With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

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.

Read entire article at Just Security