I’ve been having further ‘debate’ with the “Not a Democracy” Gnomes. And I happened to come across some new material that brings light to the issue. So, I’ve returned to the subject with this third post in the series (see the first and second posts to understand the fuller context of my thoughts).
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In this post, I will show that the terms ‘republic’ and ‘Republican’ once had very different connotations in early America. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has given much thought to the matter.
I brought up the issue of the word origins in my earlier posts, but let me bring it up again.
The word ‘republic‘ comes from ‘res publica‘ which means ‘commonwealth‘, ‘public good‘, or ‘public affair‘. To put it simply, a republic is a government that isn’t a monarchy, i.e., not based on inherited position, power and wealth. The word ‘democracy‘ comes from ‘demokratia‘ which means ‘rule of the people‘ and was coined from ‘demos‘ (people) and ‘kratos‘ (power): people power.
A democracy is a government of the people. According to the founding documents, the US government is supposedly democratic in this sense. The Declaration of Independence refers to the ‘people‘ 10 times, even in many instances capitalizing it as “the People“. The US constitution refers to “We the People” and “by the People“.
The founding fathers were being very clear that the People trump any Monarchy or other despotic ruler (some of the founding fathers even thought banks and corporations were potentially a despotic threat to the liberty of the People), that the government rules by the mandate of the People. The historical precedence of the American Revolution made clear that the People have the right and obligation to withdraw, whether by peaceful change or violent revolution, this mandate if the government no longer represents them. The rights of the People don’t come from the government, although it is the duty of the government to defend those rights. The power of the government to defend those rights comes from the People (democracy: people power) in order to serve the People (republic: public good).
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Let me now offer a history lesson about the development of the party system.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison founded the Democratic-Republican Party to counter the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton. A couple of things should be noted about this.
First, among the founding fathers, Jefferson was one of the closest allies of Thomas Paine. Both wanted to abolish slavery and both wanted a government that put power into the hands of common people rather than into the hands of plutocrats. Jefferson was considered radical by people such as Hamilton, but compared to Paine he was a moderate. Paine would later on inspire much more radical movements.
Second, the fact that a party founded in the early 1790s could combine ‘Democratic‘ and ‘Republican‘ proves that those terms were seen by many people in the founding generation, including key leaders, as being closely related rather than in opposition. Back then, a person could be both a Democrat and a Republican, but such a person couldn’t be both while being a Federalist.
To put this in context, it must be remembered that Hamilton was for an elective monarchy:
An attempt to create an elective monarchy in the United States failed. Alexander Hamilton argued in a long speech before the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that the President of the United States should be an elective monarch, ruling for “good behavior” (i.e., for life, unless impeached) and with extensive powers. Hamilton believed that elective monarchs has sufficient power domestically to resist foreign corruption, yet there was enough domestic control over their behavior to prevent tyranny at home.  His proposal was resoundingly voted down in favor of a four-year term with the possibility of reelection. In his later defense of the Constitution in the Federalist Papers, he often hints that a lifetime executive might be better, even as he praises the system with the four-year term.
It goes without saying that the Democratic-Republicans were against elective monarchy. This was symbolic of the fight among the founding generation. There were two radically different notions: a government of the aristocracy, by the aristocracy, for the aristocracy; or a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
In this fight, it’s hard to say either side entirly won for the early political system was a compromise between the two, although the compromise did favor one side. Even as concentrated power was constrained, the common people were even more constrained as many of the ruling elites desired. The constraint on the people was much more harsh in that the majority of Americans (women, slaves, and non-landowners) weren’t allowed to vote or hold public office. Americans fought against taxation without representation and yet the new American government reinstated taxation without representation. A new American aristocracy formed to replace the former British aristocracy.
Even so, it was the Democratic-Republican Party that became the most influential. The Democratic-Republican Party split off into what became the Democratic Party and into what became the Whig Party. Both parties became split over the issue of whether slavery should be expanded to the territories. The anti-slave factions left both parties in order to form the Free Soil Party. As an abolitionist, Lincoln was one of those who left the Whig Party. The Free Soil Party and other radical social reformers were eventually absorbed into the new Republican Party.
Most Americans today don’t know the origins of the Republican Party. It was founded as the party of progressivism and social reform. Those who started the party were the radical liberals of their day: agrarian reformists, abolitionists, and socialists. Many of these people, like Lincoln, read writers such as Thomas Paine and Karl Marx. The modern person must understand that Paine was about as popular among the ruling elites in the early 19th century as Marx is today. Paine was considered by many to have caused more harm than good. Those who were inspired by Paine’s vision were criticized by conservatives as “Red Republicanism” (it’s funny that the color red, the color used to represent communism, is now used to represent the Republican Party). It also must be understood that, in relation to Marx’s influence on early American politics, the issue of slavery was often directly connected to the issue of labor rights. Even Lincoln, the first Republican president, made this connection in his speeches. Lincoln went so far as to use Marxist language in describing the relationship between labor and capital.
Think about all of the above while considering what Lincoln meant in his famous Gettysburg Address:
We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Also, consider the opposing view of Stephen Douglass in one of the speeches given in his debates with Lincoln:
In my opinion this government of ours is founded on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men, in such a manner as they should determine.
The conflict between Lincoln and Douglass was a continuation of the conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton. Either the US government represented all people fairly and equally or else it served the interests of the privileged few. This was a conflict between democracy and aristocracy, between populism and classism, between egalitarianism and racism, between labor and capital. It’s a conflict that continues, but it seems that few Americans today understand this conflict. It was a conflict Lincoln understood well, and it was why Lincoln fought so hard to maintain the union, i.e. the unified vision of a democratic republic.
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The central point I’m making is that Republicans today are clueless about American history. Socialists today are more akin to the early supporters of Republican Party than are the neo-con and Tea Party Republicans now dominating the GOP. Obviously, the term ‘republican’ (capitalized or not) often meant something very different in the early decades following American Independence. Small ‘r’ republicanism isn’t in conflict with small ‘d’ democracy.
Consider the basic meaning of democracy:
Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible people have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal (and more or less direct) participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law. It can also encompass social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination. The term comes from the Greek: δημοκρατία – (dēmokratía) “rule of the people”, which was coined from δῆμος (dêmos) “people” and κράτος (Kratos) “power”, in the middle of the 5th-4th century BC to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states, notably Athens following a popular uprising in 508 BC.
