Antebellum Echo

Joey, a colorblind admirer of Lincoln's eloquence.

“There’s something cursed, it seems to me, about a country where men have owned men as property.  The stink of that corruption never escapes the soul, and it is the stink of future evil.” ­– Investigating Magistrate Bibikov, in Bernard Malamud’s 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Fixer.

Soon we will bicycle south into Virginia and Tennessee.  Only two lifetimes ago, these states fought a war to defend the right of European immigrants and their descendants to own, as property, African immigrants and their descendants.

Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession referred to federal “oppression of the Southern slaveholding states”.  The governor of Tennessee called for secession to protect the right to own slaves.  Maryland and Delaware, two states on our route, permitted slavery until 1864 and 1865, respectively.  (To be fair, these states had abolitionists too.)

The North also perpetuated slavery.  For example, New York allowed it until 1827; when civil war loomed, New York trading interests favored the South, which In 1860 supplied 75% of the world’s cotton.  Illinois audiences cheered when U.S. Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln said he did not accept racial equality.  Free Iowa had slave-owning residents.

The corruption was everywhere.

Its results were manifold.

Foremost was the horrendous treatment of Africans and their descendants.  America’s fundamental document, the Declaration of Independence, was undermined.  Law and religion were twisted to justify slavery and its brutality.  Slavery led to a war in which about 750,000 men1 in 10 American men of military age – died before their time.  After the war, the abuse of former slaves and their descendants continued legally for 100 years.  Generations of Americans were impoverished by slavery, war, violence, hatred, and Jim Crow laws that crushed and discarded the talents of millions.

All because some Americans treated other Americans as less than fully human.

Today we prohibit (although we haven’t ended) most forms of persecution, and its lesser cousin discrimination, based on race, religion, gender, national origin, etc.  But one group remains outside the community, with its abuse enshrined in American law:  resident foreigners denied a route to authorized status.

They aren’t criminals, or terrorists, or freeloaders.

They are your spouse, sibling, parent, child, schoolmate, co-worker, friend, neighbor, born abroad, living here outside the law because of an invented quota or rule.  They are denied the respect our country gives to criminals and traitors.

Does natural law allow a foreign-born bird to be here but not an innocent self-supporting human?  Does the Bible or Koran let us bankrupt a foreign farmer by stealing her customers with subsidized American corn, then starve her by denying her permission to work here?  Does free market doctrine say that an outstanding foreign worker can’t be hired unless a government agency chooses to give its blessing?

No.  And no.  And no.

In 1858, in the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, Abraham Lincoln expressed the common view that if blacks and whites could not be equal, he (a white man) preferred that whites have the superior position.  But Lincoln continued (emphasis in original):

“… I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the [black man] is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man.  I agree with Judge Douglas that he is not my equal in many respects . . .  But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

In Lincoln’s day and for generations afterward, a European could simply come to America (no visa required) and become a citizen.  Yet under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, African Americans were not and could not become U.S. citizens.  (This changed only when the Constitution was amended after the Civil War.)

Nevertheless, Lincoln acknowledged the right of these non-citizens to earn a living.  He recognized that the Declaration of Independence applied to “all men” – in modern terms, “all persons” – and that “inalienable right[s]” aren’t for Americans alone.

We do not belittle the suffering of America’s slaves and their descendants when we say that the evil that oppressed them continues.  Our federal government hunts down and breaks up American families – innocent children, good honest women and men – because of artificial immigration rules.  Governments in states like Arizona, Georgia, Alabama – and, perish the thought, perhaps Tennessee – want to drive out American families that have foreign-born members, by making the people too miserable to remain.  We treat them as pariahs.

Shame on us for letting this sorry history repeat itself.

In God We Trust

As the BikeE’s rear wheel is damaged beyond repair, we abandoned our plan to bicycle 140 miles from Postville to Grinnell, Iowa. Our new friends Shad Sluiter and Ron Wahls found a Postville gentleman willing to drive us to Grinnell.

Our chauffeur, E, is a hard-working family man who has installed pipelines in Florida and Alaska. From his accent, one might mistake him for Mexican. In fact, when E was a teenager, U.S. immigration authorities did just that. They imprisoned him — no, sorry, the word the feds use is “detained” — for 45 days, intending to deport him to Mexico. When our E’s father finally obtained a copy of E’s U.S. birth certificate, E was released with an apology. At least that!

Our van ride was through Iowa countryside of almost absurd beauty. We reached Grinnell in fine shape, took the BikeE to the local bike shop where the owner is familiar with the machine (he has an old one in the basement), and a new and stronger wheel should be ready in a few days.

Grinnell is four times the size of Postville; it has around nine thousand inhabitants. The presence of world-renowned Grinnell College makes it diverse, if not quite in the same way as Postville, and much more well-to-do. This is one of the town parks.


Here is Rebecca Heller, who is about to graduate from Grinnell College with a degree in history. She has been one of the Ride’s biggest boosters, raising the consciousness of her fellow students. Rebecca is about to begin a year of national service with AmeriCorps. And she happens to be Jeffrey’s daughter.


