This Labor Must Come First: On Rhetoric and Ideas
Can we imagine electing a president today who didn’t have a college degree?
Perhaps if the issues were important enough, as slavery was when Abraham Lincoln was elected. Yet Lincoln did more than run for president at a turning point in American history. Considered one of our finest orators, Lincoln was also an educator. Despite having less than a year of formal schooling, he wove together thoughts from economics to education in speeches touching on nothing less than the foundations of society.
In his speech before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Lincoln suggested two theories of labor that entail distinct attitudes towards education. While his favorite is hardly mysterious, you might consider which of these theories now holds sway.
The first, the “mud-sill” theory, assumes that capital precedes labor, coercing men to lead a life of labor (equivalent to slavery). This theory is incompatible with universal education:
“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.”
The second, contrary theory is that of free labor, 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.” In support of this model of society, Lincoln points to independent men in the Free States who are “neither hirers nor hired,” attacking the mud-sill presumption that a hired laborer is “fixed to that condition for life.” He goes on to describe how a poor man can steadily work to improve his condition, until finally he labors for himself.
Doubtless the tale of the “prudent, penniless beginner” working his way up in the world wasn’t an abstraction for Lincoln. Once a poor farmer, then a store clerk, Lincoln studied Euclid and Blackstone to become a self-instructed lawyer. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “The mode [of studying law] is very simple, though laborious, and tedious. It is only to get the books, and read, and study them carefully. …Work, work, work, is the main thing.” That work paid off for Lincoln in the form of political office, but that wasn’t the final investment; through his speeches, he paid forward the intellectual capital built up by study. It was not mere, hollow flourish, but his sincere belief that free labor was a “just and generous, and prosperous system, which … gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.”
The free man in Lincoln’s story needn’t stop when he arrives at laboring for himself; he can choose to hire additional free laborers, generating a collectively elevating process. This free labor model reflects a conception of what America is and is for: the full development of every human life. Lincoln’s vision was not only spoken, but lived, passing on that “peculiar sort of fire which ignites” the human spirit.
Comparing this speech to Lincoln’s “Lecture on Discoveries” seven months earlier, one finds that the “peculiar sort of fire” is none other than the “fire of genius,” which—when you add the “fuel of interest” through the patent system—contributes to “the discovery and production of new and useful things.” Our modern intellectual property system (and SOPA) aside, this metaphor underscores the light-giving power of intellect to the individual and society. Having grown up in a wild region of Spencer County where “[t]here were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher beyond ‘readin, writin, and cipherin’ to the Rule of Three,” Lincoln valued literacy’s power to liberate thought, and thought’s power to better life.
This was a value shared by contemporary Walt Whitman, who in his “Democratic Vistas” wrote that “the mission of government, henceforth, in civilized lands, is … not authority alone, not even of law…but…to train communities through all their grades, beginning with individuals and ending there again, to rule themselves.” Here education and self-government are intertwined, even mutually dependent. This idea parallels Lincoln’s understanding (and embodiment) of representative government’s role in the cultivation of thought.
One finds a very different stance toward government in Henry David Thoreau’s “Life Without Principle.” While Lincoln was president in 1863, Thoreau wrote:
“Those things which now most engage the attention of men, as politics…are, it is true, vital functions of human society, but should be unconsciously performed, like the corresponding functions of the physical body. They are infra-human, a kind of vegetation. I sometimes awake to a half-consciousness of them going on about me, as a man may become conscious of some of the processes of digestion in a morbid state, and so have the dyspepsia, as it is called.”
So which theory, mud-sill or free labor, did Thoreau hold? From this excerpt, neither; at least, he held neither so passionately as to overcome his general distaste for politics.
And so at this point I must admit to the reader a sort of head-fake: while at the beginning of this post, I asked you to consider which of Lincoln’s theories now holds sway, I don’t think either really matters. Why? Because momentous issues like slavery are confined to historical debates. We still have the foul functions of human society, but no orators to convince us that these vital functions should be anything but “unconsciously performed.” Our politicians are professionals, guided by parties and opinion polls, so we check their credentials and barely bother with their rhetoric.
But what if a speaker came along with the sort of bold, even moralizing visions that Lincoln put forth for what America should be? Would we listen, or ignore the indigestion until we fell back asleep? If today’s politics reflect Lincoln’s theories, then the People and their representatives labor jointly to cultivate thought and a better society. And if we are to build up the sort of capital needed to address the issues of our day—if we’re to clear apathy and cynicism from our political landscape to be able to recognize true leaders—this labor must come first.
Meredith Williams is a student at Stanford Law School. Previously, she attended Yale University, where she received her Bachelor of Arts (magna cum laude) with distinction in both French and English. While there, she served as the Secretary and Treasurer of the Yale Political Union and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.