According to some theories of democracy, popular sovereignty is the founding principle of such a system. However, the democratic principle has also been expressed as “the freedom to call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given… and which therefore, strictly speaking, could not be known.” This type of freedom, which is connected to human “natality,” or the capacity to begin anew, sees democracy as “not only a political system… [but] an ideal, an aspiration, really, intimately connected to and dependent upon a picture of what it is to be human—of what it is a human should be to be fully human.”
While there is no specific, universally accepted definition of ‘democracy’, equality and freedom have both been identified as important characteristics of democracy since ancient times. These principles are reflected in all citizens being equal before the law and having equal access to legislative processes. For example, in a representative democracy, every vote has equal weight, no unreasonable restrictions can apply to anyone seeking to become a representative, and the freedom of its citizens is secured by legitimized rights and liberties which are generally protected by a constitution.
I understand why authoritarian neocons and fundy theocrats would be against democracy. Such people are the modern day Hamiltons. However, most conservatives aren’t radical right-wingers. It makes no sense that any genuinely principled libertarian or minarchist would have a problem with democratic principles. I doubt even most average social conservatives would take issue with the above democratic ideas and ideals. The problem is that most conservatives don’t even know what democracy means. They are blindly against the word ‘democracy’ because they’ve been told it’s evil or dangerous or un-American. Ironically, when these same people seek to defend their own notion of a ‘republic’, they will usually mention attributes of a democracy.
There is another related term that brings up a lot of confusion: social democracy.
Similar to the Republican Party, social democracy arose out of the milieu of 19th century socialism and social reform. Originally, many socialists sought social democracy as a way of transitioning from capitalism toward socialism. This has changed a bit. Social democracy today no longer requires socialism as the end goal. It has become a goal unto itself. Social democracy, generally speaking, simply means the social aspects of democracy: free speech, universal suffrage, economic equality, etc; basically anything that empowers average people and lessens the conflicts that disempowers people through divisiveness.
The typical liberal is a social democrat in this more broad sense. In contradiction to the paranoid conspiracy theories of right-wingers, the typical American liberal doesn’t seek socialism to replace capitalism. This is the reason many socialists criticize liberals. If socialism is the goal, liberal compromise can be seen as the enemy. In the US, this point is clarified by how liberals tend to play a centrist role in politics. Chris Hedges explains the traditional role of the liberal class as bridging the gap between the upper classes and the lower classes. The liberal class serves its purpose by keeping class conflict to a minimum. The socialist in the Marxist tradition, on the other hand, wants to emphasize class conflict because they believe that compromise merely covers up the conflict rather than resolving it.
Political democracy has been undermined and corrupted by special interests, especially the special interests of big business. Democracy, in terms of elections, doesn’t lead to politicians who actually represent the people. Instead, politicians are beholden to the money that funds their campaigns and also tempted by the corporations who bribe them with money given to their favorite organizations and with jobs offered to them once they leave office. A revolving door exists between government and big business. As such, our political system has become a banana republic that is somewhere between corproatocracy and inverted totalitarianism.
It’s galling to a small ‘d’ democrat to hear democracy be blamed for our anti-democratic ‘republic’. These “Not a Democracy” Gnomes will criticize our anti-democratic ‘republic’ while at the same time praising anti-democratic republics as the ultimate form of government. They can’t have it both ways. Maoist China was an anti-democratic republic. Nazi Germany was an anti-democratic republic. Fascist Italy was an anti-democratic republic. Why do these conservatives think that entirely removing democracy from our republic would help save the democratic rights that even they praise? If they are ‘conservatives’, what exactly are they trying to conserve besides a society ruled by upper class white people?
I brought up social democracy because it’s fundamentally more important than political democracy. Political democracy can be almost entirely destroyed, but democracy will remain alive as a possibility as long as social democracy survives. Social democracy is about culture, about what people value, about the collective narratives of where society is heading. The success of social democracy can be seen in the fact that even conservatives have come to defend rights and values of social democracy such as free speech, even if their defense in principle is imperfect in practice.
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In reality, democracy is very simple. It’s as American as applie pie. Related to this, socialism is also a very American tradition. The socialists in early America were fighting for the same rights that many in the American Revolution were fighting for. It was no accident that many early socialists were inspired by Paine. It was Paine who inspired not only the American Revolution but revolutions in many other countries as well.
As Benjamin Franklin said:
You, Thomas Paine, are more responsible than any other living person on this continent for the creation of what are called the United States of America.
And as John Adams said:
Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.
It was Thomas Paine who first wrote about the ideal of the states unified through a single government and through universal suffrage. Later on, it was Paine-inspired President Abraham Lincoln who defended what Paine had helped to create and who had tried to further what Paine had hoped it would become.
It was Thomas Paine who first addressed social security by proposing land taxes that would prevent the concentration of wealth and hence power and that would promote economic equality and hence social justice. Later on, it was Paine-inspired President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who would use Paine’s Agrarian Justice as a model for developing our present social security.
A 19th century social reformer had no reason to see a conflict between Thomas Paine and Karl Marx. So conservatives, although incorrect in conflating socialism and democracy, aren’t wrong in seeing an alliance between socialists and small ‘d’ democrats in that both are unified against a common enemy: social injustice promoted by theocratic and plutocratic oligarchy.
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I hope that clarifies the falsely perceived conflict between small ‘r’ republicanism and small ‘d’ democracy. For further edification, the following is some of the historical analysis that inspired me to write this post (for emphasis, the boldface and underlining of text was added by me).
‘The “S” Word’
by John Nichols
Working Men’s Party would dissolve quickly, but its influence extended across the next several decades, as Evans turned his attention to forging a land-reform movement that would address the laws, ordinances and regulations that “deprived nine-tenths of the members of the body politic, who are not wealthy, of the equal means to enjoy ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ which the rich enjoy exclusively …”
Evans and his allies borrowed boldly from the concepts and ideals of Paine’s later writings, becoming known as “Agrarians.” They forged a movement that employed Paineite language to promote “Man’s Right to the Soil” and that attracted and inspired a generation of young radicals, including Horace Greeley, who would in his one term as a congressman introduce legislation proposing to give land free of charge to the poor; and Abraham Lincoln, who as president signed into law a milder version of Evans’s proposal—the Homestead Act of 1862. The Agrarian free soil movements were decried as “Red Republicanism” by northern conservatives and bitterly opposed by southern plantation owners, who feared that freeing up the land of the western states for production of food and agricultural products would undermine the claim that slavery was an economic necessity. As early as 1846, Evans anticipated that the United States would eventually see the development of two opposing parties that would do battle over all the economic and social issues of the nation: “the great Republican Party of Progress and the little Tory Party of Holdbacks.”
