The Hidden Lincoln in French Opinion

1Abraham Lincoln has never been very popular in France. No statue of Lincoln graces Paris, Lincoln Street is a small street near the Champs-Elysées, much smaller than Washington Street in the same neighborhood, both named in 1879. The issue is not French provincialism. Many great Americans have been hailed and celebrated in France, some for their links with France, others for their own greatness. The paradox is that there are specific political reasons why Lincoln’s achievements should have been a valuable example for the French.

2In war times and troubled times, the French have always been afraid a tyrant might emerge. Since Lincoln remained a democratic president under enormous stress, he should have served as a model. He was indeed compared to Carnot, the organizer of the French Revolutionary wars. But when Clemenceau led France in WWI, when De Gaulle stood for France’s independence in WWII, nobody thought of comparing them to Lincoln. Something must have happened in France in Lincoln’s times to generate that lack of interest in Lincoln as statesman.

3A few recent researches about the French opinion of the Civil War have been completed, but none about Lincoln and generally they study only the left, as the imperial government leant rather towards the Confederacy.[1] Hence this essay, the first to examine French public opinion during the American Civil War with a focus on Lincoln, based on a study of the few French books published between 1860 and 1865 on the U.S., diaries, a sample of conservative and republican daily papers, weekly reviews and illustrated newspapers. Particular attention has been paid to the wording, since opponents had to use artifices at the time in France to dodge censorship.

4The realities of Lincoln’s character and actions seem to have been hidden behind a momentous event, the war, and an overarching issue, slavery. This was compounded by ignorance of American political realities, cultural distance, and the exploitation by opponents to the regime of his real or assumed qualities to bypass censorship. Lincoln’s figure emerged only briefly, revealing his greatness in the last, flitting moments of each sequence of events.

Lincoln Hidden by the Issue of the War, November 1860–September 1862

5Only a handful had heard of Abraham Lincoln before the presidential campaign of 1860; Press reports were vague, with the exception of the Revue des Deux Mondes that described the electoral process with precision and emphasized the importance of the 1858 debates with Douglas. On the other hand, the American crisis and the issue of slavery had aroused a large interest in France. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was very popular, translated and featured in plays throughout the country, and Victor Hugo had written a poem for John Brown in 1859. Was the character of Lincoln, this unknown quantity, up to dealing with this portentous issue?

6The lack of previous national political experience of the new president and his humble origins were stressed, two elements that cast doubts on his ability to rise up to the occasion, since France had never produced a statesman from such material. Biographical sketches emphasized Lincoln the rail-splitter and surveyor. Lincoln’s image was cliché: “This American citizen is a typical self-made-man […].” The general judgment was that he was “a man who is probably not very brilliant, not very aristocratic, not very princely, but worthy, honest, able and hard-working” (Krebs 19). All the articles evoked his Western origins, and much was made of the fact that Indians had killed his grandfather. This projected an exotic image that connected with the James Fenimore Cooper novels that were widely read in France.

7As a consequence, his ability was questioned: “Mr. Lincoln […] has never been in a condition to be a statesman; till now, no proof has been given that he has the required qualities for governing with foresight and steadiness” (Martin 1). Seward was seen as the real statesman, and many observers viewed Lincoln as a mere pawn in the hands of the party machine (despised by the French who viewed American political parties as cynical and ruthless) and incapable of resisting the abolitionists, which frightened conservatives. The Left, that had hailed the Republican victory as the victory “of truth over error, justice over iniquity, of sane modern ideas over antiquated ideas; in one word the victory over slavery,” and who demanded immediate abolition, were afraid lest Lincoln should prove as accommodating as Pierce and Buchanan: “Like his predecessors, Mr. Lincoln will endeavor to quiet Southern irritation and the slave owners will continue to send their cotton to Europe.” “He is not a Spartacus, not a Gracchus, nor a Brown, only a bourgeois Washington—and Washington owned slaves” (“Corrspondence” 494).

8Very few Frenchmen were aware of the intricacies of the American situation. No one imagined secession; no one understood the strength of the Republican Party. This general ignorance explained why French journalists and writers did not improve on the U.S. and English reports of Lincoln. Their specific opinion of Lincoln hinged on the French notion of a statesman who must have a natural authority coming from a free devotion to his country and from a long apprenticeship through the entire political cursus honorum. Since Lincoln evinced none of these qualities, not a single voice arose to venture a prediction of his success.

9When the war broke out, French opinion was divided. Opponents of Napoleon III hoped for a quick Union victory that would end slavery. Supporters of the imperial regime disliked the peculiar institution but preferred an incremental process to end the system. At the same time, French leaders viewed the Confederacy as a new nation, based on the nationalité principle that had guided imperial policy when Italy was formed as a nation. They ignored the contradiction between their antislavery principles and the fact that this “new nation” could not exist without slavery.

10Lincoln seemed to be tossed by events, unable to have any grip on them. For the Left, the president seemed to be inactive: Many rebels were still in the administration and nothing was done against them, the army was defeated and the president did not move. French observers did not understand the importance of keeping the Border States in the Union, which explained Lincoln’s caution. On the right, Le Constitutionnel or La Revue Contemporaine discovered a true moderate who would surely try to find a necessary compromise with the South and commented favorably on a president who tried to avoid a terrible civil war and did not want to encroach on State’s rights: “So, speaks in the North the spirit of moderation and justice” (Limatrac 1).

