Democratic Republicanism in Early America

There was much debate and confusion around various terms, in early America.

The word ‘democracy’ wasn’t used on a regular basis at the time of the American Revolution, even as the ideal of it was very much in the air. Instead, the word ‘republic’ was used by most people back then to refer to democracy. But some of the founding fathers such as Thomas Paine avoided such confusion and made it clear beyond any doubt by speaking directly of ‘democracy’. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the first founding document and 3rd president, formed a political party with both ‘democratic’ and ‘republican’ in the name, demonstrating that no conflict was seen between the two terms.

The reason ‘democracy’ doesn’t come up in founding documents is that the word is too specific, although it gets alluded to when speaking of “the People” since democracy is literally “people power”. Jefferson, in writing the Declaration of Independence, was particularly clever in avoiding most language that evoked meaning that was too ideologically singular and obvious (e.g., he effectively used rhetoric to avoid the divisive debates for and against belief in natural law). That is because the founding documents were meant to unite a diverse group of people with diverse opinions. Such a vague and ambiguous word as ‘republic’ could mean almost anything to anyone and so was an easy way to paper over disagreements and differing visions. If more specific language was used that made absolutely clear what they were actually talking about, it would have led to endless conflict, dooming the American experiment from the start.

Yet it was obvious from pamphlets and letters that many American founders and revolutionaries wanted democracy, in whole or part, to the degree they had any understanding of it. Some preferred a civic democracy with some basic social democratic elements and civil rights, while others (mostly Anti-Federalists) pushed for more directly democratic forms of self-governance. The first American constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was clearly a democratic document with self-governance greatly emphasized. Even among those who were wary of democracy and spoke out against it, they nonetheless regularly used democratic rhetoric (invoking democratic ideals, principles, and values) because democracy was a major reason why so many fought the revolution in the first place. If not for democracy, there was little justification for and relevance in starting a new country, beyond a self-serving power grab by a new ruling elite.

Without assuming that large number of those early Americans had democracy in mind, their speaking of a republic makes no sense. And that is a genuine possibility for at least some of them, as they weren’t always clear in their own minds about what they did and didn’t mean. To be technical (according to even the common understanding from the 1700s), a country either is a democratic republic or a non-democratic republic. The variety of non-democratic republics would include what today we’d call theocracy, fascism, communism, etc. It is a bit uncertain exactly what kind of republic various early Americans envisioned, but one thing is certain: There was immense overlap and conflation between democracy and republicanism in the early American mind. This was the battleground of the fight between Federalists and Anti-Federalists (or to be more accurate, between pseudo-Federalists and real Federalists).

As a label, stating something is a republic says nothing at all about what kind of government it is. All that it says is what a government isn’t, that is to say it isn’t a monarchy, although there were even those who argued for republican monarchy with an elective king which is even more confused and so the king theoretically would serve the citizenry that democratically elected him. Even some of the Federalists talked about this possibility of republic with elements of a monarchy, strange as it seems to modern Americans. This is what the Anti-Federalists worried about.

Projecting our modern ideological biases onto the past is the opposite of helpful. The earliest American democrats were, by definition, republicans. And most of the earliest American republicans were heavily influenced by democratic political philosophy, even when they denounced it while co-opting it. There was no way to avoid the democratic promise of the American Revolution and the founding documents. Without that promise, we Americans would still be British. That promise remains, yet unfulfilled. The seed of an ideal is hard to kill once planted.

Still, bright ideals cast dark shadows. And the reactionary authoritarianism of the counter-revolutionaries was a powerful force. It is an enemy we still fight. The revolution never ended.

* * *

Democracy Denied: The Untold Story
by Arthur D. Robbins
Kindle Locations 2862-2929

Fascism has been defined as “an authoritarian political ideology (generally tied to a mass movement) that considers individual and other societal interests inferior to the needs of the state, and seeks to forge a type of national unity, usually based on ethnic, religious, cultural, or racial attributes.”[ 130] If there is a significant difference between fascism thus defined and the society enunciated in Plato’s Republic,[ 131] in which the state is supreme and submission to a warrior class is the highest virtue, I fail to detect it. [132] What is noteworthy is that Plato’s Republic is probably the most widely known and widely read of political texts, certainly in the United States, and that the word “republic” has come to be associated with democracy and a wholesome and free way of life in which individual self-expression is a centerpiece.

To further appreciate the difficulty that exists in trying to attach specific meaning to the word “republic,” one need only consult the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.[ 133] There one will find a long list of republics divided by period and type. As of this writing, there are five listings by period (Antiquity, Middle Ages and Renaissance, Early Modern, 19th Century, and 20th Century and Later), encompassing 90 separate republics covered in Wikipedia. The list of republic types is broken down into eight categories (Unitary Republics, Federal Republics, Confederal Republics, Arab Republics, Islamic Republics, Democratic Republics, Socialist Republics, and People’s Republics), with a total of 226 entries. There is some overlap between the lists, but one is still left with roughly 300 republics— and roughly 300 ideas of what, exactly, constitutes a republic.

