What Lincoln Thought of “America First”

Abraham Lincoln neither spoke nor read any language other than English and would never travel abroad, but he was an internationalist in sentiment, conviction and politics. His internationalism was not a vague or transient feeling, but a firmly rooted belief that was a necessary and logical part of his defense of American democracy. Lincoln believed that the struggles for liberal democracy in Europe and the U.S. were organically linked. He fervently hoped that an emancipated America would serve as an inspiration for Europeans seeking to overthrow authoritarian regimes. Once Lincoln emerged in 1854 to oppose the extension of slavery to western territories and advance the cause for democracy he never faltered in framing it as the vanguard of an international movement.

On May 3, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson assembled the State Department staff to define the Trump Doctrine of “America First” for the ages: “Our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated—those are our values. Those are not our policies.” Though inarticulate and incoherent, his ham-handed statement clearly offered a justification for President Trump’s praise for autocrats and a repudiation of Lincoln’s vision of America leading “the liberal party throughout the world.”

Lincoln was deeply influenced by the crushing of the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, the “Springtime of Nations.” In late 1851 and through early 1852, the most famous revolutionary, Louis Kossuth, from Hungary, toured the U.S. His plea for solidarity was rebuffed in a personal meeting with President Millard Fillmore and he was repelled in the South, but greeted like a prophet of human rights throughout the north and west, invited to address many state legislatures. “The spirit of our age is Democracy,” he proclaimed before the Ohio legislature. “All for the people and all by the people. Nothing about the people, without the people. That is Democracy, and that is the ruling tendency of the spirit of our age.” His words—“for the people…by the people”—echoed Giuseppe Mazzini’s 1833 call for revolution “in the name of the people, for the people, and by the people”—a speech that would have been engraved on his mind—and which also echoed Daniel Webster’s ringing phrases in 1830 for the federal union against states’ rights, a speech that Lincoln had long ago committed to memory. 

Kossuth did not travel as far west as Springfield, Illinois, but Lincoln chaired a committee and wrote resolutions of support: “That the sympathies of this country, and the benefits of its position, should be exerted in favor of the people of every nation struggling to be free…”

In 1854, Lincoln stepped forward to oppose the repeal of the Missouri Compromise that had prohibited slavery across a line of northern latitude. In the speech that launched him on the path that would lead to the presidency, he said of slavery: “I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites…” And he said that compromise on slavery tainted the United States as the leader of “the liberal party throughout the world.” He would repeat his phrase—“I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world”—in his first debate in the Senate race with Stephen A. Douglas on August 21, 1858.

During the decade of the 1850s, Lincoln befriended many German exiled revolutionaries, who would become his indispensable allies in the formation of the new Republican Party. Lincoln’s identification of the “spread of slavery” and “monstrous injustice of slavery” with the struggle for democracy abroad drew the parallels of American slavery with European tyrannies and the antislavery struggle with European revolutions. It was also a direct appeal to the large German community in Illinois, composed of refugees from the suppressed revolutions of 1848.

Defending the American “just influence in the world,” Lincoln raised the perspective of liberal Europe to advance his case to Americans. “Already the liberal party throughout the world, express the apprehension ‘that the one retrograde institution in America, is undermining the principles of progress, and fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw.’ This is not the taunt of enemies, but the warning of friends. Is it quite safe to disregard it—to despise it? Is there no danger to liberty itself, in discarding the earliest practice, and first precept of our ancient faith? In our greedy chase to make profit of the negro, let us beware, lest we ‘cancel and tear to pieces’ even the white man’s charter of freedom.”

In his little law office in Springfield, Lincoln further deepened his cosmopolitan understanding of the issues at stake. He subscribed to newspapers from across the country and journals from London. His line referring to “the liberal party throughout the world” was quoted without attribution from the New York Times, which had reprinted an article from the London Daily News, whose conclusion warned against “the one retrograde institution in America.” Lincoln’s phrase, “cancel and tear to pieces,” was an unacknowledged quotation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a scene in which assassination of the rightful king is plotted. In a letter written in 1855, Lincoln also unfavorably compared the rising nativist movement of the Know Nothings against immigrants to Russia, “where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

As president, Lincoln presented the Civil War as an international event of the greatest magnitude, the cause of the United States as a liberal republic opposed by the same oppressive forces that had crushed the 1848 revolutions, and which sought the defeat of the American experiment in democracy. It was this idea that led Lincoln in 1862 to call the United States “the last best hope of Earth.”

Image: Getty/Adella Warren

 

About the Author(s)

Sidney Blumenthal

Author of "Wrestling With His Angel, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 2, 1849-1856," Former Assistant and Senior Adviser to President Bill Clinton, Former Senior Adviser to Hillary Clinton