July 30, 2019 Reading Time: 9 minutes

Did Abraham Lincoln share a common economic vision with Karl Marx?

That’s the thesis of a recent article in the Washington Post, which claims that the 16th president and the socialist philosopher “were friendly and influenced each other.” According to an essay by Gillian Brockell, “Lincoln was regularly reading Karl Marx” and appears to have adapted a Marxist conceptualization of the labor-capital relationship to the discussion of slavery in his first annual message to Congress.

While Brockell stops short of ascribing socialist beliefs to Lincoln himself, she uses this purported historical kinship with Marx to secure a place for socialism within the mainstream of American politics. Modern “democratic socialists” such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, it follows, are merely successors to Lincoln’s own accommodating assessment of Marxist thought.

The Post’s article instantly found an audience on the academic left, with Princeton historian and Twitter warrior Kevin M. Kruse broadcasting his stamp of approval for its message to his followers. The result is a textbook example of modern-day pundits and activists attempting to enlist the past as an electioneering tool for their favored political causes in the present.

Brockell badly misreads her sources and reaches faulty conclusions about the relationship between the two historical contemporaries. Contrary to her assertion, there is no evidence that Lincoln ever read or absorbed Marx’s economic theories. In fact, it’s unlikely that Lincoln even knew who Karl Marx was, as distinct from the thousands of well-wishers who sent him congratulatory notes after his reelection.

To be clear, Lincoln did maintain a lifelong interest in economic theory — just not the Marxist variety. As Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon explained in an 1886 letter, Lincoln “more or less peeped into” several economic thinkers from his own library. These included the British classical economists John Stuart Mill and John Ramsay McCulloch as well as Americans Francis Wayland and Henry C. Carey. “Lincoln ate up,” Herndon explained, “digested and assimilated Wayland’s little work. Lincoln liked the book, except the free trade doctrines. Lincoln I think liked political economy — the study of it.”

These and similar authors may be found in the reconstructed contents of the “Great Emancipator’s” reading list, and offer an important counter to one of Brockell’s major claims about a posited Lincolnian connection to Marx.

Lincoln on Capital and Labor

The claim that Lincoln regularly read Marx, or picked up economic doctrines from Marxist writings, is entirely anachronistic. Marx did not publish the first volume of his treatise Capital until 1867, some two years after Lincoln was assassinated. His earlier writings on the relationship between capital and labor primarily appeared in obscure European outlets with little circulation in North America, and even the Communist Manifesto of 1848 went almost completely unnoticed in the English-speaking world until sometime after 1870.

It is theoretically possible that Lincoln encountered a slim amount of text written by Marx during his time as a foreign correspondent for the New York Tribune in the 1850s, and Brockell speculates as much without providing any direct attestation. But Marx’s articles for the newspaper consisted of brief news summaries about the Crimean War, continental European politics, and piles of dry filler material about annual crop yields and industry reports. Only a small minority of these works ventured into something resembling a cohesive Marxian economic theory, and the chances that Lincoln would have encountered them let alone recognized them as such is low. In the 1850s and 60s, Marx’s name remained sufficiently unknown in America that only a tiny number of contemporary newspapers even noticed or reprinted his contributions to the Tribune. Several of those that did openly mused about the possibility that the “Karl Marx” byline served as a pseudonym, presumably intended to expand the output of other writers under Horace Greeley’s employment.

In any case, Lincoln did not consult the Tribune for its dispatches on corn prices in Germany, or its second-hand accounts of the decimation of the Light Brigade. He studied the paper for its domestic political coverage, and its editorial line affirming the Whig and Republican economic doctrines of free soil, industrial encouragement, and trade protectionism.

Unable to produce any direct evidence that Lincoln ever read Marx, Brockell turns next to identifying hints of Marxist doctrine in Lincoln’s words. To this end she quotes a passage from Lincoln’s 1861 annual address to Congress in which he declares, “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.” In her rendering, this argument “sounds like something Karl Marx would write.” She therefore speculates that it demonstrates Lincoln’s familiarity with, and possible sympathy for, a central tenet of Marxist thought.

This reading entirely misconstrues the origin and purpose of Lincoln’s quoted passage. Lincoln’s digression on labor and capital in 1861 was actually a truncated excerpt from an earlier speech he gave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, some two years prior. Lincoln’s major purpose in the Milwaukee address, in turn, was to rebut a pro-slavery speech by South Carolina Sen. James Henry Hammond from 1858. Hammond attempted to justify the plantation system with what he called the “mud-sill theory” — the notion that social ranks could be naturally divided between a bottom “mud-sill” class of laborers who performed menial but necessary tasks, namely slaves, and an upper class of cultured elites who drive the advance of “progress, civilization, and refinement.”

