A Medal for Mrs. Lincoln
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A Medal for Mrs. Lincoln

On December 1, 1866, a group of nineteen august Frenchmen—politicians, academics, men of letters, and newspaper editors—entered the U.S. legation in Paris bearing a letter and a small box for Mary Lincoln, widow of the late President Abraham Lincoln. The men were some of the most eminent republican reformers in Imperial France, and they called themselves the Committee of the French Democracy. They were there to deliver a gift on behalf of forty thousand French citizens to honor the memory of Abraham Lincoln. The men gave their offering to U.S. Minister to France John Bigelow, after which committee member Eugène Pelletan said, "Tell Mrs. Lincoln the heart of France is in that little box."1

This gift for Mary Lincoln, a gold medal bearing a likeness of Abraham Lincoln on one side and a dedicatory inscription on the other, was the only tangible public tribute of sympathy Mary Lincoln ever received as a result of her widowhood. The story of this medal—its creation, its transmittal, its subsequent history, and its effect on Mary Lincoln—has never been fully examined by scholars, [End Page 187] and yet it is an interesting tale filled with pain and sympathy, suspicion and betrayal, frustration and triumph, and, ultimately, the victory of democracy over tyranny.

A Foreign Tribute

Mary Lincoln always had admired the French culture. She learned the language as a child and spoke and read it fluently, studied French history, and, as a lover of fashion, was enamored of all the latest French clothing styles. As first lady, Mary had a French chef in the White House and used her language skills to speak with foreign dignitaries in their native language. She also shared her love of French culture with Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, himself a Francophile, and the two friends often would communicate in French. After the conclusion of her husband's second term as president, Mary intended to visit France as part of the family's planned world tour; and during her widowhood, Mary actually lived in France two separate times totaling about five years of residence. It seems, however, that she had no idea the esteem in which the French people held her husband, or her.2

The entire civilized world was shocked by President Lincoln's assassination in April 1865. Mary Lincoln later stated that she received "innumerable letters and resolutions from distinguished persons in all portions of the habitable globe" offering their sympathies.3 [End Page 188] "Their eyes, were only just beginning to comprehend the nature and nobility, of the great, good man, who had accomplished, his work, and before his Judge, it was pronounced complete," she bitterly and proudly wrote.4 Two of the first condolence letters Mary received were from the Count of Paris and the Empress of France.5 Empress Eugenie, wife of the Emperor Napoleon III, wrote,

Madame: The Emperor sends to Washington his official expressions of the indignation and sadness which have gripped the nation of France, for the fatal blow that struck President Lincoln. However, aside from this national misfortune, your personal tragedy arouses profound feelings in my heart. I would like, Madame, to offer my own condolences, as well as the assurance of my prayers that Heaven will grant you the strength to bear this cruel ordeal. Please believe, [End Page 189] Madame, in my deep sympathy and my most sincere sentiments. Eugénie.6

In Paris, Minister Bigelow watched as people thronged the streets, as students held public meetings and marched in a body to the U.S. legation to express their sympathy, and as imperial police arrested many of the democratic demonstrators. The minister was soon deluged with letters of condolence, which he forwarded to Secretary of State William Seward, and which included numerous letters addressed to Mrs. Lincoln. Bigelow reported to the secretary that the number of letters was evidence not only of how the news of Lincoln's death shocked France but also of the deep respect and affection the French people held for him: "It is difficult to exaggerate the enthusiasm which his name inspires among the masses of Europe at...