Lincoln on Free Labor

Lincoln and Labor



Taken from Lincoln’s address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, September 30, 1859:

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 or 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. (more…)

Published in: on September 24, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Lincoln on Free Labor  
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