Left to right: Joey, Rebecca

Not far from Grinnell are the Amana Colonies. They show the sort of things that happen when persecuted people come to America. The people make a life for themselves, enriching our country in the process. The Inspirationists arrived before the days of quotas, restrictions, and mechanisms to determine whether one qualified for asylum. People fleeing persecution just had to show up to find refuge. Those were the good old days.


The Inspirationists trusted in God. Such trust was common among Americans of their day, as it is today. We noticed that many Indiana license plates bear the inscription, “In God We Trust”. So does all American money, by law.

Trust in God is evident throughout modern America. On the Ride, we saw hundreds of churches, and some synagogues and mosques even in remote areas. We met many people who spoke intimately of God. American political gatherings and legislative sessions are begun with prayers. Holy Writ is used to justify views on abortion, sexual preference, war, private property, dietary taboos — all sorts of things.

Much of what people believe the Scriptures say is ambiguous. As with our Constitution, interpretation can be more important than the literal word. For example, 2000 years ago, Jewish sages closely examined the Hebrew wording of the famous “eye for an eye” passage and determined that the phrase refers to monetary compensation, not eye-gouging. Their interpretation prevails in the Western world today. We sue for money damages, not for the right to pluck another’s eye or knock out a retaliatory tooth.

There are lots of similar ambiguities in the Bible. Does the ban on boiling a kid in its mother’s milk outlaw only that specific act, or does it prohibit the eating of cheeseburgers? Does kindling fire on the Sabbath include turning on an LED? Does honoring parents mean obeying their every order? When is killing justified, and when is it murder? People on various sides of even hot-button issues like abortion and homosexuality can find Biblical justification for various interpretations.

But there is nothing ambiguous about God’s word on the treatment of strangers.

“The same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you.” Exodus 12:49

“There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 24:22

“As for the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the alien who sojourns with you, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the alien be before the Lord.” Numbers 15:15

“There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you.” Numbers 15:16

And so forth. We won’t get started on the commandments not to oppress strangers and foreigners. And you all know the Golden Rule.

To paraphrase one of the loud slogans of the xenophobes: What part of “same law” don’t you understand? (And don’t throw Anatole France at me: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Mr. France was being sarcastic. We kangaroo puppets are experts at sarcasm.)

Which brings me to these questions:

When will the majority of Americans, who profess religious belief and say they trust in God, trust God enough to follow God’s commands regarding the treatment of the foreigners among us?

Why do Americans who are so quick to condemn our Washington, DC, lawmakers as out-of-touch buffoons, happily follow the cruelest and most inane immigration edicts emanating from Washington rather than the Word of the God in Whom We Trust?

If you visit Prague, you can see a synagogue with a room of overwhelming power. The walls of that room were inscribed with the names of the 80,000 Czech Jews murdered by the German Nazis and their allies. It brings home the fact that these were not statistics, but people. Each murdered person had a name.

Each foreign-born person living among us has a name too. Each is a human being. Each is protected by God’s law.

The people we met in little Postville, Iowa, get it. What about the rest of us?

It’s about time we either put the American majority’s professed faith to work to help good immigrants regardless of their papers, or we stop pretending to be a people of faith.

Please come back tomorrow for the final daily post on the Ride for Human Rights!

Immigration Snapshot: Philosophy

Joey as Philosopher

The Declaration of Independence, properly viewed by Abraham Lincoln as our fundamental document (not the Constitution, which merely implements what the Declaration began), says that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights.  These words reflected the Founding Fathers’ principles.  They violated those principles by not extending equality and rights to (among others) women, slaves, people without property, people of non-European ancestry, and people not of certain Christian sects.  But they never gave up those principles.

As stated in Immigration and Asylum: From 1900 to the present (Matthew J. Gibney, ed.), John Locke, whose philosophy was a basis for what our Founding Fathers wrought, observed that God gave the world “to Mankind in common”.  Immanuel Kant, expounding on this idea in 1795, declared that “all men are entitled to present themselves in the society of others by virtue of their right to communal possession of the earth’s surface.  Since the earth is a globe, they cannot disperse over an infinite area, but must necessarily tolerate one another’s company.  And no-one originally has any greater right than anyone else to occupy any particular portion of the earth.”

Before the philosophers came the Koran and its extension of protection to strangers.  Before the Koran came the Bible, which explicitly states that we must have the same law for the alien and the citizen, and prohibits oppression of foreigners at least 36 times.  Other cultures play the same tune.  Japanese proverb: “Even a hunter cannot kill a bird that comes to him for refuge.”

Do we believe in the principles of the Declaration of Independence?  Do we believe in the Declaration’s philosophical underpinnings from the likes of Locke and Kant, and in the Declaration’s “decent respect to the opinions of mankind”?  Do we believe in Holy Writ?

If we believe in any of these things, yet we take part in what passes for immigration enforcement in our country – betraying religion, betraying principle, betraying people, for reasons of money and xenophobia – then we are liars.

In commenting on slavery – a denial of fundamental human rights – Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”  He wrote of how slavery corrupted the young masters: “[T]hus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, [the child] cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.”

The injustice of slavery bequeathed civil war to the Founders’ grandchildren.

What will be the legacy of our injustice – our denial of fundamental human rights – to foreigners who seek refuge or who live peacefully as our neighbors?