How Lincoln’s Death Impacted The World

On this day 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, just weeks before the U.S. Civil War would officially end. Americans were not the only ones grieving their first president to be killed in office; as The Atlantic reports, his untimely death reverberated across the ideological spectrum and the world.

Why was Lincoln’s death mourned so deeply in foreign lands? He never traveled overseas, either before or during his presidency. Except for the ministers and consuls who journeyed to Washington, few Europeans ever had the opportunity to meet him. Television and radio did not yet exist to carry his face and voice throughout the world. Foreign mourners could only know him through newspapers and word of mouth.

For many, this was enough. In both Lincoln and the American experiment writ large, many Europeans saw an idealized view of their own aspirations. Sympathy came easily in Italy, where a war for national unification had also just been completed. “Abraham Lincoln was not yours only—he was also ours”, wrote the citizens of Acireale, a small town in Sicily, “because he was a brother whose great mind and fearless conscience guided a people to union, and courageously uprooted slavery”. For the German states, whose own national unification would come within the decade, the American conflict was also their own. “You are aware that Germany has looked with pride and joy on the thousands of her sons, who in this struggle have placed themselves so resolutely on the side of law and right”, proclaimed members of the Prussian House of Deputies in their memorial for the fallen president. The U.S. consul in Berlin noted that one of the deputies had a son currently serving in the Union Army, while another had lost his only son at Petersburg.

Workers and activists in Europe’s nascent socialist movement felt they had lost a genuine ally. The International Workingmen’s Association in London had saluted Lincoln, “the single-minded son of the working classes”, upon his re-election in 1864 and its “triumphant war cry [of] ‘Death to Slavery'”. Now they lamented the murder of “one of the rare men who succeeded in becoming great without ceasing to be good”. Among the condolence letter’s signatories was the group’s secretary for Germany, Karl Marx.

Such international outpouring of grief, condolence, and concern says as much about the rising power and profile of the U.S. at the time as it does about Lincoln’s qualities and achievements. American affairs were of great and growing interest to the rest of the world, and would remain so — for better or worse — to this day. It is a fitting response to the man that helped ensure that the U.S. would remain a unified and robust country at the first place (albeit at great cost).

Letters to Lincoln

In honor of Mother’s Day, Smithsonian.com posted a series of letters to Abraham Lincoln from concerned mothers imploring him to safeguard their sons serving in the Union Army — or to pardon them for transgressions that landed them in jail. The letters offer an interesting look into the kind of difficult decisions that must of weighed heavily on Lincoln as he took difficult steps to keep the country together. They also offer a glimpse into the writing styles of the time and the more personable way in which citizens reached out to their Presidents. I encourage you to give them a read.

Abraham Lincoln on Labor and Capital

I don’t generally care for the recent trend of quoting prominent historical figures as if their message is infallible. But I do find it interesting how prescient some of them could be, or how their views turn out to be more complex and nuanced than popular opinion believes. For example, I wonder what some in the GOP, being rightly proud to call Lincoln their own, think of the following excerpt, which has recently gone viral:

Lincoln isn’t well known for his stance on labor rights. In fact, he’s largely associated only with freeing the slaves and keeping the Union together (and he didn’t even live to see the latter get accomplished). While those are certainly notable feats on their own, the man was  a deep and complex thinker in a lot of areas, including religion. His writings, private and public, are among the most thought-provoking in my opinion.

Anyway, if anyone is interested, here is the quote within in it’s larger context. It’s quite a read, but it’s well worth it:

It is not needed nor fitting here that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions, but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.

Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class—neither work for others nor have others working for them. In most of the Southern States a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters, while in the Northern a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families—wives, sons, and daughters—work for themselves on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand nor of hired laborers or slaves on the other. It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital; that is, they labor with their own hands and also buy or hire others to labor for them; but this is only a mixed and not a distinct class. No principle stated is disturbed by the existence of this mixed class.

Again, as has already been said, there is not of necessity any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. Many independent men everywhere in these States a few years back in their lives were hired laborers. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all. No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.

The entire State of the Union Address from which this is taken can be read here. It’s quite a read.