Abe Lincoln on the entrepreneurial spirit of Labor

abe lincolnby Traveling Seth

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.

Thus ended – to my mind – one of  Abe Lincoln’s most important speeches. Not because it dealt with the immediate and punishing events that would lead to Civil War. It does not.

It is important because it describes a battle between Capital and Labor that still exists. It focusses on competing theories and proffers one above the other. He accurately describes the path we took, one that did lead to the world he described. One where well-educated, entrepreneurial Labor created wonders and wealth unimaginable. A world of plenty.

But also one still fighting the same battle he talks about – which is more important Capital or Labor?

In 1859, before he was President, Abe Lincoln gave a speech at the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society. He understood that these meetings existed  to “make mutual exchange of agricultural discovery, information, and knowledge; so that, at the end, all may know every thing, which may have been known to but one, or to but a few, at the beginning — to bring together especially all which is supposed to not be generally known, because of recent discovery, or invention.”

He understood the importance of bringing together groups of people trying to solve complex problems. He talked about the cutting edge tool of the day – the steam plow – examining its problems and even offering a possible solution. He revered the innovation, even the failed ones,  that farmers were trying to apply to solving many of these problems.

Our thanks, and something more substantial than thanks, are due to every man engaged in the effort to produce a successful steam plow. Even the unsuccessful will bring something to light, which, in the hands of others, will contribute to the final success. I have not pointed out difficulties, in order to discourage, but in order that being seen, they may be the more readily overcome.

Then he heads into a defense of labor unlike anything seen in recent years. [bolding mine]

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.

A familiar argument – labor only exists because capital creates jobs. The only difference between then and now is the option for slaves de jure is gone, although the quest for slavery de facto may still exist.

Lincoln then provides another argument – “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.”

Labor does not derive from the gifts of Capital but exists independent of it . Capital would not exist without labor but Labor can exist without Capital. That hardworking free people surpass anything Capital can provide.

He continues with how  the mud-sill theory – Capital as paramount – describes education [my bold]:

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.

Sounds like some of our political elites still favor the mud-sill theory of education. I imagine that many ‘job creators’ would still love a strong handed man without a head.

Lincoln answers with this argument: [my bold]

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.

He then explains why it is important for Labor to be well educated – it increases innovation. His focus is agriculture because of the audience but it fits almost anything [my bold]:

 I know of nothing so pleasant to the mind, as the discovery of anything which is at once new and valuable — nothing which so lightens and sweetens toil, as the hopeful pursuit of such discovery. And how vast, and how varied a field is agriculture, for such discovery. The mind, already trained to thought, in the country school, or higher school, cannot fail to find there an exhaustless source of profitable enjoyment. Every blade of grass is a study; and to produce two, where there was but one, is both a profit and a pleasure. And not grass alone; but soils, seeds, and seasons — hedges, ditches, and fences, draining, droughts, and irrigation — plowing, hoeing, and harrowing — reaping, mowing, and threshing — saving crops, pests of crops, diseases of crops, and what will prevent or cure them — implements, utensils, and machines, their relative merits, and [how] to improve them — hogs, horses, and cattle — sheep, goats, and poultry — trees, shrubs, fruits, plants, and flowers — the thousand things of which these are specimens — each a world of study within itself.

How amazing was the force of  educated Free Labor when brought to bear? We live in the consequence of that world, derived not from the mud-sill theory of capital job creators but the Free Labor ideas of Abe Lincoln.

I just love Abe!