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Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks At The Abraham Lincoln Foundation Of The Union League Of Philadelphia's Annual Lincoln Day Celebration


Philadelphia, PA
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery.

Thank you, Greg, for that kind introduction, for your leadership at the Union League, and for the good work you’ve done for the Philadelphia Police Foundation.  Thank you for doing your part to help our men and women in blue.

I also want to thank Ed for emceeing today, Joan Carter for organizing today’s festivities, and Jim Dunigan for his leadership, as well.

I want to recognize Frank and Dotty Giordano and their son John, a former DOJ attorney and Trump administration alumnus. 

And I also want to recognize Ezra Cohen-Watnick, another Trump White House veteran from the National Security Council team.

This is a big crowd.  For a minute there, I was wondering if this was the residue of the Eagles’ Super Bowl parade. It’s bigger than the Crimson Tide’s celebration, of course, but it’s less unusual for the Tide.

Thank you to the Union League for all of the work that you do to educate our young people about the Constitution, our legal traditions, history, and about the importance of good citizenship.

I’m reading a book about our 21st President, Chester Alan Arthur, who was a proud Union League member in New York.  I’m sure there are a lot of big Chet Arthur fans with us today.

The biography has this line: “Arthur’s college education and membership in the prestigious Union League Club distinguished him from… less sophisticated party hacks.” Certainly, yours is a sophisticated and prestigious institution. 

My only previous visit to this club was during the 2004 Republican convention. I was then and am now most impressed how the structure itself radiates order, confidence in the future by its founders, along with beauty and good taste.

So you can know that I was honored and humbled by your invitation to receive the Lincoln Award—especially considering some who have received it before, like my former boss Pennsylvania Governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, Justices Thomas and Alito—truly great justices— and many others. I am truly honored.

Philadelphia is a great city, whose prosperity, health and public safety is as important to America today as it has been for two centuries.

Indeed there hangs in my house in Mobile today a document produced 174 years ago in Philadelphia. It’s my great, great grandfather Herndon’s 1844 sheepskin diploma from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Philadelphia, I believe, at the time was the center for medical training in America. History is important, and beneficial to our present and future if we deal with it honestly. Dr Herndon, a native of Fredericksburg, Virginia, soon after graduation moved to Alabama, and became part of the confederate army as a surgeon and surely did his best to save Confederate soldiers no doubt shot by Union soldiers in that war.

Chet Arthur was married to Ellen Herndon, Dr. Herndon’s niece, and during the war, he referred to her as “my little rebel”. 

I remain pretty sure you have not presented the Lincoln Award to anyone named Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III before, especially since the original name, lore has it, fell on a baby born the day Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America nearby in Montgomery.

The baby’s father enlisted, as his saw his duty, as a private and met his demise at Antietam—a mini ball to the head. He left a widow with a baby to marry “old man Henry”, as my father described him. Old man Henry was 27 years older than she but had a place with about 250 acres of farmable land. Daddy said once, “He was good to her.” That farm has fallen to me. Life presents many twists and turns- does it not?

Did you see the article in the last few days in which experts say one of the best things you can do for children is to tell them the story of their family- as tales of the happy and sad times give them confidence to endure? The message: the family has had tough times but got through them. Your educational mission is surely important in that sense also. We must be intentional about training children and not turn that mission into talking heads or post-modern faculty.

Thoughtful people know why we have Union League clubs and how the cataclysm happened— but I fear too few. The thing was brewing from the beginning of the Republic. Though many Southerners try to say otherwise—and I love my people—slavery was the cause of the war. It was not states’ rights or tariffs or agrarian versus industrial economies. Those issues were all solvable and would have been solved. The cloud, the stain of human bondage—the buying and selling of human beings—was the unsolvable problem and was omnipresent from the beginning of the country.

And the failure, the refusal of the South to come to grips with it—really to actually change this immoral system of enslavement—led to the explosion.

As to slavery, it had to end. The nation could stand the disgrace no longer. And Lincoln came. And the war came. Lincoln’s moral and legal clarity, like that of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s a century later, produced the will, the power, which sustained the war and propelled the nation to union and emancipation. This was a monumental conflict indeed.

The conflagration was intimate, brutal, and not short.

It is fair to say Lincoln did not start the war. He inherited it, and through extraordinary determination, eloquence, judgment, and courage, he finished it. His magnificent soldiers fighting other magnificent soldiers fought it out over four years, deciding the fate of the nation. The enslaved people of the South were emancipated and that by military victory. They venerated Father Abraham for it.

The Union was preserved—the unwavering vision to which Lincoln was dedicated. The Constitution was preserved.

This was an event the world watched in amazement and it changed the world. And, Lincoln did the thing with resolution, with ferocity, to complete victory. And all the while maintaining and projecting a spirit of humanity, grace, and humility—to a degree never before found, I think, in any wartime leader.

This spirit played a key role in the process of reconciliation. It would be a mistake to say Lincoln’s magnanimous spirit quickly healed all the war’s wounds. But that spirit was foundational.

Successful reconciliations— as history, maturity, and judgement tell us— do not happen overnight. In many places around the globe that I have visited, wars seem never to be forgotten. A thousand year old grievance is as fresh as yesterday.

The American, dare I say, the Christian value of forgiveness, embodied in the Lincoln spirit has blessed us all. This spirit has been on display after all our conflicts and may be said to be one of our culture’s most positive qualities.

So, if it is one’s fate to lose a brutal war, one must feel fortunate indeed to have lost it to the noble Abraham Lincoln, and to a people so good and decent— so committed to right— and of such good will as our northern brothers and sisters-- to those who fought that war and those who surely founded this Union League Club.

