Another Republican In Wisconsin Talks about Labor
152 Years ago, Abraham Lincoln spoke on his theory of labor at an agricultural fair in Wisconsin:
…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.
Lincoln was responding to Southern slaveowners who were arguing that capital precedes, and is therefore superior to, labor. (Trickle-down?) Against this, Lincoln advocated “Free Labor,” a central plank in the antebellum Republican platform. Free Labor was an ambiguous concept, no doubt, being part bourgeois celebration of free contracts, and part lower-r republican celebration of the dignity of the independent producer. Like most nineteenth century economic theories, it was premised on the labor theory of value, what would become the cornerstone of Marxist economics. As David Montgomery has shown, the Republican Party was the party of organized labor for much of the Civil War period and the early part of Reconstruction. Only with the unraveling of Radical Republicanism and the onset of the Gilded Age, did the contradictions of Free Labor become too great and the two divergent strands went their own way.
Lincoln himself, of course, never lived to see this, so we cannot know whether he would have taken the route of fellow republicans Wendell Phillips and Benjamin Wade and become a labor advocate, or become a shill for the new industrial order like many fellow Republicans did.
There is good reason to believe, though, that Lincoln would have been uncomfortable with the brutal industrial capitalism that his GOP predecessors are so enraptured by today. Early in his career, as a Whig he had advocated government intervention in the economy in order to further economic development, a cause he saw as benefitting working people. He famously declared that “As an American, I can say, thank God we live under a system by which men have the right to strike!” (A right, it should be pointed out, that many public employees, even those allowed to unionize, currently do not have.)
Karl Marx certainly thought of Lincoln as an ally. In a letter to Abraham Lincoln he wrote:
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.
Interestingly enough, the ace in Lincoln’s hole, back in that speech in Wisconsin, that which proved in his mind the superiority of free labor to slave labor was the tendency for free labor to educate itself. “In one word Free Labor insists on universal education.” Now, of course, education and the rights of public school teachers are Gov. Walker’s main targets.