One might reasonably wonder what useful meaning the word “republic” can possibly have when applied in such diverse political contexts. The word— from “res publica,” an expression of Roman (i.e., Latin) origin— might indeed apply to the Roman Republic, but how can it have any meaning when applied to ancient Athens, which had a radically different form of government existing in roughly the same time frame, and where res publica would have no meaning whatsoever?

Let us recall what was going on in Rome in the time of the Republic. Defined as the period from the expulsion of the Etruscan kings (509 B.C.) until Julius Caesar’s elevation to dictator for life (44 B.C.),[ 134] the Roman Republic covered a span of close to five hundred years in which Rome was free of despotism. The title rex was forbidden. Anyone taking on kingly airs might be killed on sight. The state of affairs that prevailed during this period reflects the essence of the word “republic”: a condition— freedom from the tyranny of one-man rule— and not a form of government. In fact, The American Heritage College Dictionary offers the following as its first definition for republic: “A political order not headed by a monarch.”

[…] John Adams (1735– 1826), second President of the United States and one of the prime movers behind the U.S. Constitution, wrote a three-volume study of government entitled Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (published in 1787), in which he relies on the writings of Cicero as his guide in applying Roman principles to American government.[ 136] From Cicero he learned the importance of mixed governments,”[ 137] that is, governments formed from a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. According to this line of reasoning, a republic is a non-monarchy in which there are monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements. For me, this is confusing. Why, if one had just shed blood in unburdening oneself of monarchy, with a full understanding of just how pernicious such a form of government can be, would one then think it wise or desirable to voluntarily incorporate some form of monarchy into one’s new “republican” government? If the word “republic” has any meaning at all, it means freedom from monarchy.

The problem with establishing a republic in the United States was that the word had no fixed meaning to the very people who were attempting to apply it. In Federalist No. 6, Alexander Hamilton says, “Sparta, Athens, Rome and Carthage were all republics”( F.P., No. 6, 57). Of the four mentioned, Rome is probably the only one that even partially qualifies according to Madison’s definition from Federalist No. 10 (noted earlier): “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place,” in which government is delegated “to a small number of citizens elected by the rest” (ibid, No. 10, 81-82).

Madison himself acknowledges that there is a “confounding of a republic with a democracy” and that people apply “to the former reasons drawn from the nature of the latter ”( ibid., No. 14, 100). He later points out that were one trying to define “republic” based on existing examples, one would be at a loss to determine the common elements. He then goes on to contrast the governments of Holland, Venice, Poland, and England, all allegedly republics, concluding, “These examples … are nearly as dissimilar to each other as to a genuine republic” and show “the extreme inaccuracy with which the term has been used in political disquisitions.”( ibid., No. 39, 241).

Thomas Paine offers a different viewpoint: “What is now called a republic, is not any particular form of government. It is wholly characteristical [sic] of the purport, matter, or object for which government ought to be instituted, and on which it is to be employed, res-publica, the public affairs or the public good” (Paine, 369) (italics in the original). In other words, as Paine sees it, “res-publica” describes the subject matter of government, not its form.

Given all the confusion about the most basic issues relating to the meaning of “republic,” what is one to do? Perhaps the wisest course would be to abandon the term altogether in discussions of government. Let us grant the word has important historical meaning and some rhetorical appeal. “Vive la Republique!” can certainly mean thank God we are free of the tyranny of one-man, hereditary rule. That surely is the sense the word had in early Rome, in the early days of the United States, and in some if not all of the French and Italian republics. Thus understood, “republic” refers to a condition— freedom from monarchy— not a form of government.

* * *

Roger Williams and American Democracy
US: Republic & Democracy
 (part two and three)
Democracy: Rhetoric & Reality
Pursuit of Happiness and Consent of the Governed
The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation
The Vague and Ambiguous US Constitution
Wickedness of Civilization & the Role of Government
Spirit of ’76
A Truly Free People
Nature’s God and American Radicalism
What and who is America?
Thomas Paine and the Promise of America
About The American Crisis No. III
Feeding Strays: Hazlitt on Malthus
Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
American Paternalism, Honor and Manhood
Revolutionary Class War: Paine & Washington
Paine, Dickinson and What Was Lost
Betrayal of Democracy by Counterrevolution
Revolutions: American and French (part two)
Failed Revolutions All Around
The Haunted Moral Imagination
“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”
“…from every part of Europe.”

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence
A Vast Experiment
America’s Heartland: Middle Colonies, Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest
When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory

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From Articles of Confederation to the Constitution

I’ve become increasingly fond of or at least seriously curious about federalism. I’ve often been attracted to libertarianism, albeit more leftist versions, which relates to federalism and states rights (also, the paired concepts of republicanism and democracy). What got me thinking more about federalism over the years are my ongoing studies of regionalism from the colonial era to the present. The distinctly separate colonies set the stage for both regionalism and federalism.

One thing that increased my interest in federalism is its relationship to the Articles of Confederation. This past year I learned that the Articles of Confederation had largely been the creation of John Dickinson, a Quaker-raised colonist and reluctant revolutionary from the Middle Colonies. The Middle Colonies created the theoretical justification and the practical working model for uniting the colonies into a single “United States” (or actually isn’t that plural?). The reason for this is that only the Middle Colonies had a regional culture of multiculturalism which meant there was a ready made vision and operating political system of balancing unity and diversity (Diversity within unity? Or unity through diversity? Or Both?).