[ . . . ] In consultation with Greeley and Evans, he planned a radical new party comprised of members of various older parties and movements. As congressional debates about whether to allow the expansion of slavery into western states heated up, early in 1854, Bovay saw his opening. He called a public meeting at the Congregational church in Ripon, where the crowd adopted a resolution declaring that if the Whigs and Democrats in Congress did not block the most controversial legislation, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, from becoming law, then it would be time to “throw old party organizations to the winds and organize a new party on the sole issue of slavery.” When Congress passed the act, Bovay and sixteen of the most committed radicals gathered in a local school and agreed to create a new party that would be called “Republican,” in reflection of George Evans’s advocacy of almost a decade earlier and with hopes that a name linked to Paine and Jefferson would identify the new party as uniquely American.
Hailed by Greeley as the launch of a new movement that would change not just the politics of the nation but the nation itself, by uniting the struggle to free southern slaves from bondage and northern workers from “wage slavery,” the early Republican Party invariably linked the themes. Reflecting on Bovay’s outsized contribution to the shaping of the Grand Old Party—he is credited even today in the US Senate Republican Conference’s history of the GOP: “Bovay named the party Republican because it was synonymous with equality.” Historian John R. Commons would write in his classic essay on “the working-class origins of the Republican Party” that: “Whether (Bovay) was the only father of the party or not, it is significant that it was these early views on the natural right to land, derived from Evans and the workingmen, that appeared in the Republican party wherever that party sprang into being.” And it did indeed spring up across the northern US, winning within months of its founding key statewide and congressional elections that were fought with the slogan: “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men.” [ . . . ] “In philosophy, no other writer of the eighteenth century, with the exception of Jefferson, parallels more closely the temper and gist of Lincoln’s later thought.” Even as the New York Times was dismissing the author of Common Sense as the tribune of a dangerous “Red Republicanism,” Lincoln would declare: “I never tire of reading Paine.”
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“capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people …”
—Abraham Lincoln, from his first speech as an Illinois state legislator, 1837
Everyone now is more or less a Socialist.
—Charles Dana, managing editor of New York Tribune, and Lincoln’s Assistant Secretary of War, 1848
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.
—Karl Marx and the First International Workingmen’s Association to Lincoln, 1864
On December 3, 1861, a former one-term congressman, who had spent most of the past dozen years studying dissident economic theories, mounting challenges to the existing political order and proposing ever more radical responses to the American crisis, delivered his first State of the Union address as the sixteenth president of the United States.
[ . . . ] This was a wartime State of the Union address delivered not so much by a president as a commander-in-chief. Its purpose was to rally what remained of the House and Senate—after the exodus of the southern Solons who had joined a mutiny against the elected government—and to portray the struggle as not merely one for the preservation of a system of governance but for democracy itself. “It continues to develop that the insurrection is largely, if not exclusively, a war upon the first principle of popular government—the rights of the people,” declared the solemn speaker. “Conclusive evidence of this is found in the most grave maturely considered public documents, as well as in the general tone of the insurgents. In those documents we find the abridgment of the existing right of suffrage and the denial to the people of all right to participate in the selection of public officers except the legislative boldly advocated, with labored arguments to prove that large control of the people in government is the source of all political evil. Monarchy itself is sometimes hinted at as a possible refuge from the power of the people.” [ . . . ] “In my present position, I could scarcely be justified were I to omit raising a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism.” [ . . . ] “the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.”
Amid all the turbulence of a burgeoning Civil War, Abraham Lincoln wanted it to be known that he was unsettled by the rising assumption “that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.” [ . . . ] “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
To be sure, Lincoln related this observation to the wrenching questions posed by the Civil War. “A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class—neither work for others nor have others working for them. In most of the Southern States a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters, while in the Northern a large majority are neither hirers nor hired.”
Lincoln was speaking now of a broader concern: his fear that the few who were possessed of capital might, in a time of turbulence, seek to bend the rule of law—diminishing the historic respect for the rights of man outlined by Lincoln’s hero Tom Paine in order to favor their interests above those of the great many Americans who toiled for wages, or the fees paid farmers. “No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned,” the president warned. “Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they, and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.”
Lincoln’s insistence that labor guard against the surrender of political power to capital—a point he began to outline before his presidency and would repeat throughout his tenure—is rarely afforded the attention paid to his rhetoric regarding the state of “a house divided against itself,” “the proposition that all men are created equal” or the faint hope that: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”
Yet, how can we neglect the words that this most instructive of presidents chose to insert in so critical a commentary as his first State of the Union address?
How can we fail to recognize the echoes of a language which scholars of economic, social and political rhetoric might associate less with the sixteenth president than with one of his contemporaries: a Prussian-born son of the Enlightenment, who was causing a stir on both sides of the Atlantic at precisely the moment when Lincoln was casting about for a language to describe the economic forces that were carrying America from its agrarian roots to its industrial future?
Didn’t Karl Marx take an interest in the relation of labor and capital? Was it not the co-author of Das Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei who observed that: “the essential condition of capital is wage-labor”? And that: “Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the laborer”?
Well, there can surely be no connection, no tangible link between Abraham Lincoln, the log cabin–born, rail-splitting, archetypal nineteenth-century American and founding Republican, and Karl Marx, the bearded, brooding, archetypal “European” and proud socialist plotter.
Unless, of course, we bother to examine the tattered copies of the American outlet for Marx’s revolutionary preachments during the period when Lincoln was preparing to leave the political wilderness and make his march to the presidency. That journal, the New York Tribune, was the most consistently influential of nineteenth-century American newspapers. Indeed, this was the newspaper that engineered the unexpected and in many ways counter-intuitive delivery of the Republican nomination for president, in that most critical year of 1860, to an Illinoisan who just two years earlier had lost the competition for a home-state US Senate seat. The Tribune is remembered, correctly, as the great Republican paper of the day. It argued against slavery in the south. But it argued as well, with words parallel to Lincoln’s in that first address to the Congress, that: “Our idea is that Labor needs not to combat but to command Capital.”
