Abraham Lincoln in Korea

Abraham Lincoln in Korea

By Brian Dirck, Anderson University

In early 2019 I received an invitation to deliver a speech about Abraham Lincoln in Seoul, South Korea. I was initially taken aback. Abraham Lincoln? In South Korea?

In retrospect this should not have been a surprise; Lincoln is a major American global export. There are statues of our sixteenth president in Mexico City, Mexico, London, England, and Edinburgh, Scotland. The town of Lincoln, Argentina, recently installed a bronze bust of the sixteenth American president in their central square. Russian residents of Moscow unveiled a sculpture in 2011 of Lincoln (freeing the slaves) and Czar Alexander II (freeing the serfs) shaking hands. On a more personal level, while visiting Japan in August 2018, I stumbled upon a restaurant called the “Abraham Lincoln House” in an Osaka shopping district, where this establishment’s sign was the only English language visible.

What does the world see in Lincoln? To be sure, not everyone outside the United States finds him an inspirational figure. He is not altogether popular in France, where he was viewed during the Civil War—fairly or not—as both a potential dictator and a tardy actor on the stage of human freedom and emancipation, viewpoints which color French opinion down to the present day. Italians likewise believed Lincoln was too reluctant an emancipator, and more generally European socialists were not comfortable with Lincoln and his party’s unabashed embrace of free market capitalism.[1]

But overall, Lincoln offers a positive representation of American values for most of the world, a process that began during his lifetime. Historian Richard Carwardine wrote it was doubtful “that Lincoln, even when Confederates laid down their arms in April 1865, appreciated just how far he had stirred the hearts and minds of sympathizers at home and abroad.” Germans for example typically revere Lincoln, his image particularly resonating during the Cold War. In 1959, West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt visited Springfield and spoke eloquently about safeguarding Lincolnian ideals of democracy before a banner quoting Lincoln’s House Divided Speech.[2]

The Surrender of General Lee and His Entire Army 71.2009.081.0609

Brandt’s audience would not have found much difficulty drawing parallels between Lincoln’s North/South split and Germany’s East/West divide. But as Carwardine points out, Lincoln was a man who “cast American nationalism not in ethnic or racial terms but as a moral force for the improvement of mankind, a beacon of liberty to the world.” People turn to Lincoln for inspiration not only because of his specific circumstances—author of the Emancipation Proclamation and leader of a nation during a civil war that occurred over one hundred fifty years ago—but also because he speaks to more fundamental, abstract issues and challenges that transcend national borders.[3]

All of which begged the question: what would South Koreans see in Abe? What would that nation and that culture find inspiring or useful in the Lincoln story?

I approached these questions from an embarrassing perspective of ignorance. I had never visited Korea and knew little of Korean culture or history beyond the basics. Nor did I have much time for research. The invitation came in February 2018, during a dinner at the annual Abraham Lincoln Symposium in Springfield, Illinois; the Korean Abraham Lincoln Association’s event was scheduled for April. With only two months between the time I received the invitation and my departure, I could not pretend (then or now) to possess any real expertise on Korea.

But I gathered what information I could; and some aspects of Korean history and culture stood out, as they related to Abraham Lincoln and his legacy. First, the idea of a common Korean national community has long posed challenges, and for a far longer period of time than the current division between North and South. Korea’s origins lie in the unification of the “three kingdoms” of Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla, which co-existed on the Korean peninsula fifteen hundred years ago. The common national culture which eventually resulted from the melding of these three kingdoms was a mix of many different ingredients, ranging from common forms of bureaucracy to language, customs and the Korean traditional religion of Muism. National identity is often a fragile thing, an act of creating a shared “imagined community” (to borrow Benedict Anderson’s felicitous phrase) requiring persistent effort. Korea has always faced challenges in this regard; and this was also true of the United States in Lincoln’s day, with its crisscrossing currents of different regional, ethnic, political, and socioeconomic elements.[4]