When the Articles of Confederation needed improvement, the founders set about creating a constitution. However, the original intent was to create a constitution that would improve on the Articles of Confederation, not replace it. The first mistake of American politics was the creation of a constitution that did replace it and, one could argue, that mistake has led to an endless cascade of problems ever since.

The federalist support of the American Constitution came to be seen as opposite to and opposing of the anti-federalist position, but some of the anti-federalists weren’t against a constitution in principle or even against federalism in principle. They were against a federalist constitution that went contrary to the vision that motivated and justified the revolution.

Federalism, unlike it’s often been portrayed, wasn’t inherently in contradiction to the Articles of Confederation. It supposedly wasn’t meant to create a new nation-state or empire in the style of European countries, but that is what it later came to mean or anyway those were the consequences, intended or unintended. Federalism versus Anti-Federalism was a question of the balance between localized and centralized governance, not a question of a federal government ultimately being able to trump state governments in all matters. The role of the federal government was to mediate and moderate between the state governments, not to act completely independent of state governments. We long ago lost that notion of balance and moderation.

The anti-federalists argued that they were the true federalists. “Another complaint of the Anti-Federalists,” as the Wikipedia article explains, “was that the Constitution provided for a centralized rather than Federal Government (and in the Federalist papers James Madison admits that the new Constitution has the characteristics of both a centralized and federal form of the government) and that a truly federal form of government was a leaguing of states as under the Articles of Confederation.” The anti-federalists have been proven correct in their fears and warnings.

John Dickinson,who some consider to be a moderate federalist despite his being the main author of the Articles of Confederation, described his ideal constitutional government in his Fabius Letters. He explained that, “a territory of such extent as that of United America, could not be safely and advantageously governed, but by a combination of republics, each retaining all the rights of supreme sovereignty, excepting such as ought to be contributed to the union; that for the securer preservation of these sovereignties, they ought to be represented in a body by themselves, and with equal suffrage.” Whatever the United States has become, it certainly couldn’t be described as a “combination of republics” or rather, one could say, a confederation of republics. We’ve strayed far from that vision.

This confederation-based federalism wasn’t immediately destroyed by the Constitution that empowered the slave aristocracy and the capitalist plutocracy, but the seed of its destruction was planted within it. Soon after the signing of the Constitution, factions were already forming to take control of the federal government. Various factors gave the Southern colonies great power that extended into the early federal era. This allowed the Southern states to initially take control of the federal government. This power led them to try to force their social order and their slave laws onto the rest of the country. This angered the residents of the non-slave states and the settlers in the territories who had little desire to become slave states. Thus federalism died at the hands of the slavocracy and plutocracy. Those who rule with concentrated power and wealth have a tendency to further concentrate power and wealthy… surprise, surprise.

The Northern alliance of states wrested control following the Civil War. Northerners then did the same thing to the South that Southerners, before the Civil War, had done to the North. Politics had fully become a game of power and factionalism. What came to rule was partisan politics, special interests, and big money lobbyists; thus, setting the stage for the following century. Still, this was just the inevitable results of the anti-confederation and anti-libertarian constitutional order itself that was built on oligarchy (i.e., slavery, political oppression, aristocracy, plutocracy, and class-based inequality). It took different forms as the country developed, but this basic social order remains to this day.

Most Americans don’t understand what was lost when federalism ended, especially when confederation-based ‘true’ federalism ended, and why the constitution was such a failure of political vision (or rather the success of the wrong political vision). Federalism was what made the American experiment so unique. Yet we’ve just become another vast empire.

In fact, we became a full-fledged empire the moment that Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase, although the imperialist vision was present long before that (almost implicit in the early justifications of American independence as, in Paine’s words, “Small islands, not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.”). From that point on, America began its steady expansion across the North American continent and its steady expansion by way of attacking independent nations/peoples and claiming their territory when possible (the attacks on Canada and on Cuba being two of the failures of this imperialist project). This has led America, like the colonial empires before it, to now have in its possession vast territories not just on a single continent but also on various islands, from incorporated territories such as Hawaii to unincorporated territories such as Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam (a total of 6 inhabited unincorporated territories, 7 uninhabited unincorporated territories, and 3-5 depending on how you count former territories).

This colonial imperialism also has led America to be such a diverse country. It is ironic that those who praise America’s greatness because of its power often criticize the diversity that was the inevitable result of this imperialist project. You can’t have one without the other, as has been demonstrated with every great empire that has ever existed from the ancient empires of Rome and Hellenistic Greece to the later colonial empires of Spain, France, Netherlands and Britain.

Federalism allowed for a different kind of unity within diversity. The Southern colonies and later states favored monoculture that was strictly forced by a hierarchical social order. Some of the Northern governments/elites, however, embraced, encouraged and/or tolerated multiculturalism. Early federalism allowed these regional governments to have a fair amount of local control over their respective immigration policies, along with local control of their own ports and borders. It was the failure of federalism that led to proposals of secession. It wasn’t just Southerners that sought secession but also Northerners as well.