Seven years before he and Lincoln served together in the Congress (during each man’s sole term in the US House) Horace Greeley—or “Friend Greeley,” as Lincoln referred to the editor in their correspondence—began the Tribune with a stated purpose: “to serve the republic with an honest and fearless criticism.” He succeeded, more wholly than any American editor before or after his transit of the mid-nineteenth century, in creating a newspaper that was not merely a newspaper. Greeley’s nationally-circulated Tribune was, as Clarence Darrow aptly remembered it, “the political and social Bible” of every reforming, radical and Republican household. The Tribune was surely that for Lincoln, whose engagement with the paper would last the better part of a quarter-century and eventually extend to wrangling with Greeley about the proper moment at which to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln’s involvement was not just with Greeley but with his sub-editors and writers, so much so that the first Republican president appointed one of Greeley’s most radical lieutenants—the Fourier- and Proudhon-Vinspired socialist and longtime editor of Marx’s European correspondence, Charles Dana—as his Assistant Secretary of War.
Greeley’s newspaper was the Tribune of the agitation that spawned the Republican Party and its successful presidential campaign of 1860. Lincoln would say of the editor: “every one of his words seems to weigh about a ton.”
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One of his few allies was the young first-term Whig congressman from Illinois, who Greeley recalled as a comrade with whom he “agreed on the slavery issue as one which must be answered permanently in the course of a few years.” The two men spoke on a daily basis during their joint tenure in the nation’s capital and formed a bond that would last until Lincoln’s assassination seventeen years later.
It was not mere personal acquaintance that linked Greeley and Lincoln, however. By 1848, Greeley’s Tribune was already a journalistic and political phenomenon. “Acknowledged the most influential Whig editor in 1844, [Greeley] had by 1850 become the most influential antislavery editor—the spokesman not of Whigs merely but of a great class of Northerners who were thoroughly antagonistic to slavery,” recalls Frank W. Scott in his study of nineteenth-century American newspapers. As the slavery issue came to a head, the Tribune’s influence grew so that it became not just a popular newspaper in New York City but a widely-circulated national journal of opinion, distinguished by what Scott characterizes as “some of the most vigorous and trenchant editorial writing America has ever known.” In the early 1850s, the circulation of the Tribune’s weekly national edition nearly tripled to more than 110,000 copies as it became what another historian, James Ford Rhodes, described as “pre-eminently the journal of the rural districts, [where] one copy did service for many readers. To the people in the Adirondack wilderness it was a political bible, and the well-known scarcity of Democrats there was attributed to it. Yet it was as freely read by the intelligent people living on the Western Reserve of Ohio”—not to mention in Abraham Lincoln’s Illinois.
By the late 1850s, the weekly Tribune’s Illinois circulation was close to 20,000, making the New York-based journal one of the midwestern state’s most widely circulated newspapers. There is no debate that Lincoln was among the most avid of the Tribune’s Illinois readers. His correspondence with Greeley confirms this passionate relationship with the paper, as does his more extensive correspondence with his third and last law partner, William Herndon, in which Lincoln would sometimes complain that Greeley’s newspaper was not being supportive enough of his political ambitions. It was in one of these fretful notes that Lincoln first expressed the view that “every one of [Greeley’s] words seems to weigh about a ton.” Lincoln did not merely consume Greeley’s words, however. He devoured the whole of his weekly
[ . . . ] In his period of deepest inquiry, the five years after his 1848 departure from Congress as a disappointed Whig and before his return to the political hustings as a champion of what would become the Republican Party, [ . . . ] Keenly aware of the rising tide of liberal, radical and socialist reform movements in Europe, a tide that would peak—at least for a time—in the “revolutionary wave” of 1848 and its aftermath, the young congressman joined other American Whigs in following the development of that year’s “Springtime of the Peoples,” which saw uprisings against monarchy and entrenched economic, social and political power in Germany, France, Hungary, Denmark and other European nations. For Lincoln, however, this was not a new interest.
Long before 1848, German radicals had begun to arrive in Illinois, where they quickly entered into the legal and political circles in which Lincoln traveled. One of them, Gustav Korner, was a student revolutionary at the University of Munich who had been imprisoned by German authorities in the early 1830s for organizing illegal demonstrations. After his release, Korner returned to his hometown of Frankfurt am Main where, according to historian Raymond Lohne, “he was one of about fifty conspirators involved in an attack upon the two main city guardhouses and the arsenal at the police facility and jail. This admixture of students and soldiers had planned to seize cannon, muskets, and ammunition; free political prisoners accused of breaking press-censorship laws, and begin ringing the great Sturmglocke (storm bell) of the Dom, the signal for the people to come in from the countryside. At that point, the democratic revolution would be announced … Unfortunately, they were walking into a trap … Betrayed by both a spy in their midst, and the reluctance of the common people to rise, nine students were killed, twenty-four were seriously wounded, and by August 3, 1833, Gustav Körner found himself riding into downtown Belleville, Illinois.”
Within a decade, Korner would pass the Illinois bar, win election to the legislature and be appointed to the state Supreme Court. Korner and Lincoln formed an alliance that would become so close that the student revolutionary from Frankfurt would eventually be one of seven personal delegates-at-large named by Lincoln to serve at the critical Republican State Convention in May 1860, which propelled the Springfield lawyer into that year’s presidential race. Through Korner, Lincoln met and befriended many of the German radicals who, after the failure of the 1848 revolution, fled to Illinois and neighboring Wisconsin. Along with Korner on Lincoln’s list of personal delegates-at-large to the 1860 convention was Friedrich Karl Franz Hecker, a lawyer from Mannheim who had served as a liberal legislator in the lower chamber of the Baden State Assembly before leading an April 1848 uprising in the region—an uprising cheered on by the newspaper Marx briefly edited during that turbulent period, Neue Rheinische Zeitung—Organ der Demokratie.
Thwarted by military forces loyal to the old order, Hecker fled first to Switzerland and then to Illinois, where he would join Lincoln in forging the new Republican Party and become a key speaker on his American ally’s behalf in the 1858 Senate race that is remembered for the Lincoln– Douglas debates. With a commission from Lincoln, Hecker served as a brigade commander in the Union Army during the Civil War, as did a number of other ‘48ers.
