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George Breitman

Washington and Lincoln – Part of the
American Revolutionary Tradition

(23 February 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 8, 23 February 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Nothing embarrasses the American capitalists so much as the truth about their own revolutionary past. That is illustrated in their current eulogies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, on the occasion of their birthday celebrations. How the present rulers hate to be reminded that the United States was born and grew great as the result of two revolutions conducted and won by “force and violence”! How they squirm at the memory that their own ancestors led “subversive” movements! How they sweat, even while paying tribute to these two national heroes, to obscure and belittle the real significance, achievements and traditions of the 18th and 19th century revolutionists!

The reasons for such behavior are not hard to find. When American Big Business is reaching out for imperialist domination of the world and using all its resources to preserve an outworn and oppressive social system, it is naturally not interested in extolling American revolutions and civil wars for independence and the establishment of new social systems.

But every man should have his due, and those of us who are the most consistent fighters against the tyranny of Big Business willingly give credit to the revolutionary forerunners of the present ruling class for the struggles they led against tyranny in the past. For us, unlike the apologists of Big Business, the truth about the revolutionary past, and such figures as Washington and Lincoln, is not a source of embarrassment but of enlightenment and inspiration, providing many rich lessons still applicable in the current struggles against oppression.

Why They Are Remembered

Washington and Lincoln are remembered with affection by the American people above all because they were leaders of revolutionary struggles. True, they were not the most consistent or most far-sighted leaders of these struggles and there was much that they left undone, but that does not detract from the honor due them for what they were and what they did achieve.

The fight for independence from Britain and for democracy in the American Colonies did not begin when Washington took command of the Continental armies. That struggle had been going on for many years before 1776; with the most energetic role being played by the radical elements among the working population. It assumed organized form with the demonstrations by the Sons of Liberty against the oppressive Stamp Act and then ebbed and flowed for over ten years before it erupted in civil war to overthrow the British crown.

The revolution was made by an alliance between several classes – the planters of the South, the radical merchants of the North, the farmers, and the artisans and mechanics in the cities. The merchants and planters were sometimes at odds with the democratic and popular elements; they were often shocked by the militant methods of the masses, and they showed a greater readiness to conciliate with the British. But compromise was, not in the cards, and in the end the planters and merchants provided most of the top leaders for the revolution.

George Washington represented the Virginia planters and laud speculators. He himself was the richest planter in the colonies. Like the others of his class he deeply resented British restrictions and taxes which held down the native propertied interests in favor of their British counterparts.

He became part of a syndicate that laid claim to hundreds of thousands of acres on the western frontier. As a youth he made a trip to this territory to survey it. Later he joined Braddock’s troops to smash the French attempt to seize this territory. But the Quebec Act of 1765 took away the colonists’ right to claim these lands and reserved them for the British crown. Measures of this kind were the source of Washington’s radicalism.

Freedom from British rule therefore had a very definite content for men like Washington. It meant the chance to end British taxation, the opportunity to repudiate debts that were crushing many planters and merchants, it meant free trade and free access to the land. It meant freedom for capitalist relations here to expand without hindrance by the British. To the poor farmers and working people it also meant many of these things – and much more besides: A chance for greater equality, democracy, opportunity. Thus they were able to unite in the struggle against the common foe.

“Seditious and Subversive”

That struggle was labelled seditious, disloyal and subversive by the forces of “law and order” – and so it was from the viewpoint of the British crown and its Tory supporters in America. But that’s how American democracy came into power – by defying oppressive edicts and laws and by overthrowing oppressive institutions and governments. American history would have taken a different and less dynamic course if the Revolutionists of the 1770s had capitulated to the powers-that-be in the way that the labor bureaucrats today have capitulated to the Taft-Hartley Slave Labor Act.

Washington was neither the founder, the theoretician nor the political leader of the revolution. His selection as commander-in-chief was due primarily to the desire of the Massachusetts merchants to cement their alliance with the Virginia planters. But he grew steadily in stature as a leader.

Those were the times that tried men’s souls; the revolutionary war was conducted under extremely discouraging conditions and lasted for seven long years. But Washington never faltered. He “pledged his life, his fortune and his sacred honor” to the rebel cause, and in the end he led it to victory. That alone was enough to establish his claim to lasting fame and gratitude in the hearts of his countrymen.

But although the first successful revolution laid the foundation for a free and united nation and for the development of the productive forces, its results were not equally satisfactory to all the classes participating and it did not by any means achieve all the democratic changes sought by the masses. The merchants and planters, taking over the reins of government, made considerable gains, but they retained slavery, limitations on the right to vote and many other anti-democratic restrictions. The manufacturers and slaveholders who came to the fore as the new ruling classes were on the whole content, but the working people found it necessary to continue the struggle for freedom and security.

The next major phase of this struggle was conditioned by the rise of a new obstacle to progress – the growing power and domination of the slaveholders, whose interests clashed more and more with those of the other classes. The slaveholders demanded the extension of the slave system, westward as the country expanded, domestic and foreign policies favoring the slave system, further restrictions on the democratic rights of the enemies of slavery, etc. And since they controlled all branches of the federal government, they got much of what they wanted.