Even as federalism failed, the conditions that made it possible continue to exist.

Now that we have an empire, we can’t easily reverse the path we’ve taken. We could give independence back to the Native Americans, the Southwestern Hispanics, and the various island peoples. We could do that, but at this point many of these individuals and communities feel as American as the rest of us and they likely don’t want to have their American citizenship taken away from them.

A better solution would be to re-create confederation-based federalism by returning some of the power to local governments, local communities, and local populations. If Southerners want to be xenophobic, then let them be as xenophobic as they want within their own state boundaries. But I don’t want Southerners forcing their xenophobia onto me nor forcing onto me their fundamentalism and elitist class-based social order. Also, I don’t want to force my Midwestern values onto anyone else. Just let us Midwesterners do our own thing. I say let every state and every region do what it wishes, within some basic limits along the lines of the model of the Articles of the Confederation. Some states would choose to have tightly controlled borders and some open borders, some more democratic governance and others less so, some more capitalist and others more socialist, some with tough-on-crime laws and others full of a bunch of pot-smoking hippies getting gay married, and all of that would be perfectly fine.

Since some people are so obsessed about original intent, let us do what was originally intended. Let us make a constitution that improves upon, rather than replaces, the Articles of Confederation.

One context for my thinking is, oddly, the movie Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I thought this movie would be a fun note on which to end.

In that fictional world, there is a central government that has come to gain control over all the people. The different regions, I’m not sure how large, are divided up into districts. It seems these districts are relatively isolated, either geographically or by carefully controlled borders.

It is standard divide-and-conquer strategy. One of the ways this division is maintained is by the Hunger Games. These annual contests served a similar diversionary purpose as American elections. Everyone obsesses over who is going to win, but no matter who wins nothing is essentially going to change for those in power remain in power (or rather those behind the power remain behind the power).

This division of districts reminds me of all kinds of divisions in America. It was the regional divisions that led to the local political factions to seek to take over the centralized ‘federal’ government and enforce their political will onto the entire country. I was the formation of political parties, of which Washington warned about, that led these regional factions to become so nationally powerful. It was the divisions of religion, race and ethnicity that served as constant distraction and animosity among the lower classes which were then manipulated and exacerbated by the upper classes in consolidating their own power.

A centralized government only ever serves the interests and agendas of those with centralized power and wealth. Also, it is the centralized government that allows the continued centralization of power and wealth. Generation after generation, this has led to an ever-growing Establishment of hereditary plutocracy and political family dynasties.

The states no longer act as independent or even semi-independent republics. They are no longer functioning ‘states’ for they have fully come under the control of the federal government. This isn’t just about states rights for that can simply mean power centralized in the state governments. Self-governance is also about individuals, all individuals (lower classes and minorities included). Self-governance is also about communities which means a society built on individuals, families, churches, neighborhoods, militias, grassroots organizing, and actually functioning democracy.

We Americans aren’t as far away from the Hunger Games as we might like to imagine ourselves to be. Certainly, the post-9/11 centralization of power has brought us closer to such an extreme dystopia or else some other variant (e.g., The Handmaid’s Tale). Worse still, so many Americans have bought into the propaganda that, if we just fight for our faction (our race, ethnicity, religion, or whatever), we will finally have the America we want and the America we like to project onto the past. As with the Hunger Games, it is a vision of the ultimate win-lose scenario where the only way our faction can win is for all other factions to lose. This isn’t a road to unity, whether with diversity or not. Instead, this is the road to oppression and a second revolution.

US: Republic & Democracy (pt 3)

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).

 — — —

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).

 — — —

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. [2] 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.

 — — —

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”,[1] 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.[2]

According to some theories of democracy, popular sovereignty is the founding principle of such a system.[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5]

While there is no specific, universally accepted definition of ‘democracy’,[6] equality and freedom have both been identified as important characteristics of democracy since ancient times.[7] 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.[8][9]

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.

 — — —

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

pp. 58-59:

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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pp. 61-66:

“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.”

 — — —

pp. 70-81:

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.

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pp. 82-86:

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.

 — — —

pp. 87-96:

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.

US: Republic & Democracy (pt 2)

The other day, I wrote a post about the rightwing assertion that the US is a republic and not a democracy (US: Republic & Democracy). The basic confusion is that rightwingers are using a narrow definition of democracy that was used by some of the founding fathers.

“Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths… A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking.” (James Madison, Federalist Papers, the McClean Edition, Federalist Paper #10, page 81, 1788)

What the founding fathers meant by republic is what modern scholars mean by representative democracy. When you get right down to it, rightwingers don’t like ‘democracy’ because it shares the same letters in the same order as the ‘Democratic’ party. Anyways, it’s obvious that the founding fathers weren’t arguing against the democratic process of voting and representation. I don’t think most rightwingers are arguing against that either. So, it all comes down to semantics.