The failure of the 1848 revolts, and the brutal crackdowns that followed, led many leading European radicals to take refuge in the United States, and Lincoln’s circle of supporters would eventually include some of Karl Marx’s closest associates and intellectual sparring partners, including Joseph Weydemeyer and August Willich. Weydemeyer, who maintained a regular correspondence with Marx and Engels, soon formed a national network of Kommunisten Klubs to promote what the New York Times decried as “Red Republicanism.” Weydemeyer then allied with the new Republican Party and the presidential campaign of Abraham Lincoln, who would at the start of the Civil War appoint the former Prussian military officer as a technical aide on the staff of General John C. Fremont—the 1856 Republican presidential nominee who became the commander of the Army’s Department of the West. Later, Lincoln issued Weydemeyer a commission as a colonel of the Forty-first Infantry Missouri Volunteers, charging the German Marxist with the defense of St. Louis. Willich, known as “the Reddest of the Reds,” was a leader of the left faction of the German Communist League, which decried Marx’s relative caution when it came to revolutionary agitation. As a key commander of the radical Free Corps in the Baden-Palatinate uprising of 1849, Willich chose as his aide-de-camp a young Friedrich Engels. Forced to flee to the United States after the defeat of the uprising, Willich decamped to Cincinnati, where he became editor of the socialist Republikaner newspaper and backed the candidacies of Fremont in 1856 and Lincoln in 1860. At the outset of the Civil War, Willich recruited a regiment of German immigrants and became its first lieutenant, quickly rising to the rank of brigadier general and making a name for himself by having military bands play revolutionary songs such as the “Arbiter [Workers’] Marseillaise”—“A reveille for the new revolution! The new revolution!”
Lincoln did not merely invite the ‘48ers to join his campaigns, he became highly engaged with their causes. As Lohne notes, “Lincoln was paying attention to these revolutionaries.” In his hometown of Springfield, the former congressman rallied support for revolutionary movements in Europe, particularly the Hungarian revolt of Lajos Kossuth. Lincoln’s name led the list of signatories on calls for public meetings to discuss the Hungarian revolt that appeared in the Illinois State Register and the Illinois Journal in January 1852. A week later, Lincoln helped to pen a resolution declaring that: “we, the American people, cannot remain silent” about “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.”
Lincoln’s resolution argued:
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.
The proclamation even took a shot at the British Empire, resolving:
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.
What set Lincoln and his compatriots off?
There’s no mystery.
The Illinois agitators had merely to open their weekly editions of Greeley’s Tribune, which was declaring at the time that: “of the many popular leaders who were upheaved by the great convulsions of 1848 … the world has already definitely assigned the first rank to Louis Kossuth, advocate, deputy, finance minister, and finally governor of Hungary.” The great historian of the Tribune’s ideological and political battles, Adam Tuchinsky, notes: “Louis Kossuth and the Central European national liberation movements remained familiar subjects in the pages of the paper”—so much so that conservative critics of the gazette objected to its “Kossuthism, Socialism, Abolitionism and forty other isms.”
Greeley believed that 1848’s European revolts and their aftermath revealed “boundless vistas” along with the outlines of the “uprising which must come.” Predictably, his paper covered the revolutionary ferment of Europe with an intensity that made it virtually a local story for radicals in places like Springfield, Illinois. They pored over their copies of the Tribune for the latest from the front in what the paper’s editor portrayed as a global struggle for “the larger liberty” of “The Rights and Interests of Labor, the Reorganization of Industry, the Elevation of the Working-Men, the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric.”
The Tribune did not urge a “to-the-barricades” moment for the United States. Greeley and most of his editors still believed in the prospect of reform, although their frustration with the spread of the evil they referred to as “the slave power” would at times cause the paper’s proprietor to ponder whether “revolution is the only resource left.” Ultimately, however, what most excited Greeley and his readers about the stirrings of 1848 were the new and radical ideas that had emerged, and the mingling of those ideas with action that might lead to their implementation.
The Tribune’s European correspondent [ . . . ] Bornstein, notes Tuchinsky, was “the paper’s link to Karl Marx and a more class-conscious radicalism that would emerge in Europe during the 1848 revolutions and in their aftermath.”
But Bornstein’s “big picture” reporting style—which he would eventually bring to the United States as an astute observer of the Civil War— was only the start of the Tribune’s emergence as the primary source of detailed reporting on international events and ideas that would reshape the way American radicals and reformers thought about their own struggles, against slavery in particular and economic and social injustice in general. No longer satisfied with the pastoral reforms of Fourier and the romantic French communalists, the Tribune now considered more radical responses.
“Ultimately, 1848 would unearth an immense variety of French and European radical discourse; as a result, The Tribune diversified its coverage of socialist ideas,” explains Tuchinsky. “But more than that, socialism itself became not simply a mode of reform but also, significantly, of explanation, a way to interpret events. Fourierism was a sectarian movement, and it failed, but along with the revolution it cleared the way for a new language and a new political mentality through which American progressive intellectuals perceived and critiqued their social and political world.”
To understand and interpret that new language, Greeley dispatched a recent hire, Charles Dana, to Paris. [ . . . ] “Socialism is thus not conquered nor obscured in France by [the turmoil] but strengthened. It is no longer Fourierism, nor Communism, nor this nor that particular system which occupies the public mind of France, but it is the general idea of Social Rights and Social Reorganization. Everyone now is more or less a Socialist.”
[ . . . ] In particular, Dana was inspired to turn the Tribune, which had traditionally been friendly toward trade unionism, into an even more explicit advocate for organized labor, arguing editorially that: “we see no other mode in which Labor can protect itself against the overwhelming power of Capital than by this very method of Combination.” Lincoln, the voracious Tribune reader, would frequently express such sympathies, not merely in debates and State of the Union addresses but in direct communications to labor groups. To the New York Workingmen’s Association, the sitting president would in 1864 observe: “The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds.”
[ . . . ] In this search for “alternative strains of socialist thought,” Dana made his way to the city of Cologne, where a friend of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet Ferdinand Freiligrath, was working with a radical paper that intrigued the American visitor. The editor of the paper had recently co-authored a much-circulated German-language pamphlet, Das Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, which argued: “The essential condition for the existence and rule of the bourgeois class is the accumulation of wealth in private hands, the formation and increase of capital; the essential condition of capital is wage-labor. Wage-labor rests entirely on the competition among the workers.” To upset that condition, the writers had declared in February of 1848 for a “Communistic revolution” with the words: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world, unite!”
The pamphlet would be translated two years later into English as The Communist Manifesto. The editor in question was, of course, Karl Marx, with whom Dana spent a midsummer day in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung—Organ der Demokratie office. [ . . . ] Somehow, Dana and Marx connected. Indeed, they hit it off so famously that Dana would, according to Marx’s biographer Francis Wheen, provide the philosopher with “the closest thing he ever had to a steady job.”
