Early Tributes to Lincoln
Formally Uncontroversial Tributes6The tributes paid to the American president by French Freemasonry were unanimous in their condemnation of the murder that had cost Lincoln his life. Nothing could be less controversial—especially for members of an institution that called themselves “the children of the widow”—with a reference to the murder of Hiram, and were often addressing Lincoln’s widow. “In front of a grave such as that of Lincoln, all hearts must open and all heads must bow”, wrote La Chaîne d’Union (15 [15 May 1865]: 2), and its editor, Pierre Simard, in a letter sent to the American ambassador, depicted the murder as a most “horrible crime.” Many lodges used similar expressions: “horrifying assassination attempt”, “a most odious assassination”, a “loathsome murder” (Hayère 1–2). 7But the emphasis on the assassination of a Head of State also carried a political message since Napoleon III had escaped quite a few attempts on his life too. While the Bonapartists mourners were supporting the regime’s legitimacy, the republicans were dissociating themselves from the “terrorist” image of republicanism, which had been widely used by Bonapartist propaganda. In a more positive way, Lincoln’s assassination was a perfect occasion for them, as for French republicans in general: Lincoln’s image as a successful democratic leader, freely elected and reelected, committed to the moral cause of the extinction of slavery contrasted sharply with the figure of Napoleon III, the author of a coup who had consistently maintained a “neutrality” serving the Confederacy’s, and hence slavery’s interests. And since France was united in mourning the U.S. president, Lincoln eulogies were difficult to censor. 8The references to the horrible murder pictured Lincoln as another Hiram, the architect of the Temple of Solomon, who had chosen duty over life, therefore a universal figure. The speech given at the Grand Orient explained, among other things, that he was “one of those men who not only honor their own country, but in whom all mankind are entitled to take pride.” Staunch Republican Marie-Alexandre Massol regarded him as “the moral man par excellence” who evinced such Hiram-like virtues as “unfailing honesty,” “loyalty,” “courage,” “moderation,” “keen sense of justice,” “inflexible devotion to what was right,” “simplicity,” “admirable kindness”, “a model, a guide” (La Chaîne d’Union 15 [15 May 1865]: 2). 9In French republican lodges, the American president was also seen as embodying democratic ideals, which, once the blight of slavery had been removed, were recognized as the basis of the American republic. He was often portrayed as a worthy successor to Washington and Franklin because he, like them, “furthered the cause of progress and civilization.” The “private” man had in no way, therefore, “to be ashamed of his actions as a public figure.” Lincoln was also perceived as someone who progressed in the world thanks to nothing but his own efforts and who was able to reach “by the mere exercise of a strong and straight will the highest office in his great country, showing throughout his life both a keen sense of duty and an unshakeable serenity” (La Chaîne d’Union 14 [1 May 1865]: 1). Even in these carefully worded tributes, one was to read a comparison with Napoleon III, something that became very explicit in the more radical tributes.
Lincoln as Anti-Napoleon III10The “children of the widow,” i.e. Master Masons, not only lamented the assassination of Hiram, they took solace in the continuation of his work, in which they were engaged. But what was the equivalent work in the case of Lincoln? To French Freemasons, first and foremost, it was his fight against slavery. They indeed saw Lincoln as the man who had decided “that slavery should no longer bring disgrace on his country” (Bulletin du Grand Orient de France 137). Slavery as such was an important theme for French Freemasons in general and republicans in particular: they were very proud of the role “they” had played in the abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1848 during the Second Republic, exemplified by the action of Freemason Victor Schœlcher, then Undersecretary for the Navy and the Colonies, who had played a major part in the process, and François Arago. Any form of antislavery agitation brought to their mind the figure of Schœlcher, a man who was forced into exile in Britain when Napoleon III seized power. But “slavery” was also a metaphor for the oppression of an antidemocratic regime, and raising Lincoln’s antislavery stand above other considerations was a way of defining Lincoln as a standard bearer for the republican cause. 11Those tributes distinguished Lincoln as a champion of democracy. La Chaîne d’Union attacked a parallel widely made in the press between the American president and Julius Caesar. Caesar, they said, was a “pale libertine” who “had killed freedom and crushed popular sovereignty under his feet”, while Abraham Lincoln “was neither a dictator nor an autocrat”: “He always remained the purest and most righteous representative of the energetic resolutions and inexhaustible resources of a great heroic nation.” In 1863, in his famous dictionary, Émile Littré had defined Caesarism as a system in which an elected official assumes absolute power, a clear reference to the Napoleons. The author of the article, Massol, remarked that Lincoln was “one of the purest and most faithful expressions of democracy,” adding that, “while Washington finally paved the way for true democracy, it was Lincoln that rendered it possible all over the planet and made it an ideal for every man” (La Chaîne d’Union 14 [1May 1865]: 1). 12The address drafted by the Grand Orient made it clear that, while, as Freemasons, its members should refrain from “assessing the political actions” of Abraham Lincoln, it was obvious that Lincoln never moved away from the “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” Masonic motto, an attitude which made his example even more “valuable” (Bulletin du Grand Orient de France 136). It was indeed valuable to republican Freemasons that they had managed to get the Conseil de l’Ordre to assign to Lincoln, a republican, a phrase that was also the motto of the Second Republic, a double-entendre that they practiced regularly. 13Most remarkable for them was the fact that amid such exceptional and critical circumstances, and facing one of the most tremendous civil wars ever seen before, it never crossed Lincoln’s mind, as leader of the freest country in the world, that he should suspend the normal course of laws and place himself above them. He was as scrupulous as a guardian of freedom as he was energetic in the defense of equality. And just as fortune smiled on his efforts and crowned them with both glorious and legitimate success, the only words he uttered, after such a succession of ordeals and so much collective suffering, were words of peace, consolation and fraternity (Bulletin du Grand Orient de France 137).
