What's the origin of the phrase "last, best hope for.."?
April 8, 2007 4:23 PM   Subscribe

What is the origin of the phrase, "last, best hope" as used in pretty much every self-consciously significant but ultimately cliched film, book or TV episode I've indulged myself with over the last ten years?
posted by barbelith to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Urban Hermit at 4:31 PM on April 8, 2007

I don't know the answer, and I also don't get the meaning. I get "last hope" and "I get best hope," but what does it mean when the phrases are combined? There were a bunch of "best hopes" but now there's only one left? Once that's gone, will there still be some somewhat-okay hopes?
posted by grumblebee at 4:33 PM on April 8, 2007

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.
-- President Abraham Lincoln, Annual Address to the U.S. Congress, 1 December 1862.

(The "last best hope of earth" is the Union, that is, the United States of America. cf. American Exceptionalism, Transcendentalism and Abolition,"City on a Hill", "New Jerusalem", the Massachusetts Bay Colony, political and religious motives behind the settling of the Americas by the Puritans, Calvinism and Predestination for this meme in context.)
posted by orthogonality at 4:36 PM on April 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

As used as a cliche in movies and cheap novels, it's basically an appeal to American Exceptionalism, a sort of quasi-religious belief that the United States of America is a tool of, or specially destined by, a Judeo-Christian God, to perform His goals on Earth.
posted by orthogonality at 4:46 PM on April 8, 2007

The phrase is recycled and expanded upon ("The last, best hope of man on Earth") in Ronald Reagan's Second Inaugural Address, 21 January 1985.
posted by orthogonality at 4:51 PM on April 8, 2007

[Man, did Ortho nail that one or what?]
posted by LarryC at 5:12 PM on April 8, 2007

grumblebee writes "I don't know the answer, and I also don't get the meaning. I get 'last hope' and 'I get best hope,' but what does it mean when the phrases are combined? There were a bunch of 'best hopes' but now there's only one left? Once that's gone, will there still be some somewhat-okay hopes?"

"the last, [and the] best hope"
posted by orthogonality at 5:26 PM on April 8, 2007

Credit does go to Lincoln, and expansion to Reagan. However, I think the reason you have been noticing it (last, best hope) is that J. Michael Stryzinski co-opted the phrase for the opening dialoge of each episode of his sci-fi series, Babylon 5, in the mid 90s. It was on for 5 seasons.
posted by sandra_s at 6:06 PM on April 8, 2007

B5 only used it for 3 seasons.

Season 3 went something like "Babylon 5 was our last, best hope for peace. It failed." And then you saw starfuries blowing each other up.

Season 4 started with "It was the year of fire, the year of destruction..."

Season 5 had a lame clip-show opening.

G'quan forgive me, I am such a dork.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:55 PM on April 8, 2007 [3 favorites]

Thanks, orthogonality. Duh!

I'm still a little confused as to when a last and best hope would arise. Wouldn't you go for the best hope first? Back when it wasn't the last. Why save the best hope for last? Or if it's always been the last, then it's never been the best. It's always been the only.
posted by grumblebee at 7:03 PM on April 8, 2007

Grumblebee, you're working too hard. Sometimes rhetoric is constructed because it sounds good, even if it doesn't totally make sense.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:28 PM on April 8, 2007

I'm still a little confused as to when a last and best hope would arise. Wouldn't you go for the best hope first? Back when it wasn't the last. Why save the best hope for last? Or if it's always been the last, then it's never been the best. It's always been the only.

suppose you expends all your best hopes in order, and then at the last possible moment, a new discovery creates a hope that is better than all previously expended ones.

another way of looking at it is if you have only one single hope ever. then by definition it is both last and best.
posted by juv3nal at 12:19 AM on April 9, 2007

I think you're both missing the point. A "hope," by definition, is for something out of one's control. It is not synonymous with "option."

Say I crash my light plane on a desert island. I assess my situation and realize there are only a few scenarios that result in me surviving: 1) I build a raft 2) I find food and fresh water on the island and live there forever, 3) I get spotted by a passing ship and rescued before I starve.

All are legitimate hopes, but 3) is clearly the one I'd choose if given a choice. It is the best of the hopes. And after a day or two of building rafts that sink and exploring the barren, waterless island, getting spotted by a passing ship is not only my best hope, it is my last hope.

In other words it's more than an empty rhetorical flourish. A "last best hope" expresses both desperation and idealism. The bad news: things have gotten so bad that there's now only one imaginable scenario in which disaster is avoided. The good news: it's the scenario you would have chosen even before things got so desperate.
posted by gelcap at 2:43 AM on April 9, 2007

I think you're conflating two meanings of "best" in your example there, gelcap. There's best as in your "the one I'd choose if given a choice," but when I think of the phrase "best hope for survival", for instance, I think of best as in "most probable, most likely to come true." Being spotted by a passing ship can be the most likely of the three scenarios, but it is not hard to imagine a situation in which it is not as likely and yet it would still remain the most desirable outcome.
posted by juv3nal at 1:02 PM on April 9, 2007

Yes, juv3nal. I think you're right. "Best hope" is similar (identical?) to "best bet," as in "your best bet for getting an answer to your question is to ask it on AskMe."

You'd never say that to someone if you knew AskMe was the only place in the world to get questions answered, right? "Best bet" or "best hope" implies that there are other bets or hopes, but that they're less likely to get the job done -- at least as efficiently (or as easily) as the best one.

