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The Myth and the Man
In 1863 the democratic republic as a form of government was rare and in danger of extinction.
In Europe, the dominant region of the world, monarchs and aristocrats were securely in command. The nations of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans were divided among the empires of three dynasties: the Habsburgs, the Romanovs, and the Ottomans. Germans who did not live in Habsburg lands were ruled by petty dukes and princes in a handful of large kingdoms, of which the most important, Prussia, was the domain of the Hohenzollern family. Italy was carved into small and weak states subject to Habsburg or French domination. Iberia and Scandinavia, too, had their kings and aristocrats. France was a dictatorship ruled by Louis Napoleon, who like his uncle had posed as a champion of republican government before declaring himself emperor.
Britain was the most liberal great power in Europe, but it was far from democratic. The monarchy and the House of Lords were hereditary. The House of Commons was elected by a tiny elite of commoners. The Reform Act of 1832 increased the percentage of the adult population in Britain permitted to vote from 1.8 percent to 2.7 percent. Subsequent reform legislation in 1867 and 1884 increased the electorate to 6.4 percent and 12.1 percent, respectively.(1) British colonists in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were subject to imperial authority, while in India and other parts of the empire nonwhite subjects lacked not only the suffrage but basic civil rights. Although Britain had abolished slavery in its domains in the 1830s and had moved to suppress the transatlantic African slave trade, British authorities and colonists had substituted other kinds of forced labor scarcely better than slavery, such as contract or "coolie" labor.
Outside of Europe and the European empires, the prospects for liberal democracy were even bleaker. From North Africa to the Persian Gulf, the dissolving Ottoman Empire provided a tattered canopy over local rulers and spheres of influence obtained by Britain and France. In the Chinese empire, weakened by British and French aggression and local rebellions, the only tradition of governance was one of despotism tempered by bureaucracy. Black Africa, a patchwork of kingdoms and tribes, would soon be incorporated into a handful of European colonial empires.
In this world of empires, monarchs, and hereditary nobles, republics were scarce. In Europe the Swiss republic and the tiny Republic of San Marino were oddities. In Africa the only republics were those of Dutch-descended Boer farmers and the struggling Republic of Liberia, founded by the United States as a home for former slaves. The largest state in Latin America, Brazil, was an empire ruled by a Portuguese monarch. The Spanish monarchy continued to govern Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other island possessions. The former mainland colonies of Spain, from Mexico to Argentina, were republican in form. But since they had gained their independence, most of these Latin American states had oscillated between dictatorship and anarchy. In 1863 much of Mexico, the home of a series of failed republics, was under the control of a Habsburg princeling named Maximilian, who had been installed as "Emperor of Mexico" by the French emperor Louis Napoleon.
Two waves of liberal and democratic revolutionsthe first beginning with the French Revolution in 1789, and the second taking the form of the revolutions of 1848 in Europehad failed to replace aristocratic monarchy with democratic republicanism as the dominant form of government in Europe and the world. Attempts to establish democratic republics in Germany, Italy, and Hungary had been smashed by the forces of monarchy, and the French republic had been extinguished by Louis Napoleon's dictatorship. Not only many advocates of republicanism but also many proponents of liberal, parliamentary monarchy had been executed, jailed, or exiled by the authoritarian royal governments of continental Europe. Many liberal German political activists and intellectuals, known as Forty-Eighters, had fled their homeland for refuge in the United States. The two most famous European proponents of liberalism and republicanism in 1863 were both in exile: the Italian statesman and theorist Giuseppe Mazzini and the French poet and politician Victor Hugo.
In the realm of political thought as in the realm of practical politics, the tide was running against liberal republicanism in 1863. A generation of young idealists in Europe had been disillusioned by the shattering of republican hopes on the hard realities of monarchy and militarism. In France many embittered intellectuals chose art for its own sake as an alternative to a depressing reality, while others, equally indignant, concluded that idealism was a trap in art as well as in politics and developed harsh forms of realism in literature and painting and sculpture. To many thinkers in Europe and the world, democracy seemed unworkable and the idea of the rights of man an illusion of naive eighteenth-century utopians. Popular government inevitably collapsed into anarchy, to be followed by the restoration of authority by a strongman. Hierarchy, not democracy, was the normal condition of humanity, many disenchanted thinkers of the mid-nineteenth century believed. The historian Priscilla Robertson describes the depth of the hostility to liberal democracy in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century: "Albert, the workingman, was called by his first name all the time he was a member of the French government; Baron Doblhoff in Vienna was suspected because he gave parties where the nobility could meet the middle classes socially for the first time; the King of Prussia could label an assembly of professors 'the gutter'; Macaulay could stand up in the House of Commons to say that universal suffrage would destroy civilization and everything that made civilization worthwhile. . . ."(2)
In the past, autocracy and aristocracy had been justified by religion. By the middle of the nineteenth century, political thinkers were turning to another source of legitimacy: biology. Even before Darwin published his theory of natural selection in On the Origin of Species (1860), a growing number of influential theorists, of whom the most important was Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, had rejected the Enlightenment ideals of human equality and innate individual rights in favor of the supposed reality of racial inequality. Whether God or nature had created humanity, some races were destined to rule othersand within races and nations, some individuals were naturally superior and fated to lead. In the words of the British conservative Benjamin Disraeli, "All is race." To the growing number of Western thinkers who adopted versions of racial determinism, talk of the rights of man and democracy was sentimental nonsense, discredited both by the failure of democratic governments and the teachings of natural science.
