By Sandra Kaiser, Minister Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in London.
History is not always linear; sometimes it runs in intersecting circles.
On February 12, President Obama visited Springfield, Illinois, to commemorate the 200th birthday of another skinny lawyer from Illinois who seemingly came out of nowhere to capture the American presidency. Abraham Lincoln, probably our greatest president, led the U.S. at another time of crisis, when our Civil War threatened the very existence of the American nation-state.
Descended from poor immigrants originally from Norfolk, Lincoln was creased by melancholy. Abandoned as a child with his young sister for months while living in the brutal wilderness of frontier Kentucky, losing his mother and several other loved ones at an early age marked Lincoln for life.
Lincoln was also an unforgettable speaker and a writer of terse genius, buoyed by an unsinkable sense of humor. He had the nerve and self-confidence to bring one-time rivals into government, using their drive, experience and passion to save the American union and finally draw the poison of slavery out of the American body politic. One of those rivals, Secretary of State William Seward, managed to prevent Britain from entering the war on the side of the South, which could have tipped the balance early on and later would have prolonged the agony of the Civil War.
What Lincoln began with the Emancipation Proclamation, a presidential decision which in 1863 committed America to ending slavery, President Obama finished up with a resounding victory in the 2008 presidential election. Lincoln’s actions laid the foundations of President Obama’s inauguration last month. These two events, separated by 135 years of civil rights struggle, are bound together today as surely as America’s “more perfect Union.”
Another, more obscure historical ring links Britain, Abraham Lincoln and President Obama. In 1889, after weeks of speculation on whether a member of a politically prominent American family would be nominated to be American Minister to the Court of St. James, then-President Harrison nominated Robert Todd Lincoln to represent the U.S. in Britain. A staid Chicago lawyer, Lincoln’s name came up frequently as a potential presidential candidate in U.S. political circles, although he was uninterested in public office.
When arriving in Britain in May 1889 to take up his duties, Robert Todd Lincoln sailed into Liverpool, which a century earlier had been at the center of the transatlantic slave trade. Some 1.5 million slaves had been shipped to the Americas from Liverpool between 1700 and 1800, and the grand buildings Lincoln saw as he came into the harbor were built with blood money from a trade that his father had ended.
Accompanied to Britain by his family, including his son Abraham Lincoln II, Robert Todd Lincoln presented his credentials to Queen Victoria at Windsor that May. As chief American representative from 1889 to 1893, he would oversee a move into a new American chancery at 4 Grosvenor Gardens, serve as pall bearer at the funeral of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and read the newly published Mark Twain novel, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
Most wrenching of all, Robert Todd Lincoln would watch his son Abraham Lincoln II, who had the physique and personality of his grandfather, die a slow death in London at the age of 17 from blood poisoning. “Jack,” as his son was known, had been sent to Paris to study for his Harvard entrance exams. He had a carbuncle lanced by a French surgeon, and infection set in. The family brought the boy back to be treated by London doctors, but he died in March 1890 at the American official residence at 2 Cromwell Houses in Kensington.
Most of the Lincoln family is buried in Springfield, where President Obama paid tribute last week. Robert Todd Lincoln and his family, including his son, are buried in Arlington Cemetery, where his widow insisted he be honored for his own unique contributions to America.
One of those contributions may have involved maintaining British acquiescence for bringing the “Sandwich Islands,” as Hawaii was known then, closer to the American sphere. Lincoln reported to Washington on London press accounts saying the British assumed the U.S. would annex Hawaii, while in early 1893 the British Ambassador in Washington disavowed to the Secretary of State any territorial ambitions in that part of the Pacific.
It’s not hard to imagine the senior U.S. official in Britain engaging prime ministers Salisbury and Gladstone on this issue of intense American interest, although no specific records of these conversations remain. If Britain had decided to contest Hawaii, President Obama might not have been born in the United States. History and destiny link the U.S. and Britain in sometimes surprising ways. As our 44th president honors our 16th president in Springfield, the circle of history draws a little tighter.