American Exceptionalism in History

There is an interesting subthread at the bottom of our conversation of intra-white racism in the Antebellum South. Basically it looks at the importance of preserving "government by the people" during the Civil War. If you read enough of the primary sources from the Civil War, you get acquainted with the notion that the War was, foremost, a fight to preserve democracy--a relatively novel concept in 1865, as well as equality, an even more novel concept.


We get into trouble here because states like Mississippi and Louisiana were effectively apartheid regimes wherein the majority of its population were enslaved, and even large majority could not vote. Adding in gender as component and one could argue that America as a theoretical democracy doesn't really appear until the suffragist triumph, and as an actual democracy until the Voting Rights Act.

Nevertheless, I do think there's something to the idea of government by the people. Lincoln best outlines the stakes after Gettysburg:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

What gets lost in constantly having to point out that the Civil War was, indeed, about slavery is that it also was about the endurance of democracy in America. If a government can be sundered simply because the minority doesn't like the results of an election, can it even call itself a government?

But Lincoln is saying something more than that. He's not just concerned with the fate of government by the people in America, but globally. As he puts it, the War is about making sure that democracy "shall not perish from the earth."

How accurate was that statement in 1865? Is it even correct to say--as I have--that the United States was one of the few places in the West that could boast that ideal? Corkingiron takes some exception arguing that we should include constitutional monarchies:

I think Constitutional monarchies should qualify. Without getting into a broad poli-sci argument about what is and what is not a democracy, I'd argue that any system whereby the populace, through elected representatives, is able to force the Government to respond to their concerns [hence "responsible government"] is democratic. 

By such a standard, nations such as Great Britain, Sweden, and one could even argue Prussia deserve to be considered. Their evolution to democracy was not and is not perfect; the franchise was limited, fraud and intimidation rife, and heavy-handed oversight and frustration of the public will by privileged classes was all too common. But the USA deserves to be on that list too, right? 

Perhaps if we titled it "Nations Stumbling Towards Democracy" we'd all be better off.

The United States surely deserves to be on that list. And yet I think fully rejecting monarchy has meaning. It not only says that the titular representative of the people is no longer a matter of a thin blood-line, but it fully rejects the notion of government bestowed by divine authority, in favor of government bestowed by the people.

I am not really wedded to this, but I'd like to get some clarity for my own sake. When we think about the spread of democracy, globally, how should we think about the Civil War? How large is our list of "Nations Stumbling Towards Democracy?" Was Tocqueville really just full of it? Does the rejection of a monarch really have that much meaning? Is Lincoln's Gettysburg Address mostly lofty Americentric rhetoric?

I pose these--and many more--to the assembled Horde.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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