Monday, February 28, 2011

Lincoln in Wisconsin | "capital is the fruit of labor"

Abraham Lincoln gave a great speech to farmers at the Wisconsin State Agricultural Fair on September 30, 1859. The address builds beat after beat to make a big point about the nobility of work and the value of workers. 


Here then, a substantial excerpt drawn from pages 499-502 in Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Roy P. Basler - editor, World Publishing, Cleveland, OH, 1946. A new edition, apparently printed from the same plates, is available from Amazon.


Mr. Lincoln's reference to the "mud-sill theory" represents a  challenge to his contemporary, South Carolina's James Henry Hammond, and the notion that progress demands a lower class of workers — the mudsill on which the foundations is laid — to support the advancement of people in the upper class. 
Mr. Lincoln jokes:
According to that theory, the educating 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 secure the everlasting gratitude of the "mud-sill" advocates.
Hmm...is Wisconsin governor Scott Walker a mudsill advocate? Not in so many words, I'm sure. But what about underneath the rhetoric? The excerpt from Mr. Lincoln's speech after the jump...



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 existence 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 work 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 favor 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 of 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 way adequate to the support of the whole. It follows from this that henceforth educated people too must labor. Otherwise education itself would become a positive and intolerable evil. No community can sustain, in idleness, more than a small percentage of its numbers. The great majority must labor at something useful -- 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 can not tread out of place, or kick understandingly. According to that theory, the educating 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 secure 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.
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.

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