How the first Republican president was viewed in London.
Another entry on George Bush’s trip to London (Two entries in one day? The President should leave town more often. -ed.) occasioned by my remembering some of my studies of foreign policy during the American Civil War. Lest anyone think that hostility towards American Presidents is a new thing in London, here’s how Abe Lincoln and his evil puppeteer Seward were seen by the chattering classes back in the day:
For some reason partly connected with American sources, British society had begun with violent social prejudice against Lincoln, Seward, and all the republican leaders except Sumner. Familiar as the whole tribe of Adamses had been for three generations with the impenetrable stupidity of the British mind, and wary of the long struggle to teach it its own interests, the fourth generation could still not quite persuade itself that this new British prejudice was natural. The private secretary suspected that Americans in New York and Boston had something to do with it. The copperhead was at home in Pall Mall. Naturally the Englishman was a course animal and liked coarseness. Had Lincoln and Seward been the ruffians supposed, the average Englishman would have liked them the better.
London was altogether beside itself on one point, in especial; it created a nightmare of its own, and gave it the shape of Abraham Lincoln. Behind this it placed another demon, if possible more devilish, and called it Mr. Seward. In regard to these two men, English society seemed demented. Defense was useless; explanation was vain; one could only let the passion exhaust itself. One’s best friends were as unreasonable as enemies, for the belief in poor Mr. Lincoln’s brutality and Seward’s ferocity became a dogma of popular faith. The last time Henry Adams saw Thackeray, before his sudden death at Christmas in 1863, was in entering the house of Sir Henry Holland for an evening reception. Thackeray was pulling on his coat downstairs, laughing because, in his usual blind way, he had stumbled into the wrong house and not found it out till he shook hands with old Sir Henry, whom he knew very well, but who was not the host he expected. Then his tone changed as he spoke of his—and Adams’s—friend Mrs. Frank Hampton of South Carolina, whom he had loved as Sally Baxter and painted as Ethel Newcome. Though he had never quite forgiven her marriage, his warmth of feeling revived when he heard that she had died of consumption at Columbia while her parents and sister were refused permission to pass through the lines to see her. In speaking of it, Thackeray’s voice trembled and his eyes filled tears. The coarse cruelty of Lincoln and his hirelings was notorious. He never doubted that the Federals made a business of harrowing the tenderest feelings of women—particularly of women—in order to punish their opponents. On quite insufficient evidence he burst into violent reproach. Had Adams carried in his pocket the proofs that the reproach was unjust, he would have gained nothing by showing them. At that moment, Thackeray and all London society with him, needed the nervous relief of expressing emotion; for if Mr. Lincoln was not what they said he was,–what were they?
For like reason, the members of the Legation kept silence, even in private, under the boorish Scotch jibes of Carlyle. If Carlyle was wrong, his diatribes would give his true measure, and this measure would be a low one, for Carlyle was not likely to be more sincere or more sound in one thought than in another. The proof that a philosopher does not know what he is talking about is apt to sadden his followers before it reacts on himself. Demolition of one’s idols is painful, and Carlyle had been an idol. Doubts cast on his stature spread far into general darkness like shadows of a setting sun. Not merely the idols fell, but also the habits of faith. If Carlyle, too, was a fraud, what were his scholars and school?
The matter of quarrel was General Butler’s famous woman-order at New Orleans, but the motive was the belief in President Lincoln’s brutality that had taken such deep root in the British mind.
A lot has changed from the 1860s. A lot. But sometimes it’s worth looking back and seeing just how little some mindsets have changed.