*A ‘World Historical’ Figure? The Politics of Lincoln’s International Legacy

The US has been awash this year with celebrations of Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial. The feeling is widespread that Lincoln, more than anyone else, represents the idea – and thus the dream and hope – of America better than any other figure in American history.  He has been lionized as the savior of the Union, the emancipator of the slaves; he is also, perhaps, the most eminently quotable American.   At his death, as I recall from my American history textbook from over three decades ago, his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton declared that he ‘now belongs to the ages’.  Lincoln has topped most American polls as the most widely admired person in American history.  Tolstoy was unequivocal in his pronouncement that Lincoln “overshadows all other national heroes.”  The great storyteller that he was, Tolstoy has mesmerized Lincoln’s acolytes with his account of the conversation that transpired between him and a tribal chief in the Caucasus who was his host.  Tolstoy told the tribal chief about great military rulers and leaders, but his host remained unsatisfied.  “You have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world”, he told Tolstoy, adding the following:  “He was a hero.  He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as a rock . . .  His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived.  Tell us of that man.”

The hagiographic portrait of Lincoln that has circulated since his death has, to be sure, also been punctured with criticisms.  While the ‘Great Emancipator’ to some, to others his commitment to equality between blacks and whites is profoundly questionable.  For the present, though, one might profitably turn one’s attention to another, not unrelated, question:  to what extent can Lincoln reasonably be viewed as a ‘world historical’ or universal figure?  As I have elsewhere argued, in an “interchange” among scholars of Lincoln published in the Journal of American History (September 2009), Lincoln had many constituencies, to take one country as an illustration, in India.  Gandhi and Ambedkar, however opposed to each other, nevertheless shared in common an admiration for Lincoln.  In 1905, while Gandhi was waging a struggle on behalf of the rights of Indians in South Africa, he penned an article in his journal Indian Opinion which pronounced Lincoln as the greatest figure of the nineteenth century; Ambedkar, on his part, quotes Lincoln in his closing speech as the Constituent Assembly was on the verge of adopting the Constitution of India of which Ambedkar was the principal drafter.  In Britain, not unexpectedly, there was much veneration for Lincoln, among, for example, the Welsh and in Liberal Nonconformist working-class communities; and one can, similarly, point to the enthusiastic reception given to him in most countries of Europe and Latin America.

It is wholly understandable that Americans should be unable to minimize representations of Lincoln as the preserver of the Union, the emancipator of slaves, and the self-made man who, moving from a log cabin to the White House, brilliantly exemplified the possibilities of humankind in the relatively unencumbered circumstances of the New World.  But once we are beyond this, the question persists:  what, if anything, qualifies Lincoln as a world historical figure, in the manner of, to name some highly disparate figures, Marx, Mao, Darwin, and Gandhi?   Is there in his writings something that might be called a body of thought that can be viewed as having made a substantial difference to intellectual activity worldwide?  Histories of human rights will doubtless always have a place for him as the figure who precipitated the formal end of slavery in the US.  But, nevertheless, the fact that he is an inspiration to so many, or that his humanism is immensely appealing, should not be conflated with any estimation we might have to offer of Lincoln’s contributions to the principal questions that have animated those who work and deliberate on such issues as nationalism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, the creation of postcolonial states, and so on.  The invocations over the last few decades have been to the likes of Cesaire and Fanon, not to Lincoln.  Once the Lincoln who is forever enshrined in popular memory as the author of the observation that “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time” has been reckoned with, what is there in the body of his work that would appeal to those especially outside the Anglo-American world?  It does not appear to me that Lincoln figured prominently, if at all, in the discussions about human rights that ensued in the 1930s and 1940s and culminated in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the late 1940s; likewise, debates about decolonization, the principal political issue of the 1950s and 1960s, except of course to those who view everything through the prism of the enmity of the US and the Soviet Union, seemed to have bypassed Lincoln.

