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?

April 14, 1865: Meetings, Meeting, Meetings

April 14, 1865, proved to be a busy day in American history. At Fort Sumter, South Carolina, Major General Robert Anderson raised the national colors over the fort four years after he had ordered them to be lowered. Henry Ward Beecher gave the main address. It was quite a celebration, and as night came fireworks lit up the sky.

There was more good news from North Carolina. Joseph Johnston contacted William T. Sherman to seek a temporary suspension of operations so the two men could meet. Sherman assented, suggesting the Appomattox terms as a basis for discussion. He would reassure Grant the next morning that he would “be careful not to complicate any points of civil policy.”

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April 12, 1865: Stacking Arms

On April 12 the Army of Northern Virginia stacked arms, furled flags, and formally completed surrendering. Much has been made of this ceremony, largely by Joshua Chamberlain and John B. Gordon, two gifted writers with vivid imaginations and healthy egos whose stories improved with age. Yet neither Grant nor Lee was present (Lee waited until after the ceremony to head back to Richmond, where his wife remained), and in fact several Confederate units had already stacked arms and signed paroles. Gordon had attempted to have his men stack arms on April 11, avoiding the ceremony, but John Gibbon and Charles Griffin, in charge of arranging the surrender, insisted upon a more formal process that would take place the next day: otherwise Gibbon would not issue paroles. Nor did everyone have arms to stack: what remained of George Pickett’s division left a mere fifty-three rifled muskets at the surrender.

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April 11, 1865: Lincoln’s Last Speech

News reached Washington of the surrender at Appomattox late in the evening on April 9. As one might imagine, the next day was one of celebration and jubilation. People wanted their president to say something about the great victory. Lincoln fended off these requests on April 10, although he asked the band present to play “Dixie,” because it was “one of the best tunes I have ever heard.” However, he promised to offer some appropriate remarks the next evening.

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April 11, 1865: The War Continues Elsewhere

It did not take long for Ulysses S. Grant to leave Appomattox Court House: he did so on the afternoon of April 10, when he headed to Burkeville to catch a train to City Point. That repaired line proved rather rickety, as Grant did not make it to City Point until April 11, where Mrs. Grant awaited his arrival. The general declined an offer to visit Richmond, but several staff officers took advantage of a travel delay to visit the former capital of the Confederacy.

Robert E. Lee stayed near Appomattox Court House: he would not leave until April 12. He spent some time gathering information and preparing a report of his army’s final campaign, declaring that Grant had five times as many soldiers as Lee–a rather large exaggeration, to say the least.

At Danville, Jefferson Davis prepared to carry on the fight. So did Dabney Maury at Mobile, although he had decided to evacuate that city in the wake of Union successes on April 9 and 10. Meanwhile, William T. Sherman approached Goldsborough, North Carolina, where he learned of the events at Appomattox. Now he could focus his efforts on taking out Joseph E. Johnston’s ramshackle Rebel army.

General Orders No. 9 and the Roots of the Lost Cause Myth

On April 10, 1865, at the behest of General Robert E. Lee, Colonel Charles Marshall sat down to compose General Orders No. 9. As Marshall later told the story in 1887:

General Lee’s order to the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House was written the day after the meeting at McLean’s house, at which the terms of the surrender were agreed upon. That night the general sat with several of us at a fire in front of his tent, and after some conversation about the army, and the events of the day, in which his feelings toward his men were strongly expressed, he told me to prepare an order to the troops.

The next day it was raining, and many persons were coming and going, so that I was unable to write without interruption until about 10 o’clock, when General Lee, finding that the order had not been prepared, directed me to get into his ambulance, which stood near his tent, and placed an orderly to prevent any one from approaching me.

I sat in the ambulance until I had written the order, the first draft of which (in pencil) contained an entire paragraph that was omitted by General Lee’s direction. He made one or two verbal changes, and I then made a copy of the order as corrected, and gave it to one of the clerks in the adjutant-general’s office to write in ink. I took the copy, when made by the clerk, to the general, who signed it, and other copies were then made for transmission to the corps commanders and the staff of the army. All these copies were signed by the general, and a good many persons sent other copies which they had made or procured, and obtained his signature. In this way many copies of the order had the general’s name signed as if they were originals, some of which I have seen.

