The Republican Party’s Red Roots

Joseph Weydemeyer (1818–1866) a Marxist who fled Germany after the wave of revolutions that hit Europe in 1848. He was an early member of the Republican Party and later a lieutenant colonel in the Union Army. Source: Google Images

Whenever I observe the never-ending barrage of social media posts by Republicans decrying the evils of “socialism,” I can’t help being struck by the irony that the Republican Party was in part founded by genuine socialists and foreign socialists to boot. In fact, Abraham Lincoln, one of the party’s most important founding members, though not a socialist himself, undoubtedly read a great deal of Karl Marx’s work via American socialist Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, where Marx served as foreign correspondent for a decade. In addition, several of Lincoln’s socialist Republican Party colleagues (comrades?), went on to become key supporters of his 1860 presidential campaign, members of his administration or high-ranking officers in the Union Army.

As John Nichols, National Affairs Correspondent for The Nation, points out in, The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism, in the midst of the Civil War, during his first State of the Union address, Lincoln felt compelled to mention the growing conflict between “labor” and “capital” and to make clear which side he favored. After touching on a litany of topics including, the war, trade treaties, fiscal matters, agriculture, Native American relations and the need to fill three Supreme Court vacancies, Lincoln requested “brief attention” to “the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above labor in the structure of government.” He continued:

“It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.

Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.”

It is clear to me that the above passage refers in part to one of Lincoln’s most cherished ideas, that a man should be able to rise in life as far as his talents and abilities can take him and that government should aid in facilitating this process rather than being a hindrance, as many autocratic, monarchical and aristocratic regimes of Lincoln’s time were. It was, of course, his own life story. But Lincoln also further recognizes that those who had made it to the top through the new wealth building agencies of the industrial revolution might then themselves use the increased political power that went along with their noveau riches to function as a new form of aristocracy and obstacle to the rise and prosperity of others.

Then came the kicker:

“Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

That statement, as some might recognize, could have come straight out of Marx’s Das Kapital or the Communist Manifesto. So, how did Lincoln come to hold such an idea?

Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune was first among the many newspapers Lincoln read to get a sense of what was going on politically at the local, state, national and international levels. Nichols cites the work of Adam Tuchinsky, author of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune: Civil War Era Socialism and the Crisis of Free Labor, which notes that the Tribune had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the mid-nineteenth century United States and was “also an institution that published many of the leading minds of the age.” Tuchinsky also observes that while it has usually been downplayed or minimized by historians and biographers, Greeley, a “leading ideologue of the Whig and Republican parties was also, throughout nearly his entire public life, a socialist.”

Lincoln didn’t just read Greeley’s newspaper, the two men had both served briefly as congressmen in the late 1840s and Lincoln would refer to Greeley throughout the years as either, “Friend Greeley” or “Uncle Horace.” According to Nichols, Greeley was as “profoundly concerned” as was Lincoln “with the question of how to maintain a measure of economic equality in a time of unprecedented and overwhelming accumulation of wealth — not merely by southern planters but also northern bankers and businessmen.” This led Greeley to embrace the teachings of Charles Fourier, the French Utopian socialist. Utopian socialism, the first modern current of socialist thought, held that society could be changed by persuasion and living examples of planned communities, rather than by revolution. Though they ultimately proved unsustainable, Utopian socialist factory towns like Robert Owen’s New Lanark in Great Britain and planned communities such a Brook Farm in the United States at least held out the possibility of a more humane, cooperative society in an era that often saw the brutal exploitation of workers, including women and children. In Fourier’s view, the promise of political equality was an idle one unless it was coupled with economic protections for the working class. He observed:

“Equality of rights is another chimera, praiseworthy when considered in the abstract and ridiculous from the standpoint of the means employed to introduce it into civilization. The first right of men is the right to work and the right to a minimum income. This is precisely what has gone unrecognized in all the constitutions.”

Fourier’s writing was popularized in the United States by Albert Brisbane, an American who traveled to France in the 1820s. He found a comrade in Greeley, who championed Fourier’s views in the Tribune and later made Brisbane a columnist for the paper.

When a wave of revolutions erupted across Europe in 1848, Greeley dispatched a recent hire, twenty-nine-year-old, Charles Dana to across the Atlantic to report back on what was going on. Described by Nichols as an “idealistic polymath,” Dana had also been a central player in the Brook Farm experiment. While in Cologne, then part of the German Kingdom of Prussia, Dana met the co-author of a much-circulated pamphlet, Das Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, known to English readers as the Communist Manifesto. The author was, of course, Karl Marx. So, began Marx’s decade-long stint as foreign correspondent for the Tribune. Nichols quotes Marx biographer, Francis Wheen’s assertion that, “The Tribune was by far the largest publisher of Marx’s (and to a lesser extent, Engels’s) work…Tribune articles take up nearly seven volumes of the fifty-volume collected works of Marx and Engels — more than Capital, more than any other work published by Marx, alive or posthumously, in book form.”