There is no inherent conflict between a republic and a democracy. To clarify, here is the Wikipedia definition of a Republic:

republic is a form of government in which the people or some portion thereof retain supreme control over the government,[1][2] and in which the head of government is not a monarch.[3][4] The word “republic” is derived from the Latin phrase res publica, which can be translated as “a public affair”

Both modern and ancient republics vary widely in their ideology and composition. The most common definition of a republic is a state without a monarch.[3][4] In republics such as the United States and France, the executive is legitimized both by a constitutionand by popular suffrage. In the United States, James Madison defined republic in terms of representative democracy as opposed to direct democracy,[5] and this usage is still employed by many viewing themselves as “republicans”.[6] Montesquieu included bothdemocracies, where all the people have a share in rule, and aristocracies or oligarchies, where only some of the people rule, as republican forms of government.[7]

I noticed someone even dedicated a webpage to this issue, titling it: The “Not a Democracy” Gnomes. The author states he has noticed this rhetoric going back to 2000, but I’m sure it goes back further. It’s just the internet (especially in its growth this past decade) has been a useful medium for popularizing and spreading such viral memes. Here is the first point the author makes:

The Gnomes Rely on an Absurdly Narrow Defnition of “Democracy”: as absolute, direct, simple and immediate majoritarian authority on matters of policy. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, they find problems with “democracy” so defined. They then depend on the reader to assume that their narrow definition of democracy matches the much broader common definition of democracy, and that therefore their criticism applies to that broader definition.

That is the same argument I’ve been making. These rightwingers use a definition so narrow that they make it seem ridiculous. Meanwhile, they ignore the long history of democracy in the real world. It reminds me of a conservative I once debated about the meaning of ‘socialism’. It turns out that this person had such a wide definition of ‘socialism’ that it involved all forms of government. Since he was a anti-statist conservative, it was convenient for him to define all state government as socialist. This is a weird way to win an argument, either over-simplifying or over-generalizing the terms of the debate.

Like me, the author goes on to give the actual, rather than imagined, definition of ‘democracy’:

The ridiculous nature of that argument is clear with the knowledge that a republic (the gnomes’ contrast to democracy) is actually itself one variety of democracy. Let’s look at the Oxford Modern English Dictionary definition of the word:

democracy. 1a) a system of government by the whole population, usually through elected representatives. b) a State so governed….

A “republic“, which provides for governance indirectly through elected representatives, is covered as a possibility under this definition.

The definition of “democracy” stretches back much further, of course, to the Greek, in which demos refers to “the people” and “cracy” to rule or authority. The broadest definition of “democracy” is therefore simply “the rule of the people,” the ideal of a citizenry engaged in civic life and enfranchised to take part in some meaningful fashion in politics, the exercise of decision-making in a sphere of authority (see Oxford here as well). Now why would some parties have a problem with this democratic ideal? Any ideas?

And the second point the author makes:

Proponents of democracy recognize it is an ideal. We do not live in a full democracy, since it has not yet been achieved. Especially after the latest election debacle, we’re all too aware of that. But the pursuit of the democratic ideal in the United States is a righteous quest with a long history, involving an ever-broadening emancipation of citizens. It is an overwhelmingly popular quest, and one which, in my opinion, should continue.

The democratic quest requires for its support a thoroughly educated and informed public, a tolerance for the questioning of authority and the spirit of community. For those who are opposed to these conditions and to their ultimate end, sending out the “not a democracy!” gnomes is a pleasant diversion. But the more educated, the more questioning, and the more civic we become, the more clear it is that the gnomes’ verbal minuet is trivial and therefore irrelevant.

I was wondering about the origin of this rightwing ploy to dismiss democracy. It sounds more like rhetoric than an argument. Somehow it’s being spread which makes me think it’s either a talking point in the rightwing media or else some particular group is using it for an agenda. Whatever the origin or motivation, there is certainly a memetic quality about this simple idea.

I suspected that one source would be Glenn Beck or someone like him. I was correct.

That isn’t surprising, but Glenn Beck isn’t the originator. What Beck preaches has been preached before by many others. So, I wasn’t surprised to see a video by the John Birch Society arguing against democracy.

I also shouldn’t have been surprised to see a video making the same argument in an interview by Alex Jones (interviewing Aaron Russo).

I did find it interesting that Milton Friedman was also spreading the same rhetoric.

If I had to guess, it’s probably the John Birch Society (or other similar groups) who have spread this rhetoric the most. The John Birch Society has been around for a very long time. As I recall, Cleon Skousen had some connection to that group. And, of course, people like Glenn Beck have been heavily influenced/inspired by the tradition of thought that includes Skousen and the John Birch Society. It’s the same tradition of thought that included the KKK back when it was a part of respectable society. This tradition of thought includes very specific beliefs and attitudes: patriotic nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiments, traditional family, white culture/supremacy, and Christian fundamentalism. These are the people who argue that America is a Christian nation. Instead of a democratic republic, they’d prefer to have a theocratic republic.

[…] the society we have which remember is not a democratic society and wasn’t intended to be. If you take a course in political theory here, I’m sure they’ll teach you that the United States is not a democracy. It’s what is called, in the technical literature, a polyarchy. […] Polyarchy is a system in which power resides in the hands so those who Madison called the ‘wealth of the nation’, the responsible class of men; and the rest of the population is fragmented, distracted, allowed to participate… every couple of years, they’re allowed to come and say ‘yes, thank you, we want you to continue another four years’ and they have a little choice among the responsible men, the wealth of the nation. That’s the way the country was founded. It was founded on the principle, explained by Madison in the Constitutional Convention, that the primary goal of the government is to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.