So it doesn't make sense to say last (only) best. One COULD say, "once AskMe was the best place to get questions answered, but now that all the other sites are gone, it's the last (or only) place."

Something can't be last and best at the same time.

I take Steven C. Den Beste's point that it may be hyperbole (give it 110% effort) or "poetic" language. The problem with that explanation is that you can give it for anything you don't understand literally. Maybe it is just nice-sounding rhetoric (nice to someone; not to me). On the other hand, maybe there really IS a meaning and I just don't get it. But I don't think gelcap is quite on target.
posted by grumblebee at 1:17 PM on April 9, 2007

grumblebee writes "On the other hand, maybe there really IS a meaning and I just don't get it. But I don't think gelcap is quite on target."

Ok, grumblebee:

The "hope" is to achieve a polity (a civil society, a nation) in accord with the Will of Divine Providence; that is, a society mundi (of this world) that operates according to the ideal of God or something like God. I'm being deliberately vague on the exact aims, as they have changed over time.

The "last" is temporal: there have been a series of attempts to build res publica in mundum (Latin: "the public thing in the world") which would also be theologically sound, where a devout man could be "in the world" AND "of it", all of which have failed up to now.

In the American Exceptionalist dialog that Lincoln's referencing, which is at least implicitly Protestant and Calvinist, the series is basically this:
* Eden -- which fails due to man's sin;
* Israel (that is, Biblical Israel, not the current nation-state) -- also fails due to sin;
* Jesus -- who redeems the world in blood;
* Christian Rome and what the Protestants would derisively call the "Romish" Church, which fails due to corruption;
* Calvin's theocracy in Geneva;
* possibly Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth;
* Massachusetts Bay Colony and other Puritan/Protestant polities in New England;
* and finally the United States of America, the Union that Lincoln with almost religious zeal wants to preserve.

Of course that the theology warps and changes and becomes less obviously Judeo-Christian, but it doesn't disappear: the New England Transcendentalists at the time of the US Civil War are the literal and theological heirs of the Jonathan Edwardses and Cotton Mathers, through the needle of the Halfway Covenant.

Much "mellower" in most aspects than the Puritan founders, they're running around New England not burning witches but trying to establish utopian communities. But on one issue many of them are as inflexble as their forebears: they see slavery not as a political problem but as SIN. And (not all, but many) see the Civil War as a change to expunge the nation's sin in blood. Just as Jesus redeemed Man with His blood, they'll redeem the promise of America in the blood of slave-owners and abolitionists. Like their forebears, they're not quite expecting teh end of the worls, but they're not perhaps ruling out the end of history. (Cf. "Bloody Kansas" and the terrorism of John Brown). (This analysis is mostly straight from Stanley Elkins's masterful Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, Part 4; any misstatements are mine, as it's been decades since I read it.)

So Lincoln's appealing to this (mostly Protestant but adopted by the Deistic Founding Fathers and then by the Abolitionist Trancendentalists) view that America exists as God's l;atest attempt to make a Heaven on Earth, or at least that America is God's tool to establish Justice on the Earth, or at the very least that America has a special purpose destined by God.

God's tried this many times before, this is His latest (and, implied, if we fail possibly His last) attempt and it's the one with the best chance, because it doesn't depend on man being sinless (the Founding Fathers took care of that with checks and balances) or on corrupt Papists or Nobles (again, the Founders but also the Dissenting settlers of New England) or Predestination Paranoics or the rather silly Halfway Covenant.

We just have to really believe in what we profess, that all men are created equal and shed some blood to reify that, and it'll be a tough slog but we can do it, because we're the new Jews, God's new Chosen people, and God is guiding and has guided America, and so we will erect a Shining City on a Hill, if, Lincoln begs us, we can just hold together this Union.

Anyway, read the Elkins (Part 3 on the creation of "Sambo" is the more controversial part and equally thought-provoking, but tangential to this discussion) and John Winthrop's City upon a Hill, and something about the Puritans (and their English roots), the Halfway Covenant, and the Great Awakening. That'll mostly put this in context.
posted by orthogonality at 4:42 PM on April 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

Thanks for all that, orthogonality. I'm going to have to go through it again, with a dictionary and some other resources, but I'm glad you went to such lengths to explain.
posted by grumblebee at 5:05 PM on April 9, 2007

Yeah, just read through it again, orthagonality. Makes sense and it's great stuff. Thanks.

Let's see if I can get this straight:

-- last, referring to time, means either latest (most recent) or last (no more will follow). So this is either God's latest plan (to bring man close to Him) or his last (if it fails, He won't try again).

-- you didn't expound on "best," but maybe it goes with "hope." So it means not just any hope, but the BEST hope. Which means the best chance of being one with God, being in accord with God or being with God.


I still can't find a way to logically stick my two bullet points together, and I guess that was your original point about rhetoric. Best is an evocative word. So is last. So if you're making a speech, why not use both and be doubly-evocative? (Actually, they're not evocative -- not of a THING -- but for some they may be emotive.)

If I do try to put them together rationally, using your descriptions (assuming I understand them), I get "this is our last chance to get close to God. And it's also our best chance." No. It can't be best if it's last. It can just be "the only chance." For something to be best, there must be something else to compare it to -- something inferior.

Unless last means latest: this is our most recent chance at getting close to God. Other chances may follow if this one fails.
posted by grumblebee at 5:16 PM on April 9, 2007

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