[Marxism] Abraham Lincoln on War and Corporate-Enthronement

Mark Lause MLause at cinci.rr.com
Wed May 12 08:07:11 MDT 2004

I've had several exchanges over this quote on the H-CIVWAR list.  

The farmers' movement used to use this quote regularly in the 1880s and
90s and the Republicans took some pains to refute its legitimacy.
Simply put, there is no such letter in the Lincoln papers anywhere, and
it's not really in the style in which Lincoln wrote.  When the Populists
used it, the Republicans got Lincoln's old secretary, John Nicolay to
write in response: "The great president never said it or wrote it, and
never said or wrote anything that by utmost license could be distorted
to resemble it," with appropriate snide comments about the clodhoppers
using the quote.  At the onset of the Cold War madness, David C. Mearns
of the Library of Congress later called it "the most energetic, the most
publicized, the most pertinacious mouthing of the Pseudo-Lincoln."
("Our Reluctant Contemporary: Abraham Lincoln," in _Abraham Lincoln
Quarterly_, VI (June, 1950), 88, 84.)  

That's all formally true, but miss the main points.  

If you go back into the history of this it becomes very evident that
this morphed into a formal quote over time.  The Populists, Greenbackers
and Grangers who loved this quote weren't scholars--it was the
ninettenth century and very few newspapermen were.  They didn't ascribe
the importance to dates, names, and quote marks we do.  

As an example, this ascription here to "William F. Elkins" represents a
misspelling of William R. ELLIS, the Indiana newspaperman, who had
promoted the new Republican Party, and won election as a Republican to
county clerk.  After Civil War service, he returned, edited the
Lafayette _Daily Journal_, and, in 1874, briefly ran the _Independent
Granger_.  By all accounts, it's Ellis paper that first printed this
quote.  (I'm not sure there are any copies of this short-lived

My guess is that Ellis was presenting Lincoln's opinion--maybe
paraphrasing a personal conversation with him--and others began quoting
Ellis' paraphrasing.  Jesse Harper, an Illinois
Granger-Greenbacker-Populist of this period incorporated it into his
speeches and spread it across the region.  Harper writes very little, so
it's being done verbally.  Someone covering the speech--or the
typesetter--could have easily made the choice to put it in quotes.

Anyway, if it appeared in Ellis paper originally, the date ascribed may
have been right but the year would have been 1874.  I can almost see one
of the other Grange or Greenback editors looking at the date, scratching
their head and saying, "Lincoln couldn't have said this in 1874.  They
mean 1864."  Thus, the date ascribed is "Nov. 21, 1864."

Finally, and most importantly, there is nothing in the statement that
does not jibe with Lincoln's attitudes on such things frequently
expressed elsewhere.  

Let me offer a short version of one from FINCHER'S TRADE REVIEW, the
wartime labor paper...  Strikers in the Brooklyn Navy Yard sent a
delegation to see Lincoln.  They reported

"...the worthy old gentleman had not left all his sympathy for laboring
men with his maul and wedges in the prairie State. After hearing our
statement, he told us he could do nothing as President, but as Abraham
Lincoln his sympathies were with us, and further, having been raised in
a rural district, he had never participated in a strike.  The only one
he had ever beheld was a strike among the shoemakers of Haverhill,
Massachusetts, some 12 or 15 years ago, in which the shoemakers
succeeded in worsting their bosses. As to the present strike, he
considered the employers the first strikers, as they refused to accept
the terms offered by the men, and thereby compelled the latter to cease
work, or, as they term it, go on a strike; and now that both were on a
strike 'the best blood would win.'" 

Lincoln sent the committee to the Department of the Navy, which
confirmed the president's that no extension on the deadlines for
ironclad production would be given to the employers.  This all but
forced management to make concessions to the strikers.  (Fincher's Trade
Review, Nov. 28, 1863.)

It's not without reason that historians do concede that Lincoln's
administration was one of the friendliest to organized labor, despite
the frequent officiousness of provost marshals, local commandants, etc.

Certainly, it will be a cold day in hell before we'd see such
evenhandedness from a Kerry administration.

Mark L.

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