The last, best hope of Earth

From The New York Times Archives. A Political Science Study in American Democracy

Representing their districts, these three Congresswomen: Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaiba also represent the future of America in ways Lincoln could not imagine, yet hoped would arise and support.

“On Dec. 1, 1862, Abraham Lincoln submitted his second Annual Message to Congress, in fulfillment of his duties, as spelled out in Article II, section 3 of the Constitution. (“He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”) From that line comes the modern phrase “State of the Union,” to describe a ritual now performed, more publicly, in January. At the time, the message was a written effort, though it was read aloud by the secretary of the Senate.

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” – Abe Lincoln

“The 1862 message was, like Lincoln’s message a year earlier, a long laundry list of government initiatives. As the chief executive, Lincoln needed to report on the vast business of the United States to his stakeholders, the American people, as represented by Congress. This he did meticulously, and many long stretches of the message go into mind-numbing detail about income and expenditures.

“But typically, Lincoln added a new value to the exercise that was nowhere spelled out by the Constitution. (Sharp lawyer that he was, Lincoln would have pointed out that it was not prohibited, either.) An Annual Message was, to Lincoln’s thinking, a chance to prosecute the war in one of its most important theaters — the battleground of public opinion. Once again, he rose to the occasion.

Can we do better?” It is only in asking this question in relation to global warming, as Lincoln ask in relation to slavery will America be able to free itself from fossil fuels. “We must disenthrall ourselves,” Lincoln stated, free ourselves from the past.

The 1862 message is not often grouped with the great Lincoln speeches — it is too bulky to reach the higher altitudes, a cargo plane rather than a glider. But this often-overlooked piece of statecraft contains flickers of the literary genius that would reach sublime heights at Gettysburg, seven months later.

“Lincoln began the message as he had a year earlier, with the expression of gratitude for “bounteous harvests,” a theme of political speeches since at least the Old Testament. Intriguingly, he thanked God and also acknowledged his inability to understand exactly what God wanted, a subject Lincoln would return to. “We can but press on,” he reasoned, “guided by the best light He gives us.” He may have been alluding cryptically to the terrifying carnage at Antietam, on Sept. 17, and the dawning realization that the Civil War would kill a great many young Americans. But he was also seeking to understand the higher meaning of it all, as this note from 1862 suggests. That spirit of wonder found its way into even the most prosaic pronouncements.

“The first 90 percent of the 1862 message is about governance, and we should not forgot that in addition to leading a huge war effort, Lincoln was directing the ordinary affairs of the United States — the delivery of mail, the collecting of duties, the management of public lands and the supervision of tens of thousands of government employees to do all this work. In detail, the paragraphs of the message offer a bird’s-eye view of the sweeping landscape of the federal government. Despite being “a nation so unhappily distracted,” the business of governing our enormous country went on uninterrupted, a fact Lincoln surely wanted to emphasize. Here is a quick reader’s digest:

• The message opened with a discussion of foreign affairs, necessarily brief because the war had turned all attention inward. Lincoln announced that the United States had decided to leave “to every nation the exclusive conduct and management of its own affairs.” 

• He continued with reflections on the tangled issue of finding new homes in other countries for the growing number of emancipated slaves (a number about to grow significantly with the Emancipation Proclamation). Lincoln recommended Liberia and Haiti, for their absence of racial prejudice, but the problem was undoubtedly more complicated than his simplistic solution. 

• Lincoln then spent some time on finances, and reported that government expenditures of $570 million were less than government income of $583 million, leaving a surplus of $13 million. (Ah, the good old days.)

• Lincoln continued his checklist, citing other examples of healthy governance — the work going on to build a railroad to the Pacific, efforts to better manage relations with the Indians, the organization of a new Department of Agriculture to help farmers. 

• Then, the first flash of something deeper, as he began to wax about the land itself, and what it meant to Americans, in a language that we might call environmental: “A nation may be said to consist of its territory, its people, and its laws. The territory is the only part which is of certain durability. ‘One generation passeth away and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever.’ It is of the first importance to duly consider and estimate this ever-enduring part.”

