Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln, Penpals

lincoln marx

Karl Marx invented communism. Sort of. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves (not because he actually thought blacks were equal to whites, but because he thought “live and let live, right bro?”). So what the hell were these two writing to each other about? Apparently slavery, and how it sucked.

I first stumbled upon this letter from Karl Marx (on behalf of the International Working Men’s Association) congratulating Lincoln on his re-election. Marx  acknowledges that working white folks have been pretty shitty to black slaves and that laborers everywhere should unite on behalf of the battle over slavery. He writes:

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.

And thank god the North won, because Europe was really missing their cotton. Marx tells Lincoln that the laborers in Europe have been patiently waiting out the “hardships imposed upon them by the cotton crisis” in support of their enslaved comrades.

The best part? Lincoln replied, or at least his ambassador in London did (where Marx was located). The reply doesn’t say much, other than conveying a generic sense of gratitude and agreeing slavery is bad:

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.

You can find the whole exchange here from Marxists.org. There is also an entire book, “An Unfinished Revolution,” about Marx’s and Lincoln’s letter exchanges. Whether or not the book encompasses more than these 2 letters is vague. The description reads.

Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln exchanged letters at the end of the Civil War, with Marx writing on behalf of the International Working Men’s Association. Although they were divided by far more than the Atlantic Ocean, they agreed on the urgency of suppressing slavery and the cause of “free labor.” In his introduction Robin Blackburn argues that Lincoln’s response to the IWA was a sign of the importance of the German American community as well as of the role of the International in opposing European recognition of the Confederacy.

  • gene gibbs

    Lincoln, Americas first socialist regime. To be followed by many.

    • Nick Ouse

      not really.

    • James Walker

      Hi Gene, just to let you know. Words have meanings. People who refer casually to someone or something they don’t like as “socialist” demonstrate a lack of care and concern for words and ideas. Anyway, you probably are just here playing badboy to get a reaction.

  • whocares

    So there is absolutely no proof that Abraham Lincoln wrote a single letter.

    Or there would be copy of these “letters” in the National Archives, it would seem.

    • DemandSider2

      Actually, his Ambassador to The U.K., a relative of John Adams, returned a cordial thank you to Karl Marx Workingmen’s Association for the kind letter they had sent congratulating Lincoln for his election victory. Marx’ labor organizations in the U.K. were key to building public support for keeping those countries leaders from helping the Confederate side in the Civil War. Workers in the textile industry suffered tremendously with the lack of Southern cotton, but Marx kept them on The Union side. So, Lincoln had good reason to thank Marx, and the workers of UK. The Ambassador Adams, himself, was somewhat sympathetic to the cause of Marx.

  • Edward Richardson

    The war was fought over the Morrill Tariff, which fleeced the South to pay for public works projects in the North. It’s why over 3 decades earlier South Carolina nearly seceded, but they backed off the tariff and democrats (the low-tax party back then, the GOP was pro-big govt tax-and-spend) blocked outright or ameliorated successive tariffs.

    The tariff began the war. Any notion it was fought over less than 0.25% of the population owning slaves is absolutely ridiculous.

    • Remark

      You might want to look over South Carolina’s Declaration of Immediate Causes (slavery 18, tariff 0) or the Mississippi declaration (Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery . . . .) before you make such ridiculous declarations. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_missec.asp; http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp

      • mdice11

        Edward is correct in that the South was getting hammered by tariffs and Lincoln was in favor of increasing them even more. By the way, the first of the original thirteen colonies to legalize slavery was the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the state of Georgia was the last to do so. Free blacks existed north AND south of the Mason-Dixon line, as did slaves. There were also black slave owners in the South, particularly in South Carolina and Louisiana. The north, particularly those in New England, were totally against the idea of assimilating blacks into their region. After all, where did blacks utilizing the underground railroad usually end up? …. why in Canada of course, not Boston or New York. Actually some did end up there, but that was not the grand scheme. New Englanders definitely cherished their puritan heritage and sometimes accused southern slave owners of being physical with their black slaves. Victors get to write the history books, so most Americans now have no idea that slavery ever existed north of the Mason-Dixon line, and the South was branded for the sins of slavery, though it was a national phenomenon. After the conflict was over, numerous northern states including Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio passed laws that specifically outlawed blacks from settling in their states. In modern times, the Boston Red Sox were the last major league baseball team to sign a black player.

        P.S. How is the Skull and Bones Society doing on the Yale campus these days?

        • Remark

          So wrong in so many ways.

          The last two tariff adjustments before secession, the Walker Tariff of 1845 and the Tariff of 1857, were both DOWNWARD revisions.

