In the pantheon of significant presidential statements of American foreign policy—such as Washington’s Farewell Address, the Monroe Doctrine, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the Truman Doctrine, and the Reagan Doctrine—we lack an equivalent pronouncement by Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War was not without its foreign policy challenges, but Lincoln’s statecraft was naturally focused on bringing about a new birth of freedom at home. A decade earlier, however, as a private citizen, he endorsed a set of propositions about the proper American attitude towards the efforts of other peoples to claim their own births, or rebirths, of freedom.
Americans were naturally interested in the course and outcome of the European Revolutions of 1848, which included the overthrow of the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe in France, the deposition of Prince Metternich in Austria, the establishment of the Frankfurt Parliament in Germany, the creation of republics in Venice and Rome, and an uprising in Poland against the Prussian occupation. The American imagination was particularly captivated by the revolution in the Hungarian lands of the Habsburg Empire and the subsequent struggle of the Magyars, the main ethnic group in those lands, to achieve independence from Austria. When Russian forces invaded the newly-constituted Hungarian Republic to assist Austria in suppressing the independence movement, many of the Magyar leaders, including the colorful and controversial Lajos (Louis) Kossuth, fled to Turkey.
President Zachary Taylor had already dispatched an envoy to central Europe, with instructions to recognize the Hungarian Republic if it proved to be viable. The envoy never traveled beyond Vienna but when its instructions became known, Secretary of State Daniel Webster engaged in a heated public battle with the Austrian chargé d’affaires, Johann Georg Hülsemann, who accused the United States of hostility towards the Habsburg Empire. In 1851, with congressional authorization, Taylor’s successor President Millard Fillmore offered asylum to Kossuth and his revolutionary colleagues and dispatched the frigate U.S.S. Mississippi to escort them to the United States. Kossuth’s American sponsors assumed that he and his followers would take permanent asylum in the United States, as had thousands of other refugees, particularly Germans, from the failed European revolutions.
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Kossuth’s appearance in the United States in December 1851 created a public sensation. Kossuth was feted in New York and Washington and later toured the country. He had no intention of settling down quietly in the United States, however. He sought to raise private funds in support of renewed revolutionary activity. He also advocated direct and official American action in support of Hungarian independence—a policy of “intervention for non-intervention,” which he proposed as an explicit replacement for the doctrine of neutrality and non-interference in European affairs set out in Washington’s Farewell Address. Kossuth proposed that the U.S. government recognize Hungarian independence and officially warn Russia not to intervene on the side of Austria once the fighting was renewed. The United States would form an alliance with England and send an American fleet to the eastern Mediterranean to give credibility to that ultimatum.
Whigs and Democrats were scrambling to position themselves for the election of 1852 and for a time it appeared that “Kossuth mania” might prove to be a winning issue for whichever presidential candidate could best associate himself with the Hungarian cause. “Young Americans,” northern and western Democrats like Stephen A. Douglas, responded favorably to calls for a policy of “intervention for non-intervention,” as part of a more aggressive and expansionist American foreign policy. German immigrants, a key voting bloc, were strongly pro-Kossuth. Meanwhile, progressive Whigs like William Seward, an ally of presidential candidate General Winfield Scott, were publicly supportive of Kossuth, although Seward refrained from threatening the use of U.S. force on the Hungarians’ behalf.
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But Kossuth had his critics. Southern and conservative Whigs, including President Fillmore, defended Washington’s Farewell Address and the Monroe Doctrine, with their weighty insistence on neutrality and non-intervention in European affairs. Kossuth’s critics argued that Hungarian independence actually meant the assertion of Magyar supremacy over other ethnic groups, particularly the Slavs, and not the establishment of republican government as it was understood in America. They also accused Kossuth of cowardice in abandoning his men and fleeing the country. Many abolitionists turned away from Kossuth because he refused to condemn American slavery. Most Southerners opposed him because any unqualified endorsement of human liberty, coupled with the precedent of government intervention, had obvious implications for their region and the peculiar institution. Irish Catholics rejected his appeal for an Anglo-American alliance and objected to his alleged hostility to the Church in Catholic Hungary (Kossuth was a Lutheran). Kossuth rapidly became the most controversial foreign visitor since Citizen Genet in the 1790s.
