Lincoln on Labor and Capital

Much is made in some corners about Abraham Lincoln and the rise of capitalism, sometimes in conjunction with the rise of the American nation-state. But what did Lincoln himself have to say about this subject? Read what he told the people of Wisconsin in 1859 at their state agricultural fair:

The world is agreed that labor is the source from which human wants are mainly supplied. There is no dispute upon this point. From this point, however, men immediately diverge. Much disputation is maintained as to the best way of applying and controlling the labor element. By some 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 that capital, induces him to do it. Having assumed this, they proceed to consider 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 they naturally conclude that all laborers are necessarily either hired laborers, or slaves. They further assume that whoever is once a hired laborer, is fatally fixed in that condition for life; and thence again that his condition is as bad as, or worse than that of a slave. This is the “mud-sill” theory.

But another class of reasoners hold the opinion that there is no such relation between capital and labor, as assumed; and that there is no such thing as a freeman being fatally fixed for life, in the condition of a hired laborer, that both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them groundless. They hold that labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed–that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior–greatly the superior–of capital.

They do not deny that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital. The error, as they hold, is in assuming that the whole labor of the world exists within that relation. A few men own capital; and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital, hire, or buy, another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class–neither work for others, nor have others working for them. Even in all our slave States, except South Carolina, a majority of the whole people of all colors, are neither slaves nor masters. In these Free States, a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families–wives, sons and daughters–work for themselves, on their farms, in their houses and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand, nor of hirelings or slaves on the other. It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital; that is, labor with their own hands, and also buy slaves or hire freemen to labor for them; but this is only a mixed, and not a distinct class. No principle stated is disturbed by the existence of this mixed class. Again, as has already been said, the opponents of the “mud-sill” theory insist that there is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. There is demonstration for saying this. Many independent men, in this assembly, doubtless a few years ago were hired laborers. And their case is almost if not quite the general rule.

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates, is free labor–the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all–gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all. If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune. I have said this much about the elements of labor generally, as introductory to the consideration of a new phase which that element is in process of assuming. The old general rule was that educated people did not perform manual labor. They managed to eat their bread, leaving the toil of producing it to the uneducated. This was not an insupportable evil to the working bees, so long as the class of drones remained very small. But now, especially in these free States, nearly all are educated–quite too nearly all, to leave the labor of the uneducated, in any wise adequate to the support of the whole. It follows from this that henceforth educated people must labor. Otherwise, education itself would become a positive and intolerable evil. No country can sustain, in idleness, more than a small percentage of its numbers. The great majority must labor at something productive. From these premises the problem springs, “How can labor and education be the most satisfactorily combined?”

By the “mud-sill” theory it is assumed that labor and education are incompatible; and any practical combination of them impossible. According to that theory, a blind horse upon a tread-mill, is a perfect illustration of what a laborer should be—all the better for being blind, that he could not tread out of place, or kick understandingly. According to that theory, the education of laborers, is not only useless, but pernicious, and dangerous. In fact, it is, in some sort, deemed a misfortune that laborers should have heads at all. Those same heads are regarded as explosive materials, only to be safely kept in damp places, as far as possible from that peculiar sort of fire which ignites them. A Yankee who could invent a strong handed man without a head would receive the everlasting gratitude of the “mud-sill” advocates.

But Free Labor says “no!” Free Labor argues that, as the Author of man makes every individual with one head and one pair of hands, it was probably intended that heads and hands should co-operate as friends; and that that particular head, should direct and control that particular pair of hands. As each man has one mouth to be fed, and one pair of hands to furnish food, it was probably intended that that particular pair of hands should feed that particular mouth—that each head is the natural guardian, director, and protector of the hands and mouth inseparably connected with it; and that being so, every head should be cultivated, and improved, by whatever will add to its capacity for performing its charge. In one word Free Labor insists on universal education.

He repeated these themes in his first annual message in December 1861:

It is not needed, nor fitting here, that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions; but there is one point, with its connexions, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above labor, in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connexion 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.

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. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital, producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and, with their capital, hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class—neither work for others, nor have others working for them. In most of the southern States, a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters; while in the northern a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men with their families—wives, sons, and daughters—work for themselves, on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand, nor of hired laborers or slaves on the other. It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital—that is, they labor with their own hands, and also buy or hire others to labor for them; but this is only a mixed, and not a distinct class. No principle stated is disturbed by the existence of this mixed class.

Again: as has already been said, there is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. Many independent men everywhere in these States, a few years back in their lives, were hired laborers. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way to all—gives hope to all, and consequent energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all. No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty—none less inclined to take, or touch, aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which, if surrendered, will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they, and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them, till all of liberty shall be lost.

What do you make of these passages?

14 thoughts on “Lincoln on Labor and Capital

  1. scott s. May 15, 2015 / 1:32 pm

    Sounds like Foner’s “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” description of Republicanism.

