Abraham Lincoln and Labor

Abraham Lincoln

“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 was Lincoln’s labor-first view of the economy, shaped by his time as a “penniless beginner” on the frontier.

The Railsplitter

According to historian David Herbert Donald, Lincoln disliked physical labor. As a boy, Lincoln toiled away on his father’s farm, plowing fields, pulling out tree stumps, and the like. He was also hired out by his father to perform the same type of tasks for others. All the while, Lincoln, with great ambition, stole time for reading and studying. As a young adult, he worked as a store clerk and owner, postmaster, and surveyor. Eventually, Lincoln became a lawyer and politician.

Also as a young adult, in 1830, Lincoln split rails for a fence near Decatur, IL. Gearing up for the 1860 Republican national convention, Decatur politician Richard Oglesby brought to the Illinois Republican state convention two of those rails. They were labeled:

“ABRAHAM LINCOLN…The Rail Candidate…FOR PRESIDENT IN 1860…Two rails from a lot of 3,000 made in 1830 by Thos. Hanks and Abe Lincoln- whose father was the first pioneer of Macon County.”

The workman-like “Railsplitter” image resounded loudly for Republicans, according to Donald. It represented their free labor or free-soil ideology, which opposed the extension of slavery. It also presented Lincoln as the epitome of the self-made man. Ironically, the man who abhorred physical labor got to the White House with the help of a labor reputation.

Labor vs. Capital

Lincoln seemed to side with labor in its relationship with capital. In his first annual message to Congress in 1861, Lincoln declared, “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.”

Again, three years later, Lincoln believed labor came first, but acknowledged the importance of capital as a motivational tool. “Property is the fruit of labor…property is desirable…is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise.”

Yet, Lincoln sounded militant for labor in a Hartford speech in 1860. “…I’m glad to know that there is a system of labor where the laborer can strike if he wants to! I would to God that such a system prevailed all over the world.” However, the next day, Lincoln backed away from that proletariat tone, “I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good. So while we do not propose any war on capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.”

Civil War

But the Lincoln administration fought a war on labor in its efforts to defeat the Confederacy. In response to the 1863 New York longshoremen strike, the federal government sent soldiers and civilians to replace the strikers so that military supplies could be loaded and unloaded from government ships. Also in 1863, Pennsylvania coal mine owners requested troops to guard mines and scabs during a strike. The show of force broke the strike and attempts at unionization.

In 1864, the Lincoln administration went one step further by prohibiting workers from striking, forcing them to work. General Stephen Burbridge in Louisville ordered discontented machinists to be on the job. The same order was issued by General William S. Rosecrans in St. Louis against striking shipbuilders, tailors, and printers. However, the St. Louis strikers’ petition to Lincoln withdrew the order. The government even went further when it seized control of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad at the behest of its president to break a strike.

While labor was subdued under Lincoln, corporations became more powerful. For the first time, Congress was able to charter corporations instead of the states, extending protections to more business ventures. This protection, in the form of “limited liability,” secured capitalists and proprieters from the threat of debts and suits incurred by their corporations. According to historian Orville Vernon Burton, “an enormous volume of venture capital” was unleashed and war production boomed.

Lincoln was caught in the middle. Based on his humble origins and free labor politics, Lincoln believed in the primacy of labor. But he also recognized the importance of capital, especially in conducting the war effort. Perhaps Lincoln knew all along that labor and capital are mutually dependent on each other, not independent.