The Last Best Hope Episode transcript


The Last Best Hope? Understanding America from the Outside In
The Last Best Hope Episode
Series 1 (Trinity term 2020)
Published 21 June 2020

NB the text below was transcribed automatically by

Adam Smith  00:11
Hello, and welcome to The Last Best Hope?, a podcast from the RAI, Oxford's Institute for Research on the United States and its place in the world. I'm Adam Smith. In this episode, I'm going to explore where that phrase "the last best hope" – which we always use with a question mark at the end – where that phrase comes from.

Barack Obama  00:32
In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free. That's what President Lincoln once wrote. Honourable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall normally save or mainly lose the last best hope of Earth,

Adam Smith  01:04
President Obama, in a speech in 2015, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the passing of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution, which finally and forever abolished slavery. Obama was quoting the final paragraph of Abraham Lincoln's message to Congress in December 1862. It was a critical moment in the Civil War, the South was militarily still very strong. The Emancipation Proclamation, declaring free the enslaved people in rebel held areas had not yet, but was about, to go into effect. Although tens of thousands of black people had already escaped slavery, and were refugees behind Union lines. If, in the end, the Union was saved, and the Confederacy destroyed, slavery might -– might – be destroyed with it. "Fellow citizens," Lincoln wrote, "we cannot escape history. We have this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honour or dishonour, to the latest generation, in giving Freedom to the slave...”

Barack Obama  02:27
...we assure we assure freedom to the free, honourable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall normally save or mainly lose the last best hope of Earth.

Adam Smith  02:45
The last best hope. Well, there's a question mark in the title of this podcast. Is the United States now or has it ever been the last best hope of Earth? Abraham Lincoln thought it was, even if his country had often been unworthy of the hope invested in it. It is a phrase which describes a core component in the mythology of what many 19th century Europeans as well as Americans thought of as the great republic of North America, the great republic of the West that the United States has, or at least had a universal perhaps Providential mission, that what happens in America matters, not just for Americans, but for what Lincoln, on a different occasion, called the whole family of man. So how and why did Lincoln come to view America in that way? Well, joining me now to discuss that question is Professor Rachel Sheldon, the director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Centre at Pennsylvania State University. Rachel, thank you so much for joining me.

Rachel Shelden  03:57
Thank you for having me, Adam.

Adam Smith  03:59
So let's just start by thinking about where Lincoln came from. Tell us a little bit about his upbringing, his family background, and how that might have helped to shape his view of America.

Rachel Shelden  04:14
So Lincoln was born in Kentucky; at a pretty young age, he moved to Indiana and later on to Illinois. So he grew up in sort of the western part of the United States at this point, what some people call the frontier. And this gave him a particularly sort of outside the main commercial areas of the of the country vision of what the country is. So he was in in areas where he would have been touched more by Native American tribes that are in the region, and he would have been in an area where the population density was smaller, but this kind of frontier style experience really gave him a sense that there was a mission of the United States to move westward and to live in this territory that was sort of destined for the American people.

Adam Smith  05:13
So he was, as it were on the edge of white European settlement of the North American continent, and he was born in 1809. So that's just a short generation away from the revolution. How would that have affected his sense of the country that he was growing up in?

Rachel Shelden  05:31
Yeah, so the founders by the time that Lincoln is a kid really have become the most popular conversation starter. He, as a very small child or a small young man read Parson Weem's Life of Washington, which was a very popular book about Washington's life that full of apocryphal stories including the cherry tree story: "I cannot tell a lie." I think he was very taken with this. And he also read a history of the United States that was published in 1820, which is really some short amount of history, but was really about how wonderful the Founders were and how important they were in creating this new nation. He wasn't very well educated. And so this sort of served as his baseline for understanding the country around him. And thinking about what it what it meant.

Adam Smith  06:27
So the Revolution created the United States as an independent country. But of course, there was also this idea, I think, is was must have been pretty important to Lincoln and other people growing up around him, that this wasn't just as it were just another country. This was a really special place that the founders were not didn't just happen to be the people who'd made America they'd made a country which in the, in the words of the Declaration of Independence was dedicated to particular ideals of equality. So how how did was that involved in Parson Weem's biography of Washington and the History of the United States that you're talking about. Was that all in there?

