On this day 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, just weeks before the U.S. Civil War would officially end. Americans were not the only ones grieving their first president to be killed in office; as The Atlantic reports, his untimely death reverberated across the ideological spectrum and the world.
Why was Lincoln’s death mourned so deeply in foreign lands? He never traveled overseas, either before or during his presidency. Except for the ministers and consuls who journeyed to Washington, few Europeans ever had the opportunity to meet him. Television and radio did not yet exist to carry his face and voice throughout the world. Foreign mourners could only know him through newspapers and word of mouth.
For many, this was enough. In both Lincoln and the American experiment writ large, many Europeans saw an idealized view of their own aspirations. Sympathy came easily in Italy, where a war for national unification had also just been completed. “Abraham Lincoln was not yours only—he was also ours”, wrote the citizens of Acireale, a small town in Sicily, “because he was a brother whose great mind and fearless conscience guided a people to union, and courageously uprooted slavery”. For the German states, whose own national unification would come within the decade, the American conflict was also their own. “You are aware that Germany has looked with pride and joy on the thousands of her sons, who in this struggle have placed themselves so resolutely on the side of law and right”, proclaimed members of the Prussian House of Deputies in their memorial for the fallen president. The U.S. consul in Berlin noted that one of the deputies had a son currently serving in the Union Army, while another had lost his only son at Petersburg.
Workers and activists in Europe’s nascent socialist movement felt they had lost a genuine ally. The International Workingmen’s Association in London had saluted Lincoln, “the single-minded son of the working classes”, upon his re-election in 1864 and its “triumphant war cry [of] ‘Death to Slavery'”. Now they lamented the murder of “one of the rare men who succeeded in becoming great without ceasing to be good”. Among the condolence letter’s signatories was the group’s secretary for Germany, Karl Marx.
Such international outpouring of grief, condolence, and concern says as much about the rising power and profile of the U.S. at the time as it does about Lincoln’s qualities and achievements. American affairs were of great and growing interest to the rest of the world, and would remain so — for better or worse — to this day. It is a fitting response to the man that helped ensure that the U.S. would remain a unified and robust country at the first place (albeit at great cost).