Lincoln countered this argument by presenting an economic case for a “free-labor” foil to Hammond’s class-based theorizing. According to this alternative formulation, the economic mobility of the free laborer undermines the southerners’ attempts to assign their slaves to a fixed and menial class. As Lincoln explained the free-labor doctrine, “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.”

The description Lincoln offers is a standard-fare articulation of the labor-capital relationship from classical economics. Consider for example Wayland’s similar observation from 1837 in which he explains how private property creates “a motive … for regular and voluntary labor, inasmuch as the individual knows that he, and not his indolent neighbor, will reap the fruit of his toil.” Through this process the free laborer “begins to create a regular supply of annual product. With increased skill, this annual product increases, and he begins to convert it into fixed capital.”

One may find an even more direct parallel in the opening chapter of Mill’s Principles of Political Economy (1848), which begins by noting “the requisites of production are two: labour, and appropriate natural objects.” Capital, as Mill then defined it, consists of “a stock, previously accumulated, of the products of former labour.”

To return to Lincoln’s own formulation — namely the assertion that labor is prior to capital, and capital derives from labor — we find that he is simply paraphrasing what he likely read from Wayland and Mill. By borrowing upon the Milwaukee address in 1861, Lincoln intended only to present his earlier rebuttal of Hammond’s slave-based economic hierarchy before Congress, using the contrasting positions to frame the competing economic philosophies of the two belligerents in the now-raging Civil War. Marx is neither necessary for understanding Lincoln’s arguments, nor is a proprietary Marxian spin on Lincoln’s terminology  supported by the available evidence.

The rest of Lincoln’s passage, omitted from Brockell’s rendering, actually repudiates the state of conflict that Marx posited between the owners of capital and the proletarian class. “Capital,” Lincoln explained, “has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights.” Indeed, the American president saw little value in such firm lines of division. They did not reflect the “mixed” state of economic reality, where “a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital; that is, they labor with their own hands and also buy or hire others to labor for them.”

Lincoln’s economic vision appears to have offered little room for the hierarchies of class-conflict theory, whether that entailed a slave-owning aristocracy and a “mud-sill” of slave laborers, or the proletarian struggle of the Marxist system. This does not mean the 16th president adhered to laissez-faire doctrines of economic non-intervention. Rather, Lincoln identified himself firmly in the tradition of Henry Clay’s “American System” — an economic philosophy that attempted to merge industrialization with tariff protectionism and an active policy of national economic development through public infrastructure expenditures. Lincoln retrospectively explained how he came to adopt these positions when asked about them on the eve of his presidential campaign. “I was an old Henry Clay tariff whig,” he wrote in a letter to a distant relative from his wife’s side of the family in 1859. “I have not since changed my views.”

Here, Lincoln’s economic beliefs likely reflected the influence of Henry C. Carey, the aforementioned American economist who became the leading theorist of the protectionist school in his day. Lincoln had several direct and substantive interactions with Carey during his 1860 campaign and presidency.

Carey helped to draft the main economic plank of the Republican Party’s platform, played an important role in delivering the swing state of Pennsylvania to Lincoln’s column, and continued to advise the Lincoln White House on tariffs, public finance, and other economic matters throughout the Civil War. Marxian doctrine, by contrast, remained conspicuously absent from those discussions for the simple reason that Marx was a complete non-entity in Lincoln’s understanding of economics.

What Marx Thought of Lincoln

In a further attempt to bolster her case, Brockell follows a long literature of scholars on the left who enlist what appears to be a single tangential exchange of letters between Lincoln and Marx to demonstrate their alleged “friendship.” The evidence here is almost comically flimsy though. A closer inspection reveals that Lincoln was probably unaware of the Marx letter’s existence, and certainly knew nothing of its author because it arrived under a different person’s name.

In late 1864 Marx drafted a congratulatory resolution to Lincoln on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association to commemorate the president’s successful recent reelection campaign. Marx famously supported the Union side in the war, although there’s no evidence to show that his commentary on the subject meaningfully swayed even British opinion on the contest, let alone assisted the American war effort. Marx’s resolution, dripping in flowery and obsequious prose that employed an abundance of words to say very little, amounted to a bid for political attention by latching his organization to Lincoln’s fame. He arranged to have the note delivered by delegation to Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Britain, and drafted detailed instructions that were intended to draw conspicuous attention to its ceremonial presentation before the American diplomat.

