Politics and History,  Quick Takes

Karl Marx’s Letter to Abraham Lincoln

“The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.”

Karl Marx, “Address of the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America,” November, 1864

One of the challenges of teaching world history is that events unfold in both time and space. Focus on what was happening all around the world at a given time, and you lose the ability to tell a clear story. But focus on a story as it unfolded in a particular place (say America, France, China, or Russia), and you risk putting history into silos.

The tension is inevitable, but most approaches to teaching history choose the second option as the lesser of two evils. So we tend to miss interesting or even critical connections between things that were taking place at the same time in different parts of the world. Bringing such events back together can generate significant astonishment. How could two such events that have been placed into such completely different stories actually taken place at the same time?

One of the most surprising of such historical accidents comes in the form of a congratulatory letter from Karl Marx to Abraham Lincoln at the conclusion of the Civil War.

Because we tend to associate ‘Marxism’ with later Leninism, Stalinism, and even the Cold War, it is quite the jolt to our historical system to find Karl Marx writing to a United States president that “the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class.” It’s a surprise to read the ambassador’s reply that the United States “derive new encouragements to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies.” It’s almost dumbfounding to discover that in 1843 Karl Marx himself had applied for a permit to immigrate to Texas and was a regular contributor to the New York Daily Tribune – a major player in American politics in the 1850’s.

Those last facts generate enough curiosity to produce several alternative history novels. Just what might have happened had Karl Marx become a citizen of the Republic of Texas in the 1840’s, less than a decade after the Battle of the Alamo? What would his position have been among the other German intellectuals who settled in the Guadalupe Valley? What role might he have played in Texas’s battle over slavery and statehood?

History. It’s almost always more complicated than we think.

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