Let me say to those Republicans, whose party’s founding produced Lincoln, thank you for letting me, a young college student, join the party you founded, a party that believes in freedom, responsibility, the rule of law, a strong national defense, respect for religious faith, and prosperity.

We are here to honor a man who, in his day, was the unlikeliest of presidents.  He had spent most of his life in the private sector.  The year before the election, a New York publisher had put out a list of the 21 top candidates for the White House—and his name wasn’t on the list.  When the election year came, he was left off other lists again.

He had almost no experience in national politics.  He was considered unqualified.  He ran against senators and governors—including a former governor of Ohio and a senator from New York.  They were political giants.  It was one of the most talented fields of candidates anybody had seen in a generation. 

In some of our biggest cities, he didn’t receive a single vote.

The media mocked him for every reason imaginable.  They ridiculed his physical appearance.  One journalist wrote that “he has abused the privilege which all politicians have of being ugly.”

He was a self-taught lawyer.  He got his start in the law by reading the statute book of Indiana and by reading Blackstone—a copy of which he found in an old barrel.

But he was sophisticated and extremely experienced and respected in the legal community by the time he was elected President. 

More importantly, however, Lincoln had almost religious devotion to the rule of law.  In fact, that’s how he put it himself in his first big speech in public life, the Lyceum Address.  “Let reverence for the laws be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs — let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice…let it become the political religion of the nation.” So true: respect for law is the indispensable foundational principle of our republic. 

His argument was that keeping the rule of law was the single most important thing we can do to preserve our political institutions.  He argued that, if we accept small violations of the rule of law, then these violations will only become more frequent and more serious.  If that happens, it will instill in people contempt for law and eventually for the Republic itself.

Surely it is settled that under the Constitution, federal laws are supreme.  If one really respects the document, one will enforce it as written—whether one believes the provisions are wise or not. States and cities cannot change that or veto that.  If something is legal under state law but illegal under federal law, then it remains illegal under federal law.

If you want to change the laws of this country, or the Nation’s policies, the Constitution sets out a process.  You have to persuade your fellow citizens and work through the legislative process by persons elected, not faceless bureaucrats.

The disputes over secession and nullification were attempts to undo duly enacted laws of our country— those questions were settled by the people on the battlefield. 

Unfortunately, time and again, those who could not achieve their policy goals at the ballot box have attempted to impose them on their fellow citizens by other means.

We have seen this in decisions by unelected judges who redefine the meaning of words to establish policies that Congress never intended. Policies the people never approved. Now, single district judges are imposing nationwide injunctions to direct clearly executive functions. In fact, there had never been a nationwide injunction before the 1960’s— now, we at DOJ are steadfastly defending against the 19 nationwide injunctions that have been leveled against this administration in just one year. We are winning at the appellate and Supreme Court level, but time is precious and delays costly.

And we have seen jurisdictions attempt to nullify federal immigration law under so-called “sanctuary policies.”   One hears activists and a few officials even talk of nullification and secession. Let them come here to the Union League— or Gettysburg— if they’d like a legal and historical lesson on those subjects.

Today’s celebration is a good way to honor Lincoln’s legacy.  But at the Department of Justice, we seek to honor his legacy by upholding the rule of law day in and day out.

Let me ask you for a minute to discuss some other things we are doing to restore the rule of law and the constitutional balance.

We agreed to settlement terms with nearly 500 plaintiffs in cases brought by groups who were targeted by the IRS when they applied for tax-exempt status. They were subjected to inappropriate criteria that disproportionately impacted conservative groups.

The Department also provided legal advice to support agencies in this administration to end subsidies to insurance companies. These expenditures had not been appropriated by Congress under the Affordable Care Act or other law. The executive branch cannot spend money not appropriated by Congress.

We provided legal counsel to end the unlawful DACA policy.

Our Solicitor General filed an amicus brief in support of a Colorado baker who was sued for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.

We issued a memo to help set policy to protect the free exercise of religion.

And as I mentioned, we are no longer allowing so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions to defy federal immigration law if they want to receive our law enforcement grants.

In June, I ended the practice of third party settlements whereby settling parties were required to pay settlement funds to third party organizations that were not directly involved in the litigation or harmed by the defendant’s conduct.  Now those funds either go to victims or to the public treasury.

Government lawyers and bureaucrats do not have constitutional authority to appropriate taxpayer money for their favored groups. Only Congress can appropriate money.

We have ended regulation-by-guidance, where bureaucrats would impose regulations by simply sending a letter; we have rescinded dozens of existing regulations that were created in this unjustified manner and are studying more.

We are hammering violent groups- especially the vicious MS-13.

We’ve increased gun prosecutions. We have charged more defendants with violent crime offenses than in any year in decades. We have specific goals: to reduce violent crime, to reduce the surging homicide rate, to reduce overdose deaths, and to reduce opioid prescriptions.

We have taken and will take many other steps to restore the rule of law and improve public safety. Failure is not an option.

But I’ll be the first to acknowledge that we still have work to do.

There have been some very sharp criticisms about the Department. I hear these criticisms and welcome the discussion.  Sunlight truly is the best disinfectant. We will not ignore these problems or hide our heads in the sand.

Returning to the people of this great Department that I revere has been a wonderful experience. I work hard every day to be worthy of the great trust I have been given. My purpose every day is to ensure that we remain true to our fundamental mission of enforcing the law and protecting the safety of Americans, with integrity and fairness, and to earn the confidence of the American people. And with the Lord’s help, that’s what we will do.

Updated February 12, 2018