“America is not only America, one place or one race more on the map, it is yet and especially the model school of liberty. If against all possibility it had perished, with it would fall a great experiment.” — Eugene Pelletan
Some readers may feel such unqualified admiration of America was undeserved. the Union, everyone knows, had been painfully slow to embrace emancipation, and America’s deeply ingrained racial prejudice would long outlast slavery. These were only some of the egregious flaws in the nation foreign admirers hailed as the Great Republic.
Yet we miss something vitally important if we view Pelletan and other foreigners who saw America as the vanguard of hope as naive or misguided. Foreign admirers typically regarded the United States not as some exceptional city upon a hill, but as exactly the opposite: an imperfect but viable model of society based on universal principles of natural rights and theories of government that originated in Europe but had thus far failed to succeed there. In the 1860s they were horrified to see government of the people seriously imperiled in the one place it had achieved its most enduring success. Abraham Lincoln was hardly boasting when he referred to America as the “last best hope of earth.” His was a forlorn plea to defend America’s–and the world’s–experiment in popular government. (pp. 10-11)