Reading the Wikipedia article on polyarchy, it’s not clear to me why Chomsky makes this distinction between democracy and polyarchy. Apparently, the originator of the term ‘polyarchy’ didn’t define it as excluding ‘democracy’. In fact, polyarchy would seem to be a specific form of representative democracy. As an anarcho-socialist libertarian, I understand that Chomsky would prefer a more direct form of democracy. It’s interesting that, for different reasons than the rightwinger, Chomsky also wants to narrow the definition of democracy. Whatever the reasons for Chomsky’s argument, Gore Vidal makes a similar assessment about the motivations of the founding fathers (On Europe and why the U.S. is not a democracy):

Many of us are descended from Cromwell’s men. That’s how we became to be such vicious Protestants. Well, if you want to see any of the founders, read the federalist papers. Any one of them looks like he’s near apoplexy, he’s about to have a stroke when he’s talking about the people. They hate the people. They want the people out of government. Their idea of bad government is Pericles in Athens. And that’s just, you know, forbidden country for our founders. They were Republicans, and they wanted a republic based on Rome, secretly based on slavery and based on imperial progress elsewhere in the world.

So from the beginning, we’ve been imperial. From the beginning, we’ve missed the whole point of the republican effort to create a republic in this brave new world.

People argue against the US being a democracy for various reasons. Some, on both the far right and far left, argue that the founding fathers didn’t intend democracy. Others might argue against our government being a democracy but that it includes democratic processes. Some counter that the democratic processes are failing or never existed.

Let me give my analysis. I would argue that our political system is either a type of democracy or, if you’d rather not call it a democracy for ideological reasons, it certainly contains democratic processes going back to the beginning of the country. Yes, these are imperfect, but the point is that they exist even if only in minimal form. I would, furthermore, argue that we don’t need to defend our republic against democracy. There are dangers in both republics and democracies, and I think the two systems balance eachother. I truly doubt it would be possible for a republic to exist entirely without any democratic elements and vice versa. Using the general definition of a republic as being other than a monarchy, a direct democracy would be the most extreme form of a republic. A direct democracy can and has existed on the local levels. Many communities have formed based on direct democracy, but a community would have to remain very small to maintain direct democracy. As an absolute ideal, direct democracy is an abstraction (and so is republicanism).

The founding fathers feared both monarchy and direct democracy…. or, to put it another way, a political system where the select elite has most of the power or a political system where the masses have great power. The founding fathers weren’t against the elite having power as they saw themselves as the elite, but they just wanted to guarantee that the power was evenly or meritocrously spread among all of the elite. They intentionally didn’t want to guarantee the average person (non-whites, females, working class, etc) had access to political power. Mostly, power was held by rich, white landowners (plutocracy). They believed in meritocracy and they assumed, as many Republicans do today, that the upper class men have earned or otherwise deserve their power. You have to at least give them credit for believing the idealistic role of disinterested aristorcracy that they saw themselves playing.

The founding fathers were scared of the average person for good reason. The French revolution demonstrated that the average person was a threat to rich people like them. I think similar reasons explain why modern Republicans are also afraid of what average Americans would do if given political power through direct democracy. It’s obvious, of course, why rich, white males continue to fear democracy. Beyond that, whites in general no longer hold the monopoly on political power they once had and whites are quickly losing their majority position. If you’re someone who identifies with being white and/or identifies with ‘white culture’, then democracy is a very real threat to you. Yes, just like you, the founding fathers were white. Many white conservatives like to take credit for what past white people did and claim the problems of society today are the erosion of traditional ‘white culture’. If you’re a conservative white person who fears what is becoming of the country, it is only natural to idealize the founding fathers who were white and idealize early America when whites had absolute power. It’s true that, if it weren’t for democracy, whites would probably still have all the power.

Since the time of the founding fathers, direct democracy has increased. From Republicanisn in the United States:

Over time, the pejorative connotations of “democracy” faded. By the 1830s, democracy was seen as an unmitigated positive and the term “Democratic” was assumed by the Democratic Party and the term “Democrat” was adopted by its members. A common term for the party in the later 19th century was “The Democracy.” In debates on Reconstruction, Senator Charles Sumner argued that the republican “guarantee clause” in Article IV supported the introduction by force of law of democratic suffrage in the defeated South.

As the limitations on democracy were slowly removed, property qualifications for state voters were eliminated (1820s); initiative, referendum, recall and other devices of direct democracy became widely accepted at the state and local level (1910s); and senators were made directly electable by the people (1913).

Women can vote. Non-whites can vote. The working class can vote. Not only can all of these people vote but they can also hold political offices. For our modern standards, a democracy where only rich, white men can vote and be elected doesn’t seem like much of a free society. Even most conservative white males who defend the good ol’ days have to admit that such a state of affairs was far from ideal. But, to be honest, that is exactly what a republic was prior to the increase of direct democracy. Democracy is messy and inefficient. It’s much easier to have a republic without democracy. Most fascist and communist governments are technically republics and many of them even identified themselves as such, but the founding fathers understood that having at least some democracy, however limited, was a good thing even for rich, white males such as themselves.

