How well do we know our American history? More importantly, how well do we realize what a truly exceptional nation the U.S. is? July, 4, 1776, December 7, 1941, and September 22, 1862 were all big days for the U.S. They helped point the way to the future of American Exceptionalism.
So here's a brief story about what American Exceptionalism means to me.
First, our actions. As a self governing nation of equals, we confront our problems, we make progress, and we remedy what's wrong. Yet each time we solve a big problem, another one invariably crops up in need of a solution.
Some of our problems are bigger than others, of course, and the solutions to existing problems always lead us directly to new problems in need of solutions. That's what progress is all about. Failing forward, if you will.
So what's so special about today? Well, 150 years ago on September 22, 1862 President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and forever altered the course of American history.
How Lincoln Saved the 'Central Idea' of America reminds us why September 22, 1862 was such a special day and what it teaches us about what it means to be an American:
"What the American Revolution began, the Civil War completed. That, at least,
was Abraham Lincoln's view of what was at stake in the Civil War, and especially
what was at stake in the Emancipation Proclamation he issued on Sept. 22,
1862—150 years ago this weekend.
"I consider the central idea pervading this struggle," Lincoln commented to
his secretary, John Hay, in May 1861, "is the necessity that is upon us of
proving that popular government is not an absurdity." In other words, as he told
a special session of Congress on July 4, the American republic was an
"experiment" to see if ordinary people, living as equals before the laws and
without any aristocratic grades or ranks in society, really were capable of
One way of falling over into "absurdity," Lincoln knew, was by breaking up a
republic whenever any sizable minority of its citizens didn't get their way—as
when the Southern states seceded. The other way was when those same people
excluded an entire race from self-government.
Slavery, as Lincoln had said in 1854, was "the one retrograde institution in
America." Whether it comes "from the mouth of a king" or the mouth of an
American slaveholder, he added in his last debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858,
"it is the same tyrannical principle." For more than a year of civil war,
Lincoln struggled to treat those two paths to absurdity as separate problems.
Why? In the first place, white unionists might participate in a war to
prevent the republic from being torn apart—but most of them were as palsied by
assumptions about racial supremacy as their Confederate counterparts.
There was another problem. Lincoln had ample authority to put down an
insurrection. But slavery was a matter of individual state enactments and
statutes. Lincoln said repeatedly, including in his first inaugural address,
that under the Constitution he had no authority "directly or indirectly, to
interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists."
With these problems in mind, Lincoln might have been excused for turning his
attention entirely to restoring the Union. And in any case, as the federal
armies advanced ever-deeper into Confederate territory, slaves ran away from
their masters by the thousands, holding out the hope that slavery would, so to
speak, disappear on its own two legs.
But by midsummer of 1862, Lincoln realized there would be no such easy
outcome. For as many slaves who ran away, many thousands more were being used as
manual laborers, teamsters and camp followers to help the Confederate war
effort. They might tip the military balance in the Confederacy's favor. . . .
On July 22, 1862, he presented his cabinet with a draft Emancipation
Proclamation, predicated on his war powers and freeing all slaves in
Confederate-held territory. His cabinet gave him unanimous approval, but
Secretary of State William Seward raised this caveat: Wait until a Union army
won some clear-cut victory, so that the proclamation would appear as a gesture
of strength rather than desperation. Lincoln waited. . . . the victory Lincoln needed was provided by George McClellan, at
Antietam, Md., on Sept. 17. Once the results of the battle were clear, Lincoln
formally issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, warning the
Confederate States to submit to Union forces by Jan. 1 or else emancipation
would become operative. . . . on New Year's Day, 1863, Lincoln signed the proclamation into law. . . .
Lincoln also was anxious about possible court challenges to this exercise of
presidential war powers. . . . he was not content until he had achieved what he called
the "king's cure for the evil" through the 13th Amendment.
Lincoln . . . said
early in 1865 that the Emancipation Proclamation "is the central act of my
administration, and the great event of the 19th century." Certainly there has
been no presidential document before or since with quite its impact.
As Wesyelan University's Richard Slotkin points out in his new book, "The
Long Road to Antietam," the proclamation wiped out $3.5 billion of "investment"
in slaves, at a time when the entire wealth of the nation amounted to only $16
billion. But Lincoln saw the proclamation's largest importance in the way it
pulled down America's "one retrograde institution" and made it clear that
equality, law and freedom were not some charade.
"In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free," Lincoln said
in his second State of the Union message. It makes Americans "honorable alike in
what we give, and what we preserve." And it has ever since.
Do we have big problems in America today? Yes, we do.
Was the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1941 a big problem for the "Greatest Generation" to overcome? Yes, it was.
How about the Declaration of Independence, the fighting of the Revolutionary War and the writing of our Constitution? Were those big deals representing big problems in need of big solutions? Of course, they were.
And the Emancipation Proclamation was an enormous statement about how we make mistakes, thereafter correct them and move forward as a nation of free and equal people.
That's my take. That's American Exceptionalism.
Do we have big problems? You bet. Will we solve them? You bet.
That's what free Americans have always done in our self governing society of equals.