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Reviews 2012-1

Richard Carwardine and Jay Sexton, eds., The Global Lincoln.

Hans Krabbendam
Bibliographical reference

New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.   Pp. 329. ISBN 978-0-19-537911-2.

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1Most countries have their export heroes that transcend their national origin: India has its Ghandi, South Africa its Mandela, England its Churchill, and the US has Abraham Lincoln. While particularly known for his role in the American Civil War, he has developed into an international beacon for liberalism and democracy, especially for nationals deprived of this liberties.

2This collection of essays, edited by Corpus Christi College (Oxford, UK) colleagues Richard Carwardine and Jay Sexton, puts Lincoln’s appeal outside the United States in the context of transnational history. This combination makes it a timely volume that fits into the recent trend to integrate America’s history in world history. Throughout the essays, the authors follow Lincoln as a symbol of resistance, as an intellectual source of inspiration, as a bridge between political adversaries, and as a identification figure for people of humble origin, in a line of other American men (mostly) including Ben Franklin and leading to Barack Obama. These are links that the introduction indicates as part of the interconnectedness of the United States.

3This interconnectedness was best visible in Lincoln’s political principles, which were inspired by Shakespearean dramas, and less so by his diplomacy or his detailed understanding of the rest of the world. He had a romantic view of the Union, moved by faith in America’s potential, and confirmed by the contrasting features of an oppressive Europe. It was this national aspiration that his assassination transformed into a universal attraction. This is the reason why the essay on the hatred of Lincoln in the American South is a bit of a misfit in the company of foreign nations. The fact that the Confederacy was a foreign country for four years is not convincing and did not greatly enhance the global aspect of his reputation.

4Thirteen essays follow the process of appropriation/rejection of Lincoln in Western European and a number of non-European countries. It is not quite clear whether the editors suggest a kind of spatial rippling effect, beginning in the UK and Ireland--to which four essays are devoted--reaching Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, before moving into India, East Asia, Latin America and Africa. One wonders how this movement was part of an even more comprehensive story including Russia, the Middle East and Eurasia. The order of the essays and therefore the pattern of influence seemed to be determined by chronology rather than geography. A more disciplined focus on geography could have resulted in a stronger positioning of Lincoln as a trend in transnational movements.

5The introductory and concluding essays offer elements for an interpretative framework. Besides the introductory essays, the chapters on the visual representation of Lincoln in European print media by Harold Holzer and the article on Foreign language biographies by George Scratcherd--tucked away in an appendix--can contribute most to a comparative model. Holzer’s finding is that Europeans lagged greatly behind Americans in producing political prints because they had less suffrage, few election contests, and therefore less need for marketing political figures. Lincoln was better received on the continent than in England where they looked down on his ungentlemanly origin. This was exactly the reason why liberal and radical politicians on the mainland endorsed Lincoln. It was more a statement against the establishment than an endorsement of his policies. In France showing support for Lincoln counted as a vote against Napoleon III. Similarly the battles for unification in Germany and Italy in the 1860s, showed liberals and labor leaders embracing Lincoln to build up their base of support.

6European and wider sympathy moved from admiration for political unity and democratic rights to issues of international relations, anti-colonialism, and human rights. Statesmen facing comparable situations admired Lincoln’s broad vision and specific tactics. And the trend in the spread of foreign language biographies promises that Lincoln will not soon be forgotten. Growing languages such as Spanish and Chinese produce the most recent biographies.

7At various times the US tried to launch public diplomacy campaigns extolling the virtues of Lincoln, but ever so often other countries deployed Lincoln’s reputation in their efforts to defend their own choices against the US: his use of military action, his anti-colonialism, and his centralizing measures.

8A final research aim was to explore whether foreign comments on Lincoln generated also new insights in Lincoln’s life. It turns out that the Europeans closest to the American conflict, the British, were mostly as ignorant and confused about the nature of the Civil War and the goals of Lincoln as many Americans, which prevented a clear-cut distribution of loyalty. What was true for England was true for other outside observers. The examples of India and Spain reveal that opposing factions, for instance those promoting industrial modernization versus those propagating rural local development, drew inspiration from Lincoln. This contradiction confirms that these references were not primarily concerned with adding new elements to understand the historical Lincoln. They do show how he was a man for all seasons.

9This book offers not a complete overview of Lincoln abroad (it is not an encyclopedia), nor a comprehensive analytical framework, but it does exactly what a collection of essays should do: it collects a number of specialists in the field who offer insights into the dynamics of cultural appropriation of a figure who revealed much more universal qualities than his historic setting suggested.  This highly readable book built a strong foundation for new research, for instance on the global role of other (American) figures. One wonders if other Americans can reach the same level as the Great Emancipator. The closing sentence of Jay Sexton on page 300 suggests that the combination of political and moral power makes Lincoln unique as an international icon: “It is Lincoln’s peculiar international legacy both to personify the rising United States and to serve as the standard to judge how his successors have since deployed its power.” This collection invites comparable surveys of other American sources of inspiration. From my institutional perspective, a comparison with the two Roosevelts could help to explain the uniqueness of Lincoln as a leader whose ideals were still very much domestically oriented.

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Hans Krabbendam, “Richard Carwardine and Jay Sexton, eds., The Global Lincoln.”European journal of American studies [Online], Book reviews, document 15, Online since 14 June 2012, connection on 05 October 2022. URL:; DOI:

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