• Lincoln carried the thought further, arguing that our homeland possessed no natural internal boundaries, and the idea of dividing this land in half, between two warring sections, was inherently wrong. He added a stirring vision of the great basin of the West as the place where hundreds of millions would ultimately come, in the future, to live and work together. 

• A lengthy section followed in which Lincoln outlined a plan for gradual emancipation, and asked for Constitutional amendments toward that end (a plan that bore little resemblance to the military emancipation he would proclaim in less than a month’s time).

“Then, his business concluded, Lincoln let the sparks fly in the final two paragraphs of the message. Repeatedly, he asked Americans, “Can we do better?” — a question Robert Kennedy liked to ask in 1968. The answer, clearly, was yes. What followed was nearly unique in the long series of annual messages delivered by presidents in the 19th century. Leaving behind the litany of governance he had just recited, he dug deep and asked Americans to prepare for a complete rethinking of the way they went about their lives:

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

“Disenthrall” was a startling word choice for Lincoln, who normally prided himself on the use of short words that conveyed a clear meaning. It meant, quite simply, to remove someone from “thrall,” which was an Old Norse word meaning servitude, not unlike slavery — including the mental servitude of those unwilling to change with the times.

“This was new territory for Lincoln, who had made his mark as a candidate who revered the Founders. Emboldened, Lincoln pushed through to the end. Every sentence bears re-reading.

“Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.”

“He was speaking of emancipation, but also of a larger topic, the ultimate survival of democracy. If, as Richard Hofstadter complained, the Emancipation Proclamation had “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading,” here in the1862 message Lincoln offered a fuller glimpse of what was in his heart. It was a peculiar time to proclaim America’s higher destiny. The war was not going well, his party had suffered serious reverses in the fall of 1862, and he must already have been wondering if “history” would remember him as a one-term disaster who presided over the break-up of the Union. He was not the type to display false exuberance, and in fact, tended to resist the kinds of extravagant claims about American greatness that fall so easily from the lips of politicians. It was not entirely consistent to assert that we cannot escape history, but also that we are required to reinvent ourselves.

“But with “last best hope,” he conveyed just the right mixture of optimism and fear. Thomas Jefferson had cited America as “the world’s best hope” in his first inaugural. Lincoln improved upon that bland phrase. Like Jefferson (as Western as he was Southern), Lincoln believed that America’s ample interior spaces would invite millions of immigrants from around the world. They never stopped coming, even in the worst years of the Civil War, and in huge numbers they enlisted, validating Lincoln’s belief that America, for all her problems, was still worth fighting for.

“This spasm of optimism, in the middle of a long government message, may help to explain why Americans turned to these words again in the darkest days of World War Two. In early 1942, as our underprepared military began to mobilize for the great global effort to defend democracy, the composer Aaron Copland was asked to come up with something inspiring. He responded with his “Lincoln Portrait,” a now-cherished work that begins with the closing thoughts of the 1862 message.

“Last best hope” has now entered the lexicon as a convenient phrase to convey urgency, especially on the right, where it speaks to a sense of peril that will ensue if certain policies are not enshrined (usually involving tax breaks). It can also simply mean a last chance — for example, a desperate three-point shot at the end of a basketball game. One wonders how Lincoln would respond to these creative new interpretations. But that is a mystery as unfathomable as his efforts to discern a divine meaning in the devastation he saw everywhere in the waning days of 1862. 

“In his search for a higher meaning to the conflict, Lincoln was beginning to strive toward Gettysburg, and the new thinking he would call for there. There are hints of the speech to come; in the 1862 message, “the world will not forget …”; at Gettysburg, “the world … can never forget what they did here.” He was also conveying something of his own theological complexity, without revealing all of it. Here, in an unexpected place, Lincoln continued his conversation with an Almighty who may or may not have been listening; and with an American public that will never stop. Indeed, in his call for genuinely new thinking, he gives inspiration to those who care not only about history, but also about the future. God knows, it will bring enormous challenges it to a democracy that often seems overmatched by the simple task of paying for itself.

Sources: Roy P. Basler (ed.), “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln”; Ronald White, “The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through his Words”; Douglas Wilson, “Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words”; conversation with Professor Michael Vorenberg of Brown University.

Ted Widmer

Ted Widmer is assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University.