Second, Koreans underwent a period of immense change and upheaval, born from the ravages of the Korean War in the 1950s, that was comparable to the American South during the American Civil War and afterwards. The cost in human lives and suffering on the Korean peninsula was staggering: an estimated 5 million deaths, or approximately 10 percent of the total population. Civil War deaths (estimates ranging from 620,000 to 750,000) were considerably fewer, and constituted a smaller overall proportion of the American population at around 2 percent. Nevertheless, modern Koreans can certainly understand the deep reach of large scale warfare, just as Americans of the Civil War era would have been well able to comprehend Korea’s level of suffering, deprivation and death over a century later.[5]

Pratt Emancipation Proclamation 7120090812610

These are some common threads between the Korean experience and the America of Lincoln’s time, and American history overall. But most of all, I was struck by a third issue: questions of reconciliation and forgiveness which challenge South Koreans as they ponder their long and troubled relationship with North Korea.  In North Korea, South Koreans confront the prospect of a large region in their once-unified nation behaving in a morally disturbing and threatening manner, and this following a horrific war during which the different sections of Korea inflicted untold pain and misery upon one another.  Northern and Southern Americans also struggled with sectional bitterness during the years following the Confederacy’s collapse, with prospects for reconciliation often hampered by lingering mutual hostilities and distrust, as well as the manifest evidence of the white South’s barbarous mistreatment of its formerly enslaved population.

Pondering these questions led to a still larger, more fundamental issue: how might those of us who study Abraham Lincoln relate our inquiries to larger topics? This is a matter of avoiding pedanticism and an excessive focus on the details of Lincoln’s life and times, at the expense of unreasonably neglecting other places, lives and times. If we do not occasionally look up from our concentration upon Lincoln and ask how his legacy might be useful to people outside our field of study—not just the fields of Civil War and American history, but also globally—we risk isolating ourselves to the point of irrelevance.

Of course, any comparisons drawn between Lincoln’s life and times and the Korean situation must be drawn carefully, and with an understanding of the limitations of such cross-cultural and cross-historical comparisons; an apples-and-oranges dissonance is a real issue here. Korea’s separation, and therefore the possibility of reunification, functioned in a much different context than Civil War Era America, with Cold War politics and foreign intervention playing a much more significant role.

Where Lincoln himself is concerned, John Wilkes Booth’s bullet rendered his vision of a reconstructed America a preliminary sketch, at best. We cannot know with any degree of confidence what Lincoln would have done to address the problems involved in knitting the nation back together following four years of war and an unprecedented bloodletting. We are left forever wondering how a second-term Lincoln administration might have approached sectional reconciliation, following the hard feelings engendered by the war and in the face of so many white Southerners’ implacable hostility towards the freedmen in their midst.

Nevertheless, Lincoln did begin to think seriously about these matters as the war—and, sadly, his life—drew to a close; and as I began to prepare for my trip, I settled upon reconciliation and forgiveness as the theme in Lincoln’s thought most likely to resonate with a Korean audience. I exchanged emails with Chulho Kim, Professor at Seoul National University and one of the founders of the Korean Abraham Lincoln Society. Professor Kim was enthusiastic about the idea. I also discussed the matter at length with the man who invited me and who would be my companion on the trip, Fred J. Martin. Fred is a past president of the Lincoln Society of Washington, D.C., author of a fine book on Lincoln himself, a good friend and an all-around good guy.

I flew from my home in Indianapolis to San Francisco, where Fred and his wife Shirley acted as very gracious and generous hosts. Fred and I then flew from San Francisco for the thirteen-plus hour trans-oceanic flight to Seoul. We were hosted by Professor Kim, his wife Sunny, and the kind people at Seoul National University, who provided lodging and many excellent meals (I developed a real fondness for bibimbap, as well as Korean azuki red bean paste). While our stay was brief, we were able to do some exploring in daily walks around the university, and during an afternoon in downtown Seoul with Sister Catherine Oh of Seoul Episcopal Cathedral as our companion and guide.

