Abraham Lincoln on the Priority of Labor

Having completed work on their pastoral letter on nuclear deterrence, the nation’s Catholic bishops now prepare to turn their attention to the U.S. economic system. It is crucial that this system be described accurately. In particular, an appreciation of the contribution to our understanding of the American political economy by American statesmen is essential if the pastoral is to reflect the important areas of agreement between democratic capitalism and recent church teachings. Setting the system in opposition to these teachings, if based on a faulty understanding of its principles and their historical development, will produce confusion instead of enlightenment.

Some writers have suggested, for example, that Pope John Paul II’s principle of “the priority of labor” is new to the democratic capitalist tradition; it is not. Abraham Lincoln enunciated this basic principle of American political economy at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1859, and again in his First Annual Message to Congress in 1861. Those who wish to understand the nature of our system more accurately may appreciate having a full sample of Lincoln’s analysis:

“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….

“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 .. .

“In these Free States, a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families — wives, sons and daughters — work for themselves, on their farms, in their houses and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand, nor of hirelings or slaves on the other … there is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. There is demonstration for saying this. Many independent men, in this assembly, doubtless a few years ago were hired laborers. And their case is almost if not quite the general rule.

“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. If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.” (Annual Address Before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, September 30, 1859)

“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. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital, producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation….

“This is the just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way to all — gives hope to all, and consequent energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all. No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty — none less inclined to take, or touch, aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which, if surrendered, will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they, and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them, till all of liberty shall be lost.

“From the first taking of our national census to the last are seventy years; and we find our population at the end of the period eight times as great as it was at the beginning. The increase of those other things which men deem desirable has been even greater. We thus have at one view, what the popular principle applied to government, through the machinery of the States and the Union, has produced in a given time; and also what, if firmly maintained, it promises for the future. There are already among us those, who, if the Union be preserved, will live to see it contain two hundred and fifty millions. The struggle of today is not altogether for today — it is for a vast future also. With a reliance on Providence, all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.” (Annual Message to Congress, December 3, 1861)

That the forthcoming pastoral will be critical of American capitalism seems a foregone conclusion. This is to be expected, for as a system capitalism indeed contains flaws, as does every system of political economy. A more important question is whether the bishops will acknowledge the strengths — economic, political and moral-cultural — of democratic capitalism. Statesmen like Madison, Hamilton and Lincoln have articulated these strengths in powerful and sometimes prescient terms. If the bishops draw on their insights, they may well produce a document that will enrich the church’s teaching on economics in a distinctive, American way.

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In 1983, Terry Hall became the managing editor of Catholicism in Crisis.

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