Rachel Shelden  07:06
Yeah, so I think the three Founders that he thinks most strongly about are Washington, Jefferson and Madison, often the ones we call up, Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence, just as you suggest, the Declaration of Independence was probably the most important document to Lincoln, at this point, even more than the Constitution, as a child, and then throughout his life, really. And then Madison as the father of the Constitution, and Washington as the father of the country. And the idea is all of these great ideals that these men put forward in these documents and in leading the country was really about the liberty of the human being. And this was the first time in all of world history from what Lincoln understood that this experiment in liberty was really put forward and that it would be An example for the rest of the world that it would be something that other countries would want to emulate. And in the founding generation, it was really an experiment. And it was up to Lincoln's generation to keep that experiment going. And to move it forward. Lincoln believed that it was an unfinished experiment, as of yet unfinished experiment, and needed to continue developing and becoming what it could be. And that's part of his vision for the future and and why he becomes so involved in politics and law. In thinking about how the United States could be what it was meant to be by the Founders.

Adam Smith  08:38
He conceived then of his generations responsibility as one of preservation, but also of unfolding, a project that had already been set in motion by the founding generation, so not to do anything new but to simply hold to the course and pursue that direction of travel.

Rachel Shelden  09:00
Right. So his vision is to and particularly through politics, to try to put forward the goals of the founders that they were not able to implement in their generation. They were really concerned with the experiment itself, whether they could keep the nation going, whether such an experiment could work in the first place. And it was Lincoln's generation then to it was up to them to move things forward to try to make the nation be what it could be.

Adam Smith  09:29
I'm sure, it will be in people's minds listening to this that okay, Lincoln's growing up in the 1820s and 30s. He loves Jefferson. He loves these resounding phrases about all men being created equal. But at the time when Lincoln's growing up, the enslavement of African Americans is not just a existing fact about the United States. It's expanding rapidly is becoming an ever more important part of the American economy and it's possibly, many people think, is driving economic growth more than any other factor. What is a big subject racial book? How did Lincoln reconcile those two things at that early stage in his career, the promise of equality and the reality of enslavement?

Rachel Shelden  10:19
Yeah, I think Lincoln was naturally anti slavery. He opposed slavery, at least in the abstract. I don't think he had a lot of concrete ideas about what that meant going forward. He would later develop them when he became president. And but he's similar to others of his generation who see slavery as a problem that needs to be fixed in some way and believing that the Founders also saw slavery as a problem. So he refers often to Jefferson's visions of an anti slavery society and thinks a lot about colonisation. The idea of removing the African American population to other areas of the world so as to produce more of a white nation without using...

Adam Smith  11:07
...which was a way of sort of wishing away the problem and away and if you're a white man growing up in 19th century America to support colonisation to Liberia or to somewhere in the Caribbean and Central America, wherever is just simply to say, I wish this didn't exist, isn't it? It's not it's not really I mean, it, the were projects to do that, but the notion that you could really remove a whole population was a kind of fantasy projection, but it's speaking to a desire to live in a nation in which there isn't the the it's a recognition that slavery is a problem. And so it's speaking to a desire to live in a nation in which it isn't a problem.

Rachel Shelden  11:43
Yeah, and and I think it's, it's very similar to other people of his generation who just didn't want to deal with it. It wasn't something that they wanted to face. They didn't want to have to think about a biracial society. They Lincoln himself did not believe in rights for African Americans. He was certainly someone who is not thinking about that as the primary problem of American society. Liberty to him was about liberty for white men. And that was very common in the colonisation society among whites is much more popular than almost any other kind of anti slavery activism. So Lincoln is right in line with the rest of his generation. And, and this continues throughout his life. He's still promoting colonisation all the way up pretty much through the war, and is really concerned about the idea of a biracial society uncomfortable with it, almost until the end of his life.