Abraham Lincoln Prest US OC0230

Seoul is a city which has seen much of war. Sister Catherine showed us one of the city’s Eight Gates, built during the Joseon Dynasty in the fourteenth century as part of the city’s defense system from all sorts of potential enemies. Not far from the gate is a statue of General Yi Sun-sin, a famous Korean naval commander who in 1597 repelled a Japanese invasion. And the city was at the heart of the Korean War, changing hands four times between Northern and Southern forces; by the war’s end, Seoul lay devastated, thousands of its homes, factories and other buildings in ruins. While we toured the city, I was struck by its modern architecture, with many interesting and beautiful buildings erected upon the ruins of the old. Fred told me that Seoul looks quite different today from what it had been like during his time stationed in Korea sixty years ago.[6]

The Korean people I encountered were unfailingly gracious and helpful, all the more so when they discovered that Fred is a Korean War veteran. One young man with whom we struck up a conversation while asking directions to a restaurant near the Samsung headquarters could not thank Fred enough for his military service when he learned of Fred’s past. “Thank you! Thank you!” he kept repeating, an effusive smile on his face as he pumped Fred’s hand and bowed. This young man could not have been older than thirty and possessed no living memory of the war, yet he was taught that American soldiers were liberators, and he carried that lesson with him even at his relatively young age; legacy of a hard war which nonetheless had (from his perspective at least) helped foster a democracy and lifestyle he valued.

Any war’s legacy—the American Civil War, the Korean War, or any other major military conflict—is exceedingly complex. I thought of that young man expressing his appreciation to Fred, and I thought of the reception afforded many Northern soldiers from African Americans as Union armies marched through the South. There were tensions, misunderstandings and ugly incidents rooted in the white soldiers’ endemic racism, to be sure, but quite often the newly freed slaves hailed these soldiers as liberators and joined their ranks when allowed to do so. Lincoln scholars and admirers are also familiar with Lincoln’s visit to the fallen Confederate capital city of Richmond in April 1865, when he was surrounded by crowds of freedmen as he walked through the streets. Some knelt in displays of gratitude. “Don’t kneel to me,” the president replied, “that is not right.”[7]

Wars create lasting hatred and bitterness which can take generations to heal. Lincoln well knew this. “See our present condition,” he told a group of African American leaders in August 1862, “the country engaged in war!—our white men cutting one another’s throats, none knowing how far it will extend.” Four months later the president issued his Emancipation Proclamation, and the government began officially recruiting African American soldiers; the throat-cutting would thenceforward be exacerbated by the omnipresent and deep-seated hatreds of racism. Lincoln knew this, too, as he also understood that his relentless press to vigorously prosecute the war—“chew and choke with a bulldog gripe [sic],” he urged General Ulysses S. Grant in the spring of 1864—must inevitably lead to still more suffering and death, and ever deeper and lasting acrimony North and South.[8]

But Lincoln also knew that from the war would come the “new birth of freedom” afforded by emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment. The same war that killed hundreds of thousands of people also afforded him the opportunity to end once and for all an institution which Lincoln had always found morally repugnant, but which before the war he reluctantly recognized enjoyed peacetime constitutional protection.

Herein lay one of the key moral conundrums of the entire Civil War. The war liberated even as it subjugated, it saved as it killed, and in doing so it both muddied and clarified the nation’s moral waters. Did reconciliation mean acceptance of the South’s views on race, the overall purpose of the war, and slavery? Did forgiving one’s enemies also mean an implicit acknowledgement of their cause’s righteousness? Did forgive necessarily mean forget: and not just forgetting the human cost of the war itself, but the human cost of the institution of slavery for which the Confederacy fought? Was a forgiving embrace extended to ex-Confederates pre-conditioned in any way, and how tight must that forgiving embrace be?

Is this not also similar to the conundrum which exists at the heart of the Korean War’s legacy for many South Koreans? North Korea’s constant destabilizing presence in the community of nations, its brutal dictatorship, repressive regime, and manifest violations of human rights have been well-documented. “The people would realize that full human rights are exercised and enjoyed by one person only,” observed a defector from North Korea, “the ruling Kim. He is the only figure in North Korea who exercises freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, his right not to be tortured, imprisoned, or executed without trial, and his right to proper health care and food.”[9]

