This essay is adapted from an address to the annual Lincoln Day Dinner of the Boulder County, Colorado Republicans, February 8, 2020.

What It Means for America To Be the ‘Last Best Hope of Earth’

Once a great people roamed through the forests and open plains of North America. Those great people were the various tribes of what appropriately can be called the American Indians, the indigenous peoples of what was mistakenly thought to be the Indies. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, those peoples were described as noble savages. They were thought noble because of their hardihood and fierce independence. They were a people infused with an animist confidence in the brute forces of nature. They were not, however, buttressed by confidence in reason and faith in the Providence that ordained reason as the basis for the governance of mankind. As a result, they receded in the face of the arrival of a people from Europe who possessed a combined faith in reason and God.

Over the course of the last two centuries, the indigenous peoples have undergone severe inflictions at the hands of the nation that grew out of the European settlements and at their own hands. During this long travail of alternating gestures of peace and blood-stained conflicts, that new nation has relentlessly moved to incorporate the indigenous peoples in a unified nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. That process of incorporation has not yet been completed. The wars ended, but the growth of a political community has been impeded by hesitations and misconstructions. 

Those misconstructions included the early missteps by too many tribes of allying themselves militarily with the adversaries to the historical force of liberty and self-government. In the Seven Years War, they chose the losing side, suffering, as a result, the loss of independence and a considerable degree of territory.

Then, scarcely a decade later they repeated the same mistake in the American Revolution, attaching themselves to the British military and, in the resulting defeat, losing again territory and independence (eventually being essentially abandoned by their ally in the peace settlement). The result was to leave them powerless in the hands of a new empire rising under the flag of the United States of America.

I remind you of this story in this hour of commemoration of Abraham Lincoln for a specific reason. For, when in December 1862 Lincoln enrolled the United States in the providential mission of preserving the “last best hope of earth” he did so with a vision to cease internecine conflicts in North America for all its peoples. We typically think only of slavery when we reflect on Lincoln’s vision. But it should not be forgotten that his annual message to Congress included necessarily references to continuing Indian wars, and particularly a bloody season in Minnesota that depopulated a substantial region. The preservation of the Union meant not only preventing the extension of slavery but also establishing the prevalence of national authority in a manner that could secure the continent as a unified community. That included resolving conflicts with the Indians in a manner that would at last resolve policies and practices inconsistent with the idea of a unified community.

Freedom as Moral Asylum for Personal Salvation

Lincoln spoke notably not of the last best hope of the United States when he painted an optimistic picture of a growing population (expected to reach 200 million by 1930 from the 31 million present in 1860). He spoke of the “last best hope of earth.” Here is how he concluded that message:

As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

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 shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.

Those words have since fallen trippingly from the lips of other statesmen who imagined, too easily, that Lincoln was describing the people then, and by inference us, as the last best hope. He meant, however, something far more profound than the boasting eloquence of ill-lettered declaimers. He meant to invoke the relationship between man and God, a relationship that has been in play since the fall of man in the garden of Eden.

The new covenant that arrived in the form of Christ was directed toward reclaiming man for the Kingdom. But there could be no reclaiming without reclamation, and the possibility of reclamation lay squarely in the human acceptance of responsibility to redeem the hope held out to them for the last time. The last, best hope, accordingly, recognized the reality that not only our earthly hopes but our heavenly hopes reposed in bearing that responsibility in a credible manner—a manner worthy of the praises of a heavenly choir.

The work that has fallen to our hands is not the ephemeral work of a by-election or new policy innovation. Those things are important. They constitute the ongoing work of citizenship. Yet there is the greater work of redemption that is in play. That is not a work of preaching and conversion, or retail evangelism. Those are valuable and necessary works and all praise to the angels who undertake them. But a larger work surpasses these, and that is the work to preserve, protect and defend the existence of a nation within which the promise of salvation can be made real for all—from the first to the last inhabitant.

The freedom of conscience is the bulwark of self-government. Only a nation that honors the duty to obey God before man can preserve self-government. The last best hope of earth is the nation that realizes that possibility so powerfully that all humankind will benefit from its example. It is not our interventions in the affairs of others that can save them. The realities of international relations and national security impose seasons of prudential judgment concerning interventions, assistance, and even propaganda. But it is the creation of a moral asylum for humanity that offers the greatest benefit to mankind. That has been and remains the providential mission of the United States.

Perhaps no president in our history has faced so grave a crisis as the one that confronted Lincoln.

And what does a moral asylum offer? It rejects mammon as master. It sustains a clear understanding of human nature and the human relations that flow from it. Thus, it affirms that it is not we who have made ourselves—or can make ourselves anything we choose. Rather, we bear the imprint of Divine creation and ordination.

The moral asylum reinforces the claims of those who choose to walk in the light of Divine purpose. A moral asylum makes it possible for men to grow from birth to death secure in the understanding that our paths have been directed and are not open-ended. We cannot invent genders, disfigure ourselves, rearrange prescribed relationships or mandate beliefs of our own manufacture without violence to the fundamental order of soul that enables man to yield to the will of God.

Our ability and right to consent to mutual political and social relations among ourselves derives from our duty to obey God and not the reverse. God’s sovereign authority makes us free from man’s tyrannical pretensions.

Tyrannical Pretensions Threaten Freedom

Freedom from tyrannical pretensions underlies nearly all the political stresses of our day, from the still lingering and inadequate resolution of the status of American Indians to the issue of the sanctity of life to issues of religious and personal liberty. In each of these areas, there is work to be done to secure American citizens from overweening government. 