The letter was one of several thousand congratulatory notes that Lincoln received from abroad. Adams replied in January 1865 with a courtesy note thanking the organization for the congratulatory overture. The official reply was not even addressed to Marx, but to W. Randal Cremer – an antislavery campaigner and trade union organizer who later parted company with Marx over objections to the communist movement’s embrace of violent revolutionary means. There are no references to Marx’s resolution in any of Lincoln’s known papers, and it is not even certain that he ever saw the document. Even if he did, its transmission papers carried Cremer’s name rather than Marx, whose only connection to the document appeared within an affixed list of four dozen affiliated names beneath Cremer’s signature.

Adams’s response to Cremer was the 19th century’s equivalent of sending a form letter response to constituent mail. Marx nonetheless enlisted its receipt as propaganda for his organization to imply that the American president had looked with favor upon his cause, and republished the document widely in socialist and labor-aligned newsletters.

Despite Marx’s bids to obtain public recognition from Lincoln, substantial evidence found in his private papers reveals that he actually looked down upon the 16th president and even the Union war cause, save when each serviced his ideological objectives of fomenting a proletarian revolution. He explained this position in a brash and racial-slur-laden letter to his collaborator Friedrich Engels dated September 10, 1862:

The way in which the North is waging the war is none other than might be expected of a bourgeois republic, where humbug has reigned supreme for so long. The South, an oligarchy, is better suited to the purpose, especially an oligarchy where all productive labour devolves on the n—s and where the 4 million ‘white trash’ are flibustiers by calling. For all that, I’m prepared to bet my life on it that these fellows will come off worst, ‘Stonewall Jackson’ notwithstanding. It is, of course, possible that some sort of revolution will occur beforehand in the North itself.

Engels for his own part mockingly answered that “the only apparent effect of Lincoln’s emancipation so far is that the North-West has voted Democrat for fear of being overrun by Negroes.”

The two men continued to view Lincoln with contempt for the remainder of the war even as they simultaneously hoped for a northern victory. While their public statement showered the American president with flatteries and declared him a friend of the working class, Marx and Engels’s private correspondence ridiculed him as a buffoonish bourgeois politician who stumbled his way into victory in spite of himself. In September 1864, anticipating the very same election that his organization would publicly herald to Adams, Marx spit forth only derision of Lincoln’s competence, coupled with a persistent hope that a worker’s revolution would somehow emerge out of the whole mess of the war:

Lincoln has at his disposal considerable means for achieving election. (Needless to say, the peace proposals made by him are mere humbug.) The election of an opposition candidate would probably lead to a genuine revolution. Nevertheless, there is no mistaking the fact that during the next 8 weeks, in the course of which the matter will be decided pro tem, much will depend on military eventualities. This is undoubtedly the most critical moment since the beginning of the war. Once this has been shifted, Old Lincoln can blunder on to his heart’s content.”

Not even death redeemed Lincoln in Marx’s private assessments. When news of Lincoln’s assassination reached London in May of 1865, Marx actually rejoiced at the elevation of Vice President Andrew Johnson into office, believing that the new president would be more sympathetic to proletarian interets and less likely to abide by democratic constraints on his exercise of executive power. Writing Engels, Marx announced that “Johnson is stern, inflexible, revengeful and as a former poor White has a deadly hatred of the oligarchy.” Unlike Lincoln, Johnson represented a true son of the working class. “He will make less fuss about these fellows, and, because of the treachery, he will find the temper of the North commensurate with his intentions.”

Engels concurred, replying that “Johnson will insist on confiscation of the great estates, which will make the pacification and reorganisation of the South rather more acute. Lincoln would scarcely have insisted on it.” Yet again, even the most basic political judgments of both men succumbed to their ideological quest for a worker’s revolution.

To Marx and Engels, Lincoln was little more than a hapless tool in their grand cause — an object of praise when doing so garnered them favorable press, but one that could be discarded when they sensed a better opportunity for a worker’s revolution by other means.

So Marx turned once again to using public flattery as a tactic for garnering favor and recognition from Lincoln’s successor. I won’t hold my breath though in waiting for the Washington Post article on how Andrew Johnson’s “friendship” with Karl Marx legitimizes democratic socialism in the modern political mainstream.

Phillip W. Magness

Phil Magness

Phillip W. Magness is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He holds a PhD and MPP from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, and a BA from the University of St. Thomas (Houston).

Prior to joining AIER, Dr. Magness spent over a decade teaching public policy, economics, and international trade at institutions including American University, George Mason University, and Berry College.

Magness’s work encompasses the economic history of the United States and Atlantic world, with specializations in the economic dimensions of slavery and racial discrimination, the history of taxation, and measurements of economic inequality over time. He also maintains active research interest in higher education policy and the history of economic thought. In addition to his scholarship, Magness’s popular writings have appeared in numerous venues including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek, Politico, Reason, National Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.


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