Few South Koreans would willingly choose to live in such a regime, any more than Northerners might choose to live the life of an enslaved person or sharecropping freedman after the Civil War. Yet South Koreans also seem to harbor a nuanced and generational perspective regarding their northern neighbors, with older Koreans who came of age during and in the years immediately following the war harboring a deep mistrust of the North Korean government, while younger Koreans are either inclined towards some sort of peaceful rapprochement, or evince an apathy born of what is now seventy years of partitioning as their norm. Many express concerns regarding what reunification would look like given North Korea’s relative paucity of resources and weaker economy, bringing to mind shades of Reconstruction and many Northern Americans’ fears that in absorbing the post-slavery South back into the national fold they would be saddled with the South’s economic problems. Asked about North Korea, a Seoul office worker bemoaned, “I don’t want reunification. It is an expensive headache.”[10]

It is not difficult to imagine a similar reaction from an American living in, say, New York when asked about the post-plantation South, circa 1870. One thinks here of the North’s war-weariness that manifested almost immediately upon Lee’s surrender, with Northerners clamoring for demobilization of the Union army as quickly as possible. As Reconstruction’s problems became ever more entrenched and seemed ever more intractable, white Northerners increasingly displayed an earnest desire to move on from the whole affair, seeing in the South their own version of an “expensive headache.” “People are becoming tired of…The negro question, with all its complications, and the Reconstruction of the Southern States, with all its interminable embroilments, have lost much of the power they once wielded,” one Northern newspaper observed.[11]

Both South Koreans and Northerners in Reconstruction America therefore evinced a complicated attitude towards their counterparts. My feeling was that a South Korean audience could relate to the problems Lincoln and the North faced in 1865, as they confronted the postwar questions presented by the Confederacy’s defeat and national reunification. Lincoln’s assassination meant that he was not subject to much of this; still, his words and ideas about just what a postwar America might look like possessed relevance.

The conference occurred in Seoul’s National Assembly Building, located in the Yeouido-dong province of the city, next to the Hangang River. Built in 1975, it is a large and stately modern structure, with twenty-four granite pillars upholding a roof with a beautiful blue dome, representing South Korea’s many different peoples and communities (the pillars) coming together as one in a commitment to democracy (the dome). The Republic of South Korea’s legislature meets here, but it also hosts a variety of other events and organizations, such as our conference.  When we arrived it was quite crowded, with a variety of people moving about as they engaged in the business of government and other activities.

Called the Social Design Conference, the event was co-sponsored by the Korean Abraham Lincoln Society and IIPAC, or International IP ADR Center, a dispute resolution organization specializing in mediation and conflict resolution in matters related to patent laws and intellectual property rights.[12] This would seem to belong in a different world from studying Abraham Lincoln, at least here in the United States, where presentations about historical subjects tend to be isolated among historical roundtables and civic organizations as a recreational activity. But I was struck by how many business and political leaders were present. This included two former Korean prime ministers, an appeals court judge, and the former commissioner of the Korean Baseball League, who was seated next to me. This conference was a serious endeavor, involving accomplished people from all walks of Korean life.

My ruminations on forgiveness and reconciliation in the wake of a ruinous war had led me (perhaps inevitably) to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Given the relatively brief time allotted for my speech—around fifteen minutes—and the necessity to remain focused (always a good idea for any audience) I chose that speech as the centerpiece of my presentation. In seven hundred and one words and around seven minutes, Lincoln would cut right to the heart of the war’s meaning and its legacy. Most of all, in language that, according to a British observer, revealed “a grasp of principle, a dignity of manner, and a solemnity of purpose,” Lincoln provided a profound moral coda to the rapidly ending war, what scholar William J. Wolf called “a charter of Christian statesmanship.”[13]

I began by painting a brief picture of the circumstances surrounding Lincoln’s inaugural address on the afternoon of March 4, 1865: the crowd numbering in the tens of thousands, the ubiquitous presence of African Americans, including the then-novel sight of Black soldiers, the atmosphere of cautious hope with the recent capture of Richmond, Virginia. “The President had a somewhat care-worn look,” one observer noted, “but a cheerfulness of manner, manifesting itself in occasional pleasantry….He had a genial word for occasional visitors, and a ready ear, as always, for whatever had a fair claim to his attention.” Lincoln had forty-one days to live.[14]

I emphasized that the president could not know this would be his fate. To those of us in modern times who enjoy the benefit of hindsight, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is an ending, a great American president’s last major speech. But to Lincoln and his audience that day his speech was a beginning, as much about the future and Reconstruction as it was about the past and the Civil War.

