Abraham Lincoln and San Marino

John Hartwell

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About the first of May, 1861, Secretary Seward brought to President Lincoln’s attention a letter recently received by the State Department. It was among hundreds of congratulatory letters from around the world addressed to the President, following his inauguration that spring. This one was a little bit different, however, for it came to the greatest republic of its day from the very oldest, and perhaps the smallest. The signatories of the letter were “the Regent Captains of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino.”
sanMarino2.jpg

Bust of Lincoln by Raymond Barger, presented by the United States in 1932.
It is on display in the Palazzo Publico in San Marino​

San Marino was then, as it is today, the last of the scores of independent city-states that flourished for centuries all over the Italian peninsula. It was established in the fourth century, and has managed, sometimes miraculously it seems, to maintain its independence ever since. It is a very small nation, even today, its population is barely 32,000, living in an area about the size of the District of Columbia. Its two elected Regent Captains alternate as heads of state for six months at a time; and its Sovereign Council of State serves without pay.

The letter consisted of two columns: one, on the right, in perfect Italian, and the second, to the left a translation in imperfect, but clearly understandable English.

"My dear sir,

“We have wished to write to you in our own hand and in English, although we have little knowledge and no practice in the language. 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 extention 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 Sovereign Counsel on our motion decreed … that the citizenship of the Republic of San Marino was conferred for ever to the President pro tempore 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.”

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Lincoln has been honored three times
on San Marino postage stamps

It was a dignified, respectful gesture from the little republic, and Lincoln was moved by it. Finding time on May 7th, amidst the great and terrible events unfolding around him, he wrote the following:

"Abraham Lincoln,
"President of the United States of America.

"To the Regent Captains of the Republic of San Marino 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
"Washington, May 7 1861

"By the President
"WILLIAM H. SEWARD Secretary of State"

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The letter from San Marino to Lincoln
[National Archives]

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Lincoln's Response
[San Marino Archives]

We might note that on the same day that he signed that letter, Lincoln spoke to his secretary, John Hay, words reflected in that letter, and also in the Gettysburg Address two and a half years later:

"I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves."
 
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