In 1861, free institutions seemed poised to carry all before them. In Russia, Tsar Alexander II emancipated 22 million serfs. In Germany, lawmakers dedicated to free constitutional principles prepared to assert civilian control over Prussia’s feudal military caste. In America, Abraham Lincoln entered the White House pledged to a revolutionary policy of excluding human bondage from the nation’s territories.

The new machinery of freedom, though Anglo-American in design, was universal in scope. At its core was the idea, as yet imperfectly realized, that all human beings possess a fundamental dignity. This was a truth that, Abraham Lincoln believed, was “applicable to all men and all times.” In 1861, the faith that all men have a right to life, liberty, and the fruits of their industry was invoked as readily on the Rhine and the Neva as on the Potomac and the Thames.

But in the decade that followed, a reaction gathered momentum. Around the world, privilege rose up to defend its prerogatives. In Russia, in Germany, and in America, grandees with their backs against the wall met the challenge of liberty with a new philosophy of coercion.

It was founded on two ideas. The first: paternalism. Landowners in Russia and in the American South argued that their domestic institutions embodied the paternal principle: the bondsman had, in his master, a compassionate father to look after him, and thus was better off than the worker in the cruel world of free labor. In Germany, Prussian aristocrats sought to implement a paternal code designed to make the masses more subservient to the state. The paternalists, Lord Macaulay wrote disapprovingly, wanted to “regulate the school, overlook the playground, fix the hours of labour and recreation, prescribe what ballads shall be sung, what tunes shall be played, what books shall be read, what physic shall be swallowed.”

The second idea was militant nationalism—the right of certain (superior) peoples to impose their wills on other (inferior) peoples. Planters in the American South dreamed of enslaving Central America and the Caribbean. Germany’s nationalists aspired to incorporate Danish, French, and Polish provinces into a new German Reich. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Panslav nationalists sought to rout the Ottoman Turks and impose Russia’s will on Byzantium.

Lincoln recognized that the West had reached a turning point. The decisive question of the epoch, he said, was whether free constitutions could survive and prosper in the world, or whether they possessed an “inherent, and fatal weakness” that doomed them to a premature degeneration. Could America—or any nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal—“long endure”?

It was not improbable, Lincoln said, that if the new philosophy of coercion were permitted to advance, human bondage would become lawful in all the American “States, old as well as newNorth as well as South.” America would witness the “total overthrow” of free-state principles: it would become a country in which “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.”

But it was not only in America that free institutions were threatened. Lincoln repeatedly characterized the struggle between freedom and servitude as a global one. The outcome of the American contest between the two philosophies would, he predicted, have a great—possibly a decisive—influence on the future of liberty. Were the American Republic to shatter on the anvil of slavery, men and women around the world would suffer. If, on the contrary, the United States were saved on principles of freedom, “millions of free happy people, the world over,” Lincoln said, would “rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.”

Scholars have criticized Lincoln for exaggerating the threat to liberty; but it is important to understand how formidable, in his day, the odds against free institutions seemed. The new philosophy of coercion was dangerous precisely because it went to the heart of the free-state ideal: it attacked the principle that all men were created equal. The “definitions and axioms of free society” were, Lincoln said,

denied, and evaded, with no small show of success. One dashingly calls them “glittering generalities”; another bluntly calls them “self evident lies”; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to “superior races.” These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect—the supplanting of the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads, plotting against the people. They are the van-guard—the miners, and sappers—of returning despotism. We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us.

In the fall of 1862, when Lincoln told Congress, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best, hope of earth,” the fate of liberty hung in the balance in three great nations: Russia, where Alexander II sought to promote liberal reform; Germany, where Otto von Bismarck applied his dark genius to the destruction of the Rechtsstaat (rule-of-law state); and America itself.

Those three powers—Russia, Germany, and the United States—would go on to dominate the twentieth century. Only one did not become a slave empire. Had Lincoln not forced his revolution in 1861, American slavery might have survived into the twentieth century, deriving fresh strength from new weapons in the coercive arsenal—“scientific” racism, social Darwinism, jingoistic imperialism, the ostensibly benevolent doctrines of paternalism. The coercive party in America, unbroken in spirit, might have realized its dream of a Caribbean slave empire. Cuba and the Philippines, after their conquest by the United States, might have become permanent slave colonies. Such a nation would have had little reason to resist Bismarck’s Second Reich, Hitler’s third one, or Russia’s Bolshevik empire.

The historical probabilities would have been no less grim had Lincoln, after initiating his revolution, failed to preserve the U.S. as a unitary free state. The Southern Republic, having gained its independence, would almost certainly have formed alliances with regimes grounded in its own coercive philosophy; the successors of Jefferson Davis would have had every incentive to link arms with the successors of Otto von Bismarck.

None of this came to pass. The virtue of Lincoln preserved the liberties of America. In the decades that followed, the nation that he saved played a decisive part in vindicating the freedom of peoples around the world.

Photo by Nicholas Shepherd/Getty Images


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