‘Lincoln’ and American Exceptionalism


By Theodore Huss

On Wednesday, April 10 at 5:30 p.m., Professor Robert Jewett of Heidelberg University spoke in the Nott Memorial about Spielberg’s Lincoln and the Issue of American Exceptionalism.

Jewett, a New Testament scholar who previously taught at Northwestern University, presented as part of the Wold lecture series arranged by Professor Peter Bedford of the religious studies department.

Many different types of speakers come to campus, but Jewett was able to make a special appeal to most people in the audience since he could communicate his ideas in relation to the spectacular film Lincoln.

Jewett used the movie less as a centerpiece and more as a starting off point, grounding himself with the audience but then quickly moving to other topics that were more important in the role of American Exceptionalism.

The exceptional America that Jewett discussed started with the Constitution.

This miracle, as he called it, helped by God, set up the basis for American democracy, but the Civil War put all of that in jeopardy, because in 1861 the United States was the only democracy in the world according to Jewett.

Jewett argued that when the south seceded from the Union, it was seen as a violation of the constitution. If secession was allowed, then it became a question of who had the most bullets not the most votes.

If a candidate, who was highly disliked by a certain minority, was elected every time and that minority was allowed to secede, the exceptional democracy of the United States would be ruined.

Jewett expressed this in the form of a comparison to the film, because in Spielberg’s Lincoln the focus is on the passage of the 13th Amendment, not the Civil War.

However, even in this film it is shown that although President Abraham Lincoln believed that the 13th Amendment should be passed, his primary objective was to preserve the Union.

He may have stalled a bit, but he knew that by not passing the amendment, as Jewett said while answering an audience question, Lincoln would have fought a war and won, but ignored the root cause. Although preserving the Union was paramount, he would have failed in his penultimate objective of freeing the slaves.

The most important message that Jewett brought to Union on April 10, however, was how American Exceptionalism, as shown by Lincoln in his real life and in Spielberg’s film, should be considered in our current political situation.

Regardless of political affiliation, which Jewett made sure to point out, the current government is in a state of gridlock and that has to change.

Jewett argues that throughout Lincoln’s time as president, he always fought to preserve the Union.

By maintaining the Union he would therefore preserve the freedom that everyone in the country enjoyed, and he found that more important than the freedom itself.

From that, Jewett went on to say that he feels current politicians spend far too much time arguing about how to preserve freedom, and that creates the gridlock that in itself threatens freedom in a much more sinister way than many might think.

Without the ability to compromise, which Jewett argues is partially broken by the filibuster system in the Senate, the government is much less united than it was even under Lincoln.

Freedom for all should be a penultimate imperative for politicians says Jewett, and everyone in Washington should be fighting for the ultimate imperative of union, which is what should define our exceptional government.

Jewett believes union is only achieved when everyone defends our exceptional Constitution.

In closing, Jewett noted that what needs to happen is that the United States needs to look back on the lessons of Lincoln and use those governing ideas to direct our current political discourse back toward a more united country.


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