That job was as one of the most frequently-published correspondents for the New York Tribune, with which Dana served a dozen years as managing editor. After Dana returned to New York to take up his new duties, he contacted Marx in London, where he had been forced to flee after German authorities shuttered the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, with an invitation to begin writing for the Tribune. And write Marx did. As Wheen notes, “The Tribune was by far the largest publisher of Marx’s (and to a lesser extent, Engels’s) work …The Tribune articles take up nearly seven volumes of the fifty-volume collected works of Marx and Engels—more than Capital, more than any work published by Marx, alive or posthumously, in book form.” The “singular collaboration” between Greeley’s paper and Marx continued from the early 1850s until the time of Dana’s departure to join Lincoln’s White House staff. “During this period,” according to historian William Harlan Hale’s masterly examination of the relationship, “Europe’s extremest radical, proscribed by the Prussian police and watched over by its agents abroad as a potential assassin of kings, sent in well over 500 separate contributions to the great New York family newspaper dedicated to the support of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, temperance, dietary reform, Going West, and, ultimately, Abraham Lincoln.” The official count of articles published by the Tribune under Marx’s byline was 350, while Engels wrote 125 and the duo produced 12 together. But, as the philosopher himself noted, many more articles ended up running as the official line of the Tribune. “Of late, The Tribune has again been appropriating all my articles as leaders [unsigned editorials],” Marx complained in 1854.
— — —
It happened that Marx’s article appeared at a time of “beginning again from the beginning” for a great many American radicals. The Whig Party, with which Greeley, Lincoln and compatriots of like mind had aligned themselves, was collapsing under the weight of its internal divisions between those who believed in aggressively confronting the spread of the “slave power” and more cautious reformers. Lincoln, who with Greeley had left the Congress in 1849, was practicing law in Springfield and on “the circuit” of county courthouses in Illinois. But he had not left politics behind. [ . . . ]
Slavery was an omnipresent issue, but surely not the only issue for Lincoln, whose circle of close compatriots now included a number of the radical ‘48ers who had turned Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri into new hubs of agitation. Lincoln watched international developments with frustration following the setbacks of the late 1840s and early 1850s, bemoaning in a letter to Herndon his sense that: “The world is dead to hope, deaf to its own death struggle made known by a universal cry. What is to be done? Is anything to be done? Who can do anything and how can it be done? Did you ever think on these things?”
[ . . . ] Eulogizing his political hero Henry Clay in 1852, Lincoln would make frequent reference to Clay’s international interests and involvements, declaring: “Mr. Clay’s efforts in behalf of the South Americans, and afterwards, in behalf of the Greeks, in the times of their respective struggles for civil liberty are among the finest on record, upon the noblest of all themes; and bear ample corroboration of what I have said was his ruling passion—a love of liberty and right, unselfishly, and for their own sakes.” Lincoln invoked the struggles of the European revolutionaries and denounced “oppression of any of its forms … crowned-kings, money-kings, and land-kings.” He dismissed the rhetoric of his arch-rival, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, finding it “as bombastic and hollow as Napoleon’s bulletins sent back from his campaign in Russia.” And when Douglas compromised on the issue of allowing the spread of slavery to new territories, he declared: “Equality in society alike beats inequality, whether the latter be of the British aristocratic sort or of the domestic slavery sort.”
Lincoln was arguably at his most radical when he penned those words in 1854. [ . . . ] In the immediate aftermath of Douglas’s betrayal, however, Lincoln’s language bore the distinct accent of Greeley’s Tribune and its most radical writers.
When Lincoln emerged in 1854 from his self-imposed political exile, it was with the intention of doing electoral battle not just with slavery but with those who stood in the way of the free soil and free labor movements the Tribune had popularized. “Free labor has the inspiration of hope; pure slavery has no hope,” declared the future president in one of his frequent linkages of ideological mantras. [ . . . ] Lincoln recognized that the most radical promise of America’s founding—that “all men are created equal”—was being destroyed in a manner that would thwart progress not merely for black slaves, but for white workers and farmers who sought their own freedoms. In his remarkable letter of August 15, 1855, to former Kentucky Congressman George Robertson, a compatriot of Henry Clay and champion of the old-school Whig hope that slavery would gradually be abandoned, the forty-six-year-old Illinoisan would bemoan the dying of the Founders’ faith. Recalling an address delivered decades earlier by Robertson, Lincoln wrote:
You are not a friend of slavery in the abstract. In that speech you spoke of “the peaceful extinction of slavery” and used other expressions indicating your belief that the thing was, at some time, to have an end[.] Since then we have had thirty-six years of experience; and this experience has demonstrated, I think, that there is no peaceful extinction of slavery in prospect for us. The signal failure of Henry Clay, and other good and great men, in 1849, to effect any thing in favor of gradual emancipation in Kentucky, together with a thousand other signs, extinguishes that hope utterly. On the question of liberty, as a principle, we are not what we have been. When we were the political slaves of King George, and wanted to be free, we called the maxim that “all men are created equal” a self-evident truth; but now when we have grown fat, and have lost all dread of being slaves ourselves, we have become so greedy to be masters that we call the same maxim “a self-evident lie.” The fourth of July has not quite dwindled away; it is still a great day—for burning fire-crackers!!!
That spirit which desired the peaceful extinction of slavery, has itself become extinct, with the occasion, and the men of the Revolution. Under the impulse of that occasion, nearly half the states adopted systems of emancipation at once; and it is a significant fact, that not a single state has done the like since. So far as peaceful, voluntary emancipation is concerned, the condition of the negro slave in America, scarcely less terrible to the contemplation of a free mind, is now as fixed, and hopeless of change for the better, as that of the lost souls of the finally impenitent. The Autocrat of all the Russias will resign his crown, and proclaim his subjects free republicans sooner than will our American masters voluntarily give up their slaves.
The letter to Robertson was composed during a period in which Lincoln was arguing to his law partner, William Herndon, that: “The day of compromise has passed. These two great ideas (slavery and freedom) have been kept apart only by artful means. They are like two wild beasts in sight of each other, but chained and apart. Some day these deadly antagonists will one of the other break their bonds, and then the question will be settled.”
What did Lincoln mean when he spoke of freedom as a great idea that stood in conflict with slavery? Was he merely addressing the condition of those physically enslaved by the southern plantation owners—and the political and legal structures that supported them? Or was he speaking of a broader freedom? The answer is found in the records of Lincoln’s public addresses from the time.
— — —
It was in Jefferson’s promise of a great equality that the debater of 1854 and the president of 1863 would find his moral grounding.
