J.R. Johnson

The Two Sides of Abraham Lincoln

(February 1949)

Originally published in The Militant, 14 February 1949. [1]
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 108–111.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

What is it that the working class must remember about Abraham Lincoln? He himself expressed it best in his second inaugural address when he said of the Civil War:

“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Here was the recognition at last of what the Negroes had done for America, and of what America had done to the Negroes – and the determination at whatever cost to break the power of the reactionary slaveholders. All the chatterers and fakers can be made to turn green and look another way, simply by asking them to explain these words of Lincoln as part of what they call the “democratic process” and “the American way.”

Abraham Lincoln was a genuine democrat. When in the Gettysburg address he said “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” he meant it. In those days monopoly capital did not exist. A great percentage of the population in the North consisted of small farmers, mechanics, and artisans. It seemed to many men that on the boundless acres that stretched beyond the Mississippi there was room and opportunity for everybody to acquire independence and exercise self-government from the town-meeting to the presidential elections.

But today, with a few giant corporations owning and dominating the economic life of the country and the lives of whole nations abroad; with tens of millions of workers beginning to punch the time-clock at the age of 18 with no other perspective for the rest of their lives until they are thrown out as infirm or incompetent; with the press, radio, and a vast government bureaucracy controlled by a few hundred people, to talk about government “of the people, by the people, for the people” is a mockery and hypocrisy of the worst kind.

Lincoln and others used to say plainly that if the people were dissatisfied with their government it was their revolutionary right to overthrow it. If he had returned and said that on any platform in 1948, Dewey, Truman, Wallace, and Norman Thomas would have united at once to denounce him. The FBI would have tapped his telephone and investigated him. And unmitigated rascals like J. Parnell Thomas and Rankin would have had him up before some House committee and tried to jail him for his “un-Americanism.” Believer in democracy and in the people, determined enemy of the slave-power, from them Lincoln drew the power which made him a great war leader, a writer and speaker whose best efforts will last as long as the English language, a genuine national hero.

Enemy of the slave-power, a friend to the people. That was one side of Lincoln. But there was another which was widely known and commented upon in his own day.

The viciousness of the slave-power, its cruelties and its crimes, its ambition to suppress liberty all over the United States in defense of its precious hordes of slaves, these things were brought and kept before the American people for thirty years by the constant rebellions among the slaves, by the Underground Railroad, and those elements in the North among the whites who supported these revolutionary actions. Lincoln bitterly opposed all this. He was prepared even as President to use the power of the Federal government to capture and return fugitive slaves.

One of the great chapters in American history is the Abolition movement of Garrison, Phillips, Douglass, and the others who, often hounded, stoned, and beaten, called incessantly for an end to slavery, denouncing it as a crime against civilization and the American people.

Lincoln hated the Abolitionists as troublemakers, and expressed his approval of their being beaten up.

The formation of the Republican Party was a triumph of the creative power and energy of the American people. Suddenly in 1854 all over the country party units sprang into being and in 1860 it swept into victory. Lincoln had nothing to do with this. Only when it was clear that the Whig Party was doomed did he throw in his lot with the new party.

Not only was Lincoln driven to emancipate the slaves by force of circumstances. He was ready to consider the formation of a Negro republic in Texas. He would have sent all the slaves to Africa if he could have managed it. Thus with all his virtues he shared to the full the reactionary capitalist prejudices of his day. And it was precisely these that blinded him to the truths which the escaping slaves and the abolitionists taught the American people for thirty years. In the end he had to follow the direction they pointed: civil war, arming of Negroes, crushing of the slave-power.

Lincoln could make these mistakes and still triumph as a leader because John Brown, Garrison, Douglass, and the other had to limit themselves to carrying on a revolutionary propaganda and aiding escaping slaves. Brown’s isolated attempt at a slave insurrection was doomed to failure. The workers did not have the numbers, the organization, the social power, the political experience to offer an independent road. The revolutionaries were right as against Lincoln but had no concrete program to place before the country. Thus like Lincoln, when the Republican Party came, they turned to it.

Today we live in an entirely different situation. The enemy is plain: monopoly-capitalism, the modern slave-holders. The class that is to be emancipated is the working class – the workers with the poor farmers and their allies, the great majority of the nation. The party that is to be formed is a great mass party of the proletariat, that will do for American society today what the Republican Party did in 1860-65. The revolutionaries today are those who carry on the traditions of Garrison, Douglass, and John Brown – brutal statement of the facts, refusal to pretend that there is any way out except by the destruction of capitalism, struggle for the independent action of the masses, refusal to compromise on principles. We can do this, and do it better than they did, because we have before our eyes the mighty power of the American proletariat and behind us the great traditions and experiences of Bolshevism.

That is our attitude to Lincoln ... We pay him the tribute due to him as a great historical figure, with a place in the struggle for human emancipation.

But for us he is no model. Rather, in the failures of his career and particularly in the men who were so consistently right against him, we find the points of departure to struggle for the unity, not only of North and South, but of all the nations of the world, for the emancipation not only of chattel-slaves but of the vast majority of the peoples of the world, the workers, farmers, and all the exploited and oppressed.


1. The original text included three paragraphs concerning the 1948 electoral platform of the Socialist Workers Party which have been omitted from this version.

Last updated on 19.7.2011