MOOC | Lincoln and Free Labor | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1861 | 1.8.3
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MOOC | Lincoln and Free Labor | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1861 | 1.8.3

November 19, 2019


>>You know, when President Obama ran, the first time certainly in 2008, a lot of people, (sort of journalists, magazines) compared Obama to Lincoln. You know, they’re both from Illinois and Obama announced his candidacy in Springfield, Lincoln’s hometown. And of course the abolition of slavery resonates with Obama being the first black president. And you know, many of the comparisons were totally spurious. But one that is real or true is this: both Lincoln and Obama rose to prominence through oratory, through speeches. As I say, Lincoln didn’t really accomplish anything in the legislature much or in Congress. Nobody associated Lincoln with any great acts of legislation and he was out of office from 1849 until when he was elected president. Obama had been in the Illinois legislature briefly, he served in the Senate briefly, but nobody associated Obama with major legislation. Both of them became famous through speeches. And that’s what happens with Lincoln in the 1850s. It’s these speeches, condemning slavery. But the way he does it sort of epitomizes, Lincoln comes to epitomize the outlook of this new Republican Party, which we have talked about in the last couple of weeks, and particularly its social philosophy. Lincoln, by the way, is a reader, a very careful reader of Southern pro-slavery propaganda. He reads George Fitzhugh. He reads the Southern newspapers. They get them in his law office. He’s aware of their arguments. He’s aware of their argument that the slave is better off than the free laborer in the North. And Lincoln answers them directly in speech after speech. The free laborer is far better off than the slave. Why? “There is no such thing as a free man being fatally fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer.” In other words, this free labor ethos of social mobility, of moving up from the condition of hired laborer or wage laborer. Free society offers incentives, it offers opportunities toward this goal of economic independence. That is what Lincoln, Lincoln exemplifies in his own life: this opportunity for mobility that exists in Northern society, he says. And in his speeches, he puts a tremendous amount of emphasis on it to talk about why he is anti-slavery. “What is the true condition of the laborer?” he says. “I take it that it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property…. We do not propose to make war on capital, but we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich along with everybody else. When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows there is no fixed condition of labor.” This phrase, “the race of life,” is something Lincoln uses a lot. He didn’t invent it, but he uses it a lot. What does that suggest? The race of life. Life is a competition. It’s a, you know, you can watch races now on TV every evening (in snow, of course) but that’s not what Lincoln’s thinking about (biathlon or whatever they call them.) The race of life. Everyone starts off and is racing to get ahead. It’s a slightly frightening image, in my humble opinion. But nonetheless, everybody has this opportunity in free society. In slave society, of course, they do not. And that is one of the condemnations of slave society. Of course the other side, the other implication as the quote also illustrates of the notion of race of life, is that, if it is a fair race, if it is a fair race, then you can’t complain that someone wins the gold medal and someone else comes in 20th, you know? It’s just you’re fast, you’re clever, you’re in good physical condition. So if you have inequality at the end, that’s okay. But you shouldn’t have inequality at the beginning. Everybody should start at the same starting line, right? If someone starts off 20 meters ahead, that’s not quite fair. But nonetheless, if they end up 20 meters ahead, that’s just because they’re working harder or just more talented or whatever. So this idea of the race of life, it basically incorporates this notion of opportunity for advancement. Now Lincoln in his own, in his own life and politics, as Hofstadter pointed out, Lincoln was a very careful sort of custodian of his own image. During the Civil War he did it himself. He didn’t have a whole team, like presidents do now, spinning the news and all this. But Lincoln tried to spin it himself. He talked to reporters. But before the war — here is an image from 1860, this was a campaign painting. Lincoln “The Railsplitter.” See, this is Lincoln’s image that he is putting out. The man of the people, sort of like Jackson. The man of the people. There he is, the railsplitter, breaking up wood into rails. In the background, it’s hard to see, is a flatboat on the Mississippi or whatever river it is, Ohio River. This is Lincoln’s image. The hardworking man of the people. Physical labor. But of course that’s not what he was in 1860 at all. He was a lawyer. He wasn’t working out there splitting rails. He had as a youth, no question about it. But he himself seems to exemplify the dignity of labor in Northern society as opposed to the South. And he himself is representative of what people can achieve from humble beginnings. The corollary of this is that slavery — there are many grounds for opposing slavery, you can imagine, there are moral, religious, political, economic and Lincoln touches on them all. But fundamentally, Lincoln sees slavery as a form of theft. The theft of labor. One person appropriating the fruits of the labor of another person without that second person’s consent. The theft of labor and the — every person is entitled to enjoy the fruits of your own labor, and the slave should be entitled to that as well. We’ll talk in a minute about Lincoln and race, which is a very fraught subject. But the grounding where Lincoln does believe in equality, the grounding of that idea, is the equal right to enjoy the fruits of your own labor. “I want every man to have the chance — and I believe a black man is entitled to it — in which he can better his condition.” The black man is entitled to better his condition. That is why slavery is wrong. Or in one speech, he actually uses as an example a black woman, suggesting that gender is also not a barrier, or should not be, to this opportunity. A black woman “In some respects she…is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hand without asking leave of anyone else, she is my equal and the equal of all others.” This is the grounding of equality.

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