I next referenced the war’s unprecedented level of material destruction, in terms anyone familiar with the ravages of the Korean War could readily understand: ruined towns and cities, bankrupted Southern farms and businesses, cropland laid waste and infrastructure (such as the slaveholding South possessed) heavily damaged or entirely eradicated. Most of all, there were the bodies, the hundreds of thousands of dead Americans North and South, a great expenditure of blood that made for an even more problematic foundation for peace than the expenditure of treasure. There are the raw statistics: 620,000 dead Americans, a figure that has only recently been revised dramatically upwards. But those numbers are so numbing as to lose their emotional impact. Each dead soldier was someone’s son, or possibly someone’s father, husband, or brother. I pointed out to my audience the fact that, for an untold number of families, the exact fate and whereabouts of their dead loved ones would never be known, Civil War governments on both sides being painfully ill-equipped to supply accurate casualty lists. Again, I was sure this would resonate with my Korean audience, since I had read that large numbers of Korean soldiers had likewise disappeared in the maelstrom of the Korean War, never to be heard from again—an estimated 135,000 men, as well as at least seven thousand U.S. servicemen whose remains and identity to this day remain missing.[15]

With malice toward none ZPC-034

I was not entirely sure about the level of knowledge in my audience regarding the American Civil War and its horrendous casualties, but I was reasonably sure many knew of the big battles: Gettysburg, and possibly some of the other larger affairs like Antietam and Shiloh. I suspected Koreans possessed much the same images inhabiting Americans’ mental Civil War landscape: long, serried ranks of soldiers marching across open ground, flags flying in all their glory. I wanted my audience to appreciate the terrible human sacrifice on the major Civil War battlefields, but I also wanted to nudge them away from this a bit. I pointed out that the Civil War—like the Korean War—was a dirty, atrocity-laden affair, far messier than our rather romantic ideas about Pickett’s Charge and the like would have us believe. I referenced the guerrilla conflicts that plagued large portions of the South and the Border States during the war, particularly my home state of Missouri. Having been born in Waverly, Missouri (the heart of guerrilla territory, and once the home of Confederate cavalryman Joseph Shelby) my Civil War, the war I encountered in stories as a child, was the nasty and brutal anarchy of the “bushwhackers” and the “jayhawkers.” I rather doubted many in my Korean audience knew of this war.

My point here was to drive home, as vividly as I could, the magnitude of the task Lincoln faced as he stood to deliver his Second Inaugural Address. He must find ways to reconcile bitter enemies, North and South, he must do so with death and destruction as a backdrop, and he must do so while not abandoning the four million freedmen who were hated, feared and relentlessly exploited by white Southerners. In doing so, he must not abandon principles he had himself established during the war, principles of liberty, freedom, and justice for all Americans, Black as well as white. It was a tall order.

So how, in a seven-minute speech, did Lincoln propose to do this? For that matter how, in a fifteen-minute speech, would I explain how Lincoln did this? I was only one of a series of speakers, during a packed afternoon of activity, and I had been asked to strictly adhere to my allotted time frame. For a college professor, this was also a tall order.

I told my Korean audience that Lincoln served his purpose in two ways. First, he embraced the war’s sadness and desolation, refusing to do a “victory dance” in his address and indulging no “mission accomplished” moments. “The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself,” he declared, and in a masterful understatement continued, “it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.” Hearkening back to 1861, he painted a picture of the war as a dread thing best averted but eventually omnipresent like a storm, describing it in four simple, powerful words that evoked a dreaded, unstoppable force: “and the war came.”[16]

In this he followed a pattern established throughout the war; he had never blustered or posed as a conqueror. His occasional proclamations calling for thanksgiving and prayer were hopeful but sober documents. When for example he issued such a proclamation in September 1864, following General William Tecumseh Sherman’s victories in Georgia and a string of Union military successes, he acknowledged the upward trajectory of the Union war effort and briefly referenced the “cruel war” being waged by the “insurgent rebels,” but also cautioned humility with a “devout acknowledgment to the Supreme Being in whose hands are the destinies of nations.” Lincoln’s tone was restrained and his overall message that of a cautious optimism, rather than a victor’s triumph.[17]