11These comments showed a lack of understanding of what was going on in the United States. French Republicans focused on the slavery issue, which was easier to solve from France without taking into account all the nuances of the local scene, and Lincoln could but frustrate them, as he frustrated his own abolitionists. The French right was even less in touch with reality, favoring an idealized South, unaware that the Confederacy was dead set against any compromise and that Lincoln was Behemoth south of the Mason-Dixon line. This distortion can be explained by the origin of the news, which came more from New York and the North East than from Richmond. Ignorance of the political system also explained why Lincoln was seen to have more power than he had in reality and he was considered timid.

12A paradox arose. The Left in France had hailed the Republican victory of 1860 as paving the way for the abolition of slavery. The government and the Right deplored it exactly for the same reason: A rapid decision to free the slaves and a quick victory of the Union would bring disorders of revolutionary import, with consequences in France. Lincoln’s caution disappointed his natural supporters and pleased his logical opponents. The true Lincoln was hidden by the war and the slavery deadlock; he had still to emerge.

Slow Emergence, September 1862–December 1864

13The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, made public in France on October 8, put an end to the confusion and paradoxes of the first year. It brought a drastic evolution of French opinion, rearranged along more logical lines. While the French government was still leaning towards a recognition of the Confederacy and while its papers debated whether Lincoln’s stance would not strengthen the servile system, the Left was quick to acknowledge the fact that “president Lincoln has finally if belatedly put the debate on its true ground […]” (Grenier 1). Nearly all the French Republican leaders rallied to Lincoln’s support during 1863: The man had indisputable working class origins, the war had evolved from a mere American conflict into a war for mankind. However, sympathy for Lincoln and the North, apparent among the intellectuals and expressed by many papers, was not generally widespread in the country, and the great mass of the workers was indifferent towards the American war.

14Conservative opinion was greatly disturbed by the “new” Lincoln, no longer a man of compromise, and one who would never sanction Southern independence. Their own image of Lincoln, based on prejudices and false hopes, was definitely shattered. The official press was prisoner of its idealistic vision of the South, to the point of asserting that the Confederacy should abolish the peculiar institution if only to take the wind out of the Union’s sails. They initially saw Lincoln the Emancipator as an honest antislavery man, just wrong in his determination to keep the South in the Union. A few months later, they denounced the President’s decision not to emancipate the slaves in the Border States as hypocritical, and so did many Republicans. In spite of these criticisms, Lincoln was not personally attacked yet. He was right to abolish slavery, but he got the process wrong.

15When it turned out that the war was dragging on, that the Proclamation had failed to bring about a civil war or the collapse of the South, perceptions of Lincoln as president became even less enthusiastic. Gettysburg was seen as one more inconclusive battle, except for one insightful editorial in Le Temps. The Left criticized Lincoln’s early reconstruction plans. Conservatives blamed Lincoln’s stubbornness for the continuation of the war. Only Laugel, in a lengthy piece in the Revue des Deux Mondes, understood the magnitude of Lincoln’s achievements in terms of affirmation of the presidential prerogative and his boldness as commander-in-chief (Laugel 885).

16As the 1864 election drew near, voices became shrill. The Right, disappointed by Lincoln’s firmness, seen as obduracy, recognized a great man, but for the worse, Lincoln the tyrant, unable to admit his errors, self-serving. The official press wrote that “the cause of all the people is only a one man cause. Rights, principles, claims, everything is summarized in that fact […]” (Aucaigne 1.) Like many English newspapers, French conservatives denounced electoral fraud and soldiers’ abuses. They lamented the reelection: “We have to endure to see him, during four more years, carrying on with tireless zeal his inhuman and insane work; to endure to see him levying constantly new armies to throw against the impregnable fortress of the South” (Aucaigne 1). The Right was in despair, fearing a revolution resulting from an absolute Union victory in a war that would exhaust both sides.

17For the Left, Lincoln had finally reached a superb greatness; all Republican papers stressed that point. Forgetting their misgivings and impatience, they saw their own insistence on abolition vindicated by Lincoln’s victory, since they still believed that Lincoln could and should have acted more decisively. They stressed the democratic character of Lincoln, a man who declined to be a dictator in wartime, thus hinting that Napoleon was one in peacetime. Shrewd Laugel noted: “The masses’ instinct has maybe given them a better insight than the jealous sagacity of the politicians into this strange character, with such shrewdness blended with such good nature, with such kindness blended with such irony, but in which can be found above all honesty, patriotism and unselfishness” (Laugel 782).

18Except for a few observers, the realities of the challenges faced by Lincoln were still hidden: Right and left held to their preconceived views of what was correct for the United States and judged Lincoln accordingly, borrowing their arguments from Radical Republicans, Southerners and compromisers respectively. Ignorance of the U.S. political system and what it meant practically to run the country were compounded by a lack of perception of the efficiency of Lincoln’s rhetoric skills and oratory. His were so different from the revered French elite’s style. His texts where poorly translated while the subtexts of American discourse—including Biblical language—were not understood. He was thought both bombastic and dull. The expression of his moral quandaries seemed contrived or irrelevant.

