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.
This sentiment was not fully shared among the upper classes in countries with an entrenched nobility. During the conflict, some aristocrats throughout Europe felt more kinship with the plantation owners of Mississippi than the workingmen of Pennsylvania or Massachusetts. Conservative governments nevertheless mourned Lincoln as a symbol of law’s triumph over rebellion. Nowhere was this contrast more visible than in Portugal, where the House of Peers praised the American president as a just and merciful conqueror, while the Jornal da Lisboa published a labor leader’s speech that exalted Lincoln as the “emancipator of the slaves.”
Lincoln’s approach to slavery evolved over the course of his presidency, and he only pushed for full abolition in the closing year of his life. This nuance was lost on overseas mourners, who frequently hailed him as a martyr in the struggle against slavery. “As the emancipator of all the slaves in the United States, Abraham Lincoln is entitled to the gratitude of all mankind,” wrote the leaders of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in London. Colombian President Manuel Murillo praised Lincoln for “erasing the stigma of an odious institution.” Emancipation societies throughout Europe hailed his struggle and sacrifice.
The Lincoln-as-martyr narrative was irresistible, even in the most anodyne of analyses. “Had Lincoln been a vain man he might almost have ambitioned such a death,” mused the London Morning Star. “The weapon of the murderer has made sure for him an immortal place in history.” Perhaps the most extravagant tribute came from La Opinion, in Bogota, Colombia.
In the vulgar sense of human language, Abraham Lincoln was certainly not a great man. He had not the dazzling prestige of victorious achievements in war; he was not a conqueror of peoples and countries…But he possessed something greater than all of these, which all the splendors of earthly glory cannot equal. He was the instrument of God.
The Divine Spirit, which in another day of regeneration took the form of an [sic] humble artisan of Galilee, had again clothed itself in the flesh and bones of a man of lowly birth and degree. That man was Abraham Lincoln, the liberator and savior of the great republic of modern times. That irresistible force, called an idea, seized upon an obscure and almost common man, burnt him with its holy fire, purified him in its crucible, and raised him to the apex of human greatness—even to being redeemer of a whole race of men.
A preacher in the Kingdom of Hawaii managed to weave these narratives together into a cohesive whole. “It is also comforting to think that Abraham Lincoln, the poor man’s friend, the emancipator of the oppressed, the chosen champion of liberty and law, died at a time and in a manner most favorable for his own already illustrious fame,” he told a mourning crowd at a memorial service in Honolulu. “And so, as a martyr for liberty, is his memory most securely embalmed in the grateful hearts of an affectionate people.”