Far from gloating or engaging in any fist-pumping, Lincoln struck those who saw him during the war as a man of profound sorrow and grief. He had always seemed something of a weary figure—“melancholy dripped from him as he walked” recalled his law partner William Herndon—and now that melancholy was palpable, borne down by the great weight of the war upon his shoulders. He even walked with an increasingly stooped figure, the lines of care and concern etched ever deeper into his craggy face: “the saddest man I ever saw,” recalled one congressman who saw him.[18]

In this he was the face of the war; and I argued that his embrace of the war’s sadness was more than an expression of his natural predilection towards melancholy, or even the president’s all-too-omnipresent wartime burdens. It was also a brilliant political move. It meant he could seem to empathize with the war’s many victims, North and South, and they might empathize with him. Even many white Southerners would eventually come to see him as this careworn man who might understand their plight. “I feel your pain,” is a well-known expression favored by a future president; in 1865, Lincoln lived that phrase’s meaning by quite literally looking the part.

Second, and I think most importantly, he sounded a note of humility. By this I particularly mean humility before God; he refused to say in his speech that his side had been God’s side, or that either the Union or Confederacy had acted exclusively in accordance with God’s wishes. “Each [side] looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding,” Lincoln declared, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.”[19]

I also referenced an earlier document he had written, sometime during the war’s darkest days in the early fall of 1862, one of those brilliant little private scraps of paper he sometimes penned, only for himself. “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God,” Lincoln wrote, “Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time.” Here Lincoln’s helplessness in the face of the war’s great magnitude and God’s unknown purposes became painfully apparent. “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose.” Just as Lincoln could not comprehend God’s will in allowing the war to commence, he also could not understand why God might allow the carnage to continue, with no end in sight. “By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”[20]

He never claimed to know God’s will. Instead, in the Second Inaugural, Lincoln suggested that God’s purposes were unknown, and unknowable: “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” But I took pains to point out to my Korean audience that Lincoln’s unwillingness to speculate upon God’s will most certainly did not shade into moral relativism. Just as South Koreans recognized the immorality of North Korea’s oppressive regime, so too did Abraham Lincoln clearly refuse to countenance a false equivalency between the Union and the Confederacy. “Both parties deprecated war,” he noted, “but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.”[21]

Thus, a part of Southerners’ war guilt lay in their failure to abide by the rules of democracy, choosing war rather than accepting the legitimate results of the 1860 presidential election. But the bulk of Lincoln’s moral rejection of the Confederacy’s cause lay elsewhere: in its embrace and defense of human bondage. “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest,” Lincoln declared, and “All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”[22]

Forgive the South, yes; but that forgiveness could not and must not involve embracing a false equivalence regarding the war’s meaning and its higher moral cause. When he noted that both sides prayed to the same God, he added an aside, one that was understated but biting in its indictment of the South’s slaveholding ethos: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.”[23]

“Let us judge not…” Here I pointed out that Lincoln avoided the pitfalls of laying entire blame for the war on the South’s shoulders—and thus harming the cause of postwar reconciliation—by making of slavery not just a Southern sin, but an American sin. “If we shall suppose…[God] gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?” Here Lincoln called upon his lifelong command of the English language in words that still thunder and roll over one hundred fifty years later: “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”[24]

I had read that Christianity is the largest single religion in South Korea. I hoped my audience would appreciate, despite the limitations of my speaking skills and the language barrier, the power of those words in their Biblical cadence, and how this would resonate with his overwhelmingly Christian audience. In terms of its sheer lyrical beauty, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is truly one of the great documents in American history.

More generally, I hoped I was able to communicate the political and moral tightrope which Lincoln was trying to negotiate. He must forgive without forgetting, he must empathize without surrendering the Union’s emancipation moral high ground; he must “bind up the nation’s wounds,” as he would state in the speech’s conclusion, while acknowledging that those wounds had been inflicted upon Black as well as white Americans.

The Martyr of Freedom LN-1112

Would it have worked? Would Abraham Lincoln have found a way to win the new war, the war for Reconstruction, the war for American equality? I ended my speech with the observation that we will never know the answer to these questions; that, and a deep bow, eyes averted downward (I had noticed every other speaker doing so), signifying in Korean culture respect and humility. Somehow, I could imagine Abraham Lincoln, a man of humility and respect, doing so as well.

