The World Reacts to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Again.

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

In the aftermath of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, the Department of State received a cascade of condolences and expressions of grief from around the world.  Those messages came from government officials, major institutions, newspapers, and private citizens.  Subsequently, the Department published those communications as an appendix to the then-new series Papers Relating to Foreign Affairs, now known as Foreign Relations of the United States, for 1865.  That volume is entitled The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Late President of the United States of America, and the Attempted Assassination of William H. Seward, Secretary of State, and Frederick W. Seward, Assistant Secretary, on the Evening of the 14th of April, 1865.  Many of the extant condolence letters now constitute Entry A1-177:  Foreign Messages on the Death of Abraham Lincoln, 1865 (NAID 1079739), in RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. 

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln...and Attempted Assassination of william H. Seward, Secretary of State

In recent years, those condolence massages have attracted attention from numerous scholars and others.  Surprisingly, what has gone unnoticed is that there was another, albeit smaller, wave of messages relating to this topic.  The second round is the reaction to the distribution of the memorial volume as a thank you for the original expression of condolence.  Those records now constitute RG 59 Entry A1-18: Letters Acknowledging Receipt of “Tribute of the Nations to Abraham Lincoln” (NAID 782692) .

As with the first wave, these messages – there are about 350 of them – are a mix of the official, the semi-official, and the unofficial in origin.  While mostly of a mundane nature, even if in somewhat flowery language, some of these acknowledgments include further encomiums to President Lincoln or expressions of grief over his assassination.  A few of the acknowledgements come from domestic sources, but the vast majority come from foreign sources, and almost all of those originate in Great Britain. 

Among those of domestic reactions are:

1. Letter from Senator James Harlan of Iowa on beautiful U.S. Senate stationery:

stationary is an engraving of the US Capitol
April 28, 1868

2. Letter from the British consul in New York City:

April 16, 1868

3. Letter from the French consul in New York City:

As noted above, almost all the thank you messages of foreign origin come from Britain.  This latter circumstance probably stems from the note accompanying the volume when it was distributed there.  In May 1868, the Department of State sent 12 crates of the memorial volume to the U.S. legation in London for distribution in the British Isles.  At that time, the senior U.S. diplomat in London was Benjamin Moran, who was serving as the Chargé d’Affaires.  In his note, Moran wrote that he would “be pleased to receive and forward to his Government acknowledgment of the reception” of the book.  While people simply may have been politely responding to that note, it does not lessen or explain away the effusion of enthusiasm for the volume or for Lincoln.

Among the numerous acknowledgments from British sources are the following:

1. Note from the Prime Minister’s office:

2. The Clerk of the House of Lords sent a note enclosing the following formal communication with an account of proceedings and resolution:

3. The Clerk of the House of Commons sent a note enclosing the following formal communication and resolution:

4. Note from the Governor of the Bank of England:

July 28, 1868

5. Note from the Mayor of Belfast:

July 31, 1868

6. Note from the Editor of The Times:

7. Note from the Editor of the Daily Telegraph:

8. Four examples of the notices printed by some newspapers upon receipt of the volume:

Sources:  All the documents come from Letters Acknowledging Receipt of “Tribute of the Nations to Abraham Lincoln” (NAID 782692), Entry A1-18, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. 

For more information about the international reaction to the assassination  of Abraham Lincoln see:

  • Aaron Marrs, Office of the Historian, Department of State, “International Reaction to Lincoln’s Death
  • Richard Cowardine and Jay Sexton, eds. The Global Lincoln (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • Louise L. Stevenson, Lincoln in the Atlantic World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Cover Image: Death of President Lincoln, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana, Library of Congress

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