Lincoln’s Gracious Letter to a Tiny, but Admiring, Republic

On this date (May 7) in the year 1861, the President of the world’s largest republic responded to a curious letter sent to him by the leaders of perhaps the world’s smallest republic.

At the time, the modern republican form of government, which had seemed to hold so much promise during the early part of the century, now seemed doomed to failure.  Numerous republics in Europe and the Americas had proved short-lived and had slid into political chaos or reverted to monarchies, empires, or dictatorships.  In fact, for many people all around the world, the crisis in the United States would ultimately decide the question of whether a people could govern themselves, whether popular government was a viable option.

A few weeks after Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, the government of “the Most Serene Republic of San Marino” sent him a letter, written in both Italian and English.  San Marino, which claims to be the oldest republic in the world, is located in the northern part of the Italian peninsula, about ten miles inland from the Adriatic Sea.  Its area is only 24 square miles – less than half the size of Washington, DC – and it had only about 7,000 inhabitants in 1861.

The letter from the “Regent Captains of the Republic of San Marino” to Lincoln read as follows:

… It is a some while since the Republic of San Marino wishes to make alliance with the United States of America in that manner as it is possible between a great Potency and a very small country.

As we think not extension of territories but conformity of opinions to procure friendly relations, so we are sure you will be glad to shake hands with a people who in its smallness and poverty can exhibit to you an antiquity from fourteen centuries of its free government.

Now we must inform you, that to give to the United States of America a mark of high consideration and sincere fraternity … the citizenship of the Republic of San Marino was conferred for ever to the President … of the United States of America and we are very happy to send you the diploma of it.

We are acquainted from newspapers with political griefs, which you are now suffering therefore we pray to God to grant you a peaceful solution of your questions.  Nevertheless we hope our letter will not reach you disagreeable, and we shall expect anxiously an answer which proves us your kind acceptance.

By the time Lincoln received the letter – it was delayed because they sent it to New York, apparently thinking that city was the capital – the Civil War had already begun, and the President and his administration were surely quite busy.  Yet something about the letter prompted Lincoln and his Secretary of State William H. Seward to send back an equally gracious reply, dated May 7:

Great and Good Friends

I have received and read with great sensibility the letter which as Regent Captains of the Republic of San Marino you addressed to me on the 29th of March last.  I thank the Council of San Marino for the honor of citizenship they have conferred upon me.

Although your dominion is small, your State is nevertheless one of the most honored, in all history.  It has by its experience demonstrated the truth, so full of encouragement to the friends of Humanity, that Government founded on Republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring.

You have kindly adverted to the trial through which this Republic is now passing.  It is one of deep import.  It involves the question whether a Representative republic, extended and aggrandized so much as to be safe against foreign enemies can save itself from the dangers of domestic faction.  I have faith in a good result.

Wishing that your interesting State may endure and flourish forever, and that you may live long and enjoy the confidence and secure the gratitude of your fellow citizens, I pray God to have you in his holy keeping.  Your Good Friend

Abraham Lincoln

By the President

William H. Seward, Secretary of State

It’s possible, of course, that this letter was written entirely by Seward or even one of his staff, and that Lincoln had little or nothing to do with it.  But when one considers that Lincoln’s message to Congress just two months later would include some of these same ideas, and that they would come up again later in others of his speeches and writings, most notably in a little address at Gettysburg, it would not be at all surprising if he did have a hand in it.

In any event, the long and continued existence of perhaps the world’s smallest republic was an encouragement “that Government founded on Republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring”.  Yet, it’s one thing for San Marino and her 7,000 inhabitants, isolated in a mountain enclave, to endure.  Would it – could it – also prove true for the world’s largest republic, one stretching over an entire continent and containing 32 million people?  Only time, and a great struggle, would tell.

Kevin J. Wood

May 7, 2019