On April 16, 1865, European newspapers published some “decisive news from the United States,” as Le Temps in Paris phrased it. You’d think the decisive news on that date would have been the assassination and death of Abraham Lincoln, the world-shaking event that occurred during the night and early morning of April 14-15.
But in early 1865 no transatlantic telegraphic cable linked the U.S. to Britain or the continent. American news took almost two weeks to reach England by ship. From London it could be relayed quickly to Europe and on to Constantinople, Teheran, and other capitals. The “decisive news” announced to European readers on April 16 concerned an American event of April 3: the fall of Richmond to Union troops.
When Europeans finally got wind of the assassination on April 26, Lincoln had been dead for 12 days and his funeral train was rolling through western New York on its way to Springfield. The next day, mourners deluged American consular buildings across Europe.
In Paris thousands of French people, mainly students, pressed toward the U.S. mission. The police blocked their path, fearful that a large, spontaneously formed crowd might prove unruly. Only a few small delegations were allowed in to offer their sympathies to American officials.
Within days U.S. diplomats in city after city were greeting delegations of mourners. In Constantinople, various ethnic groups — Armenians, Greeks, and Italians among them — arrived at the U.S. legation to express their condolences. Hundreds were wearing black mourning badges and carrying Greek or Armenian flags. One delegation brought a framed photo of Lincoln decorated with laurel.
In France, where the Second Republic had been toppled by Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851, public manifestations of affection for Lincoln were not permitted, since republicans saw him as a beacon of hope for anti-monarchists everywhere.
Yet in the days ahead the French republican press gave detailed coverage to the American funeral events, following the progress of the funeral train from city to city and editorially elevating Lincoln to the company of the immortals— “the battalion of Plutarch,” as one paper put it.
This print with no identifying caption — in the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum — shows that Lincoln’s image as well as name were recognized by many Europeans.
Le Temps hailed his individual exploits, and shrewdly slipped in an endorsement of the American republican way of life as the model for all nations:
“His life is one of the most striking examples of what intelligence, work, perseverance, honesty, and common sense can do in a society devoted to all the free expressions of individual activity, and profoundly imbued with the democratic Spirit.”
Americans residing in France tried their best to grieve there, just as they would have done at home. The first step in public mourning for a civic hero like Lincoln involved assembling citizens in a public place to honor the “illustrious dead.” The crowd would listen to eulogies and endorse heartfelt resolutions drawn up by a committee of dignitaries.
But the French police looked askance at large American gatherings as much as at French ones. So a committee of nine Americans privately circulated a letter articulating their feelings about Lincoln, got several hundred of their countrymen to sign it, and handed it over to the American consul-general.
“Already the world is claiming for itself this last martyr to the cause of freedom,” they wrote, “and Abraham Lincoln has taken his place among the moral constellations which shall impart light and life to all coming generations.”
Meanwhile, a group of French republicans, including novelist-poet Victor Hugo and historian Jules Michelet, organized a campaign to spread the republican gospel by raising a subscription among working people for an elegant monument to Lincoln: a small, intricately designed gold Médaille to be presented to Mary Lincoln.
Ordinary citizens across France were asked to donate 10 centimes each for the medal. In the end, despite a police campaign to interfere with the subscription, 40,000 French people participated, and Mrs. Lincoln gratefully accepted the gift almost two years after her husband’s death.
On its front side the medal said, “LINCOLN, an honest man, abolished slavery, saved the republic, and was assassinated the 14th of April, 1865.”
And on the back it said, “Dedicated by the French democracy to LINCOLN, twice elected President of the United States. Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!”
(You can see the medal at http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/reconstruction/section1/section1_06.html)
“The death of Lincoln,” U.S. Consul-General John Bigelow observed, “is destined to work a radical change in the Constitution of France.” Perhaps in some small way it did help prepare the ground for the Third Republic, inaugurated in 1870 after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.
Whatever its impact on the future, Lincoln’s death provoked an outpouring of sentiment for him across Europe in 1865, lifting him up as a vital symbolic face of republican liberty.
It was “difficult to imagine,” concluded Bigelow, “the enthusiasm which his name inspires among the masses of Europe at this moment … the death of no man has ever occurred that awakened such prompt and universal sympathy at once among his own country people and among foreign nations.”