Lincoln believed in labor

Published 7:41 am Monday, September 7, 2009

The first Labor Day occurred in 1882, 17 years after the death of Abraham Lincoln, but the Kentucky rail-splitter would have been all for Labor Day. Abraham Lincoln argued that everything begins with labor; wealth and capital are the achievements of labor.

He preached this economic gospel early on his way to the presidency. There was, first, his speech at the Wisconsin Agricultural Society fair in Milwaukee in mid-August, 1859, and then in Cincinnati that Fall. He so spoke, then, 23 years before the first Labor Day observance.

The general rule, Lincoln observed very much autobiographically, is that when a young man reaches the age to move out from his parents, he has for capital “nothing save two strong hands that God has given him, a heart willing to labor, and a freedom to choose the mode of his work and the manner of his employer.”

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With no “soil or shop” of his own, he hires himself out to a man who has the capital to “pay him a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.”

As an employee of capital, he “works industriously, he behaves soberly,” and after a year or two has acquired “surplus capital.” With this he buys land, marries, “begets” children and “in the course of time he too has enough capital to hire some new beginner.”

Cardinal to Lincoln’s theory of labor economics are these factors: A man has the freedom to work for whom he chooses and to quit that work if and when it no longer pleases him. The laboring man gives himself and of himself to a “fair day’s work.” In return, he is compensated by “a fair day’s wages.” Labor-management is a clear quid pro quo arrangement.

In fact, this concept was the basis for Lincoln’s initial objection to slavery, and he learned this from his Separate Baptist church in Kentucky. Not yet a moral issue for him, he reasoned that slavery is unfair to labor, because slave-owners have an unfair advantage over free labor, costing little beyond the purchase price. Although this concept recognized the unfairness to slaves, the unfair competition with free labor seemed of greater concern.

He laid down this proposition: “Whatever any one man earns with his hands and by the sweat of his brow, he shall enjoy in peace.” He sought to illustrate this by a cute but strained analogy. God has given every man both a pair of hands to labor and a mouth to eat the fruit of his labor. Nature itself testifies so, because one man does not have hands but no mouth (slaves) and another man a mouth but no hands (slave-owner).

Labor, to Lincoln’s way of thinking, includes not just factory workers but farmers as well. Unlike some radicals in today’s organized labor, he considered mental labor as much labor as the physical. He spoke of “labor, brains, and creativity” as the contribution of labor that creates capital.

A man does not need to start from scratch, but can and should build upon the labor of those who preceded him. “A capacity, and taste, for reading, gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others.” Consequently, “Free Labor insists on universal education.” What a man makes with his hands and his head creates value and civilization.

If someone had thought of Labor Day sooner, President Abraham Lincoln might well have invited himself to deliver the speech.

He would have said to capital: Enjoy your wealth, but give credit to the labor that created it. He would have said to labor: Be grateful for your employment and build your own capital with it.

To those who now labor, whether with hand or mind or both, Happy Labor Day.