Lincoln On Labor Day—the First Power In The Economy

September 8, 2020

Yesterday was Labor Day, a recognition of the power of labor which was “called for” — though its legal establishment was not begun for another two decades — in Abraham Lincoln’s State of the Union message to Congress of Dec. 3, 1861. While informing Congress that “despotism” was being reimposed in the seceded Southern states, Lincoln subtly rebuked the idea that freedom involved merely the existence of democratic institutions and popular rights. He explicitly rebuked the idea among many American capitalists, that the position and power of labor could be taken as fixed, either in bondage or as a “free” lifelong hireling, while new capital alone raised the power of production. Lincoln said:

“It is not needed … 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 effect 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 thus 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.

“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.

“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.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

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