Al Benson Jr. and Walter Donald Kennedy
(December 2011 Civil War News)
Photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index, 288 pp., 2011, Pelican, www.pelicanpub.com, $24.95.
Between the two hard covers of Lincoln’s Marxists are assembled nearly as many absurdities as have ever appeared in one book about the Civil War without the intention to commit comedy.
Reduced to a single sentence, the authors’ fundamental argument is this: “The election of Lincoln and the destruction of thirteen sovereign states of these United States were accomplished with the assistance of European communists and socialists.”
Ergo, Abraham Lincoln and the Union were agents of communism and socialism, and, as such, were part of a grand and ongoing conspiracy of foreigners, Jews and atheists to undermine and destroy Christianity and liberty in America. If you are not laughing by this point, you should be — or crying.
I wish I could say that Lincoln’s Marxists is merely an example of spectacularly bad reasoning — in this case, guilt-by-association — since it is true that an indeterminate number of German communists and socialists fought on the Union side in the Civil War. True, but also irrelevant.
An indeterminate number of drunks fought in the Union armies too — in fact, they were ultimately commanded by a recovering alcoholic — without that making Lincoln an inebriate or part of a conspiracy to drown the nation in Demon Rum. And the Confederacy was hardly a free-labor arrangement, was it?
In this case, however, the association of Lincoln and the Union with “communists and socialists” is so tenuous and so devoid of real content that it would have beggared the imagination of Joe McCarthy.
The authors even anticipate their own folly when they insert a pre-emptive wince at the plain statement of their views: “we are not attempting to prove that either the Republican Party or Lincoln was at heart socialist or communist.” But no sooner have they awarded themselves this indulgence, than they feel free to get down to the real delights of historical fantasy.
Here are four of their eurekas:
1. Lincoln had a lot in common with Karl Marx: “Lincoln was more than ready in the 1860s to implement in the United States what Marx had given his blessing to in Europe in 1848: centralism, collectivism, and socialism.”
This will come as a genuine surprise to anyone who has studied the internal history of the Confederacy, which nationalized industries, imposed an internal passport system on its citizens, and instituted centralized national conscription for the first time in American history.
Ah, the authors add, here is the proof: Lincoln “soon enacted Marx’s ‘Heavy, progressive or graduated income tax.’” But students of Civil War-era finance must respond: the income tax introduced in 1863 by the U.S. government had only two gradations — it was, for all practical purposes, a flat tax — a 3% bracket for all incomes under $10,000 per annum and then a 5% bracket for those over that limit.
By contrast, the Confederate government, which also levied a tax on incomes, established steeply progressive rates, beginning with 5% on incomes from $500 to $1,500 per annum, rising to 10% for incomes from $1,500 to $5,000, then 12.5% for incomes from $5,000 to $10,000, and finally 15% for those over $10,000.
2. Marx endorsed Lincoln: Yes, he did, in a memorial from the International Working Men’s Association presented to the U.S. legation in London in November 1864. On the other hand, Prince Albert intervened on behalf of the U.S. during the Trent Affair, and the King of Siam offered to assist Lincoln by dispatching a war elephant to aid the Union armies, without any of that meaning that Lincoln was a closet monarchist.
By the same token, the Confederacy was endorsed by Otto von Bismarck and Emperor Napoleon III, which by the authors’ logic makes the Confederacy the friend of dictatorship.
3. Hitler endorsed Lincoln: All right, the authors concede, not in so many words, but certainly in similarity of purpose. Because Hitler believed in a 1000-year Reich, and Lincoln believed that the Union was “perpetual,” therefore, Lincoln believed the same as Hitler.
Even worse, “Lincoln’s men moved from suppression of rebellion to nothing less than Nazi-like acts of genocide.” Of course, the authors add, “we are not suggesting that Lincoln was an early Nazi or that Hitler based his total philosophy on Lincoln’s ideas.” — except when we are: “Yet there is a shocking similarity between the views of these two men.”
4. Lincoln was an unbeliever: Because Carl Sandburg says that Lincoln admired Robert Owen, this becomes proof that Lincoln was an Owenite socialist and therefore a non-Christian. It is true that Lincoln never joined a church or embraced any form of religious confession. But the man who composed the Second Inaugural and introduced the phrase “under God” into our national usage was certainly not an “unbeliever.”
The one virtue of this book is the introduction it affords to the galaxy of German radicals and refugees from the failed German Revolutions of 1848 who emigrated to the United States, and who did indeed fight in large numbers on the side of the Union.
It has been the unthinking habit of many historians to treat Louis Blenker, Joseph Weydemeyer, Franz Sigel, Carl Hecker, Edward Salomon, Friedrich Kapp, Karl Heinzen, Peter Osterhaus, August Willich and Carl Schurz — all of whom appear in this book in luridly red colors — as frowsy-haired idealists with poly-syllabic philosophies and Sergeant Schultz accents. They were anything but, and some of them were indeed confidantes of Marx and Engels.
But it takes truly Olympic jump-to-conclusions to assume, as the authors do, that these few radicals somehow seized control of the Republican Party in 1860, infected the party platform in 1860, and got Lincoln elected as the first American socialist president.
Lincoln, after all, was the president who made his fortune as a lawyer evicting squatters from railroad land, presided over the largest privatization scheme in American history (the Homestead Act), and affirmed that he wanted no laws that would keep a man from getting rich.
The authors, I am sure, are wounded by what they see in the America in which they live, and in their pain they turn in vicious circles, seeking whom to blame. I think there are better nominees for them to consider; I also think there are better authorities for them to appeal to than crackpots of the order of Rousas J. Rushdoony, Thomas Di Lorenzo and Donald Livingston.
Above all, I think there is something satisfying in contemplating a president and a cause that struck the shackles of slavery from four million of their fellow Americans. The Marxists, I am relieved to say, have much more to worry about from the example of Abraham Lincoln than we do.
Reviewer: Allen C. Guelzo
Dr. Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College.