The destination for history

Who was Abraham Lincoln?


Abraham Lincoln qualifies as a historical ‘giant’ not because of the ways his image and the stories about him have drawn so many to him, but quite simply because he was at the centre of events that shaped the modern world.

His election to the presidency of the United States in 1860 was such a provocation to the southern slave-holding states that eleven of them carried out a long-standing threat to break away from the Union, forming a separate, independent Confederacy. It was Lincoln as much as anyone who was willing to use violence in response to the break-up of the United States. William Herndon, who spent the best part of ten years sharing a law office with him, remembered Lincoln, as President-Elect, vowing to ‘make one vast grave yard of the valley of the Mississippi – yes of the whole South, if I must – to maintain, preserve, and defend the Union and Constitution in all their ancient integrity’. Such words were cheap before the first shot had been fired; there followed a four-year civil war that, as is the case with most conflicts, cost far more in blood and treasure than anyone foresaw. At least 670,000 people had been killed by the time General Lee surrendered at Appomattox on Palm Sunday 1865. To Lincoln’s supporters these were sacrifices made on the altar of the nation.

Through his words as well as his actions – for his elegant, unpretentious prose makes him one of the world’s greatest political speechwriters – Lincoln is imagined as having ‘re-founded’ the American nation. If George Washington brought what he called the ‘great experiment’ of the new republic into being, it was Lincoln who defined it and secured its future – and thus laid the foundations for the United States’ twentieth-century dominance. Lincoln’s nationalism has worn well historically because he offered a liberal, antislavery vision of the nation that seems modern. He may appear a slightly comical figure in modern popular culture, with his absurdly tall hat and an arrangement of facial hair that has never since been fashionable, yet he is also a relevant one, for with only a little imagination, Lincoln’s political sensibility appears not so distant from our own. Today, he is claimed by liberals as well as by conservatives, and held up by virtually all as a yardstick against whom the pygmy politicians of the present are measured.

Lincoln’s perceived relevance – his place in the historical imagination of generations of people in the United States and beyond – also owes much to his role in the abolition of slavery. More than 4 million people of African ancestry were emancipated during or immediately after the American Civil War, although their future legal status in the United States remained unclear at the time of Lincoln’s death. The Confederacy had claimed its place alongside the multiple other nationalities emerging in the mid-nineteenth century despite, or even because of, its assertion that a particular race of human beings could be bought and sold like property. This coerced human property was the basis of the South’s economy. How might industrial capitalism have developed differently had the South won? We will never know, but the potential weight of the question indicates why northern victory seemed at the time, and ever since, to have mattered so much. If Lincoln does not necessarily deserve as much credit as he has sometimes received for the abolition of slavery, he certainly played the principal role in binding emancipation into a compelling narrative of the meaning of the war. To a remarkable extent, the dominant interpretation of the Civil War is Lincoln’s. It was he who wanted people to see Union victory as a triumph of modernity (though southern slaveholders were nothing if not modern in their own way – operating as fully fledged capitalists in a global market). It was Lincoln, too, who, above all, wanted people to associate the United States with freedom and to see that its use of force was for the universal benefit of mankind. When we talk about Lincoln, we are reckoning with both the historical man and his legacy.

The Civil War is not just the formative story of American nationhood, nor did it matter only as the most dramatic chapter in the story of emancipation and economic development. It was also a central event in the nineteenth century. It disrupted world trade and polarised politics as far afield as Brazil and Britain. At stake in the conflict seemed to be all the issues that were coursing through the world at this moment of heightened global inter-connectedness: what was a nation? Could democracy replace older forms of authority? What, in practice, did ‘freedom’ mean? Abraham Lincoln was at the centre of it all.
The United States mattered to Europeans in the nineteenth century as a promise (or, to some, a threat) of the possibility of popular government. Many of the leading political thinkers of the time understood the great question of the age as being about the struggle for democratic nationhood – that is, states defined by and responsive to ‘the people’ rather than barons, kings, or emperors. In this dichotomous world, Lincoln came to represent democracy more perfectly than any other figure, not just because of what he said or did, but because of who he was. Narratives of Lincoln’s life were published regularly in Europe as well as America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and at their core was the story of his rise from humble origins to the highest office in the land – from the ‘plough to the presidency’, as one British biographer put it.

What put the seal on the Lincoln legend was his assassination, on Good Friday, 14 April 1865. The President had been in unusually good spirits that day, telling some of his Cabinet members about a dream that he believed augured good fortune. The war was over. General Lee, the Confederate commander, had surrendered and his bedraggled, hungry men appeared only too willing to disband and trek back to their homes. That evening, Lincoln and his wife Mary rode by carriage from the White House to Ford’s Theatre for a performance of a popular British comedy. The Lincolns were late, missing the first few minutes of the play. The action on stage stopped as they appeared in a box to take their seats and the band struck up ‘Hail to the Chief’. Waiting for Lincoln that night was a well-known actor and Confederate sympathiser, John Wilkes Booth. This was Wilkes’ moment on the world stage, with himself as the hero of a melodrama of revenge and catharsis. ‘Sic Semper Tyranis’ (‘Thus, always to tyrants’) some in the audience remembered Booth shouting as he jumped to the stage after shooting the President in the back of the head. Lincoln did not die at once, but he never regained consciousness. He was carried across the road to the ground-floor bedroom of a boarding house, where his life slipped away the following morning.

The news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination reached Europe twelve days later, at the speed of the fastest steamer. From Caen, in Normandy, came a resolution addressed to the American minister in Paris: ‘Tell [your people] … that humanity has never given birth but in sorrow; that to just and holy causes there is need of noble martyrs, and that for the ages, the only true crowns are the crowns of thorns shining over Calvaries!’ This was not the first, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last, comparison of Lincoln with Christ. The words of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’, written three years earlier by the abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, seemed to endow his death with providential meaning: ‘as He died to make us holy, let us die to make men free.’

Extracted from Abraham Lincoln: pocket GIANTS by Adam I.P. Smith

You might also be interested in:

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books