          By the way, the first colony to import slaves was Virginia. You were briefly in the realm of fact when you mentioned Georgia’s early attempts to prohibit slavery, but they got over that fairly swiftly. Note that in the Constitutional debates in 1787, when Marylanders and Virginians talked of banning slave importation, and a few New Englanders actually proposed ending slavery altogether, South Carolina threatened not to join the union. This would become a pattern of behavior for South Carolina’s political elites–who were tied to the plantation aristocracy–for the next seven decades. Meanwhile, by the 1790 census there were no slaves in Massachusetts–and decades before the Civil War the last northern states had ended slavery, and by the 1840s, many had passed personal liberty laws, which were constantly challenged and ignored by southern state judges and ultimately by the southern-leaning federal courts (see Prigg v. Pennsylvania).

          You were close on the midwest–Illinois and Indiana had anti-free black provisions BEFORE the Civil War–and of course no reasonable person would claim that there was a regional monopoly on racism. But don’t forget that this was largely pushed by legislators in those states from the “Butternut” Regions–that is, the Ohio River Valley, which was culturally more akin to Kentucky, Va., Tennessee, than the northern portions of the Midwest. A similar provision in the new constitution of Missouri caused such an uproar among Northern members of Congress that it reignited the Missouri Crisis in 1820 after the original settlement.

          If slavery hadn’t become a regional debate by the 1840s, tell me why there was a sectional divide over free-soil provisions like the Wilmot Proviso? Why did this issue split the Democrats into Free Soil and Pro-Southern wings in 1848? Why did it destroy the national coalition that made up the Whig Party in the years following the compromise of 1850?

          You speak of Canada (of course): but the underground railroad extended into Canada much more after the Compromise of 1850, which, in order to bring California into the union as a free state, acquiesced to Southern demands for a stricter fugitive slave law–one which infringed on the “states’ rights” of states like Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York to choose not to support slaveholders’ demands. Of course, those rank-and-file New Englanders you are talking about made their views clear, for example, in the Anthony Burns affair in Boston in 1854. While there was nothing approaching unanimity in those northern states, their laws also reflected a different attitude than that of southern states/ For example, the state of NY made their point in the Lemmon Case, which would have ended up going to the supreme court had it not been for the civil war.

          “The South was branded for the sins of slavery.” Any competent high school student knows there was slavery nationally; but they also know where it was held onto longer. To say there was slavery in Massachusetts in 1750 or New York even in 1820 contributes nothing to a meaningful conversation about sectional divisions over the issue in the decades leading to the Civil War. This is not history you are engaging in–it is blind apologetics. It is all well and good to be proud of one’s family or regional heritage–but be so for the right reasons.

          You are correct that, like Antebellum southerners, Antebellum northerners were quite racist (see the popularity of the minstrelsy); and they entered the war initially to join the union. This is not in dispute. But it is also irrelevant. The argument is whether the South seceded over slavery, and whether this reflected a sectional divide over the issue. The historical evidence points to a resounding “YES” on this question. This was the reality by the 1840s and 50s; it was the leading cause of the sectional divide. There is plenty more evidence for those interested in historical reality.

          P.S.: I can’t stand the Red Sox.

        • Tom J. Cassidy

          Would you care to cite your evidence that “Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery”?

          • mdice11

            I refer you to the PBS website at: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/timeline/1641.html
            It provides an extensive timeline that notes various laws passed by the colonies regarding slavery, including Virginia granting free blacks the right to hold slaves in 1654.

  • Gary

    One, maybe two, letter(s) is far from being pen pals. Especially, if they may Not have been written by Lincoln.

  • Oh man, this is disappointing. I’d always just heard “Marx and Lincoln exchanged letters” and assumed that it was a real give and take between the two people. The reality seems to be more of a meaningless bureaucratic exchange.

    • DemandSider2

      No, they agreed that workers should be rewarded relative to the value they add. Even now, this is a radical concept. He was really ahead of his time.

  • DemandSider2

    Lincoln was anti – feudalistic. He knew that if a wealth creator is not compensated commensurate with the value he adds, mankind can’t progress. So, for Lincoln, freeing the slaves was not just a matter of race, but of class. Slavery was just outsourcing within The USA, so all were damaged by it, not just black workers.

    “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.”

    Lincoln’s First Annual Message to Congress, December 3, 1861

    “And, inasmuch [as] most good things are produced by labour, it follows that [all] such things of right belong to those whose labour has produced them. But it has so happened in all ages of the world, that some have laboured, and others have, without labour, enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong, and should not continue. To [secure] to each labourer the whole product of his labour, or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of any good government.”

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume I, “Fragments of a Tariff Discussion” (December 1, 1847), p. 412.

    “Das Kapital” was not published until 2 years after Lincoln’s death. The Paris Commune of 1871, in which the workers ruled democratically and women could vote, had more in common with Marx’ theories than Stalin’s totalitarianism. Marx was long dead when Stalin ruled USSR. The early Republican Party was focused on rewarding work for the benefit of many, as opposed to rewarding greed for the benefit of a few, which is the reason to be for both parties, today.