Michael Knox Beran: How Lincoln Saved the World

[Michael Knox Beran: The author is a contributing editor of City Journal. His book, Forge of Empires 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, is being published this month by Free Press.]

In 1861, free institutions seemed poised to carry all before them. In Russia, Tsar Alexander II emancipated 22 million serfs. In Germany, lawmakers dedicated to free constitutional principles prepared to assert civilian control over Prussia’s feudal military caste. In America, Abraham Lincoln entered the White House pledged to a revolutionary policy of excluding human bondage from the nation’s territories.

The new machinery of freedom, though Anglo-American in design, was universal in scope. At its core was the idea, as yet imperfectly realized, that all human beings possess a fundamental dignity. This was a truth that, Abraham Lincoln believed, was “applicable to all men and all times.” In 1861, the faith that all men have a right to life, liberty, and the fruits of their industry was invoked as readily on the Rhine and the Neva as on the Potomac and the Thames.

But in the decade that followed, a reaction gathered momentum. Around the world, privilege rose up to defend its prerogatives. In Russia, in Germany, and in America, grandees with their backs against the wall met the challenge of liberty with a new philosophy of coercion.

It was founded on two ideas. The first: paternalism. Landowners in Russia and in the American South argued that their domestic institutions embodied the paternal principle: the bondsman had, in his master, a compassionate father to look after him, and thus was better off than the worker in the cruel world of free labor. In Germany, Prussian aristocrats sought to implement a paternal code designed to make the masses more subservient to the state. The paternalists, Lord Macaulay wrote disapprovingly, wanted to “regulate the school, overlook the playground, fix the hours of labour and recreation, prescribe what ballads shall be sung, what tunes shall be played, what books shall be read, what physic shall be swallowed.”

The second idea was militant nationalism—the right of certain (superior) peoples to impose their wills on other (inferior) peoples. Planters in the American South dreamed of enslaving Central America and the Caribbean. Germany’s nationalists aspired to incorporate Danish, French, and Polish provinces into a new German Reich. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Panslav nationalists sought to rout the Ottoman Turks and impose Russia’s will on Byzantium.

Lincoln recognized that the West had reached a turning point. The decisive question of the epoch, he said, was whether free constitutions could survive and prosper in the world, or whether they possessed an “inherent, and fatal weakness” that doomed them to a premature degeneration. Could America—or any nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal—“long endure”?...

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