
“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. . . .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.”
“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid” is a sentiment that many would find fitting in today’s political discourse. And the irony in the reference to the despotism of Russia “without the base alloy of hypocracy” comes through today, even with Lincoln’s archaic spellings.
A knowledge of history is one reason that I believe hope is grounded in memory. Author, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit notes that “We think of hope as looking forward, but . . . (if) you study history deeply, you realize that, to quote Patti Smith, ‘people have the power’. . . .(P)eople have often taken on things that seemed hopeless—freeing the slaves, getting women the vote—and achieved those things.”
Americans rejected the Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s, and recent 2018 polling found that a record-high number of Americans—75 percent—thought immigration was good for the country. Hope involves a sense of uncertainty and coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen, but we have memories that show us that good things—powerful things—can happen.
Hope takes work. But knowing history gives me hope that one day we will be able to remove both the “men” and the “except” to create the phrase, “All are created equal.”
More to come…