The 1848 revolutions also led to a mass exodus of liberals and socialists from Europe, particularly from Germany, where an attempt to forge a unified, constitutional state under Prussian King Frederick William IV failed to materialize. Many of these “Forty-Eighters” made their way to Illinois and neighboring Wisconsin. Lincoln met and befriended several of these German radicals including, Gustav Korner, a former student revolutionary who had been involved in an attempt to seize power in his hometown of Frankfurt am Main and Friedrich Karl Franz Hecker, a lawyer from Mannheim who had served as a liberal legislator in the lower chamber of the Baden State Assembly before leading an April 1848 uprising in the region. Hecker was a key surrogate on Lincoln’s behalf during the latter’s 1858 Senate campaign and later went on to serve as a colonel in the Union Army. Both Hecker and Korner also served as personal delegates-at-large for Lincoln at the 1860 Republican National Convention.

As Nichols relates, Lincoln’s “circle of supporters would eventually include some of Karl Marx’s closest associates and intellectual sparring partners,” including, Joseph Wedemeyer and August Willich. Wedemeyer, who maintained a regular correspondence with Marx and Engels, also helped to form a national network of “Kommunisten Klubs” to promote what the New York Times of the period condemned as, “Red Republicanism.” Wedemeyer then allied with the new Republican Party and presidential campaign of Lincoln. At the start of the Civil War, Lincoln appointed Wedemeyer, a former Prussian military officer, as a technical aide on the staff of General John C. Fremont — the former western explorer and first Republican presidential nominee, who became commander of the Army’s Department of the West. Later Lincoln commissioned Wedemeyer as a colonel of the Forty-First Missouri Volunteers, charging the German Marxist with the defense of St. Louis.

Willich, who according to Nichols was known as “the Reddest of the Reds,” was a leader of the left faction of the German Communist League, which criticized even Marx as too cautious when it came to revolutionary agitation. As a key commander of the radical Free Corps in the Baden-Palatinate uprising of 1849, Willich chose a young Friedrich Engels as his aide-de-camp. Forced to flee to the United States after the failure of the uprising, Willich ended up in Cincinnati, where he became editor of the socialist Republikaner newspaper and backed the candidacies of Fremont in 1856 and Lincoln in 1860. At the beginning of the Civil War, Willich formed a regiment of German immigrants and became its first lieutenant, quickly rising to the rank of brigadier general. Willich was known for having military bands play revolutionary songs such as the “Arbeiter (Workers) Marseillaise.”

After the Civil War, Greeley and some of the Forty-Eighter Republicans formed a third party because they were upset with the corruption of the Grant administration, desired civil service reform and also felt that post-war reconstruction of the South had gone far enough, which is interesting given their years of strong opposition to slavery. The new party, christened, Liberal Republican, was largely the brainchild of Carl Schurz, yet another German émigré revolutionary and acquaintance of Karl Marx, who went on to become a founding member of the Republican Party and later to serve as a Union general, U.S. Senator for Missouri (the first German-born American elected to that body) and Secretary of the Interior under President Rutherford B. Hayes. Both the Liberal Republicans and Democrats nominated Greeley to face Grant in the 1872 presidential election. Democratic support for Greeley was unenthusiastic, based more on not having a strong candidate of their own and a desire not to split opposition rather than any real support for a man who had been denouncing them for decades. The Liberal Republican-Democratic coalition was trounced. Greeley didn’t carry a single state in the Electoral College and lost the popular vote by almost 800,000. The party dissolved that same year.

After the war, Lincoln’s fear of the growing political power of capital became realized to an extent that probably would have shocked him had he lived to see it. The war itself provided the impetus for the consolidation and growth of the railroad, telegraph, meatpacking and oil industries along with banks, brokerages and financial markets. Just as Lincoln foresaw, this wrought great change on both the Republican Party and “structure of government,” as he had put it in his first State of the Union address. As Jack Beatty shows in, Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America 1865–1900, by the mid-1880s things had gotten to the point where former Republican President Rutherford B. Hays, no socialist himself, was confiding to his diary about, “the rottenness of the present system, excessive wealth in the hands of the few” and a government “by for and of” the corporations.

Republican socialists were pretty much gone by the turn of the twentieth-century. The Republican Party became far more identified by the public as the party of big business, the banks and the rich. But the injustices of the “Gilded Age,” as Mark Twain referred to it, also led to the rise of the agrarian oriented People’s Party or Populists, the Socialist Party of America, led by former labor leader and Democrat, Eugene V. Debs among others, as well as the new phenomenon of “progressive” Republicanism embodied by Theodore Roosevelt, Wisconsin’s Senator Robert La Follette (and later his son, Robert Jr.) and Idaho Senator William Borah. Still, as late as 1935, New York’s Vito Marcantonio, perhaps the most leftist person to ever hold a seat in Congress, first ran in 1934 as a Republican before switching two years later to the American Labor Party. Marcantonio’s far better-known ally, Fiorello La Guardia was a progressive, socialist and Republican. In 1932 La Guardia caused a commotion when he took to the floor of the House of Representatives to demand that a proposed tax bill, “soak the rich!”

Tough to imagine a Republican saying that today!

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store