Lincoln, Marx, and the Civil War

The election of 1864 was one of bitter divides. In a strategic effort to garner nonpartisan support, Lincoln attempted to appeal to the splintered Democratic Party where there was a rift between War Democrats and the Copperheads (anti-war Northerners). He ran under the “National Union Party,” in an effort to show American unity during a time of severe crisis and chose Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat, as his running mate. They would go on the capture the imagination of the North, winning the election of 1864 in a landslide against former General George B. McClellan who was running on the Democratic ticket.

Shortly after the election victory, an uncanny letter was handed to U.S Ambassador Charles Francis Adams with the instructions being that it be given to newly-elect, Abraham Lincoln. It was from the First International, and it was written by Karl Marx himself, congratulating Lincoln’s efforts during the United States’ time of war. It was praising and optimistic of the future of labor in the United States. It read:

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.

Marx goes on to further show eloquently his sincere support and bright anticipation of the workers’ future:

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.

It becomes apparent from this writing that Marx understood the dilemma of the laborers in the United States. Divided between racism, a blemish that became more visible during the eve of the Civil War, the working class was unable to mobilize. They lacked the capacity in numbers and in heart – being divided by systemic racial scapegoating that pitted them against their fellowman. Karl Marx even directly mentions this in his book ‘Das Capital.’ He writes:

In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.

It would be naive for anyone to believe that liberation and class struggle could properly take place with the institution of slavery still intact. Marx fully understood this. He considered it a necessary step in bourgeoisie history for it to be abolished; it being a vital precursor to real proletariat efforts.

A reply to the commemorative letter from Marx was actually given by Ambassador Adams in January of 1865. Seemingly, Lincoln enjoyed the warm support he received from the First International:

So far as the sentiments expressed by it are personal, they are accepted by [President Lincoln] 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 rest of the response goes on to espouse a surprisingly internationalist tone:

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.

It was perhaps, in this reply and in the events unfolding, the First International saw a glimmer a hope for the emancipation of the laborers in the United States. It was the start of a new ‘epoch,’ as they call it, but however it is disheartening to note that Marx wrote little to nothing on the events that would follow during the Reconstruction. He turned his attention elsewhere, abandoning the struggle in the Western Hemisphere and instead turning to a more Eurocentric revolutionary approach – which was perhaps a mistake in and of itself.

Despite this, a portion of Marx’s predictions came true. There was indeed a shift in the workers’ mentality in the decades after the Civil War. The National Labor Union (NLU), founded in 1866, was the first national labor organization in the United States. Many such organizations formed likewise in the age of railroad tycoons, demanding higher wages and shorter hours. The telling revelation here is that, when compared to the building of the canals during the decades after the turn of the 19th century, the consciousness of the workingman changed. Over a thousand men died from swamp fever during the construction of the Eerie Canal, but little to no backlash followed. Many more worked long and difficult hours on similar projects during that time, but there were no strikes nor was there much violence. This only changed after the institution of slavery was abolished. Marx’s optimism was therefore fulfilled, in some respects; The emancipation of slaves also emancipated the rest of the United States – in body and in mind. Frankly, although some initial momentum was lost after Reconstruction ended, it heightened the peoples’ sensitivity to their impoverished state with which they responded by organizing – such that would be violently repressed years later during the wealth-concentrated time of the Gilded Age, where money was the utmost desire and politics was the wealthy man’s game.


– The First International Letter to Lincoln, and the response, can be found here.
– More writing by Marx on the Civil War can be found here.
– Also, a letter exchange on this topic in the Fourth International (2009) can be found here.
– And finally, here is an interesting article from International Socialist Review where they analyze Lincoln from a Marxist perspective.

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