In conclusion, I’ll let Thom Hartmann have the last word. I’ll share a video where he argues the founding fathers were truly seeking egalitarianism and so were actually betraying their social class . It’s a much more positive vision of America’s beginnings. After the video, is a transcript from Thom Hartmann’s show. He summarizes perfectly the issue of republic vs democracy in American history.

(See here for full video.)

Thom Hartmann’s show, March 29, 2010:

If you want the most technical term, our country is aconstitutionally limited representative democratic republic. Our form of government, the constitution limits the power of government. We elect representatives, so it’s not a pure democracy. But we do elect them by majority rule so it is democratic. And the form of, the infrastructure, the total form of government, is republican, it is a republic.

In the early days of this country, James Madison basically created a distinction that didn’t exist before this, and this was in 1787. The, it used to be, if you look at dictionaries pre 1787, the words democracy and republic were interchangeable. The Roman republic was referred to as a democracy, the Greek democracy was refereed to as a republic. The words were interchanged. And in one of the Federalist papers, and I forget which one it was, I think 14 maybe, but it’s been a long time since I read them, in one of the Federalist papers in an effort to, which were put into the newspapers by Hamilton and Madison, and John Jay wrote a couple of them, to sell the constitution to people, because we were operating under the articles of Confederacy in 1787.

To sell the constitution, Madison created this artificial distinction. And what he said, basically, was that democracy, that we weren’t creating a democracy in the United States, and in a technical sense it is not a pure democracy, because like Greece, you had to have at least 6,001 people show up for a decision to be made. It had to be real majority rule. And so Hamilton, excuse me, Madison made the point that democracy could arguably be considered a form of mob rule, whereas a republic imposed, you know, an infrastructure of laws and prevented mob rule.

Now, what he omitted, intentionally, because he was trying to sell the constitution, he was trying to basically reinvent language, what he omitted was that we democratically elect our representatives. And later in his life, in the 1830s, after his presidency was over, keep in mind this was in the 1770s or 1780s, in the 1830s when he was an old man, when he was writing his memoirs, he came out and said, and there’s a whole, if you go to buzzflash.com and look at my book reviews, the very first book review that I ever did for BuzzFlash, which was like five years ago, it’s the oldest one on the list, is all about this topic, or it has several chapters on this topic. And I forget the title of it now, but it’s a great book and it’s written by a guy who’s a constitutional scholar [“How Democratic Is the American Constitution?” by Robert A. Dahl.] And Madison in 1834 said, you know, after all these years, we can, you can use the words interchangeably. And that was about the time that the Democratic Republican party that Jefferson created dropped the word “republican” from its name. And that was about the time that Madison, who was one of the early founders of the Democratic Republican party started again using the word democracy.

So from the 1830s, so from the founding or in the mid 1780s until the mid 1830s we referred to America as a Republic. From the 1830s until the modern era we referred to it as a democracy, but then when Joe McArthur came along he started, he and some of his advisors, and Karl Rove really got on this big time, said, “wait a minute, calling this a democracy sounds too much like the Democratic Party. We should call it a Republic because that sounds more like the Republican Party.” And so the talking point on right wing radio has been, and Limbaugh’s been pushing this for 20 years now, has been that we don’t live in a democracy, we live in a republic, and that you shouldn;t call it a democracy, it’s a republic. And the reason why is because they like the word republic because it sounds like republican and they hate the word democracy because it sounds like democratic. And … that’s the bottom line, we live in a democratic republic.

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US: Republic & Democracy (pt 3)

US: Republic & Democracy

I keep noticing a particular belief among a certain kind of rightwinger. What they say is that the US government isn’t a democracy but a republic. I’ve seen this stated thousands of times in blogs and comments around the web.

I wonder what is the source of this claim. The fact that it keeps being repeated by so many people makes me think it’s a talking point often heard in conservative media. There is one thing that is obvious to me about this phenomenon. These people didn’t learn this idea by looking up the term ‘democracy’ in a dictionary or an encyclopedia or even Wikipedia.

Half of the statement is correct and half of the statement is false. The US government is BOTH a democracy AND a republic. To be more specific, the US government is a representative democracy and a constitutional republic. What these rightwingers fail to understand is that there are multiple definitions of democracy and multiple definitions of republic.

Even going back to Greek society, there was vast difference between Spartan and Athenian democracy. Sparta was a representative democracy with a political system that was divided. Athens was more of a direct democracy where even the lowest citizen could participate. The US is a bit of both these. The US is like Sparta in the following ways: representation instead of direct democracy, divided government, and a professional military. The US is only like Athens in one way: any citizen can participate and potentially become elected into government.

The only place where direct democracy operates in the US very partially is on certain major issues of local governance that are decided by citizen vote. I suppose also that jury by peers could be thought of as a watered down or constrained version of direct democracy. Still, the vast majority of the government is representative and the ‘mob’ of the citizenry has little direct influence.