In 1863 only one functioning democratic republic on the scale of a nation-state existed on earth: the United States of America. Beginning in 1861, the United States had been consumed in civil war. The Northern states, acting through the federal government, had fought to prevent the secession of the Southern states, which were controlled by a small minority of rich slave-owning landholders who feared the loss of their power and privileges to an unsympathetic Northern majority. Some of the leading statesmen of the Southern confederacy, echoing contemporary European pessimism about human rights and democracy, had declared that human rights were limited to Caucasians and that democratic government was not an ideal valid for all humanity but an inheritance of Anglo-Saxons alone. America's Founding Fathers had been mistaken about these matters, they argued, and the new Confederate States of America would be founded not on eighteenth-century illusions but on nineteenth-century theories about race and inequality.
It was in this context that Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States, delivered brief remarks at the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863, where at great cost Federal forces had earlier defeated an invasion by the Confederate army: "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before usthat from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotionthat we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."(3)
According to Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, the American Civil War had a global as well as a local significance. Its local significance was the preservation of a United States within whose borders slavery would be abolishedthe "new birth of freedom" which by 1863 had become an explicit war aim of the Lincoln administration. The global significance of the Civil War, by contrast, involved the future of democracy, not the future of slavery. In a world in which republican government had failed again and again since the eighteenth century, Abraham Lincoln called on his countrymen to prove that a "government of the people, by the people, for the people" could be a strong and enduring governmentnot a brief episode between eras of firm authoritarian rule. Lincoln rejected the idea that democracy was a unique product of American conditions or an inheritance of the Anglo-Saxon "race" alone. Other countries, too, were capable of becoming democratic republics, "so conceived and so dedicated" to the ideals of legal and political equality. But if the United States disintegrated because some of its citizens who lost an election took up arms rather than accept the result, then democrats everywhere would be disheartened, and the advocates of monarchy and dictatorship would point to the failure of the United States as further evidence that republican government could not "endure." If the United States crumbled into anarchy, then even if a few genuine republics survived here and there, "government of the people, by the people, for the people" as a significant form of government might well "perish from the earth."
For Abraham Lincoln, the goals of the Union forces in the American Civil War were not limited to reuniting the country or to eliminating slavery in the United States. In addition to achieving these immediate goals, the victory of the Union would vindicate democratic republicanism as a practical form of government. This was a theme that Lincoln addressed repeatedly, in public and private. On the basis of his own statements, it would be natural to remember him as the Great Democrat.
But succeeding generations of Americans and others have remembered Lincoln differently. Lincoln has been invoked as an icon by groups as diverse as advocates of equality for homosexual citizens and apologists for the Confederacy for whom he symbolizes tyranny. Three images of Lincoln have been dominant in popular memory: the Savior of the Union, the Great Commoner, and the Great Emancipator.(4)
All of these images existed in his lifetime. During the campaign of 1860, the Republican Party emphasized the "Great Commoner" theme of Lincoln's lowly frontier origins. His promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 transformed a president who had delayed wartime moves against slavery into the Great Emancipator, and the surrender of the South, shortly before his assassination in 1865, had confirmed his role as Savior of the Union. All three images have coexisted. But at different times, one image has been more influential than another in American culture and politics.
The image of Lincoln as Savior of the Union dominated American public discourse by the early twentieth century. In the late nineteenth century, a partial reconciliation of white Northerners and white Southerners was based on the formula that while the North had been right about the Union and slavery, the white South had been right about race. Most white Southerners conceded that it was for the best that the integrity of the United States had been preserved and that slavery had been abolished; most white Northerners agreed with white Southerners that the attempt to promote racial equality in the South during Reconstruction had been a terrible mistake. It was widely believed that Lincoln, if he had lived, would have been more lenient toward the defeated Confederates and less devoted to what was considered the misguided doctrine of racial equality than the Radical Republicans of the Reconstruction Era.
A haze of nostalgia obscured the deep divisions between the sections and the issues over which the Civil War had been fought. Viewed through the mist of sentiment, Lincoln was less a polarizing politician than a benevolent hero who could be claimed by Northerners and Southerners alike. Lincoln's early political career as a Whig was all but forgotten as he shed his partisan associations. The Savior of the Union had to be above mere political parties and debates over issues like tariffs and taxes. H. L. Mencken described this version of Lincoln as "the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality . . . a plaster saint . . . a sort of amalgam of John Wesley and the Holy Ghost."(5) Lincoln became a hero for most Americans at the price of the reduction of his thought to a mystical Unionism.
By the mid-twentieth century, the conjunction of mysticism and nationalism seemed sinister in light of the world's experience with modern dictatorships. In his influential book Patriotic Gore (1962), the literary critic Edmund Wilson was the first to see, in Lincoln's warning against Caesarism in his 1838 address to the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield, an unconscious prediction of his own future career: "[Towering genius] thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen." Wilson compared Lincoln to modern state-building autocrats: "Lincoln and Bismarck and Lenin were all men of unusual intellect and formidable tenacity of character. . . . They were all, in their several ways, idealists, who put their ideals before everything else."(6) Wilson, a disillusioned former liberal, considered all political ideologies to be mere camouflages for attempts to seize power. He dismissed abolitionists as "fanatics" and wrote that opposition to slavery "supplied the militant Union North with the rabble-rousing moral issue which is necessary in every modern war to make the conflict appear as a melodrama."(7)
Wilson inaugurated a tradition in which this 1838 address was viewed as an unconscious revelation by the young Lincoln of his own desire to be a powerful ruler. Following Wilson's lead, historians including George P. Forgie and Dwight Anderson wrote "psychobiographies" of Lincoln that portrayed him as a figure consumed by ambition andin some versionswilling to provoke or prolong civil war in order to assure his greatness.8 In this variant of the theme of Lincoln as the Savior of the Union, his devotion to the Union became something sinister, if not psychotic.