When the Grieving Went Global

© Richard Wightman Fox 2015

On April 16, 1865, European newspapers published some “decisive news from the United States,” as Le Temps in Paris put it.  You’d think the decisive news would have been the assassination and death of Abraham Lincoln, the world-shattering event that took place on April 14-15. 

But in early 1865 no trans-Atlantic telegraphic cable linked the U. S. to Britain or the continent.  (The previously operational cable had failed.)  It took almost two weeks for news to travel from New York to London.  From there it could be swiftly relayed to Europe and on to Constantinople, Teheran, and other capitals.  The “decisive news” announced to European readers on April 16 concerned an 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.  On the following 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 groups 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 group displayed a framed photo of the 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.  The autocratic government knew that “republicans” would draw attention to the beloved Lincoln’s well-known opposition to monarchy everywhere. 

Yet the French republican press was permitted to cover the American funeral events.  Detailed reports described the progress of the funeral train from city to city, and editorials elevated Lincoln to the company of the immortals— “the battalion of Plutarch,” as one paper put it. 

Le Temps hailed his character and his exploits, and cleverly 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 stylized but heartfelt resolutions drawn up by a committee of dignitaries.

Since the French police looked askance at large American gatherings too, a committee of nine Americans circulated a letter summing up 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 a tiny monument to Lincoln:  a gold médaille, featuring intricate images in relief, 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, about 40,000 French people participated, and Mrs. Lincoln accepted the gift almost two years after her husband’s death.  (You can see the “Abraham Lincoln memorial medal” at <lincolncollection.org>; the collection also includes a “French silk Lincoln mourning ribbon” produced in Lyon, France in 1865.)