9/01/2015 Chris Karlesky

Global Image for the Railsplitter

This magazine article is part of Summer 2015 / Issue 82

Frontiersman and Great Emancipator? An F&M professor offers a new perspective on the life and presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

The image of young Abraham Lincoln was etched into the 19th-century American consciousness: a strong Midwesterner wielding his ax in the forest, sleeves rolled up and sweat pouring from his brow. Driven by a formidable work ethic, the skilled woodsman splits logs by the hundreds to make rail fences.

Lincoln’s rural background became a political symbol during his 1860 presidential run, when he was dubbed “the railsplitter candidate.” It endeared him to voters, especially working men in the North, says Franklin & Marshall Professor of History and American Studies Louise Stevenson. In the 1920s and 1930s, the popular biography by Carl Sandburg and films such as John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” propelled the railsplitter image into the 20th century.

But Stevenson knows a different, more global Lincoln. She sees the young man who twice took a raft to New Orleans, where he learned about global cultures at a key port in the Atlantic world of commerce. She appreciates his self-education through reading, especially of Captain James Riley’s “Narrative,” which taught him about the evils of slavery in Africa and the process of emancipation. And she is intrigued by his decision to grow a beard—a feature Lincoln began sporting, she argues, because he sought to fashion himself, through his ideas and appearance, after the model of European statesman and political reformers such as Lajos Kossuth of Hungary.

“Lincoln was a man of America shaped by the world,” Stevenson says. “We think of him only in terms of saving the Union, and that he’s a great emancipator. I want to put those perspectives in the context of world history.”

Stevenson’s research on Lincoln has resulted in a new book, “Lincoln in the Atlantic World,” published by Cambridge University Press. The work offers a view of Lincoln as a global republican—a man who realized the importance of his nation as republicans in the Atlantic world struggled to establish governments dependent on the consent of the governed. The book will soon be available at the F&M Bookstore and through Amazon. As an expression of thanks to the College and its students, the professor will donate royalties from the book’s first year in print to F&M.

“This book is a striking contribution to Lincoln studies,” says Richard Carwardine, president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and winner of the prestigious Lincoln Prize for his work on the president's life. “Professor Stevenson demonstrates how well the percipient Union president understood what the American republic meant to aspiring democrats worldwide.”

  • Louise Stevenson


Letters to Lincoln

Stevenson has long had a passion for all things Lincoln. Three decades ago her father gave her eight volumes of Lincoln’s writing—she read them all in the course of a summer, developing a sense of pride in the president's thoughtfulness and impact on the world.

Five years ago, she unearthed the seeds for her book in the stacks of F&M’s Shadek-Fackenthal Library, home to an 1866 volume of diplomatic correspondence that contains letters and memorials from around the world composed in response to Lincoln’s death. Stevenson was shocked to discover that scholars had not analyzed its contents. The documents, she says, inspire awe by running far beyond notes of sympathy from kings, queens and prime ministers; everyday people around the globe felt the reverberations after the fatal shot fired by John Wilkes Booth.

“The global view was that leaders of republics should not be killed,” Stevenson says. “They’re both elected and removed from office by the vote of the people, so Lincoln’s death seemed an anomaly and came as a shock.”

More important to the world community, according to the professor, was the idea that the U.S. was a model republic. “From 1776 to 1860, European history had demonstrated the failure of republics to endure, and in South America the anti-colonial revolutions had not resulted in stable republics,” she says. “Think of Napoleon III’s rise to power in France and Mexico’s unstable history after the country gained its independence. In so many countries republicanism was in jeopardy. That the U.S. should continue to exist as a republic held incredible importance for liberals trying to establish representative governments in their own countries.”

To illustrate Lincoln’s global impact, Stevenson opens her iPad and points to a Google map of the world highlighting places associated with Lincoln. Colorful pin marks dot all corners of the globe. There’s the city of Lincoln, Argentina, Lincoln University in Ghana, Abraham Lincoln Street in Kyrenia, Cyprus—and hundreds of others.

“People of the world love Lincoln,” Stevenson says. “And in the 1860s, they loved the republican example of the United States.”


A Shining Moment in History

Several students who helped bring the Lincoln book to publication were among the first people to encounter Stevenson’s research and writing. Phil Ehrig ’13, Kristina Montville ’14, Rick Thoben ’14 and Emily Hawk ’16 worked with the professor through the College’s Hackman Scholars Program, in which students conduct high-level work to support research by faculty members. Additionally, students in the College’s “Lincoln” seminar suggested revisions during discussion of the manuscript.

“I learned more working on [the book] than I did in any of my courses at F&M,” Ehrig says. “Given F&M’s academic rigor and how much I learned in my classes, that should say something. Professor Stevenson covered an enormous amount of source material to provide a portrait of President Lincoln that we hadn’t previously seen.”

Stevenson’s work spurred the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation to invite her to submit an essay for its book on the Gettysburg Address, “Gettysburg Replies: The World Responds to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.” The professor joined a distinguished group of national figures—including each of the five living presidents—whose essays appeared in the museum’s gallery last year.

“We read the Gettysburg Address and see the phrase ‘all men are created equal,’ and think of it in black and white terms,” Stevenson says. “But he was actually talking about immigrants, as well. He had absorbed global lessons about republicanism, which broadens our understanding of the address. ‘All men are created equal’ meant that all men of whatever color or national origin possessed equal rights under national law.

“When I was writing the book, I thought of the people who view Lincoln primarily as a savior of the Union. But for me, he was much more. Here is a shining moment in our national history when the United States was seen as an outstanding example of republicanism. The U.S. was exceptional then because it was a republic that had not split apart and its government had not devolved to dictatorship. People of the Atlantic world saw Lincoln as an exceptional ruler.”


  • A Rail Splitter newspaper from 1864 includes an item titled “Kind Words from Sweden.” A Rail Splitter newspaper from 1864 includes an item titled “Kind Words from Sweden.” Image Credit: F&M Archives
  • Condolences to Mary Lincoln and the people of the United States came from hundreds of towns and organizations around the world. Some of the most remarkable came from the United Kingdom and were submitted to the U.S. Ministry in London for forwarding to Washington. Condolences to Mary Lincoln and the people of the United States came from hundreds of towns and organizations around the world. Some of the most remarkable came from the United Kingdom and were submitted to the U.S. Ministry in London for forwarding to Washington. Image Credit: Courtesy of Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
“Lincoln was a man of America shaped by the world.”
Her book that examines letters from around the world delivered to the White House after Lincoln's death prompted the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation in Springfield, Ill., to invite Stevenson to submit an essay for its book on the Gettysburg Address.
Professor Louise Stevenson
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