Lincoln On Labor

On this Labor Day, it’s worth a moment to consider what America’s greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, had to say on the topic of labor.

Not surprisingly, given Lincoln’s childhood of hard work helping his father turn wilderness property into farmland, his rail-splitting, and his successful career as a lawyer, the value of labor and work were among his favorite topics.   His most famous statement about labor, given in his first annual message to Congress, showed the significant value he attached to work:  “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.”  Lincoln also stated, “Labor is the great source from which nearly all, if not all, human comforts and necessities are drawn.”

Lincoln thought working was important, both for the individual and for society as a whole, and that hard work would lead to something better.  In an 1859 speech, he observed:  “No country can sustain, in idleness, more than a small percentage of its numbers. The great majority must labor at something productive.”   He wanted to give everyone a chance at success from the fruits of their labor, without tearing down those who had already succeeded.  During his 1860 presidential campaign, he wrote:  “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 upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.” 

Lincoln repeated that view in 1864 remarks to the New York Workingmen’s Democratic Republican Association:  “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. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.”

Lincoln also admired the small business owner, who first worked on his own, established his business, hired his first employee, and then worked side-by-side with him.  In an 1859 speech, Lincoln stated:  “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.”

I hope our current political leaders assign the same great value to labor, hard work, and small business that Honest Abe did.  In our current economy, there are too many people who don’t have the chance to enjoy the benefits of working that Lincoln aptly described.  Happy Labor Day!

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