Abraham Lincoln, the United States and the world

His assassination made him a martyr, but what was Lincoln’s true legacy? For Richard Carwardine, the President’s belief that American values can transform the world remains an inspiration…

This article was first published in the February 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine

Lincoln briefs General George 
B McClellan, at Antietam (Getty)

Lincoln briefs General George 
B McClellan, at Antietam – scene 
of the bloodiest single-day battle in American history – 
in 1862. (AFP/Getty)


Political assassinations, however tragic, commonly gild their victims’ historical reputations. We cannot be sure what John F Kennedy would have achieved had he seen out his presidential term. Yet the bullet that killed him in Dallas in November 1963 prompted not just an outpouring of grief but a persisting sense of political greatness cruelly denied. When in April 1865 the actor John Wilkes Booth pulled the trigger to send Abraham Lincoln to a premature grave, he shot a president at his moment of greatest triumph, just days after the ending of the Civil War that had quashed rebellion and begun the final emancipation of the slaves. 

Had he lived to see out his second term, Lincoln would surely have been ground down by the issues of racial and sectional accommodation raised by national reconstruction, with inevitable consequences for his historical standing. Through his death on Good Friday 1865, however, he was canonised as the martyr of the American Union. A contemporary journalist understood exactly what was at work in the aftermath of his shooting: “It has made it impossible to speak the truth of Abraham Lincoln hereafter”.

Lincoln’s death, like Kennedy’s, occasioned a torrent of sorrow not only at home but in the world at large. Messages 
of condolence emanated from national and municipal governments, and – more revealing still – from hundreds of voluntary organisations: churches, working men’s improvement societies, ragged schools, anti-slavery and temperance societies, Masonic lodges, singing groups, gymnastic clubs, and business and trade organisations. The avalanche of tributes revealed how far the entombed Lincoln had become a global figure. His political principles, his wartime leadership, his role as the ‘Great Emancipator’, and his resolute defence of popular government spoke then, and have continued to speak, to peoples across the world. As the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George explained – at the 1920 unveiling of Lincoln’s statue in London – the 16th American president was “one of those giant figures who lose their nationality in death”. 

The world’s embrace of Lincoln and what he represented may be seen as the counterpart of his own broad vistas and grasp of the world beyond the United States.


The nation’s natural bounty

In his inaugural presidential address in 1861 Lincoln called the Union “this favored land”, by implication a nation superior to others. This was not a superiority based on muscle: during Lincoln’s lifetime, the United States remained a debtor nation that steered clear of “entangling alliances” with European powers and – while pursuing its own “continental empire” – had to accept Britain’s dominance of the seas. 

Among the strands in the rope that bound Lincoln so resolutely to the Union was a deep faith in the nation’s natural bounty and physical grandeur. Growing up in Kentucky and Indiana, and arriving as a young man in the infant state of Illinois, Lincoln shared the faith of the emerging Whig party – championing an ambitious, federally-sponsored programme of economic improvement – in the unique natural resources of the undeveloped country and their potential for its modernisation. As he told an audience in Springfield, the Illinois state capital, the American people possessed “the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate”. Lincoln the ‘improver’ watched with pleasure the Union’s galloping economic progress, to which his political career in the 1830s and 1840s had been chiefly devoted, through the promotion of ambitious transport schemes, tariffs to protect domestic manufacturing, and better credit facilities.

More often, however, Lincoln addressed the political purpose of the Union and the moral magnificence of institutions founded on the cornerstones of the Declaration of Independence, with its celebration of human equality, and the Federal Constitution, the guarantor of freedom. These legacies of the American Revolution had bequeathed the country a unique liberty (“far exceeding that of any other of the nations of the earth”), whose distinctive features included government by the consent of the governed, a bill of rights to guarantee religious and civil freedoms, a legal system capped by a Supreme Court (“the most enlightened judicial tribunal in the world”), and a commitment to meritocracy (“to lift artificial weights from all shoulders… to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life”).

In this he evinced his powerful sense of American exceptionalism. “Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of equal rights of men,” he reflected in the mid-1850s. By contrast, “ours began, by affirming those rights. They said, some men are too ignorant, and vicious, to share in government. Possibly so, said we; and, by your system, you would always keep them ignorant, and vicious. We proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant, wiser; and all better, and happier together”. 

