Trumping a sense of decline. Guest appearance by Abraham Lincoln.

Malaise. Decline. Erosion. Much ink has been spilt over the question of whether the US, the EU, the West, the World is declining. Is decline, as in Gibbon’s famous title, always the predecessor to the fall? Is it at the expense of another? Is the public interest in zombies some sort of popular manifestation of this impending doom? After an election cycle as divisive as this recent one, especially one in which the political pendulum swung hard in one direction, there are few certainties. One such certainty is that there will continue to be much more written and spoken about “decline” in the coming months, especially when so many feel like they have suffered a severe and personal loss.

Whether this is the case time will tell, but until then perhaps a quote from that staunch defender of the Republic, Abraham Lincoln, might soothe the troubled mind… For context in the following quote, the Know-Nothings were a popular nativist political party in the mid-nineteenth century who despised all immigrants who were not white, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon. They were particularly fearful of the hordes of Irish Catholics who arrived to the US in the wake of the Great Famine.

I am not a Know-Nothing – that is certain. 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 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 equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to that 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.hypocrisy.[1]

There are some interesting points in this quote I think are worth pointing out, the first being Lincoln’s overwhelming disgust with those who sought to degrade and oppress others. It is obvious that for Lincoln politics is something personal because it deals with morality. In that sense divisions exist and for good reasons. In his disgust Lincoln threatens to emigrate from America, a popular idea among many in this post-election season, but quickly turns it into a joke, saying at least dictatorships are honest about their bigotry. I wonder, what would Lincoln have thought had he known that the Know-Nothings failed in their goals of excluding and disenfranchising the Catholic masses that entered the US in the nineteenth-century, and that less than eight years after this letter was written in August 1855 he would sign the Emancipation Proclamation? I can imagine him horrified but also unsurprised that it would take the sacrifice of the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville to settle the question of Catholic loyalty to the American Republic and the bloodiest conflict in US history to settle the question of slavery. Of course the war did not succeed in creating an egalitarian paradise for all, but it did mark significant change.

Many of us think just as Lincoln did in those autumn days in 1855, that progress should or must be inevitable, or else we are sliding back, falling inexorably towards decline. Progress, in its broadest sense of the term, does seem unsettled by this past America election. But maybe the niggling sense of decline that Lincoln felt, as so many feel now, is instead the harbinger of major changes to come. Perhaps sooner than we think.

[1] Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln: A Narrative and Descriptive Biography with Pen-pictures and Personal Recollections by Those who Knew Him (Browne & Howell, 1914), p. 153.


About Alan Noonan

Alan Noonan is currently a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He received his PhD in history from University College Cork, and has experience as a historical consultant and researcher. He has been awarded several fellowships including the Glucksman Government of Ireland Fellowship at New York University, a Mellon Fellowship at the Library Company in Philadelphia, and a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American History.
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