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.


 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 per  centage 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 satisfactory  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  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  cooperate 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.

I have so far stated the opposite theories of “Mud-Sill” and “Free Labor” without declaring any preference of my own between them. On an occasion like this I ought not to declare any. I suppose, however, I shall not be mistaken, in assuming as a fact, that the people of Wisconsin prefer free labor, with its natural companion, education.



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