Standing last month beneath a likeness of Abraham Lincoln at the Union League — an institution that was key to Lincoln’s 1864 reelection — Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, named after two men who raised arms against their country in response to Lincoln’s election, received the League’s Lincoln Award.
The irony of the moment was not lost on Sessions, who joked about his namesakes and assured the audience that, unlike Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who denied it until his dying days, the attorney general accepted that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. Lincoln would have been relieved to hear it.
What came next, however, showed that Sessions’s grasp of history was as tenuous as that of many of his Trump administration peers. Claiming the mantle of Lincoln, Sessions compared today’s opposition to the administration’s immigration policies to 1860s proslavery secessionism, chastising sanctuary cities such as Philadelphia for being on the wrong side of history — and of the law.
“One hears activists and a few officials even talk of nullification and secession,” Sessions said of those extolling the virtues of sanctuary policies. “Let them come here to the Union League — or Gettysburg — if they’d like a legal and historical lesson on those subjects.”
The problem with Sessions’s analogy is that those driving sanctuary-city policies are the heirs to an entirely different states’ rights tradition — one based in the North that helped to topple slavery, thanks to its resistance to immoral laws. Viewed through this lens, the resistance to the administration’s immigration policies looks as if it might be on the right side of history, after all.