Adam Smith  12:34
So in the middle of the 19th century, then I mean, to oversimplify a complicated situation, you've got at least two big ways of viewing the American Revolution, let's say on the one hand, you got Lincoln's way, which is to say that the legacy of the American Revolution is the promise of equality. And that means that the country definitely should not in the long run, at least, tolerate enslavement of human beings. Whether or not That means it's a biracial democracy is a is a different question. But it definitely shouldn't tolerate slavery. On the other hand, you've got a vision of the meaning of the revolution, as espoused by white Southerners who lead the Confederacy after 1861 who think that the revolution and that language of equality in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, it's only applied to white people. And therefore, what they're doing in 1861 is fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence by creating a country which formalises and celebrates and acknowledges the subjection of African Americans in in the name of almost to enable white liberty.

Rachel Shelden  13:48
I would almost say that they have similar goals. I mean, the idea is liberty for whites and part of Lincoln's discomfort with slavery is about how it affects liberty for whites. And that's part of the reason why he's so interested in colonisation is that he wants to he wants a white nation. That is that's part of his idea, all the way up almost through the entire Civil War. And he has his mind changed about black rights by the by the end. But I think it's it's two different visions of a white society that they are that they are each trying to promote it one with slavery and one without,

Adam Smith  14:30
Yeah, that's a really, really good formulation. And that the problem of slavery for Lincoln and people who thought like Lincoln them was not just or even necessarily primarily because of the experience of enslavement for black people, but because of the way in which trying to maintain a slave society infringed the freedoms of white people. So as you say, two different visions of freedom, in one of which slavery was was necessary. The Confederate vision slavery was essential in order to preserve white liberty. In Lincoln's view, slavery was an obstacle to maintaining white liberty.

Rachel Shelden  15:09
I thought this was a this was pretty well understood by abolitionists as well and including Frederick Douglass in his in his famous speech, Fourth of July addressed that he delivers on July 5, so he

Adam Smith  15:24
That's the one where he says "What to the slave is the fourth of July?"

Rachel Shelden  15:28
"What to the slave is the fourth of July?". He says that, that slavery corrupts the white experience. He talks about it in a variety of different ways he talks about it corrupts their religion, it corrupts their politics, it corrupts their morals, and, and so he's very aware of it. I think this is it's a standard line among abolitionists and and many in Lincoln's orbit who are promoting the ideas of anti slavery. The question is just when will slavery disappear and Lincoln is not so interested in solutions to that initially. Finally, when he joins the Republican Party, after being awake for most of his life, once the Whig Party dies out, I think he becomes more committed to the idea of doing something specific by limiting territorial expansion. But even then, that is a long term idea. It is not an immediate solution. He believes the Constitution bars him from doing anything to deal with slavery in the in the states in which it already exists. And this, again, is about his relationship to the Founders, how he thinks about this as a compromise that was made in the constitution that needs to be moved forward and adjusted as future generations deal with him.

Adam Smith  16:53
Rachel, let's zoom in on the immediate context in which Lincoln wrote these words. He called America the last best hope of Earth. Can you talk us through the context? We're in December 1862.

