Memory  /  Argument

Abraham Lincoln Is a Hero of the Left

Leftists have regarded Lincoln as a pro-labor hero who helped vanquish chattel slavery. We should celebrate him today within the radical democratic tradition.

Lincoln the Working-Class Hero

Most Americans today spend little time thinking about Lincoln, but they do carry in their minds a constellation of ideas, symbols, images, and characterizations they associate with him. In his 1995 book, Lincoln in American Memory, historian Merrill Peterson identifies five primary and frequently overlapping Lincoln “types” within the US public’s collective memory: the Savior of the Union, the Great Emancipator, the Man of the People, the Frontier American, and the Self-Made Man.

But Peterson overlooked a critical sixth type, one that’s as timeworn as the others: the workerist Lincoln. Seemingly from the moment of Lincoln’s martyrdom, the nascent labor movement presented him as a workingman, an ally of labor, and a symbol of the revolutionary proletariat to organize workers and envision a more democratic future. Freedpeople, black conventioneers, postwar labor federations, early Marxists, industrial unionists, and interracial farmer-labor radicals all portrayed the uncompensated destruction of chattel bondage as the pivotal first step in a wider emancipation of labor. In doing so they employed (often generous characterizations of) Lincoln’s prolabor speeches, such as his comments on the 1860 shoemakers strike in New England, the largest walkout to date.

These evocations of a prolabor Lincoln appealed to working-class Civil War veterans; attracted African Americans to organized labor’s cause; and cast immigrant workers with few cultural ties to the United States as part of a comprehensible domestic tradition led by that most American of Americans.

Above all, they sought to make good on the implied promise of emancipation: that labor should not only be legally free, but also possess enough power to ensure basic dignity if not full-on productive control. Their interpretation of Lincoln’s “free labor” ideal was not the compulsion to sell one’s labor on conditions largely determined by owners — the “freedom” to work or starve. Rather, it was worker power, secured through some degree of economic democracy.

The New Deal era witnessed an enhanced expression of that power — and of Lincoln memory. As historian Nina Silber argues, Americans broadened the Lincoln symbol during the 1930s beyond sectional reconciliation and liberal nationalism and toward anti-fascism and federal power in the service of common people.

For countless workers, President Franklin D. Roosevelt became a “new Lincoln” and his New Deal programs a “second Emancipation Proclamation.” As Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) official Len De Caux explained, “Our idea of a ‘new birth of freedom’ is an expansion of collective bargaining and industrial democracy.”