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That brings us to Abraham Lincoln. In April 1848, during his single term as a congressman, Lincoln voted for a joint resolution offering congratulations to the French people on their new republic. Lincoln attended a meeting in Springfield, Illinois, in September 1849, where he aided a committee in drawing up resolutions of support for the Hungarian revolutionaries. These resolutions included a call to recognize the Hungarian Republic (this meeting was held before the outcome of the Russian invasion was known). In January 1852, Lincoln joined a group of leading citizens to issue a call for a gathering in Springfield to honor Kossuth. Lincoln addressed that meeting on January 8. After considerable debate, a committee of seven, including Lincoln, a leading Whig, and Lyman Trumbull, then a Democrat, was appointed to report its recommendations. Lincoln announced the “Resolutions in Behalf of Hungarian Freedom” the next evening (January 9, 1852):
Whereas, in the opinion of this meeting, the arrival of Kossuth in our country, in connection with the recent events in Hungary, and with the appeal he is now making in behalf of his country, presents an occasion upon which we, the American people, cannot remain silent, without justifying an inference against our continued devotion to the principles of our free institutions, therefore,
Resolved, 1. That it is the right of any people, sufficiently numerous for national independence, to throw off, to revolutionize, their existing form of government, and to establish such other in its stead as they may choose.
2. That it is the duty of our government to neither foment, nor assist, such revolutions in other governments.
3. That, as we may not legally or warrantably interfere abroad, to aid, so no other government may interfere abroad,to suppress such revolutions; and that we should at once, announce to the world, our determinations to insist upon this mutuality of non-intervention, as a sacred principle of the international law.
4. That the late interference of Russia in the Hungarian struggle was, in our opinion, such illegal and unwarrantable interference.
5. That to have resisted Russia in that case, or to resist any power in a like case, would be no violation of our own cherished principles of non-intervention, but, on the contrary, would be ever meritorious, in us, or any independent nation.
6. That whether we will, in fact, interfere in such case, is purely a question of policy, to be decided when the exigency arrives.
7. That we recognize in Governor Kossuth of Hungary the most worthy and distinguished representative of the cause of civil and religious liberty on the continent of Europe. A cause for which he and his nation struggled until they were overwhelmed by the armed intervention of a foreign despot, in violation of the more sacred principles of the laws of nature and of nations—principles held dear by the friends of freedom everywhere, and more especially by the people of these United States.
8. That the sympathies of this country, and the benefits of its position, should be exerted in favor of the people of every nation struggling to be free; and whilst we meet to do honor to Kossuth and Hungary, we should not fail to pour out the tribute of our praise and approbation to the patriotic efforts of the Irish, the Germans and the French, who have unsuccessfully fought to establish in their several governments the supremacy of the people.
9. That there is nothing in the past history of the British government, or in its present expressed policy, to encourage the belief that she will aid, in any manner, in the delivery of continental Europe from the yoke of despotism; and that her treatment of Ireland, of O’Brien, Mitchell, and other worthy patriots, forces the conclusion that she will join her efforts to the despots of Europe in suppressing every effort of the people to establish free governments, based upon the principles of true religious and civil liberty.
Several points should be made about Lincoln’s Kossuth Resolutions. Although Lincoln is presumed to be their author, they were ultimately the product of a committee which contained both Democrats and Whigs. They contain provisions and arguments that are similar to numerous congressional and popular resolutions on the subject. They may not fully reflect Lincoln’s views, especially the final point criticizing Britain. Nevertheless, one can discern the outlines of a “Lincoln Doctrine” based on the following principles: (1) the universal right of revolution and national self-determination; (2) the standard of mutual non-interference by outside powers in such revolutions; (3) the legitimacy of American “resistance” to such interference—resistance being “meritorious,” that is, honorable; and (4) the decision to offer resistance, and the nature of that resistance, is to be regarded as a matter of “policy,” or prudential determination, based on the particular circumstances. The prudential calculation presumably includes factors such as precedent, the state of American public opinion and other domestic conditions, calculations of American material interest, the feasibility of intervention, and an estimate of long-term consequences of action and inaction.
