Opinion

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.

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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.

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."

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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.

The irony of this triumph, however, is that the more democracy has succeeded, the less unique that triumph has seemed. For Americans to claim now that their democracy is "the last best hope of earth" sounds inexcusably boastful, as though Americans owned a template that all nations ought to follow.

If anything, in the century and a half since Lincoln's day, American society has often been criticized for lagging behind the other versions of democracy on offer in the world. We have greater extremes of wealth and poverty than any other industrialized democracy. We have greater numbers of prisoners incarcerated in jails and prisons, greater racial inequities, more people without health insurance, more workers unrepresented by unions, more unemployment, a thinner economic safety net, and so on.

Equality of opportunity

All of which is true. True, but irrelevant when we speak of democracy. Lincoln believed profoundly in the importance of hope, but hope for Lincoln was the hope that sprang from the opportunity for self-improvement, not from security from risk. "Pure slavery has no hope," Lincoln wrote in 1859. Slavery, he said in 1858, "extinguished" the soul of the slave by placing "him where the ray of hope is blown out in darkness" and where no prospect of transformation or improvement is possible.

Democracy, however, was what opened hope to everyone. It leveled the playing field, and gave no artificial handicaps to a certain elite few, based on birth or race or religion, or to their retainers and mascots. It was not the security of results, Lincoln insisted, but the equality of economic opportunity that made democracy "right, eternally right" and made the United States the "last best hope of earth."

Not every experiment in democracy has grasped this. Even in the most advanced European democracies, the old habits of noblesse oblige, of social guarantees, of authority and deference to the wiser and better, still persist. And the fact that these relics of the feudal past can manage to sit side-by-side with some aspects of democracy is a temptation to Americans, who pall at the uncertainties and insecurities of American life, to wonder if we really are that "last best hope" any more.

Lincoln, I suspect, would not have agreed. He knew very well that "other means may succeed" in pointing nations toward democracy; but the American experiment in equality of opportunity "could not fail" to get there.

It is a way of doing democracy full of risk, and liable to pain and failures. But its fruits are the achievements of genuinely free men and women. It is "a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless." Lincoln would still call it the "last best hope of earth."

• Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, and the author of "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President."

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