Lincoln in the Atlantic World

I really enjoyed this book by Louise Stevenson, a professor of history at Franklin & Marshall College. She’s found a unique way of looking at Lincoln–by looking at the international influences on him and the lessons he took from other countries. In discussing various aspects of Lincoln’s life, she illuminates influences that most Americans have never even heard of. In one example, she considers the nickname John Hay and John Nicolay, his two private secretaries, gave Lincoln: “Tycoon.” Where did that nickname come from? She tells us, “Unraveling how the term came to be applied to Lincoln shows that politically active and informed people of the 1850s and 1860s were acutely aware of the U.S. commercial and diplomatic engagement with the world. Today, we call men such as Andrew Carnegie or J. Pierpoint Morgan tycoons to evoke the great wealth and power that they often deployed for suspect ends. Abraham Lincoln does not seem to qualify for that usually pejorative term. In 1858, ‘tycoon’ possessed an entirely opposite meaning. Internet-powered research through U.S. newspaper databases of the 1850s and 1860s revealed that the term surfaced in diplomatic correspondence and on the printed page in late 1858. In that year, Townsend Harris, whom President Franklin Pierce had appointed as the first consul general to Japan two years previously, negotiated with that country the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, known as the Harris Treaty. At the consul general’s insistence, provisions in the treaty had stipulated that ratified versions of it should be exchanged in the U.S. capital. Thus, Harris demanded from Japan and secured for his country the Asian nation’s first-ever official diplomatic visit to a Western nation. Describing his mission to the emperor in a letter to Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who had opened Japan to merchants from the United States in 1854, Harris explained that the Japanese ruler was known as the Taikun, or Tycoon, meaning ‘great ruler.’ ” [pp. 9-11] His secretaries, then, were calling Lincoln “the Great Ruler.” As Professor Stevenson tells us, “The visit of the seventy-one Japanese diplomats to Washington during the spring of 1860, their reception at the Executive Mansion by President James Buchanan, and subsequent gala parades and festivities in east coast cities transformed the emperor’s title into the sobriquet of the day.” [p. 11]

In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln spoke of the United States being “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Professor Stevenson considers this: “In that brief November speech, when the president pronounced that all men are created equal, his audience, both then and now, understood that he referred to African Americans and whites. Additionally, many among his listeners at the cemetery that day understood a meaning that twenty-first century readers of the speech do not grasp. Remembering the political controversies that had affected the years of 1854 through 1860, the audience at Gettysburg, especially recent German-American immigrants and the descendants of German-American immigrants, realized that the president intended an even broader meaning when he proclaimed ‘all men.’ Lincoln’s words implied that both native-born citizens of the United States and immigrants who intended to become its citizens should receive equal treatment under the laws of the national government. Second, the president did not add the final phrase of the address–from the earth–as a final rhetorical flourish. When he included the defining phrases of republicanism–‘a government of the people, by the people, for the people’–in his concluding clause, ‘that … shall not perish from the earth’–he did so because he meant it. He had learned his global lessons in his lifelong classroom–the Atlantic world.” [p. 13]

Some of what Lincoln knew about republican political theory came from across the Atlantic Ocean, and his understanding that the United States represented the “last best hope” for self-government also came from across the Atlantic Ocean. “Among adherents of republican political theory, those in France and Switzerland most frequently recalled the history instruction that past republics offered, especially as interpreted in the lessons of eighteenth-century French philosopher the Baron de Montesquieu. According to his discovery of supposed universal laws governing the fate of republican governments, earlier European history decreed that regional factions would tear them apart when they covered extensive territories. Applying Montesquieu’s predictions, the survival of the United States with territory of 830,000 square miles in 1787–approximately four times the area of France–was doubtful, while that of Switzerland, with less than 3 percent of that area, was more probable. Campaigning for ratification of the Constitution of 1787, James Madison had argued in Federalist Number 10 that the division of the United States into states would exempt it from the French philosophe’s dictum. Federalism would eliminate the dangers of disruption posed by a republican government ruling an extensive territory while permitting regional minorities within its borders to thrive. Until General Lee’s surrender in 1865, the secession of eleven southern states in 1860 and 1861 and their formation into the Confederate States of America had seemed to prove Madison wrong and Montesquieu right, much to the dismay of European republicans. With the defeat of Confederate armies in the spring of 1865, European advocates of free labor and governments dependent on the consent of the governed could rejoice. The resolutions from the workingmen of Wigan, a town in Lancashire, England, proclaimed that the war’s outcome had brought ‘the complete falsification of the statements that American institutions were a failure.’ In Switzerland, an assembly of citizens of Bern applauded that ‘by their own inherent power the American people have themselves overcome the evil of which all the glorious republics of old  have perished.’ They especially rejoiced that the Civil War had had this outcome because the Swiss had felt themselves to be too small a nation to influence neighboring states toward a future of representative government and universal manhood suffrage. After the triumph of the much larger United States, ‘Who would now deny that a republic can now maintain herself with great nations?’ ” [p. 35]

