Based on Lincoln's Address at the New Jersey Senate, does he seem to indicate a form of American exceptionalism?Harvard historian Stephen Prothero notes that, for the American religious story,...
Based on Lincoln's Address at the New Jersey Senate, does he seem to indicate a form of American exceptionalism?
Harvard historian Stephen Prothero notes that, for the American religious story, Lincoln reaffirms the nation’s sense of chosenness. Did Lincoln’s thoughts reflect American exceptionalism?
The speech that Lincoln gives to the New Jersey Senate that features the lines in question is a complex one. I think that Lincoln does refer to the "uniqueness" of America. In his speech, he brings out several ideas that reflect this. The narrative of America's fight against the British and the "Hessians" is one part of this. At the same time, he suggests that the singularity of vision, shared by the American Revolution's moments in New Jersey is also a part of this. Finally, Lincoln suggests that in the Presidential Election of 1860, the legislature in the state of New Jersey "did not think I [Lincoln] was the man" in terms of its choice for President, helping to reflect the ambivalence of many in Lincoln's election. Yet, Lincoln also points to how the legislature still honors him as the Constitutionally elected President. I think that all of these feed Lincoln's argument that America does possess a sense of uniqueness. Yet, I believe that Lincoln's uniqueness argument is not to be confused with a type of exceptionalism that suggest superiority. If anything, I think that Lincoln uses the concept of uniqueness like Alexis de Tocqueville did, to reflect difference and not necessarily a mandate for superiority. The language of hesitancy and ambivalence that Lincoln uses throughout the speech helps to convey this. Lincoln is at home in the use of terms such as "tendered," "time being," "gracefully," and, of course, "humble instrument." There is a sense of "chosenness" in so far as uniqueness in what America is, in my read of Lincoln's speech. I am not entirely certain there is the clear, strident, and defiance that enables a sense of exceptionalism in terms of superiority to take hold. I don't think that Lincoln's language as well as his election, fragmented at best, reflects such a strong mandate for change as to embrace exceptionalism. I think that Lincoln was shrewd enough to understand that he lacked the full throated political capital to assert such an idea and was more at home in reflecting a sense of uniqueness in the nation that he hoped could spark change and action, as opposed to a sense of exceptionalism in accordance to superiority.