- Lincoln in the Atlantic World by Louise L. Stevenson
The transnational turn in writing American history is surely the most significant, influential trend shaping the historiography of the past several decades. Employing more cosmopolitan or international frames of reference, historians of the United States are connecting American events to trends elsewhere, tracing ideas and movements across national boundaries, and rejecting conventional notions of what is loosely condemned as American exceptionalism. For early Americanists, especially, the Atlantic world paradigm now reigns supreme. It was inevitable that Abraham [End Page 564] Lincoln would not escape this new orthodoxy, and Louise Stevenson's intriguing portrait of "Lincoln in the Atlantic World" is the latest in a series of studies that are approaching America's Civil War era—traditionally a prime example of the national paradigm—from a global perspective. Stevenson's book must be read in the context of Don H. Doyle's recent Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (New York, 2013), which emphasizes the transatlantic war of ideas surrounding America's sanguinary epic struggle, as well as the essays exploring Lincoln's global appeal assembled in Richard Carwardine and Jay Sexton, eds., The Global Lincoln (New York, 2011).
Stevenson's book complements this emerging scholarship, but her approach and contribution are both broader and more precise, exploring not simply President Lincoln during the War but the entirety of his life and focusing not so much on how the world viewed him but on how he developed his own distinctive global vision. Stevenson's core argument is that it is impossible to understand Lincoln's republicanism without grasping the Atlantic or global influences that informed it, and she sets as her task demonstrating and explaining how he assimilated these trans-national contexts into his thinking. This might appear to be an imposing challenge. After all, Lincoln was never exposed to the formal higher education that might have connected him to these wider influences, and he never himself set foot outside the United States. But even homespun, backcountry bumpkins experienced the Atlantic world—or at least this one did, according to Stevenson, in ways that complicated his quint-essentially American character and vision. Indeed, these global influences—absorbed through his "lifelong classroom—the Atlantic world" (13)—shaped even his personal appearance and domestic political appeal.
Stevenson tracks Lincoln's absorption in the Atlantic world as far back as his coming-of-age years in Indiana during the 1820s. As a voracious reader in a semi-literate environment, he became aware (especially from newspapers) of the exciting political developments in the rest of the hemisphere as well as in the Mediterranean, which, coincident with the generational transition occurring in the United States, impressed upon him the global dimension of America's Revolutionary experiment. Moreover, his two trips to New Orleans as a hired laborer in these early years provided first-hand evidence that "his country belonged to the Atlantic world" (4). From this point forward Lincoln became acutely attentive to continuing revolutionary developments in Europe and their connection [End Page 565] to the global republicanism embodied in the example of the United States. In the body of her book Stevenson tracks this central theme through a series of chapters that offer depth and precision to her argument, often organized around the concept of "lessons" from various Atlantic sources, including Africa, Europe, England, and Germany.
Perhaps the most conspicuous quality of these chapters is their unevenness. Some chapters fit into the larger argument much better and more clearly than others, as Stevenson's discussion often seems to meander through subjects that appear only tangentially related to the core theme of her book. Moreover, she tends to impute major, even causal, significance to connections that in some cases are well known but that in others she must strain to establish. Does the fact that a youthful Lincoln read and was apparently impressed by the American sea captain James Riley's African captivity narrative constitute evidence that he absorbed significant "African Lessons" (the title of...