Rachel Shelden  17:09
Yeah, this is a really important moment in the, in the midst of the Civil War. So the Union Army had not actually been faring very well in recent months, the summer and the Peninsula campaign had been quite a disaster for the Union Army in the eastern theatre. And they had sort of a half victory at Antietam on September 17 1862, which was the single bloodiest day of the Civil War. 23,000 dead are injured. And and so there's there's a lot of concern about whether the union will actually win the war. Politically, things are very uncomfortable. The midterm elections of 1862 turn out very badly for the republicans. They lose, I think, 27 seats in the House of Representatives. And then of course in September,  after the sort of half victory at Antietam, Lincoln issues the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation which had been formulating over the summer, which gave this sort of deadline of January 1 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation would actually be enforced, and and actually introduces the idea that enslaved people in the Confederate States will become free and will have the opportunity to participate in the Union to to work for the union to fight for the union, although that is still up in the air some at this point. So this is sort of the political context and then Lincoln is giving this message to Congress in December 1862. He's he's delivering it as a as sheets of paper not actually, as an address like our current State of the Union. This is a Message to Congress that sort of summarises his many views of how things are going there is a very long message. There's a lot about foreign relationships and commerce. But a big thing that he's doing in this message is trying to prepare Congress and the states more generally for emancipation, and thinking about solutions for making emancipation easier, and for making it more possible for white Southerners to, to get on board. One other piece of context that I think is important is that Congress had just passed several important pieces of legislation that maybe we don't think about necessarily as related to slavery and to the white nation, but I think are important, the Homestead Act, which allowed whites to purchase land up on the other side of the Mississippi River, the Morrell Land Grant Act  which gave land for education, and took that land from Native Americans just as the Homestead Act did, and the Pacific Railroad Act, which creates a transcontinental railroad from one side of the United States to the other. And all of this is dispossessing native peoples, so that there can be a white nation and have more opportunity for white men. And so thinking about justifying this emancipation, in whatever form is really about that continued vision of liberty for white men of economic opportunity for white men.

Adam Smith  20:29
Which is why in the final paragraph to this Message to Congress, he says, he writes in giving freedom to the slave, referring to the forthcoming Emancipation Proclamation, we assure freedom to the free in giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free, honourable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. That's the sentence which proceeds the line we shall nobly save, or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. So that's your point, isn't it, really – that the two things are coupled: emancipation is a means of assuring freedom to the already free, to white Americans.

Rachel Shelden  21:10
That's right. I think it's sometimes it's hard to understand, because it sounds so silly to be able to say white Americans were concerned about their own freedoms, and they talked about themselves as being enslaved to ideological visions of slaveholders that this is the main concern about white Southerners is that they are a slave power that our country that is controlling the United States and so there's a concern about white freedom, about white ability to pursue their political and ideological goals and to to pursue freedom. And so those things have always been intertwined. And they continue to be in in the Civil War and throughout Lincoln's rhetoric. I think what's amazing to me about this speech Is that the last two paragraphs which this is? Excuse me, it's not a speech it's a message. The last few paragraphs which he does not say out loud are just full of these little choice quote -- I mean like it has so many of them -- but you know the the second to last paragraph includes the title of your most recent book. The last paragraph, the last best hope and again, this freedom for the free the fiery trial

Adam Smith  22:30
we cannot escape history...

Rachel Shelden  22:31
Yes all of these all of these important phrases and they're really there in this message, I think in part because none of them are controversial. They all appeal to the American ideal of freedom for white men and and what that means for the world the idea that a nation, democracy can exist, place where people can be in control of their own political and ideological future. And so the last best hope for Lincoln is really the least controversial thing he says in this Message, and the least controversial thing he says maybe at all in the war.

Adam Smith  23:16
But it's so helpful, though, because it explains something that I think a lot of people in this study the Civil War, perhaps, especially people outside of the United States think is, is why did why did Northerners want to go to war? Over secession? I mean, if Quebec had voted to secede, Canada wouldn't have gone to war to keep itself together. If and when Scotland votes for independence, I'm certainly not going to go out to volunteer to fight against Scottish independence fighters, and I don't think many other people will. There are plenty of other examples in history of seccessions that haven't provoked war, although many others that have, so what was this passion? I mean if there's one thing that Lincoln was really passionate about whatever whether or not he was passionate about ending slavery, he was definitely passionate about maintaining the Union. And everything you've been saying kind of explains why that was. He genuinely believed - and what you're saying is that so did everybody else in the in the North at the same time -- that if the union broke up, if the Confederacy was allowed to succeed, then that would be the end for free government everywhere, in the whole world forever. I mean, that's an amazing thing to believe! But it is profoundly what they thought, isn't it?

