Our panel of Civil War experts returns to A House Divided to mull more questions during the war’s 150th anniversary. Our latest question: What is the most important but overlooked story of the Civil War?
There is one slice of Civil War history which has been largely overlooked by American historians and the public, and that is when the outside world began to pay attention to Abraham Lincoln’s unique leadership style.
We do know that from the start that Abraham Lincoln saw the war as a “people’s contest” testing whether self-government was viable in a largely colonial and monarchial world. For Lincoln, the test was whether a determined minority could undermine a majoritarian system of government. Most of his public utterances echoed the theme that the American Civil War should be viewed within a world perspective. And, amazingly enough, the peoples of the world heeded his words and behavior.
Thanks to the work of the International Lincoln Center at Louisiana State University, Shreveport, considerable field research has been done in this area. The Center has looked at Lincoln’s impact abroad.
In 1861, the Republic of San Marino tended citizenship to Lincoln. The president, in thanking them for the honor, remarked, “...you have kindly averted to the trial through which the Republic is now passing. ...It involves the question of whether a Representative republic...can save itself from the dangers of domestic faction. I have faith in a good result.”
As early as 1861-1862, Europeans were learning to appreciate him even earlier than commonly believed and much earlier than Lincoln’s many critics in the press and in politics at home where his leadership remained an open target until his assassination. As Paul Clerkin points out in “Dublin Street Names” (2001), the Irish had already named a street for him in Dublin early in 1862- long before their independence from England after World War I. It became the first street in the world named for him. Though the American public would not elect an Irish Catholic president until a century later, Lincoln held no grudge against one’s race and religion.
He had been against the Mexican-American war while serving in Congress, he articulated a moral basis against slavery in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and in his appointments he reflected an appreciation for all people regardless of race, religion and nationality. He walked the talk of a genuine liberator around the world then and now.
Around the world there are now more streets named for Lincoln than for any other American president as people of many other countries take him for their own.
Frank J. Williams is the founding chair of the Lincoln Forum and chair of the Rhode Island Civil War sesquicentennial Commemoration Commission. In 2009 he moderated a panel at the Oxford University conference on the Global Lincoln.
Read more from The Washington Post’s Civil War special section