Asked by John Locke Scripps, the editor of the Chicago Press and Tribune and the writer of one of Lincoln’s campaign biographies, which books “formed the heart of Lincoln’s education,” Lincoln named seven books. One of these was James Riley’s An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce,” known simply as “Riley’s Narrative.” This is important. “Among the seven books, the choice of Riley’s Narrative stands forth both in the biography and in the minds of today’s students of Lincoln. The book is unknown except in rarified [sic] scholarly circles. In 1860, its mention held inestimable importance, and heads would have nodded knowingly in response to its mention. Of the seven books, it alone addressed a contemporary national issue that supplied the determining question of the 1860 election. What would be the future of slavery in the United States? As voters in the major slaveholding states desired, would slavery spread through the continental United States and even to territories that the nation might acquire in the Caribbean and Latin America? Or would the federal government prohibit the expansion of slavery into its current and future territories? In short, would the United States become, in the words of the Republican Party slogan of that year, a land of Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men? Besides a narrative of captivity and freedom, the Narrative teaches many lessons about Lincoln and his stand on slavery. From the narrative he learned how slavery existed as an institution in the flow of Western history and how it might be eliminated in the present moment from the United States. While it taught global lessons, it had local application.” [p. 41] Professor Stevenson identifies several things Lincoln could have learned from the book, but she identifies as the most important lesson the idea about how to get rid of slavery in the United States. “Slaveholders, even those of the desert whom Americans and Europeans thought the most uncivilized, frequently parted with their slaves for profit. Riley’s readers learned that the ransoming of captives was embedded in the economic systems of the Barbary States. Ransoms supported both the so-called pirates and the rulers of these states. The possibility and feasibility of liberating slaves in the United States through a process that included compensation might have suggested itself to many of Riley’s readers, including Lincoln, who wondered how slaveholders in the United States could be parted from their property. … The emancipation lessons from the narrative correlated with historical experience during Lincoln’s lifetime. Every instance of emancipation in the major slave societies of the Americas in the nineteenth century had incorporated compensation for slave owners. They received either cash or bonds from a central government, or labor time from the enslaved people. Further, the U.S. Constitution implied that slaveholders had a right to compensation. Its Fifth Amendment specifies that the federal government can take no property from its owners without due process of law. Because in the pre-Civil War United States, many state constitutions still provided that slaves were property, the federal government could not end slaveholding in peacetime without compensation to the slaveholders. Additionally, no emancipation plan in the Atlantic world had compensated enslaved people for their time served in slavery. Riley’s discussion of emancipation confirmed and conformed to the historical understanding of Lincoln’s lifetime: compensation to slave owners without recompense to the enslaved people had been and could still be a way to end slavery. This process promised both a constitutional and peaceful way of eliminating this impediment to the westward progress of a U.S. empire of free labor.” [pp. 61-62]

Giving us the international background of various parts of Lincoln’s life, including even his decision to grow a beard and the hat he wore when he passed through Baltimore on his way to his First Inaugural, Professor Stevenson illuminates aspects of Lincoln’s life we hardly ever think about. She also writes about his relationship to various immigrants and immigrant groups, such as German and Hungarian immigrants who fled from Europe in the wake of the 1848 revolutions. This is a wonderful book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and I give it high recommendation.


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