Is America still the 'last best hope of earth'?
Our way of doing democracy is full of risk and failure, but Lincoln saw it as the safeguard of free people.
It was the dead of winter at the end of a year gone horribly wrong, and the president somehow had to rally the morale of a war-weary public and a suspicious Congress.Skip to next paragraph
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Familiar as this scene sounds in 2010, the year was actually 1862, the president was Abraham Lincoln, and America was in the deepest trough of the Civil War.
Worse, Lincoln was about to ask them to line up behind a massive new policy initiative: the emancipation of 4 million slaves. But in his annual message to Congress in 1862, Lincoln argued that emancipation was actually the straightest path to victory, because only by giving "freedom to the slave" would Americans "assure freedom to the free."
By making freedom the war's issue, Americans would keep alive a flame that only they, among all the nations of the earth, were tending.
On the other hand, if Americans had lost heart for freedom, then the whole experiment in democratic government which began in 1776 might as well be called off for good. Abolishing the last vestige of unfreedom in America would become the measure of whether we would "nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth."
It's difficult for us in 2010 to appreciate how seriously Lincoln embraced that anxiety about saving and losing "the last best hope of earth." Two hundred and thirty-four years after we threw off the rule of a British king and established the world's first successful, large-scale republic, democracy would seem to have become the default position of human governance. Of the 190 or so nation-states in the world today, Freedom House counts 116 as having electoral democracies, while dozens of unfree nations flatter democracy by having pretended to adopt it.
Democracy was in deep trouble
But Lincoln was speaking at a very different time. The 1789 French Revolution, which began so confidently on the model of the 1776 American Revolution, corkscrewed downward into terror and dictatorship. Democratic revolutions across Europe in 1848 were all ruthlessly suppressed.
Everywhere, democracy was being dismissed as an unstable sham that brought only misery and chaos. And when Americans protested that their democracy proved otherwise, cynical European aristocrats reminded them that the American democracy's prosperity rested on the backs of millions of slaves.
When Lincoln looked around him in that bleak winter of 1862-63, the United States really did seem to be the "last best hope" of democracy on earth. But it was a hope whose light might go out forever if the Civil War could not be won and the slaves could not be freed.
It did not, of course, turn out that way. If the Civil War was democracy's final exam – testing, as Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, "whether this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure" – we passed.