This week I heard William Pederson of Louisiana State University and director of the International Lincoln Center speak on Abraham Lincoln’s global influence, focusing on Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Evidently there wasn’t time to cover Europe.
Peterson recounted that the founder of modern China, Sun Yat-Sen, was a Lincoln admirer who translated the Gettysburg Address into Chinese. Chiang Kai-Shek would later publish postage stamps jointly featuring Lincoln and Sun. Chinese communist premier Zhou Enlai as a young man published a newspaper whose slogan was Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people and for the people.” If only he had remained faithful to Lincoln’s concept! The 1989 Tiananmen Square protesters featured Lincoln’s words. (I’m told by a Chinese friend that students growing up in China are commonly taught to memorize the Gettysburg Address.)
In India Gandhi cited Lincoln as one of his most admired people. Nehru’s office featured both a Lincoln portrait and sculpture of Lincoln’s hands. In Japan Hirohito had his own bust of Lincoln. In Vietnam Ho Chi Minh translated the Gettysburg Address into Vietnamese, although his later communist dictatorship hardly heeded its words.
Mexico has more schools named for Lincoln than any country outside the U.S. In Cuba Jose Marti, Fulgencio Batista, and Fidel Castro all admired Lincoln. Marti owned a Lincoln bust, while Batista and Castro had Lincoln portraits. Cuba has published Lincoln stamps. If only it had followed Lincoln’s example. An early Argentine president wrote the first Spanish biography of Lincoln. In 1950s Venezuela American composer and director Aaron Copeland performed his famous Lincoln Portrait at a stadium, prompting thousands excitedly to rise, some shouting “of the people, by the people and for the people,” prompting the dictator of that day to leave the stadium, and was afterwards soon overthrown.
In Africa, revolutionary heroes of Algeria and Ghana, among others, admired Lincoln, as did Nelson Mandela, whose policy of national reconciliation was modeled on Lincoln’s words “with malice towards none.” Further examples of global Lincoln admiration abound. Not all admirers politically replicated Lincoln’s commitment to democracy. But nearly every country and leader sincerely hearkening to his example, even if falling short of a very tall order, have done so to the benefit of their population. Who is a better model for a free people?
Lincoln’s incomparable legacy is central to America’s story to the world, and his memory unfailingly burnishes American imagery and influence among humanity. Lincoln embodied some of America’s highest ideals about liberty, fair treatment and equality for all, mercy, justice, reconciliation, and appreciation for self-governing common people. Lincoln is an ongoing rebuttal to every tyrant, dictatorship, kleptocracy, and bigotry.
Peoples and nations everywhere aspire to transcend purpose and historical significance. Some look to radical Islam, some to Marxism, some to ethnic chauvinism or extreme nationalisms. And some look to Lincoln as the personification of American constitutional democracy. To the extent often lost humanity looks to and is inspired by Lincoln, humanity is ennobled, the world is a little less dangerous, and America is a little safer.
How America presents its ideals to the world is central to American purpose and security. The world is always watching. An America that betrays or minimizes Lincoln’s commitment to and martyrdom for democracy based on human dignity conceived by biblical anthropology is an America the world will not respect much less admire or be substantively influenced by. An America that strives to fulfill Lincoln’s vision for government of the people, by the people and for the people will always unsettle tyrants and embolden friends of freedom and human decency.