American presidents get compared most often to, or with, one another. Was Lincoln as great as Washington? Was Reagan the speaker that Kennedy was? Perhaps on occasion they get compared in military terms: was Eisenhower as fine a commanding figure as Washington? Was Grant as daring as Andrew Jackson?
Comparisons to, or with, foreign leaders are trickier. Yet there is a coincidence of timing that links Abraham Lincoln to the Duke of Wellington, and unites them in function. Let us mark this anniversary of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo (June 18, 1815) to ponder the similarities and differences.
The Iron Duke, chipping away in Portugal and Spain from 1809 against a puppet regime of Napoleon, Emperor of the French, prevailed after more than 4 years in difficult terrain, despite unsupportive legislators backing him with insufficient funds and men. Moving north, he vanquished Europe’s first global-minded tyrant at Waterloo (now in Belgium), securing his British homeland against future threats, and forcing the French provocateur into exile on a remote Atlantic isle where he lived out his remaining 6 years.
Lincoln was still largely unknown in late 1852 when Wellington died and was honored in the first non-royal funeral ever held in Westminster Hall. But Lincoln was rising in associations: he was asked to give the main eulogy in Chicago when President Zachary Taylor died in July 1850. When Henry Clay — the Great Compromiser, perhaps the ablest politician of his era — died in July 1852, Lincoln gave the main eulogy in Springfield. He followed up with his main endorsement the next month of Whig presidential candidate Winfield Scott. But Scott lost, and the Whigs were in disarray.
Just as suddenly, while president, Abraham Lincoln had to face down the old French Emperor’s nephew, the self-styled Napoleon III, when he tried to impose a European monarch in Mexico. There are other parallels. Napoleon I had taken the chance, when the British were distracted by the War of 1812 against the Americans, to extend his empire by invading Russia. Jefferson Davis, likewise, took a moment of constitutional ambiguity, before Lincoln was sworn into office, to be sworn in as president of a rump state. (The French invader met a cold end; the Mississippian had to flee from fire.) In 1864 the Frenchman’s nephew ignored the old lesson while the real power in North America — Lincoln’s federal Union — was distracted with the southern rebellion. Napoleon III sent soldiers and seamen, and an Austrian aristocrat, to revive and take the throne in Mexico City. Lincoln did not exactly chase out the French, a la Wellington; but with the U.S. Gulf Coast in control of the Union Navy (and with British naval power also blunting the French advances), the imperial ambitions of Napoleon III were thwarted. By 1867 his Austrian man on the throne was shot in a popular uprising led by Benito Juarez.
Lincoln also helped create a political echo of Wellington’s influence. The Duke’s death had given Prince Napoleon the symbolic moment he sought to revive the supposed imperial gloire of la France, by styling himself the new Emperor. This threat helped cause major shifts in British political parties, as the Tories and Whigs soon emerged as the Conservatives and Liberals. So, too, Lincoln, not sure if he was still a Whig in 1855, or one of those new Republicans. He then took up verbal arms and solidified his party’s preeminence for a generation, just as Wellington had done for his Tories with military strategy. But Lincoln was different: where Wellington had strengthened an old party, Lincoln helped give the new Republicans the issue — non-extension of slavery, and then the abolition of slavery — around which the nation could gather.
So the unsold leftovers of British-made Wellington statues from 1852 got turned into Lincoln statues a decade later, with a new head only, for an American market. Many were sold in Britain as well –Lincoln’s political ideals were universal. And his remains (the first non-royal?) lay on the same spot in the U.S. Capitol where Washington’s had lain. Each of these three –Washington, Wellington, and Lincoln — ignored the temptation to act or become by force or acclamation a ‘royal.’ Yet in artwork and public estimation, they seem to reign supreme.