“We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope on earth.”
The words come from Lincoln’s address to Congress delivered on December 1, 1862. Check them out in context, from the final graph of his message:
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We—even we here—hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.
Were all men created equal, as the Founders suggested, or not? Was it possible for a citizenry to govern itself or not?
Those were the questions Lincoln was trying to answer. Those were the stakes.
That’s why it was okay, for instance, for the colonists to break away from Great Britain but it was not okay for the Confederate states to break away from the Union (a “hypocrisy” some Lincoln critics and neo-Confederates sometimes level).
“If Lincoln had failed,” writes Andrew Ferguson in Land of Lincoln, “the country would have ceased to exist. The founders would have lost their bet that ordinary people could govern themselves, and the principle they were betting on—that all men are created equal—would have slipped into darkness, and no one can say when it might have been revived.”