The rightwingers are arguing that democracy is solely defined as direct democracy or, as some call it, mobocracy. But they are simply wrong. Their ignorance amazes me. Let me demonstrate by considering a random definition from a mainstream dictionary. I did a search and this is the top result (after Wikipedia):

Merriam-Webster, definition 1, part b (emphasis mine)
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/democracy

a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

Here is the confusion. Rightwingers are taking the following part of the definition as if it were the whole definition:

Merriam-Webster, definition 3

capitalized : the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the United States <from emancipation Republicanism to New Deal Democracy — C. M. Roberts>

Basically, it comes down to a simplistic play on words. These rightwingers are trying to make an argument that the Republican party is the party of real America, the party that represents the emancipation Republicanism of the founding fathers. The problem is that this argument is so simplistic as to be inane. There is absolutely no conflict between a constitutional republic and a representative democracy. US democracy is constrained by being indirect and by having the govt divided. Furthermore, US democracy is constrained by the constitution (and the constitution is responsive to the democratic process, i.e., amendments).

There are a few basic confusions.

The original meaning of ‘republic’ was simply a government that wasn’t a monarchy. The difference between a monarch and a president is that the former represents himself or represents the ruling elite and the latter theoretically represents the whole population and the country as a whole. As far as I know, this doesn’t require a constitution. The term ‘republic’ just basically means that the leader can’t simply act on whim and must be held accountable to the law like everyone else, but these laws aren’t necessarily the same as a constitution. A constitution is similar to laws, but the difference is that a constitution is what all other laws are based upon and that they must remain basically unchanged. Most republics probably tend towards declaring constitutions, but a strong legal system independent of the leader can serve the same purpose as a constitution. A constitution is just a safeguard in case the legal system fails. The constitution, of course, has no power in and of itself. Still, it’s powerful in being a symbolic mission statement of a society.

Let me now share part of the definition of ‘republic’:

Merriam-Webster, definition 1, part b(1)
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/republic

a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law

That serves as an equally good definition of a representative democracy.

Two things come to my mind: 1) Henry Fairlie’s definition of a Tory; and 2) rightwing rhetoric about ‘mobocracy’ and ‘real Americans’.

So, how did Henry Fairlie define a Tory? The Tories support the British government… which includes the period of monarchy. The Tory has faith in government in general for the reason they mistrust capitalism controlled by the wealthy elite. The government represents the people or at least the country, but capitalists have no inherent loyalty to anything besides profit. I think this represents the basic distinction between conservatives and liberals in the US. Conservatives mistrust government and instead trust capitalism. Liberals have a basic faith in government while being wary of capitalism. This is demonstrated by how Democrats show stronger support for even Republican presidents than Republicans show for Democrat presidents. Liberals trust the government even when they don’t have one of their own in power because they see government as being greater than either party.

This brings me to the second point. Liberals also have more basic faith in the American people and human nature in general. Liberals believe humans are inherently good or at least have the inherent predisposition towards good. Conservatives believe that people need to be told what to do by traditional authorities (i.e., religious leaders) and by those who are seen as having earned authority (i.e., successful/wealthy capitalists). Conservatives talk about ‘real Americans’, but they don’t mean the average American. What they’re talking about is the specific group they belong to: fundamentalist Christians, ‘white culture’, etc. So, their notion of ‘real Americans’ is very narrow. The liberal notion of a real American is more broad and I doubt most liberals would even deny conservatives as being real Americans. Just look at the Democratic voters who evenly divide between identifying as liberals and conservatives (according to the 2005 Pew data: Beyond Red vs Blue).

I’d also point out that it’s because of conservatives mistrust of people and government that they emphasize the constitution so much. That is why they tend to think of the constitution as an unchanging document akin to a religious document such as the Ten Commandments. Conservatives trust principles and beliefs, traditional values and institutions; whatever they perceive as a living and unchanging tradition of their particular in-group. Democracy, even though ancient, isn’t a traditional part of Christianity and so not a traditional part of European culture. Greek ideas which inspired the Enlightenment Age were reintroduced to Europe from the Middle East and so Greek ideas are considered suspicious.

My main point in all this is just that it’s odd to see rightwing constitutionalists denying the very democracy that was created by the founding fathers. There are argument rests on the fact that when some of the founding fathers were using the term ‘democracy’ they were often referring to only direct democracy, although not always (Thomas Paine seemed to have meant something more broad when he wrote about ‘democracy’). Apparently, many of the founding fathers used the term ‘republic’ to mean representative democracy. However, in the modern world, the term ‘democracy’ is more commonly used for both direct and representative forms. The rightwingers using narrow definitions from a couple of centuries ago and dismissing modern meaning of words is rather pointless. The meanings of words change. That is just the way the world works.

Like it or not, the US government is a democracy. If (some) rightwingers for some strange reason wanted to get rid of democracy, they’d be forced to get rid of the republic itself which is built on the political process of democracy (voting, representation, etc). I’m assuming rightwingers don’t want to do this. So, why do they continue with the ignorant argument that America isn’t a democracy? Is it intentional ignorance in that there being ideoligically divisive in what they see as a battle that must be won at all costs, the battle of defeating liberals and Democrats? Or is it just passive ignorance of people who never read anything (including dictionaries and encyclopedias) outside of conservative media?

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US: Republic & Democracy (pt 2)