To the modern eye, Lincoln’s celebration of the Union as a matchless instrument of liberty and guardian of the principle of equality appears inconsistent – even hypocritical – given the harsh reality of American slave holding. By 1860 four million black slaves were held as property by southern whites. They laboured on cotton, rice and sugar plantations, and in a multitude of other jobs in the agricultural, industrial and urban South. Their owners were mostly free to follow their own self-interest and appetites when it came to trading, disciplining and sexually abusing this unique species of property. 

Slaves grind sugar 
in Georgia before emancipation. (Hulton Archive/Getty)

Lincoln resolved the conflict between the country’s progressive principles and the harsh reality of enslavement through his reading of history: the nation’s fathers had never intended that the “peculiar institution” should be permanent. Though they had seen no way of immediately eliminating it, he argued, the Founders had, however, taken steps to place slavery where “all sensible men understood, it was in the course of ultimate extinction”. Lincoln was not a professed Christian, but he did share some of the optimism of Protestantism. He yoked temperance reform with the political emancipation of 1776 and an aspiration to freedom for the slaves: “And when the victory shall be complete – when there shall be neither a slave nor a drunkard on the earth – how proud the title of that Land, which may truly claim to be the birth-place and the cradle of both those revolutions… How nobly distinguished that People, who shall have… nurtured to maturity, both the political and moral freedom of their species”. 


Devotion to the Union

Ultimately, Lincoln’s vision of the Union drew on a romantic feeling allied to a providential interpretation of the nation’s being the Almighty’s “almost chosen people”. In his peroration to his first inaugural address he appealed to “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land”. It was this romantic attachment to Union, based on far more than the material benefits of nationhood, which the seceded southern states so seriously underestimated. It led Alexander Stephens of Georgia, the Confederate vice-president, to reflect that Lincoln’s devotion to the Union reached the intensity of religious mysticism.

Lincoln’s powerful sense of America’s exceptional place in the world was not based on first-hand experience. As president, he reflected: “It is very strange that I, a boy brought up in the woods, and seeing, as it were, but little of the world, should be drifted into the very apex of this great event”. Until his 19th year, when he took a flatboat to New Orleans, Lincoln knew only of the raw young communities of the upper South and Midwest. Not until he was 38 did he travel east to 
the nation’s capital. Unlike several of his predecessors as president and unlike his two chief rivals for the executive office – Stephen A Douglas and William Henry Seward – Lincoln never ventured abroad. (He planned to do so after his presidency, had he lived.)

Lincoln’s perspective on the world beyond the United States was shaped by the authors he read, the foreign-born visitors and citizens he met, and his more cosmopolitan associates. Above all, Lincoln was an inveterate reader of the newspaper press: this would be his key published source for the analysis 
of contemporary foreign affairs. His reading gave him a keen sense of the United States’s escape from the autocratic forces of the Old World, past and present. The ideological legacy of the Revolution fused with the defining foreign events of his own lifetime to give Lincoln a sharp appreciation of his country’s place in the world. Those events – above all, the independence movements led by Simon Bolivar and his successors within Spain’s New World empire, and the nationalist uprisings 
and movements of democratic protest in Europe in 1848 – were mediated for Lincoln through political friends and acquaintances who knew them at first hand. 

Lincoln boasted no special expertise in respect of the internal affairs of other nations, and they were rarely the theme of his political discourse. He did, however, take a capacious view of the foibles and aspirations of humankind. He was above all alert to the truth revealed by “the history of the world[,]… that men of ambition and talents will… continue to spring up amongst us” and “naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion”. Constitutions could not restrain “an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon”. Lincoln’s conception of universal traits of human psychology and ambition was shaped and endorsed by his reading of the Scriptures and Shakespeare. He learnt by heart the introspective soliloquies of flawed monarchs like Lear and Richard II, and of the usurping rulers Richard III, Macbeth and Claudius. Shakespeare’s exploration of the perversion of power confirmed its ubiquitous threat, whether in the Old World or the New.