For the American Indian, we have yet to communicate with clarity that the last best hope of earth is also their last best hope. Although most persons of Indian descent have thoroughly integrated into U.S. society (following the explicit grant of citizenship in 1924), we still maintain specific racial exceptions that foster false notions of independent sovereignty and create the impression that Indians are not included in the promise of the unified community. Arbitrary tribal and reservation decisions about individual status are inconsistent with full participation. And the continuing racializing of children of even remote Indian descent deprives them of the opportunities that ought freely to be available to them.

Similarly, the fracturing of our society through identity politics threatens not only the fundamental unity of society (there are some who reject altogether the concept of unity, stigmatizing as “white privilege” any notion of an American national character), but it also threatens fundamental liberties such as religious freedom. 

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case in Colorado is but one example. There are others bubbling just beneath the surface throughout the country. One that I am aware of has led the owner of a wedding venue, who declines to provide sacralizing ceremonies for same-sex weddings, to liken the situation to that of a Kosher deli being sued for refusing to provide ham sandwiches. While these examples will seem to some understandings not to rise to the level of significance of the Civil War, the War for the Union, I hasten to urge a reconsideration. Whatever undermines both the vision of a unified community and, at the same time, claims of personal conscience are no less significant than the antebellum efforts to force acceptance of slavery upon regions of the country opposed to slavery. As such, they pose just as much of a threat to the true vision of the “last best hope of earth.” 

“The Peacemakers” by George P.A. Healy, from the White House Collection/GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Moreover, the efforts of secession following the election of 1860 are not altogether remote from the efforts of “resistance” following the election of 2016. If anything, the former were more honest, as more open and not abusing offices of trust to overthrow the elected government, as has been done by agents in the intelligence community and co-conspirators throughout the government. In that sense, the threat today is more grave because it is more insidious.

Where secession threatened to dissever the unified community geographically, morally, and politically, #TheResistance threatens to fracture it into conflicting identity groups of infinite variety which it can then dominate politically throughout a unified geography without a unified community. That is a greater danger than the danger of 1860, for it would disable the entire nation for the work of preserving the last best hope, the moral asylum for mankind. 

Lincoln confronted the first threat with a two-fold initiative to defeat the threat militarily while preserving the fundamental purpose eventually to restore the disaffected portion of the nation to full membership in the unified community in friendship with all other members. The latter work remains incomplete 150 years later, which is what has provided the latter-day disaffected (who disdain the idea of America as a providential blessing) with the opening to try once again to break apart the Union. As a consequence, we have inherited the task of defeating the new secessionists—not militarily but politically—and to do so in a manner so compelling as to revive the commitment to the beloved community, the unified community, in which all (including the disaffected) participate alike in freedom from the secular coercions of illegitimate political authority. 

We undertake that work with due humility, recognizing, for example, that it is more important to preserve a Union that can protect unborn life than it is merely to proclaim our recognition of the sanctity of that life. That is what heightens the value of the political undertakings we must now engage in, omitting no exertion to prevail in the political struggle.

Humility in the Face of Our Duty

What Lincoln provides, therefore, is a lesson in avoiding tyrannical pretensions and preparing every resource to resist them. Lincoln has sometimes been thought to have been political in his frequent expressions of humility regarding the performance of his duties as president. When he insisted that he did only what he had to do preserve the Union—and always abstained from doing what, upon his abstract judgment, seemed right—he was not evading responsibility to free or not to free the slaves. He was rather enunciating the fundamental truth that his overriding responsibility was to assure that such a nation as could end slavery would endure rather than merely to perform a ceremonial act of condemning slavery.  

We see the full force of this in the series of decisions he made that led to the Emancipation Proclamation. He arrived at the judgment of the necessity several months before publicly announcing it, and even then, in September 1862, he only announced that he would do it in the future. Moreover, he explained that he had to do it as a matter of military necessity—that is, to ensure winning the war and saving the Union. He crafted it carefully enough to convey that he doubted that he had any authority under the Constitution to emancipate slaves apart from military necessity. At the same time, he realized that the decision (a mere executive order at the end of the day) would not be secure on its own. Thus, he worked relentlessly to secure a constitutional amendment to end slavery in a legitimate and binding manner.

He expressed his reasoning as follows:

I am naturally antislavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel, and yet I have never understood that the presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand, however, that my oath to preserve the Constitution to the best of my ability imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government—that nation, of which that Constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution? By general law, life and limb must be protected, yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. 

Perhaps no president in our history has faced so grave a crisis as the one that confronted Lincoln. Nevertheless, every president has carried out the duties under the same moral necessity that Lincoln faced.

Some have done it well; others have done it very poorly. Some have imagined that they had no power to effectuate substantial change; others have imagined that they had all power to govern in accord with their own abstract vision of what would be good for society. In these distinctions, we observe the challenge of evaluating presidential performance. And to that end, we can have no better guide than to demand the humility of Lincoln coupled with Lincoln’s secure understanding and articulation of the true foundations of our political life.

He concluded the letter to Hodge with a profession of that humility:

I add a word which was not in the verbal conversation. In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years’ struggle, the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man, devised or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North, as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.

The political party that Lincoln led has always borne the special burden of trying to live up to his example. It has sometimes wavered in the face of the pressure of public opinion or the temptation of political opportunity. It is a safeguard against such distractions to recall that the fundamental task is not so much to imitate the actions of the party’s founder, as to imitate his acceptance of the weighty responsibility to preserve the last best hope of earth. Unless we stand up, America cannot stand out.

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About William B. Allen

W. B. Allen is Emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy at Michigan State University and a pastor at First Baptist Church in Havre de Grace, Maryland.

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