Abe Lincoln on Labor and Education

On the occasion of his birthday, Feb. 12.

By Nancy Spannaus

Feb. 11, 2022—The national political crisis over the spread of slavery was red hot when Republican Party leader Abraham Lincoln took the stage at the Wisconsin State Fair on September 30, 1859. The outrageous Dred Scott decision denying citizenship to black Americans, and the conflict over Kansas had raised political temperatures to the boiling point, and the near-term prospect of civil conflict, or separation, was a common topic of discussion.

Abe Lincoln on Labor and Education
Abraham Lincoln (public domain)

Lincoln’s speech was not directly political, but it went straight to one of the principles at stake in the coming conflict: the nature of labor and progress. His exposition on “free labor” and education put him directly in the American System tradition, and at odds with the Southern elite and their northern backers. Here was a man qualified to lead a republic in the direction envisioned by Founders such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton.

In this short post, I will identify the key points of Lincoln’s address,[1] especially as they addressed the crucial issues at the time. But to understand his polemic, it’s necessary to understand those he was opposing.

The “Mud-sill” Theory

One of the Southern slavocracy’s leading spokesmen, Sen. James Hammond of South Carolina, had given full expression to his faction’s view in a Senate speech on March 4, 1858. The North is out to destroy our way of life by taking over the government and restricting the spread of slavery, imposing tariffs, internal improvements, regulating trade, establishing a new national bank, and even possibly trying to abolish slavery, he charged. But we in the South have our weapon, cotton. “Cotton is King,” he declared, and if we were to withhold it, we could bring the world to our feet.[2]

Hammond claimed that it was the South’s wealth that was responsible for the gains in the North. He went on to extol the virtues of the Southern slave system thus:

… the greatest strength of the South arises from the harmony of her political and social institutions. This harmony gives her a frame of society, the best in the world, and an extent of political freedom, combined with entire security, such as no other people ever enjoyed upon the face of the earth.

Abe Lincoln on Labor and Education
South Carolina Senator James Hammond

Then comes the punchline, the inhuman axiom which Lincoln later addresses:

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill.

Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves. We found them slaves by the common “consent of mankind,” which, according to Cicero, “lex naturae est.” (emphasis added)

That system, he later says, is eternal, enshrined by God in the universe. The North just calls its slaves by different names, but the system will endure forever, he added.

Hammond’s outlook drew on a centuries-old tradition, whereby the poorer classes as a whole were considered unworthy of an education. The fight against that oligarchical outlook rested on the view that every human being is made in the image of the Creator, and was waged by an equally longstanding republican tradition. Plato’s slave boy in the Meno, the charity school tradition in Germany and the early American colonies, and many other such institutions represented direct challenges to that view, as did Lincoln’s Wisconsin address in 1859.

Free Labor Demands Universal Education

Lincoln’s speech at the Wisconsin Agricultural Fair began, as might be expected, with a discussion of upgrading the productivity of agriculture. He discussed at some length what would be required to achieve what he called the “thoroughness” of agriculture, a major leap toward exploiting the full potential of the soil, which was nowhere near being realized. Among the inputs he mentioned were the possibility of steam-powered plows and improvements in transportation; he also advocated intensive rather than extensive production—an implicit attack on the practice of using up the soil and moving to virgin lands, as was common in the cotton belt.

Lincoln then moved to his main subject, the nature of human labor. He began as follows:

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.

What is the alternative theory?  It’s “free labor,” a system by which an individual can improve himself and his condition in life. Lincoln described it as follows:

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 existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior — greatly the superior — of capital.

Abe Lincoln on Labor and Education
A skilled worker training an apprentice.

But Lincoln’s argument did not stop there. He went on to challenge those who would keep labor as a subservient class through lack of education. This is a new requirement, he said, elaborating as follows:

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 wise adequate to the support of the whole. It follows from this that henceforth educated people must labor. Otherwise, education itself would become a positive and intolerable evil. No country can sustain, in idleness, more than a small percentage of its numbers. The great majority must labor at something productive. From these premises the problem springs, “How can labor and education be the most satisfactory 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 treadmill, is a perfect illustration of what a laborer should be — all the better for being blind, that he could not tread out of place, or kick understandingly. According to that theory, the education 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 strong handed man without a head would receive the everlasting gratitude of the “mud-sill” advocates.

A view of education n the 18th century.

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 cooperate 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. (bold emphasis added; italic emphasis in original)

Unfitting a Man to be a Slave

Lincoln’s insistence on universal education, of course, struck at the heart of the slave system, which insisted that blacks were an inferior race, incapable of the higher qualities of mind, or even not human at all. The slavocracy knew that to be false: they vigorously attacked efforts to educate the enslaved because they knew that education would uplift their minds and spirits by spreading the ideas of freedom, and basic human rights to a better life.

An educated workforce is also key to a productive economy, as Lincoln was implicitly arguing in the first part of his speech. Alexander Hamilton expressed the same outlook, when he declared in the Report on Manufactures that “to cherish and stimulate the activity of the human mind, by multiplying the objects of enterprise, is not among the least considerable of the expedients, by which the wealth of a nation may be promoted.”

It was not only blacks who were being deprived of access to education, of course. The antebellum South, in particular, denied free universal education to the poorer classes of white people as well. Lincoln’s own dedication to the principle of universal education led him to push through the Land Grant College system in 1862, which would bring centers of learning into rural areas throughout the country. Since the colleges were state-run, blacks’ access to them varied from state to state, but at least some admitted black students. (George Washington Carver’s attendance at Iowa State in the 1890s is a case in point.)

Frederick Douglass as a young man

Frederick Douglass expressed Lincoln’s idea most directly when he described his realization as a child that “Knowledge unfits a child to be a slave.” Douglass’s own battle for freedom for himself and his race was always intimately connected with the fight for universal education. Despite all their other differences, this was a principle on which Douglass and Lincoln could agree.

We have many reasons to commemorate President Lincoln and reflect on how his extraordinary quality of thought and leadership might guide us through our crises today. I hope I have convinced you that not the least of these should be his commitment to universal education, the uplifting of all mankind.

[1] The full speech can be found at http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/fair.htm

[2] The British Empire, the South’s major market for the cotton, didn’t agree.  When it became difficult to get Southern cotton, the Empire simply turned to their other satrapies, especially India. Hammond had overlooked the fact that it was the South’s British customers who held the power, not the cotton producers themselves.

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