Rachel Shelden  24:39
It is. Yeah. And and Lincoln was convinced that, that this would be the end everywhere, just as you say, that this wouldn't just be the failure in the United States that this would be forever what would happen to democracy, and he was he was very focused on this and he explains it in almost every speech and message that he gives in This 1862 message he talks for a while about what will happen if, if secession is allowed to happen here, it will happen all over. And it will, it will happen in other parts of the of the country of the remaining country, and it will never stop. And that, and the, the idea that the majority can rule, the idea that the people can roll will no longer be possible that anytime anyone wanted to leave the union that that would happen, because there was no way to enforce it. And so, his belief was that this was going to be the end everywhere.

Adam Smith  25:37
I want to move on finally to talking about the legacy of all of this. How do you think Lincoln's view of America as the last best type of earth as this universal nation offering this universal promise of equality and free government, how has that vision influenced our memory of the Civil War, how has it survived? How has it fared in the last century and a half?

Rachel Shelden  26:05
I think it's most often used to justify American behaviour all over the world, which is very, an uncomfortable way to think about Lincoln's legacy. Certainly, Lincoln is quoted all the time to justify all kinds of behaviour on behalf of the United States. I think often, his words are out of context, on that, on that level, I also think it's created a generation of people who are uncomfortable with Lincoln, who are uncomfortable with the idea of the last best hope. And certainly in our current political moment, and with the leadership that we have now, there's a sense that we are in no way the last best hope. And Lincoln's really, sort of ambivalent behaviour towards African Americans, has also been And sort of the subject of why Lincoln is, is we're more sceptical of Lincoln if we are sceptical of the way that the United States is behaving, and I think rightly in many ways, but I think we can use Lincoln better. People who are in favour of understanding the possibilities of freedom, the possibilities of equality, could use Lincoln's view that we are constantly trying to fulfil the ideals of the founders could be useful to us. Good and bad.

Adam Smith  27:36
You seem to be suggesting, and I think this is so interesting, that even though Lincoln used this phrase, "the last best type of earth", he wasn't doing it in a triumphalist way. He always retained a sense of personal humility but also a sense of humility in relation to the political project that he was part of So what you're saying is that his words have been used in a triumphalist way to say, USA, USA we're the last best hope. That wasn't at all the sense in which Lincoln meant them.

Rachel Shelden  28:15
Yeah, he meant it. He meant it more in the possibility of the United States what the US could be. If future generations were able to keep it, we're able to move forward to fulfil the vision of the founders, even if it wasn't really what the vision of the founders was. It's it's the possibility in the words the possibility in the words of the Declaration of Independence, the possibility in the Constitution and the possibility of what the United States could be. And he had a lot of humility in the in the 1862 message Congress that he that he delivers this these words in the last best hope he's he's got enormous humility. He's speaking to people who are his senior in politics, he says so in the address, and I know many of you have more experience than I do. And and I offer these as suggestions. He he had a lot of humility. And I think we could we could learn from that, I think, you know, the Civil War is a is a is a tricky subject to be interested in because for so long it's been used as a way to talk about the triumph of the Union and the triumph of America more generally. And and so the the problem of slavery, the problem of African American rights is often put to the side is is not the centre of the story.

Adam Smith  29:38
So, to summarise, the country needs a little bit of Lincoln right now.

Rachel Shelden  29:43
Yeah. Maybe so.

Adam Smith  29:49
Perhaps in this moment, more than than any other moment. Rachel Sheldon, thank you so much for joining me on this podcast. Thank you very much.

Rachel Shelden  29:58
Thank you, Adam.

Adam Smith  30:01
So, the last best hope, a resonant phrase used by Lincoln in 1862. And Lincoln had so many resident phrases that captured an idea so familiar to his audience that he barely had to spell it out that the United States was a special place, but not special because of what it was or for what it had been. But because of what it might one day be. Not every American president since Lincoln to put it mildly, have understood that. But Obama did.

Barack Obama  30:40
To nobly save or mainly lose the last best hope of earth. That is our choice. Today, we affirm hope.Thank you. God bless you. May God bless the United States of America.

Adam Smith  31:10
And you've been listening to the Last Best Hope? podcast from Oxford's RAI. I'm Adam Smith. Goodbye.