“Lincoln Medal”: Organizing French Republicans Beyond Masonic Circles14Charles-Louis Chassin was a republican historian who lived in Nantes and had published Le Génie de la Révolution. He was a founding member of the L’Avenir 168 lodge, who was later to play a part in the Commune de Paris. Chassin suggested a popular subscription—at 10 centimes per person—in order to offer Mary Lincoln, the president’s widow, an engraved gold medal. (Combes 65). He got in touch with the main local newspaper, Le Phare de la Loire, well-known for its opposition to the regime, and whose managing editor Léon Laurent-Pichat, was often brought to court for his attacks on the government and was defended by Etienne Arago, a scion of the famous freemason and republican family. Pichat was to join the Clémente Amitié lodge in 1876 (Mayeur 382). 15The medal, Chassin explained, should contain the following inscription:
- On the coin’s edge: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity;
- On the obverse: a profile of Lincoln, with the following sentence: “To Lincoln twice elected President of the United States, in acknowledgment of the gratitude of European democracy”;
- On the reverse, encircled by a wreath of oak leaves:
16The project was accepted, and the medal was soon called the “medal of liberty,” while Le Phare de la Loire actively applied itself to collecting the subscriptions through a network of Republican and Masonic contacts. Leading opponents of the regime were early subscribers: Victor Hugo, Edgar Quinet, Jules Barni, and others. Several Republican Masons or Masons-to-be were members of the eighteen-member organizing committee, including Etienne Arago who, under the Restoration, had joined the Les Amis de la Vertu lodge; Louis Blanc, who had joined the London lodge Les Sectateurs de Ménès; polemicist Ferdinand Flocon who was a member of the Union des Peuples lodge; republican Eugène Pelletan who had been recently admitted to the Loge de l’Avenir; and Victor Schœlcher himself, who had been initiated before 1848 into the Loge des Amis de la Vérité and was living as an exile in London (Ligou 62, 143, 464, 715, 1105,).To this list one could also add the philosopher and lexicographer Émile Littré, although he was to be initiated into the lodge La Clémente Amitié only ten years later. The campaign to collect funds, though frustrated by the regime’s police, lasted until April 1866 and successfully achieved its goal. 17The final medal, the work of Franky Magniadas, differed slightly from the original idea as the illustrations are concerned (it includes an American Eagle, Masonic symbols and an allegory of emancipation). The cast is now in the Library of Congress. 18After the end of this campaign, the republican interest in Lincoln was lost for Freemason as for non-Mason republicans. What remained was the uncontroversial side of Lincoln as the legendary Hiram, whom all Freemasons had revered. Since many French Masons were Protestants, and since Freemasonry was first and foremost a school of morality, while the translation of moral values into political values was a perennial problem, they had a better understanding of Lincoln’s character than most Frenchmen: extolling his moral values and his religious style was natural for them. Casting Abraham Lincoln as civil saint resonated with the asepticized version of Lincoln that has sometimes prevailed in the United States after his assassination and which is definitely the one France has remembered. Thus, the importance of the Masonic involvement in the celebration of Lincoln, with their insistence on the moral theme, might well have played a part in the enduring image of Lincoln as essentially a moral saint. Another proof that, as Herndon, quoting Holland, remarked, “men caught only separate aspects of his character—only the fragments that were called into exhibition by their own qualities”—something that holds true for all visions of Lincoln, American or foreign (Herndon 3: 584). 19On the other hand, the long-lasting fight for democracy by republicans within French Freemasonry, of which the Lincoln tributes is a landmark, help us understand why there is a statue of liberty in New York harbor. While not a Mason until 1875, Auguste Bartholdi took an active part in the 1865 campaign for the Lincoln medal. He was eventually to give a monumental shape to the “Statue of Liberty” that Lincoln had not veiled, the very statue that graces New York harbor, and he explicitly connected the two enterprises (Berenson 11–12).
Lincoln the honest man
Who abolished slavery, restored the Union,
Saved the Republic
Without veiling the statue of liberty
And was murdered on April 14, 1865.
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Laurence Grégoire holds a Ph.D. in History from Paris Sorbonne University. Her doctoral dissertation was on French Freemasonry under the Second Empire (1852–1870). She is the author of “La franc-maçonnerie parisienne (1852–1870),” Parlement[s], Revue d’histoire politique 3 (2008): 98–115, cairn.info, web, 9 April 2016.
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