  2. bob carey May 16, 2015 / 5:56 am

    It is no wonder that the southern planters feared Lincoln, given his belief that labor trumps capital,and his views on universal education. Real dangerous ideas to the aristocracy. If the free labor class of the south were better educated perhaps they would not have sacrificed life and limb for these aristocrats. Does anyone know the status of public education in the confederacy?

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 16, 2015 / 9:59 am

      Education expanded tremendously under the Confederacy … because teachers were exempt from the draft.🙂

    • Noma May 23, 2015 / 7:02 pm

      Considering it’s implications right up to the present day, it’s surprising that the question of education in the antebellum South has received so little attention. In Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. DuBois notes in his chapter “Founding the Public School” he sums up the attitude of the wealthy whites towards the education of both laboring whites and enslaved blacks: “They believed that laborers did not need education; that it made their exploitation more difficult; and that if any of them were really worth educating, they would somehow escape their condition by their own efforts.” p. 641.

      Basically: (except for North Carolina) there was no public education in the South before the war. Public schools for both black and white children began only with the efforts of the Freedman’s Bureau. Eric Foner describes that when states were “Redeemed” one of the first things to be eliminated was the state board of education.

      I am personally suspect that the Southern antipathy toward public education can be traced to Reconstruction. They hated public education because it was created in response to black demand for education, and they still hate education — to the extent that at least a couple states have banned the teaching of AP U.S. history.

      • Noma May 23, 2015 / 7:07 pm

        (Sorry for all the typos above!) In his Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant also comments on the lack of public education in the South:

        “The great bulk of the legal voters of the South were men who owned no slaves; their homes were generally in the hills and poor country; their facilities for educating their children, even up to the point of reading and writing, were very limited; their interest in the contest was very meagre—what there was, if they had been capable of seeing it, was with the North; they too needed emancipation.

        Under the old régime they were looked down upon by those who controlled all the affairs in the interest of slave-owners, as poor white trash who were allowed the ballot so long as they cast it according to direction.”

        Memoirs – Chapter 16
        http://www.bartleby.com/1011/16.html

  3. Joshism May 16, 2015 / 9:48 am

    Was this kind of verbiage – especially the use of “captial” and “labor” this way and so often – how people typically discussed issues of workers, business owners, etc during the 19th century? The issues – free labor vs slave labor; whether there was class/job mobility between farmers, factory workers, shopkeepers, tradesmen, and business owners – are important ones, both then and now. However, it doesn’t seem like anybody talks about economic issues this way today unless they are Marxists (and/or Eric Foner) and so I find much of it almost inscrutable because it’s like trying to read another language – the kind of dry, technical language used by an academic 1%.

  4. neukomment May 16, 2015 / 4:43 pm

    So with the secession of the states that would have opposed it the Morrill land grant act was passed and in 1862 signed into law by President Abraham Linclon; a action entirely consistent with the principles and ideas in these previous statements.

    On a side note; It was 109 years latter this Michigan farm boy graduated from one of those land grant universities, Michigan State University. #Spartanforlife

  5. Mark May 17, 2015 / 3:07 pm

    That having a fixed class of laborers is unsustainable and undesirable in the modern world?

  6. Brad May 17, 2015 / 10:41 pm

    It almost sounds like a pre-Marxist kind of argument of workers creating capital and the means of production. Of course he couldn’t have read Das Kapital since that wasn’t written until after he died.

    • Joshism May 19, 2015 / 3:33 pm

      Has anyone besides Harry Turtledove ever done anything with the “Was Lincoln a proto-Marxist?” question.

      • OhioGuy May 20, 2015 / 9:51 pm

        No time for detail now, but Lincoln was no protoMarxist. You completely misread these passages. He was a Whiggish Republican who was pro-business and believed in free markets and free men. No man has a right to gain capital by the sweat of another man’s brow. You should read this book about Republican economic policy during the Rebellion: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674362130

        I’ll try to get back to this with more detail in a day or two but I’m on the road now and commenting with my iPhone ain’t easy.

  7. Buck Buchanan May 20, 2015 / 7:13 am

    Regarding labor….Lincoln’s rejection of the Nativists certainly made him and advocate of immigration. And immigration would also guarantee a source of increased albor to increase production.

    The Morrill Act (WVU “80- right here) coupled with the Homestead Act working iwth an immigrant population allowed the explosion across the prairies and set the American Colossus on its path.

  8. Sandi Saunders May 22, 2015 / 7:15 am

    In the time of Lincoln, a family could easily make it and live by the sweat of their brow on the farm. That is no longer the case and has not been since the industrial age and special interests took over. The speech is interesting but no more than that IMO.

  9. T F Smith May 23, 2015 / 10:38 am

    Lincoln was a progressive before being a progressive was cool.

    It’s interesting to read the letter that the International Workingman’s Association sent the U.S. Legation in London at the end of the war, or Marx’s articles on the war. As cliched as it may be perceived, there was a tremendous appeal of the U.S. cause to small r republicans; consider the 48ers. There’s also the combination of Whiggish belief in progress and a certain Western Jacksonian ideal, as well.

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