Lincoln the internationalist

In this universal struggle between liberty and tyranny, between social progress and lethargy, Lincoln conferred on the United States an international responsibility:

“[A] new country is most favourable… to the immancipation of thought, and the consequent advancement of civilization and the arts. The human family originated… somewhere in Asia, and have worked their way princip[al]ly Westward. Just now, in civilization, and the arts, the people of Asia are entirely behind those of Europe; those of the East of Europe behind those of the West of it; while we, here in America, think we discover, and invent, and improve, faster than any of them... In anciently inhabited countries, the dust of ages – a real downright old-fogyism – seems to... smother the intellects and energies of man.”

Lincoln’s horizons stretched across the 19th-century world. When he spoke (in December 1862) of the Union as the “last, best hope of earth” he was saying that the Civil War constituted something more than an American crisis; that the progressive forces throughout the world looked to the United States as an unequalled exemplar of liberty; that it was the nation’s mission to act as the improver of humankind. 

Lincoln shared the conviction common among his countrymen that the American Union was “the world’s best hope”. He viewed the European nationalist and revolutionary movements of the mid-19th century – above all in Hungary, Ireland, Germany and France – as part of “the general cause 
of Republican liberty”. But his understanding of America’s duty was shaped by Whig precepts, not those of the 
Democratic party, with its imperialist vision and stirring ideas of ‘manifest destiny’. 

Lincoln’s funeral procession moves through the streets of New York, 1865. His assassination was met with an outpouring of grief that united disparate elements of society. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Lincoln gave his nation the task of moral example. The nationalist aspirations of other countries did not justify American intervention. As one of the drafters in 1852 of Resolutions on Behalf of Hungarian Freedom, Lincoln deemed Lajos Kossuth’s cause an embodiment of American principles: it was “the right of any people, sufficiently numerous for national independence, to throw off, to revolutionize, their existing form of government, and to establish such other in its stead as they may choose”. It was, however, “the duty of our government to neither foment, nor assist, such revolutions in other governments”. “Non-intervention” was “a sacred principle of the international law”, to be breached only to counter unwarrantable foreign interference by those aiming to crush the cause of liberty. These were the cautious views of a man who as a US congressman had recently condemned the Mexican-American war of 1846–48 – fought to secure the massive expansion of the United States’ boundaries – as unprovoked aggression by the Democratic administration of the Tennessee slaveholder, President James K Polk.

Lincoln’s capacious horizons explain why he was ready to engage in a civil war of daunting savagery to preserve the Union. When in April 1861 South Carolina’s secessionists turned their guns on the Union forces stationed at the federal fort in Charleston harbour, firing the first shots of that bloody conflict, they raised an issue which embraced, in the president’s own words, “more than the fate of these United States”. Southern secession presented “to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy – a government of the people, by the same people – can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes. It presents the question, whether discontented individuals… can always… arbitrarily… break up their Government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon earth”. These were sentiments he would repeatedly affirm throughout the war, in the struggle “for a vast future”. 

This was no argument of mere convenience: it was the reiteration of his lifelong view that “The hope of the friends of freedom throughout the world rests upon the perpetuity of this Union”. These words would inspire at least some of Lincoln’s successors in the White House, none more so than George W Bush, whose foreign interventions – most notably in Iraq – drew explicitly on Lincoln’s understanding of America’s role as a democratic beacon to the world.


Abraham Lincoln 1809–65

Born on 12 February 1809, Lincoln was raised in rural poverty in Kentucky and Indiana. In 1830 he moved to Illinois. Ambitious and self-educated, he practised as a lawyer in Springfield, served as a Whig in the state legislature and, after a term as US congressman, largely withdrew from politics.

The threat of slavery’s spread west rekindled his interest. Helping to organise the antislavery Republican party, he won national recognition in his 1858 debates with US senator Stephen Douglas and secured his party’s nomination for president in 1860. 

His election victory prompted the secession of the lower South. In the subsequent resort to arms, Lincoln grew into the role of commander-in-chief and skillfully held together a fragile war coalition. He kept the upper South loyal, prevented the intervention of foreign powers, kept military pressure on the Confederacy across a broad front, and proclaimed the emancipation of the rebels’ slaves as a means of saving the Union. Re-elected to the presidency during the final months of the war, he was shot by the Confederate sympathiser John Wilkes Booth before he could develop and implement his policy of national reconstruction.


Richard Carwardine is the Rhodes professor of American history at the University of Oxford, specialising in Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War. He is author of Lincoln: Profiles In Power (Longman, 2003).

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