Lincoln and the Rhetoric of American Exceptionalism

By Codie Eash

Businessman Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president of the United States by declaring, in part, what has become his campaign mantra: “We need…somebody that literally will take this country and make it great again.” Later in his announcement address he added, “It can happen. Our country has tremendous potential. We have tremendous people.”

Likewise, Sen. Bernie Sanders called upon supporters to assist him in his efforts “to revitalize American democracy” and create “a quality of life…that once again makes the United States the leader in the world in the fight for economic and social justice, for environmental sanity and for a world of peace.”

Although these two candidates’ respective personalities, policies, and ideologies differ from one another in multiple ways, the underlying motivations of their campaigns—and of many other current and former candidates’ in the 2016 presidential race—are remarkably similar.

Both Trump and Sanders share a belief in “American exceptionalism”—even if their perceptions of why America has been, is, or will become “exceptional” are exceedingly different.

“Abraham Lincoln raising flag and speaking to crowd from platform,” by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, Detroit Publishing Company, c. 1900-1920 (Library of Congress).

“Abraham Lincoln raising flag and speaking to crowd from platform,” by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, Detroit Publishing Company, c. 1900-1920 (Library of Congress).

Political campaign arguments touting the supremacy of the American nation-state are as old as the republic itself. Although the country has on more than one occasion “undergone an existential crisis,” politicians and private citizens alike ultimately believe “it is a truism that the United States is the world’s best hope for peace and prosperity,” Professor Hilde Eliassen Restad has written.

The severest of all “existential” American crises was the Civil War. As Abraham Lincoln watched the divided country over which he presided “die by suicide”—a phrase he ominously used in 1838—he understood early on the rhetoric needed to assist the nation through the war. In the language he used time and again, Lincoln maintained support for American exceptionalism.

Before his presidency, in October 1854, in speaking out against the newly adopted Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln appealed for assistance in his efforts to “repurify” the “republican robe” which was “soiled, and trailed in the dust.” And rather than asking American citizens solely, he tested “lovers of liberty everywhere” to “join in the great and good work,” thereby saving republicanism so “that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.”

In February 1861, Lincoln took this oratorical argument with him to the presidency. While en route to Washington, at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, he proclaimed that the “sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence…gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but…to the world, for all future time.” It was this “principle,” he said, that “in due time” would lift “the weight…from the shoulders of all men.”

Lincoln continued speaking with this rhetoric of American exceptionalism throughout his presidency, using it to discuss the meaning and eventual outcome of the Civil War, such as in his annual address to Congress in December 1862, and more famously, at Gettysburg in November 1863.

“Abraham Lincoln raising a flag at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, in honor of the admission of Kansas to the Union on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1861,” photographed by Frederick De Bourg Richards (Library of Congress). Lincoln may be seen above the center of the flag, where the field of stars meets the stripes.

“Abraham Lincoln raising a flag at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, in honor of the admission of Kansas to the Union on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1861,” photographed by Frederick De Bourg Richards (Library of Congress). Lincoln may be seen above the center of the flag, where the field of stars meets the stripes.

In the end, Lincoln reasoned, the exceptionalism of the causes—union and emancipation—and the original promise of the nation’s founding fathers exceeded the often horrific costs of the “mighty scourge of [civil] war,” as he said in his Second Inaugural Address. Through his rhetoric, he expressed his belief that such was the price of preserving “the last best, hope of earth” and what he determined was the unique fate of the American experiment.

In 2016, as in the 1860s, the U.S. is politically polarized and socially divided. The issues facing America today, however, pale in comparison to the existential crises of secession and slavery, which confronted Lincoln and all who lived through the mid-19th century. The very survival of the nation is not at stake as it was during the Civil War.

Nonetheless, the legacy of Lincoln’s interpretation of the exceptional potential of the U.S. serves as a lasting reminder of his worldview, and proves that rhetorical strength can serve as one of a president’s greatest assets. Lincoln did not articulate his support for the idea of exceptionalism merely to attract votes, or encourage an overly optimistic view of America, its history, and its role in the world.

Rather, Lincoln proved that effective leadership is not merely measured by the worthiness of a leader’s words, but that wise and decisive action is reinforced by one’s expression of belief in the potential of the nation, its purpose, and its people. Lincoln’s strongly held belief in—and explanation of—American exceptionalism was an effective method used to accompany his bold, far-reaching policies as a war president during the nation’s most dire epoch.

 

Codie Eash is a 2014 graduate of Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communication/journalism. He is currently the Lead Visitor Services Assistant at the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum.