While vacationing in Washington in November 2013, I took this photograph of the Lincoln Memorial. Behind the famous sculpture of Abraham Lincoln by Daniel Chester French is the inscription: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”
The two key words, aside from Lincoln’s proper name, in that sentence are “temple” and “Union.” Although for much of his life Lincoln was not a conventional religious believer, he had come, as he struggled with the greatest crisis faced by the United States since its founding, to affirm more strongly in a divine Providence guiding his actions throughout the war. In a way, then, it’s, as he might put it, “fitting and proper” that this secular temple of freedom be erected in his memory.
I discussed, in a prior post, why, at the time of the memorial’s construction between 1914 and 1922, the concept of union, rather than emancipation, became the governing theme of this shrine. It is absolutely true—and to the credit of this country—that the memorial, like the Civil War itself, has become more associated with an expanded understanding of freedom than with strictly an association among states.
But, in another sense, “Union” cannot be forgotten in our understanding of Lincoln and the war he was prepared to undertake for its preservation. When Fort Sumter was attacked, the split of this country in two was desired by more than just the Confederacy. The presence of this large North American country—the world’s only significant republic at the time—posed a mortal threat to nations in which unquestioned rulers, or others holding to established hierarchies, held sway.
That is why Great Britain, for instance, though it had abolished slavery throughout its empire three decades before, was ready to recognize, hypocritically, a Confederacy whose own hierarchy was an aristocracy founded on bondage. Lord Palmerston, that nation’s Prime Minister, snorted that the North’s reverses early in the war showed that “Power in the Hands of the Masses throws the Scum of the Community to the surface.”
Palmerston was refuted not just by the progress of Federal arms, but also by changing sentiment in his own country. Even while the upper classes continued to identify more with the genteel manners of Southern aristocrats, mill workers in the British cotton trade mobilized in support of the Emancipation Proclamation. The latter cause carried the day.
In London’s Parliament Square today, Palmerston has a statue erected in his memory, but so does the Rail Splitter of humble American origins who, by saving republican government, assisted at “a new birth of freedom.”