In particular, Lincoln spoke of how:
Little by little, but steadily as man’s march to the grave, we have been giving up the OLD for the NEW faith. Near eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for SOME men to enslave OTHERS is a “sacred right of self-government.” These principles cannot stand together. They are as opposite as God and Mammon; and whoever holds to the one, must despise the other. When Pettit, in connection with his support of the Nebraska bill, called the Declaration of Independence “a self-evident lie” he only did what consistency and candor require all other Nebraska men to do. Of the forty-odd Nebraska Senators who sat present and heard him, no one rebuked him. Nor am I apprized that any Nebraska newspaper, or any Nebraska orator, in the whole nation, has ever yet rebuked him. If this had been said among Marion’s men, Southerners though they were, what would have become of the man who said it? If this had been said to the men who captured Andre, the man who said it, would probably have been hung sooner than Andre was. If it had been said in old Independence Hall, seventy-eight years ago, the very doorkeeper would have throttled the man, and thrust him into the street.
Let no one be deceived. The spirit of seventy-six and the spirit of Nebraska, are utter antagonisms; and the former is being rapidly displaced by the latter.
Fellow countrymen—Americans south, as well as north, shall we make no effort to arrest this? Already the liberal party throughout the world, express the apprehension “that the one retrograde institution in America, is undermining the principles of progress, and fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw.” This is not the taunt of enemies, but the warning of friends. Is it quite safe to disregard it—to despise it? Is there no danger to liberty itself, in discarding the earliest practice, and first precept of our ancient faith? In our greedy chase to make profit of the negro, let us beware, lest we “cancel and tear to pieces” even the white man’s charter of freedom.
Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us re-purify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution. Let us turn slavery from its claims of “moral right,” back upon its existing legal rights, and its arguments of “necessity.” Let us return it to the position our fathers gave it; and there let it rest in peace. Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south—let all Americans—let all lovers of liberty everywhere—join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.
[ . . . ] What he was coming to understand, intellectually and emotionally, was that slavery was an oppression of a kind with other oppressions. And he was not on the side of the oppressors. He was on the side of freedom—not merely as a moral or social construct, but as an economic one.
This was a concept that was hard-wired into the Republican Party from the moment of its founding—by followers of Fourier’s utopian socialist vision, by German ‘48ers and especially by the muscular veteran campaigner for radical land reform Alvan Bovay. It was an idea that emphasized as he campaigned in 1856 for “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men and Fremont.” Slavery was an issue that year, and Frederick Douglass was surely right when he argued that voting Republican was the best way to strike “the severest, deadliest blow upon Slavery that can be given at this particular time.” But slavery was not the only issue, as a southern Illinois newspaper, the Belleville Weekly Advocate, noted after Lincoln stumped across the region on behalf of the ticket of General John C. Fremont and former New Jersey Senator William Dayton (who had defeated Lincoln for the new party’s vice-presidential nomination in a 253 to 110 vote at the first Republican National Convention that summer in Philadelphia). “He vindicated the cause of free labor, ‘that national capital,’ in the language of Col. FREMONT, ‘which constitutes the real wealth of this great country, and creates that intelligent power in the masses alone to be relied on as the bulwark of free institutions.’ He showed the tendency and aim of the Sham Democracy to degrade labor to subvert the true ends of Government and build up Aristocracy, Despotism and Slavery.”
Two years later, on October 15, 1858, in the last of the Lincoln– Douglas debates, the Republican candidate would frame the issues in the boldest possible terms, linking physical and economic slavery—“It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself”—as he addressed a crowd of 5,000 that had gathered in front of the Alton, Illinois, city hall. “That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong— throughout the world,” Lincoln thundered. “They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”
As he prepared for the 1860 presidential race, Lincoln would align with those who “hold that labor is the superior—greatly the superior—of capital.” That line, from one of Lincoln’s most striking speeches of the period, his September 30, 1859, address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, was reprised with minor variations throughout the difficult campaign for the Republican nomination. [ . . . ] “The Republicans therefore attacked the rule of the slaveholders at their root,” argued Marx in one of his many articles celebrating the rise of the new radical party in the United States—just as he decried “the connivance of the Northern Democrats” (or, as he referred to them, “Slavocrats”) with “the Southern Slavocracy.” The columnist, often displaying enthusiasms as idealistic as the Republican campaigners of Vermont or Wisconsin, argued that the party’s rapid rise offered “many palpable proofs that the North had accumulated sufficient energies to rectify the aberrations which United States history, under the slaveholders’ pressure, had undergone for half a century, and to make it return to the true principles of its development.” Lincoln’s victory was in Marx’s view a signal that the workers of the north would not “submit any longer to an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders…” That would not sit well with the south, and Greeley’s European correspondent explained to readers of the Tribune what they well knew to be the next stage in the history of the United States: “The Republican election victory was accordingly bound to lead to open struggle between North and South.”
[ . . . ] there were triumphs in the economic debates that Lincoln had outlined. Chief among these was the enactment of the Homestead Act of 1862, a soft version of the land reforms proposed by Paine-influenced agrarian socialists and social democrats of varying stripes—led by George Henry Evans, who suggested the movement be dubbed “Republican” as early as the mid-1840s, and Evans’s aide, Bovay, who would apply the name a decade later when he called the party into being at Ripon, Wisconsin. The act, which promised “land for the landless,” allowed any adult citizen (or anyone who had applied for citizenship) to claim a 160-acre parcel of land in the public domain. Greeley hailed it as “one of the most vital reforms ever attempted” and predicted it would usher in a post-war era of economic equity characterized by “Peace, Prosperity and Progress.”
Even as they agreed on homesteading, Greeley and Lincoln wrangled over the timing and scope of an emancipation proclamation. The editor joined Frederick Douglass in demanding that the president take steps to make the Civil War not merely a struggle to preserve the Union, but “an Abolition war.” Even as Greeley and Lincoln exchanged sometimes pointed letters, the Tribune’s longtime managing editor Charles Dana was now working for Lincoln. Officially assigned to the War Department—where he would eventually serve as assistant secretary—Dana’s real role was as an aide and adviser to the president on questions of what the former newspaperman described as the “judicious, humane, and wise uses of executive authority.” That Lincoln spent much of his presidency reading dispatches from and welcoming the counsel of Marx’s longtime editor—like the fact that he awarded military commissions to the numerous comrades of the author of The Communist Manifesto who had come to the United States as political refugees following the failed European revolutions of 1848—is a shard of history rarely seen in the hagiographic accounts that produce a sanitized version of the sixteenth president’s story. In the years following Lincoln’s death, his law partner and political comrade, William Herndon, complained that Lincoln’s official biographers were already attempting “to make the story with the classes as against the masses,” an approach that he suggested “will result in delineating the real Lincoln about as well as does a wax figure in the museum.”