The order is worth a close reading, because it offers Lee’s explanation of Confederate military defeat … although not all of it.

During the Civil War Lee had often observed that Confederate civilians did not give their all in support of the cause of southern independence. As late as March 9, 1865, he told Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge: “Everything in my opinion has depended and still depends upon the disposition and feelings of the people.” Meanwhile, despite a growing concern about Confederate military fortunes, he always impressed others with his determination to damage the foe. As late as the afternoon of April 2, for example, he took time from what must have been a stressful situation to assure Jefferson Davis that he was doing all he could to recruit black soldiers and that while he found present circumstances “very critical,” he entertained hopes that a Union misstep would offer an opportunity to “cripple” the foe–this even as he advised that it was time to leave Richmond. Over the previous week he had watched his army dissolve, losing nearly half its numbers by April 9, with reportedly only 8,000 or so still bearing arms.

None of that made it into Marshall’s draft, which reflected Lee’s thinking on April 9. Rather, “the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.” One might argue that a good general places his foe in that situation. Lee reassured his men of his confidence and faith in them, celebrated their courage and steadfastness (deserters would not be issued this order), and declared that it was his determination “to avoid the useless sacrifice” of those soldiers that had compelled him to meet Grant … a claim that conveniently omits mention of his correspondence with Grant on April 7 and 8.

Memory is shaped by what we forget as well as what we remember, and by what we choose to omit as well as what we choose to include. As Lee prepared to leave Appomattox, he also prepared to leave behind what he had said during the war about the will of Confederate civilians to fight. Indeed, by the spring of 1865 what kept many Confederate soldiers fighting was loyalty to each other and to their general, not to their cause, however they defined it.

Not everyone will find this reassuring. I can recall that Kevin Levin voiced objection to this take on the order as the first seed of the Lost Cause myth back in 2006. I offered my own elaboration soon afterward. You’ll have to admit that the themes Lee and Marshall sounded resonate today in the hearts and minds of advocates of Confederate heritage … and more than a few other people.

The Mind and Heart of Ulysses S. Grant

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One wonders what was on Ulysses S. Grant’s mind on the evening of April 9, 1865, as he reflected on that day’s events. What was he feeling? What was he thinking? After all, the general was not much given to public displays of emotion: he was a master of wry understatement. And yet he had achieved the mission he had undertaken precisely thirteen months ago–March 9, 1864–that of bringing Robert E. Lee to the surrender table.

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The Mind and Heart of Robert E. Lee

It had been a rough spring for Robert E. Lee. Everything he had attempted to stave off what increasingly seemed to be inevitable had fallen short. At Fort Stedman his effort to force Grant to contract his lines around Petersburg had failed; at Five Forks the Yankees gained the upper hand, followed by the rather rapid evacuation of Richmond (a contingency Lee had long anticipated but still seemed unprepared to accept). What passed for Confederate staff work and logistical support contributed to the failure to find supplies at Amelia Court House, causing a costly delay; then, at Sailor’s Creek, he openly wondered if his army had dissolved. When on April 7 he opened a letter delivered to Confederate lines under flag of truce, he confronted for the first time a request to surrender.

I’ve written before about how Lee responded to that request, what was on his mind, and discussed the tale that he rejected a proposal to conduct guerilla warfare, a claim that rests upon a misinterpretation of sources.

It is difficult to believe that Lee did not realize that surrender was really the only option available to him. His army was no longer an effective fighting force, with less than 10,000 men carrying arms, and another 18,000 or so men now simply accompanying that force. The only question left is whether they would meet their end peacefully or in one final violent clash that would have obliterated them. It was in this state of mind that he corresponded with Grant, engaging in what can be best seen as a game of bluff, trying to fool an adversary who was in no mood to be fooled. Yes, he was trying to cut the best deal he could, but Grant’s answers made it evident that there was only one deal on the table. Whatever Lee might once have gained by negotiating months ago, he had no chance of gaining that now, and his counterpart was quick to place the responsibility of further bloodshed–needless bloodshed–on Lee’s shoulders.

It should cause us to pause to realize that Lee hesitated and procrastinated. It would not be until April 9 that he would finally concede that he had no choice other than to meet Grant. That’s the sign of a proud man, but it is also the sign of a stubborn man, and men died because of that stubbornness and reluctance to accept final defeat.