19Beyond issues of style and content, the Second Inaugural’s “With malice towards none” was met with surprise in France by enemies who saw him as a tyrant and friends who praised his firmness. No Frenchman would have used this humbled tone when celebrating victory. But no one had much time to probe further since Lincoln was shot on April 14th and his death instantly promoted him into a frozen Pantheon.

Mask of Tragedy, April 1865 and Beyond

20The assassination created consensus on Lincoln’s moral stature and greatness. Some conservatives noted that his last expressed views were “wise and conciliatory” and praised his “relative moderation, rarely found among favorites of the fortune coming out from the dust and called to lead a great social revolution by an extraordinary combination of unexpected circumstances” (Derome 152–53). The news of his demise that reached France on April 27 swelled the chorus of praise in dozens of lengthy obituaries. Conservatives tended to emphasize the private Lincoln while the Left insisted on the political side.

21This consensus was soon shattered. On April 29, three thousand students marched to the U.S. legation, chanting “Vive l’Amérique! Vive la liberté!” Since political gatherings were forbidden, the police dispersed the students, and made a few arrests. Those who managed to speak to diplomat John Bigelow drew a clear parallel with the French situation: “We, the young, to whom the future belongs, must have the courage to learn how a people who has made itself free can keep its freedom” (Sancton 126–28).

22On the same day, the government paid a self-serving homage to the slain American president, extolling his “indomitable energy which belongs only to strong souls and was the necessary condition for the fulfillment of great duties” (Isambert 1). The Left, taking advantage of the fact that the regime was caught in the official celebration, stressed Lincoln’s working-class origins and his defense of democracy. It further capitalized on the Lincoln theme by launching a campaign to raise money for a medal to be given to Lincoln’s widow, from May 1865 to November 1866.

23Lincoln as symbol did not outlive this flame-up of 1865–1866. Praise for Lincoln and the American system on the French Republican side lacked understanding of either. In 1869–1870, American examples were constantly used to denounce the late liberalization of the Empire as a fraud; but as soon as Napoleon III exited the political scene, the American model was completely forgotten and the new regime was rather fashioned after the English parliamentary system. The Civil War president’s image had become clearer between 1864 and April 1865, and this trend might have continued, but Booth’s bullet consigned him to the role of civil saint, with a slightly musty smell, in no way that of a great statesman. 



[1]  Lynn M. Case and Warren F. Spencer, The United States and France: Civil War Diplomacy, Philadelphia, U of Pennsylvania P, 1970; Serge Gavronsky, The French Liberal Opposition and the American Civil War, New York, Humanities P, 1968; Barbara Russell Karsky, L’influence d’Abraham Lincoln sur les libéraux et les démocrates français du Second Empire, Diss. Université de Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, 1969.

Works Cited

Aucaigne, Félix. Untitled article. La Patrie 12 Nov. 1864. Print.

“Correspondance de Londres.” Revue britannique Dec. 1860. Print.

Derome, Léopold. “Une phase nouvelle de la crise américaine.” La Revue contemporaine (May 1865) : 149–174. Print.

Duvergier de Hauranne, Ernest. Les Etats-Unis pendant la guerre de Sécession. Ed. Albert Krebs. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1966. Print.

Grenier, Jules. “Télégraphie Privée.”.Le Temps 9 Oct. 1862. Print.

Isambert, Gustave. “Télégraphie privée.” Le Temps 2 May 1865. Print.

Laugel, Auguste. “Les États-Unis pendant la guerre. I. L’Élection présidentielle de 1864.” Revue des deux mondes 15 Dec. 1864 : 777–801. Print.

Laugel, Auguste. “La guerre civile aux Etats-Unis, 1861–1863.” Revue des deux mondes 15 Oct. 1863: 872–97. Print.

Limatrac, Paulin. “Guerre d’Amérique.” Le Constitutionnel 8 June 1862. Print.

Martin, Henri-Marie. “Editorial.” Le Constitutionnel 21 Nov. 1860. Print.

Sancton, Thomas Alexander. America in the Eyes of the French Left, 1848–1871. Diss. Oxford University, 1978. Print.


Jacques Portes is Professor emeritus of American History at Paris VIII Vincennes university. He has published extensively on US and Canadian history, notably on US presidents: Une génération américaine: De Kennedy à Bush, Paris : Armand Colin, 2004; Lyndon Johnson: Le paradoxe américain, Paris: Payot, 2007; Obama à l’épreuve du pouvoir, Paris: Payot, 2012. He is a recognized specialist of Franco-American relations: Fascination and Misgivings: The United States in French Opinion, 1870–1914, transl. Elborg Forster, New York, Cambridge UP, 2000.

Suggested Citation

Portes, Jacques. “The Hidden Lincoln in French Opinion.” American Studies Journal 60 (2016). Web. 19 Jul. 2024. DOI 10.18422/60-09.


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