The real Lincoln was more of a Jeffersonian, and especially a Paineite, than an orthodox Marxist. [ . . . ] To the extent that sides were to be taken, Lincoln was on the side of labor. He urged working men to “combine” and organize labor unions— “uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds.” He wanted “free labor” to be able to make demands on capital, without apology or compromise. He proposed this, not as a young man in a “radical phase,” but as the president of the United States. And he said as much when leaders of the New York Workingmen’s Democratic-Republican Association arrived at the White House in March of 1864, to inform the president that they had elected him as an honorary member of their organization. Lincoln “gratefully accepted” the membership, read the attending paperwork and then responded appreciatively to his visitors: “You comprehend, as your address shows, that the existing rebellion means more, and tends to more, than the perpetuation of African Slavery—that it is, in fact, a war upon the rights of all working people. Partly to show that this view has not escaped my attention, and partly that I cannot better express myself, I read a passage from the Message to Congress in December 1861…”
Having recalled his declarations about the superiority of labor, Lincoln spent a good deal more time with the Workingmen, despite a busy schedule that placed on his shoulders all the weight of decisions regarding the war and an impending re-election campaign. The campaign would see Lincoln’s supporters distribute handbills in working-class wards of New York and other cities, arguing that the war was a fight not just to free slaves in the south but to free workers in the north from “Slave Wages.” The most ardent abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass, had always reasoned that: “Liberty to the slave is peace, honor, and prosperity to the country.” But now this message was becoming central to the appeal of Lincoln’s campaign to voters in the swing states that would decide whether the president could see the war through to “an Abolition peace” characterized by “liberty for all, chains for none.” Emancipation, argued Lincoln’s supporters, would allow African Americans in the south to “demand wages that would allow them to live in a decent manner, and therefore would help the poor white man to put up the price of labor instead of putting it down as [slavery does] now.”
“Let the workingman think of this and go to the polls and vote for Abraham Lincoln, who is the true democratic candidate, and not the representative of the English Aristocracy, or their form of government, to be rid of which so many have left their native shores, and which form the leaders of the Rebellion are in favor of, in evidence of which we have the fact that in many of the Southern States no people can hold office but a property holder…” went one leaflet’s class-based appeal, which was critical to building the majority that would allow Lincoln to carry New York and retain the presidency with a decisive national landslide.
[ . . . ] Marx and Engels had been busy in the fall of 1864 with the work of organizing the International Workingmen’s Association—the “First International” of the communist movement and its allies on the left. At the meeting on November 19 of the International’s general council in London, Marx presented a letter of congratulation to Lincoln, which the council endorsed. It read:
Sir: We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.
From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epopee, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?
When an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders dared to inscribe, for the first time in the annals of the world, “slavery” on the banner of Armed Revolt, when on the very spots where hardly a century ago the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up, whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century; when on those very spots counterrevolution, with systematic thoroughness, gloried in rescinding “the ideas entertained at the time of the formation of the old constitution”, and maintained slavery to be “a beneficent institution”, indeed, the old solution of the great problem of “the relation of capital to labor”, and cynically proclaimed property in man “the cornerstone of the new edifice” — then the working classes of Europe understood at once, even before the fanatic partisanship of the upper classes for the Confederate gentry had given its dismal warning, that the slaveholders’ rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labor, and that for the men of labor, with their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic. Everywhere they bore therefore patiently the hardships imposed upon them by the cotton crisis, opposed enthusiastically the proslavery intervention of their betters — and, from most parts of Europe, contributed their quota of blood to the good cause.
While the workingmen, the true political powers of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.
The letter was duly delivered to Charles Francis Adams, Sr., the grandson of John and son of John Quincy, who had since the beginning of the war served in the delicate capacity of Lincoln’s ambassador to the Court of St. James. Adams was well acquainted with Marx. A Greeley man, who would campaign for the vice presidency in 1872 on a “Liberal Republican” ticket led by the editor, he had been the subject of glowing accounts by Marx in the Tribune since his arrival in London in 1861. His own son and private secretary, Henry, after attending “a democratic and socialistic meeting” organized by Marx and Engels, had reported approvingly to Washington that the speakers emphasized “that their interests and those of the American Union were one, that the success of free institutions in America was a political question of deep consequence in England and that they would not tolerate any interference unfavorable to the north.” [ . . . ] The senior Adams dispatched the letter from Marx and the leaders of the First International in a packet of diplomatic correspondence that was delivered to the State Department in Washington. Secretary of State William Seward [ . . . ] communicated Lincoln’s response, which Adams in turn delivered to Marx and his comrades:
“I am directed to inform you that the address of the Central Council of your Association, which was duly transmitted through this Legation to the President of the United [States], has been received by him,” began Adams. He went on:
So far as the sentiments expressed by it are personal, they are accepted by him with a sincere and anxious desire that he may be able to prove himself not unworthy of the confidence which has been recently extended to him by his fellow citizens and by so many of the friends of humanity and progress throughout the world.
The Government of the United States has a clear consciousness that its policy neither is nor could be reactionary, but at the same time it adheres to the course which it adopted at the beginning, of abstaining everywhere from propagandism and unlawful intervention. It strives to do equal and exact justice to all states and to all men and it relies upon the beneficial results of that effort for support at home and for respect and good will throughout the world.
Nations do not exist for themselves alone, but to promote the welfare and happiness of mankind by benevolent intercourse and example. It is in this relation that the United States regard their cause in the present conflict with slavery, maintaining insurgence as the cause of human nature, and they derive new encouragements to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies.
Marx was thrilled by “the fact that Lincoln answered us so courteously,” as he was with the rejection of “reactionary” policies and the expression of solidarity with “the friends of humanity and progress throughout the world.” [ . . . ] As such, the organizer in him delighted in the broad reporting of the exchange between the International and the Lincoln White House, which was featured news in the Times of London, along with other British and American papers. “The difference between Lincoln’s answer to us and to the bourgeoisie [anti-slavery groups that had also written the president] has created such a sensation here that the West End ‘clubs’ are shaking their heads at it,” Marx informed Engels.