He is, to be sure, a significant American export, with people worldwide citing him as an example of democracy, freedom, human rights, the eradication of human bondage, and the ultimate triumph of victory during the Civil War. He is also a global figure with a more ambivalent legacy in some respects: a tardy emancipator, an overly powerful chief executive, an unapologetic spokesman for capitalism. My brief experience in Korea led me to discover another iteration of the Lincoln story that might also resonate beyond America’s borders: Lincoln as a figure of reconciliation and magnanimity. Koreans face their own trials in this regard; perhaps they might find some insight into reconciliation’s tribulations from America’s sixteenth president.


Brian Dirck is Professor of History at Anderson University and the author of Lincoln and the Constitution.

[1]See Jacques Portes, “The Hidden Lincoln in French Opinion,” American Studies Journal, 60 (2016), Web. 23. May. 2019. DOI. 10.18422/60-09; Michael Vorenberg, “Liberte, Egalite, and Lincoln: French Readings of An American President,” and Eugenio F. Biagini, “‘The Principle of Humanity,’ Lincoln in Germany and Italy, 1859-1865,” in Richard Carwardine and Jay Sexton, eds., The Global Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 76-79, 95-106.

[2] Carwardine, Global Lincoln, 4; Jorg Nagler, “The Lincoln Image in Germany,” American Studies Journal 60 (2016). Web. 23 May. 2019. DOI 18.18422/60-08.

[3] Carwardine, Global Lincoln, 7.

[4] Kim, Jinwung, A History of Korea: from “Land of the Morning Calm” to States in Conflict (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2012), 32-112, and passim.

[5] Ibid., 367-422.

[6] On Seoul’s history and importance to modern Korea, I found useful Daniel Tudor’s Korea: The Impossible Country (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Pub., 2012); also Kim, History of Korea, 257-260, and passim.

[7] A useful overview of this visit may be found in Kevin Murrow, “Lincoln’s Triumphant to Richmond,” New York Times, April 7, 2015, https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/04/07/lincolns-triumphant-visit-to-richmond/, accessed April 2, 2020.

[8] Lincoln, Address on Colonization to a Deputation of Negroes, August 14, 1862, in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1956; hereinafter cited as CW) 5: 372; Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant, August 17, 1864, ibid., 7: 499.

[9] Hyeonseou Lee, The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story (New York: HarperCollins, 2015),  38.

[10] Officer worker quoted in Daniel Tudor, Korea: The Impossible Country (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Pub., 22), 156; see also ibid., 148-158, for a useful general discussion of South Koreans’ attitudes and government policies towards reunification.

[11] Quoted in Jeffrey Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the Civil War (New York: Open Court Pub., 2013), 319.

[12] See https://www.refo500.com/en/2018/10/29/iipac-first-external-coordinator-of-patent-court/

[13] London Spectator, March 25, 1865, quoted in Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002), 195; William J. Wolf, Lincoln’s Religion (New York: Pilgrim’s Press, 1970), 181.

[14] Joseph Hartwell Barrett, Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Moore, Wilstach, and Baldwin, 1865), 753; see also Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002).

[15] See Choi Si-young, “Coming Back Home, Seven Decades After War,” Korean Herald, June 6, 2020, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20200604000894, accessed June 8, 2020.

[16] Lincoln Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865, CW 8: 332 (emphases in original).

[17] Lincoln, Proclamation of Thanksgiving and Prayer, September 3, 1864, CW 7: 533.

[18] Herndon quoted in Joshua l. Schenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 28; congressman quoted in David H. Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), 172.

[19] Lincoln Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865, CW 8: 332.

[20] Lincoln, Meditation on Divine Will, c. September 1860, CW 5: 403-404 (emphases in original).

[21] Lincoln Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865, CW 8: 332 (emphases in original).

[22] Ibid., 332.

[23] Ibid., 333.

[24] Ibid., 333; on the use of the Biblical language of the jeremiad in this speech, see James Tackach, Lincoln’s Moral Vision: The Second Inaugural Address (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002), esp. 125-146.