At first glance, Lincoln’s Kossuth Resolutions appear to be something of a waffle—it all depends on circumstances—and a typical feel-good American pronouncement of sympathy for human rights abroad, without the intention or ability to provide substantive support. On closer examination, however, Lincoln’s Resolutions offer several important conclusions (if we accept them as an authoritative reflection of of his own views). He is open to U.S. intervention abroad on behalf of a good and just cause, particularly when others intervene in favor of a bad and unjust cause. He does not repeat reflexively familiar admonitions on neutrality and non-intervention in European affairs, or limit geographically America’s concern with republican government to the Western Hemisphere. That openness, however, is not the same as a categorical imperative to intervene whenever and wherever self-determination and republican government seems to be at stake.
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If intervention for non-intervention is not a categorical imperative, what then of the prudential considerations in play? According to press accounts, Lincoln spoke at the Springfield meeting against intervention on behalf of Hungary, and the thrust of the Resolutions themselves were understood by the audience to be anti-interventionist. (The more ardent supporters of Kossuth successfully proposed additional resolutions that were understood to lean towards intervention.) Lincoln’s own calculations of those controlling circumstances in this case likely tracked those of Henry Clay, who had long been Lincoln’s beau ideal of a statesman in large part because of Clay’s advocacy of the cause of human liberty. Clay had been the great spokesman for American sympathy and support, in the form of diplomatic recognition, for the Spanish Americans and the Greeks in their struggles for independence in the late 1810s and 1820s. In his eulogy of Clay later in 1852, Lincoln remarked:
Mr. Clay’s predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a deep devotion to the cause of human liberty—a strong sympathy with the oppressed everywhere, and an ardent wish for their elevation. With him, this was a primary and all controlling passion. Subsidiary to this was the conduct of his whole life. He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature.
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In public meetings, Kossuth had cited Clay’s arguments about human liberty in making his case for American intervention on behalf of Hungary—even though Clay had previously criticized pro-Kossuth interventionist proposals in the Senate. When Kossuth visited Clay in Washington to ask his blessing—on the same day, it turned out, as Lincoln introduced his Resolutions—Clay minced no words.
As reported in the newspapers, Clay, who was on his sickbed (he would die within a few months), expressed his “liveliest sympathies” with the Hungarians; but he argued that the practical effects of providing “material aid” by the United States would probably be war with one or more European powers. He pointed out that the United States lacked the means to carry out military operations on the European continent; and that a maritime war would “result in mutual annoyance to commerce, but…little else.” Once the United States engaged (ineffectually) in such a war, it would have (effectually) abandoned its “ancient policy of amity and non-intervention in the affairs of other nations.” The European powers would then feel justified “in abandoning the terms of forbearance and non-interference,” which they had so far preserved towards the American Republic. “[A]fter the downfall, perhaps, of the friends of liberal institutions in Europe,” Clay warned, “her despots, imitating and provoked by our fatal example,” might turn upon the United States in its hour of weakness and exhaustion.
“Sir,” he concluded, “the recent melancholy subversion of the republican government of France [by Louis Napoleon’s coup of December, 2, 1851] and that enlightened nation voluntarily placing its neck under the yoke of despotism, teach us to despair of any present success for liberal institutions in Europe.” In his discussion with Kossuth, Clay cited the traditional American precedent of “amity and non-intervention in the affairs of other nations,” whereas Lincoln tried to redefine the terms of the debate by arguing that American resistance to foreign interference against a legitimate domestic revolution did not constitute “intervention.” Clay, unlike Lincoln, may have felt that the invocation of such non-interventionist precedents must be a critical factor in determining “policy” in the present circumstance. That circumstance, which he did not identify but what he (and Lincoln) surely had in mind, was the need for the nation to heal itself from the divisions caused by the Mexican-American War and the subsequent political battles that led to the still-controversial Compromise of 1850. Clay and Lincoln were both opposed to the Manifest Destiny agenda of those Democrats who linked American expansion (including the acquisition of new territories suitable for slavery) with an interventionist attitude towards European affairs. American efforts to become involved politically or militarily in central Europe, or even to go too far in stirring up public sympathies on behalf of Kossuth, offered no solid grounds for American foreign policy and would likely divide the country even further. This was so especially because the necessary conditions in Europe for successful liberal revolutions seemed completely missing, at least for the time being.
Lincoln’s Kossuth Resolutions represent an interesting if little known link in the chain of American reasoning about the nation’s role in international affairs, the legitimacy of revolution and regime change, and the relationship between self-determination and republican government.