Again it was the masses who launched the fight against reaction. The radical farmers and workers, who wanted access to the western lands coveted by the slaveholders, pressed for vigorous action against the slaveholding oligarchy, and where necessary fought them, arms in hand, long before the outbreak of the Civil War. The slaves, who wanted freedom, staged rebellions, ran away, organized underground railways and engaged in other forms of active and passive resistance. The petty bourgeois abolitionist movement carried on militant propaganda and agitation for emancipation. And they were joined later by the Northern capitalists, who could expand production and intensify the exploitation of the national resources only on the basis of wage labor and the overthrow of the slaveholders’ power.

Like Washington, Abraham Lincoln represented the conservative rather than the more radical elements in the revolutionary coalition of his time. Unlike Washington, he was born poor and had to educate himself and make his own way in society. A product of the small-farming system on the frontier seething with democratic ideas, the slave system had no attraction for him. Like many talented youth in that period, he placed himself at the service of the rising capitalist class, becoming a lawyer for the Illinois Central Railroad.

He entered politics and proved to be a skillful speaker. His humble origins and frontier background enhanced his popularity among the masses; his carefully expressed political views won him a following among the capitalist politicians. He shone most brightly in the task of mediator and arbitrator between the right and left wings of the Republican Party which was formed in 1854 to bring together most of the opponents of the slaveholders.

The Crucial Emancipation Issue

While Lincoln opposed the extension of slavery to the western territories and worked on behalf of the capitalists to take the power out of the hands of the slaveholders’ representatives in Washington, his stanef on slavery was conciliatory to say the least. For one thing, he favored enforcing the fugitive slave law; for another, he preached the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution which permitted slavery. Even after his election to the presidency and the outbreak of the slaveholders’ insurrection, he refused for two years to accede to the demand of the abolitionists that he emancipate the slaves.

His first concern was to maintain (and then regain) the unity of the country and safeguard the newly acquired political power of the capitalist class. He said again and again that he would do this any way he could – by preserving slavery if necessary – or by abolishing it. The long protracted and hard-fought Civil War convinced him that he had no alternative, and from Jan. 1, 1863 he was compelled to take the road of the abolitionists.

That is a tribute to the far-sightedness of the most radical elements in the fight against the slave system. Lincoln’s hesitancy and reluctance to take the step which won him the love and admiration of succeeding generations strike an ironic note today. But they do not and cannot take away from him the credit for carrying through this great act that dealt the death blow to the slave system, nor for his stubborn prosecution of the war that smashed the counter-revolution.

This second revolution cleared the way for the rapid development of capitalism and the growth of our modern industrial civilization with its potentiality for universal abundance. But again most of the benefits were drained off by the ruling class. Establishing themselves as a dictatorship of Big Business, the capitalists began in the interests of private profit to erect their own roadblocks in the path to freedom and security for those who had done the hardest fighting in the second American revolution – the workers, poor farmers and Negroes. And so the masses today are driven by the very conditions of their existence in the direction of a third American revolution.

Nature of the Coming Revolution

This time the goal is on a higher plane than in the past. It is nothing less than the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a Workers and Farmers Government preparing the way for a classless society. This will climax and complete the progressive tasks begun in the earlier American revolutions. At the same time it will open a new chapter in world history, for the other nations will not be far behind once the American colossus shows the way.

This coming revolution cannot be prevented by red scares and witch hunts any more than its predecessors were. Indeed, the working are being steeled and mobilized to take their places in this revolution just as the revolutionists were in the past – by the compulsion to fight against oppressive legislation like the Taft-Hartley Act, the proposed peace time conscription program, the drive to institute thought control through “subversive” blacklists, the ruling class’s refusal to grant equality to the Negro people, the preparations for war, militarization and fascism.

Of course the next revolution will differ in important respects those of the past. Previous revolutions, while they made possible certain advances for humanity, also resulted in the establishment of the rule of a new minority. The coming revolution will for the first time bring power to the representatives of the overwhelming majority of the population.

A New Science

Furthermore, while the revolutionists of the past had to improvise and grope their way forward because they were exploring new terrain, the 20th century revolutionists have the advantage of their predecessors’ experience. They have also the benefit of a new science – socialism – which provides them with a guide to action in the present and for the future.

The faults and shortcomings of Washington and Lincoln were due in great part to the fact that they represented classes forming a minority of the population, with interests antagonistic to those of the majority. Instead of them, therefore, the great models of the next revolution will be the Sons of Liberty and John Brown and Negro rebels like Douglass. Gabriel, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman. But Washington and Lincoln too, will have their place in the hall of fame of the future socialist society. Associated with the father of his country and the great emancipator will be precisely those truths that capitalist propagandists try to gloss over today:

That the upholders of outworn and decaying social systems never voluntarily give up power, but must be driven from the scene by mass action. That revolutionary struggle requires no justification other than the needs of oppressed classes and the requirements of establishing a higher form of society. And that capitalism, which came to power by revolution, can, like other outworn systems, only be replaced by the same process.

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