There is yet another consideration:  many American figures have much larger reputations than they might otherwise have had owing to the immense influence wielded by the US in nearly every sphere of life, particularly in the post-World War II period.  America’s history has been everyone’s history, and not only because the US has been a distinct immigrant society; just as significantly, America has been part of the national imaginary of every country, foe, friend, or otherwise.  When the attacks of September 11 transpired, Le Monde unhesitatingly described it as an attack on the world:  “We Are all Americans”, the newspaper declared.  Can one even imagine such a response had the attacks been conducted on Chinese soil?  When, however, America’s star begins to fade, will it also not lead to a fundamental reassessment of American history and culture.  How is Lincoln going to fare in a world where America’s history is no longer perceived to be everyone’s history?

4 thoughts on “*A ‘World Historical’ Figure? The Politics of Lincoln’s International Legacy

  1. Professor, I think you have very fair points. However, the very fact that Lincoln IS so widely admired makes him a de facto global figure doesn’t it? This recognition indicates that there is widespread acknowledgement that he, with a unique balance of idealism, pragmatism, good will, and steely resolve, stood tall and successfully lead America through a most horrific conflagration, keeping the nation intact. I would argue that it is those qualities, and his example of leadership, that strikes a chord with peoples everywhere. I think viscerally people feel that had any other man been in that position, America would be a vastly different country (or countries) today. I don’t believe the waning of America’s global dominance will diminish his standing in that regard.



    • Hello Steve,
      You may well be right that Lincoln’s global standing will most likely not diminish even if America’s presence in the world diminishes over the next decade and more. One of the consequences of the erosion of American cultural hegemony, if that should transpire, is certainly going to be an enhanced awareness of other histories. Years ago, when I spent some time in Hyderabad, I was startled to find many Indian students writing dissertations on obscure and (in most cases) the most mediocre American writers, all at the American Studies Research Center where a phenomenal collection of American literature and history had been established. These same students were entirely unaware of the best literature from Africa, Latin America, and even near neighbors of India like China, a civilization and country with which India has had long historical links. My feeling is that other histories and memories might be revived as the world changes, and many American figures, not only Lincoln, will suffer from such reevaluations.

      It is also necessary to say that all global figures are not ‘world historical’ figures. Many people, and things, have a global presence, but the global is a different category than the ‘universal’ and what I am terming ‘world historical’. The name of Oprah Winfrey, for example, may be known globally, at least to people with some knowledge of the US, but she cannot even remotely be viewed as a ‘world historical’ figure.


  2. Hi Vinay–Lincoln has been widely admired, but not among all constituencies. He participated in the so-called Black Hawk War of 1832, in which many Sauk and Fox were murdered and ultimately displaced from their ancestral homelands. He also is credited with being responsible for the largest mass execution in the history of the United States. In 1862 he authorized the hanging of 38 Dakota men from what is now Minnesota who had defended their homelands and families from invasion by colonizers. He didn’t recognize treaties made with Native Americans and participated in genocidal acts against Indigenous peoples, so a reevaluation of this figure is certainly in order.


    • Hi Michelle,
      I put as favorable a spin on Lincoln as I could, in the spirit of generosity,
      while essentially arguing for a fundamental reevaluation of his
      gargantuan reputation. I agree with your observations about the treatment of native Americans
      at his hands; indeed, I think it would be very difficult to find a white person, much less a white
      statesman, at that time who was entirely free of racism. It is possible that Thoreau may have
      been one such person; at least I have not encountered any condescension in his writings
      towards either native Americans or African Americans. John Brown’s reputation as a fervent
      abolitionist is assured, of course, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to know what his
      thoughts may have been about native Americans. Your comments call to mind a much larger
      critique of the received view of American history, which would place genocide at the center of it,
      giving it the same consideration at least that has been given to the narrative of ‘freedom’.

      I finished a paper recently for a conference at Oxford (and for a volume that will emerge from it) where I look at Lincoln’s reputation in India, and it is striking how very different constituencies found much to admire in him. But I suspect that the Dalits, to take the most obvious example, are probably completely unaware of Lincoln’s views of native Americans.


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