Labor is the Superior of Capital
One Hundred and Fifty Eight Years Ago today, these word were spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his First Annual Address before Congress on December 3, 1861.
I thought it might be interesting and fitting to take a look at the conclusion of this speech considering the moment we are in today. As always, I would love to hear your reactions in the comment section to what is perhaps one of my favorite quotes of all time.
The bulk of the address touches on what one would expect from a CEO at a meeting of the Board of Directors; various issues of the government including Foreign Affairs related to the war, the Supreme Court and possible remedies to the Circuits, the Budget, Postmaster, the conduct of the War, ect, ect.
The conclusion veers sharply from the mundane accounting of the year's activities and proceeds rather abruptly to the section of the speech that contains perhaps the most powerfully progressive words ever spoken by an American President.
Lincoln segues from pro-forma reporting of all things governmental to his masterful conclusion by defining the Rebellion itself as a war on the people's right to republican self governance.
It continues to develop that the insurrection is largely, if not exclusively, a war upon the first principle of popular government--the rights of the people. Conclusive evidence of this is found in the most grave and maturely considered public documents, as well as in the general tone of the insurgents. In those documents we find the abridgment of the existing right of suffrage and the denial to the people of all right to participate in the selection of public officers except the legislative boldly advocated, with labored arguments to prove that large control of the people in government is the source of all political evil. Monarchy itself is sometimes hinted at as a possible refuge from the power of the people.
Isn't all of our history a story of Elite Preservationists seeking refuge from the power of the people? Lincoln says so just as Paine said so. To Lincoln, Elite Preservation is the source of all evil and the power of the people must prevail.
In my present position I could scarcely be justified were I to omit raising a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism.
He presents his warning of returning despotism in between his excoriation of Southern Slave Holding Elites in the prior paragraph and the proceeding paragraph that cites Capital in general, which must include Northern Capitalists and their burgeoning power over labor. He is preaching the first modern sermon of Economic Populism.
It is not needed nor fitting here that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions, but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. 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 it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered 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, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.
This is an overview of Mudsill Theory which today has its analogue in the modern notion of technocratic management of the corporate state. Rule by expert has replaced rule by aristocracy. As with the latter, the former produces in short order rule for expert and eventually this becomes de facto rule by aristocracy once again.
From here Lincoln brings the wood to this bogus claim. This is where the red meat for Progressives begins to be served:
Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.
Having politely told Mudsill adherents then and now where to stick their preposterously arrogant worldview, he delivers for the ages a redirection that all good parents must teach their children.
He takes Mudsill and flips it on its head:
Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community 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. In most of the Southern States a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters, while in the Northern 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 favors of capital on the one hand nor of hired laborers or slaves on the other. It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital; that is, they labor with their own hands and also buy or hire others 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, there is not of necessity any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. Many independent men everywhere in these States a few years back in their lives were hired laborers. 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 is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all.
A generous and prosperous system. Opens the way to all. Gives Hope to all. Gives energy and progress to all. This conclusion to a drab and boring recitation of the facts and figures of 1861 gives a clearer understanding of who Lincoln was thinking of when he stated in the Gettysburg Address:
...that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
When Franklin strode from Constitutional Hall after the drafting of our Constitution, he gave a quizzical statement to the question of what the form of government was. Famously he said, we have a Republic, if we can keep it. Jefferson and Jackson warned against the moneyed corporations (Big Capital) taking it from us. Lincoln likewise gives us a similar admonition:
No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.
To be clear, Lincoln did not seem to be advocating for another system other than capitalism. He is re-ordering the priorities of government toward labor and away from capital. Although he surely would have been aware of Karl Marx and may have been sympathetic to Marx, he was no Marxist.
This closing segment of the First Inaugural Address was actually an excerpt from his famous speech given at the Wisconsin State Fair. In that speech, Lincoln adds to his certainty of labor supremacy the notion that labor must be educated. Here he seems to crafting a forward to the great John Dewey's masterpiece Democracy and Education:
The thought recurs that education -- cultivated thought -- can best be combined with agricultural labor, or any labor, on the principle of thorough work -- that careless, half performed, slovenly work, makes no place for such combination. And thorough work, again, renders sufficient, the smallest quantity of ground to each man. And this again, conforms to what must occur in a world less inclined to wars, and more devoted to the arts of peace, than heretofore. Population must increase rapidly -- more rapidly than in former times -- and ere long the most valuable of all arts, will be the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community whose every member possesses this art, can ever be the victim of oppression of any of its forms. Such community will be alike independent of crowned-kings, money-kings, and land-kings.
Throughout American History there has been a Progressive spirit that has been ingrained in us despite the constant efforts of Elite Preservationists to squelch that yearning. That spirit flowed from Paine to Lincoln and today we find this spirit in resurgence by the Occupy Movement and the Presidential Campaigns of Bernie Sanders and others.
With these closing words by Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address we are able to see the essence of our long political struggle. Lincoln is telling us in plain unequivocal speech who our political enemy is and who that enemy will be henceforward. This is our fight. It is the old fight.
It is ours to win.