A Second Look: Abraham Lincoln on the “Mud-Sill” Theory of Labor

by A. Jay Adler on December 2, 2013
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The movement to increase the minimum wage, and to tie it legislatively to the cost of living, is growing. The obscenity of low-wage employment among adults – full-time employment that does not offer a living wage – is increasingly apparent. As Arindrajit Dube pointed out in The New York Times:

the evidence suggests that around half of the increase in inequality in the bottom half of the wage distribution since 1979 was a result of falling real minimum wages. And unlike inequality that stems from factors like technological change, this growth in inequality was clearly avoidable. All we had to do to prevent it was index the minimum wage to the cost of living.

The other day on FOX News, Megyn Kelly, another rising voice in the chorus of American conservatism that is clueless and callous about the real lives of people, replied dismissively of Wal-Mart workers protesting their low wages: “Get another job.”

The simple moral-economic calculus in that throw away wisdom is this. If you have the ability, the preparation, and, of course, the gumption to raise yourself up in life, you can get that other job. You will be what America enables you to be, and all you can ask of it. If you not have those qualities (established only by your inability to get that other job, but even if – this is crucial – you do not, in fact, have those qualities), well, then, you deserve no more than that job that does not pay a living wage. And do not, too, look to food stamps for help, or nationally provided healthcare.

What that latter scenario amounts to is the “mud-sill” theory of labor. Here is what Abraham Lincoln had to say about it, last offered here on the sad red earth on March 7, 2011.

“Free Labor,” from Abraham Lincoln – in Wisconsin

Abraham Lincoln, in his so far unending prescience and wisdom, actually offered some thoughts on the nature of labor and capital in of all places Wisconsin – at the annual meting of the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, in Milwaukee, on September 30, 1859. A brief passage from it, bolded below, is quoted often and can be found in the most unexpected places (about which, tomorrow). Lincoln later reused this passage in in his first State of the Union Address, of December 3, 1861, where, as in 1859, he very much had slave labor in mind in contrast to free labor. Relevant to today, nonetheless, is how Lincoln conceived the nature of free labor, in itself and in relation to capital. It impressed Teddy Roosevelt (another “Republican” today’s GOP can only cite in fellowship as an act of desperate grasping for forebears of greatness) that he, too, cited Lincoln on the subject.

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 it, induces him to do it….

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.

We know that current Republicans do not believe this, that contemporary conservatives openly consider workers (who, if organized, are maggots) to be “tools” of capital and those who direct their labor. Lincoln goes on to include in his consideration what is perhaps the essential American conservative ideal of the nation – the prospect of individuals freely, from their labors and their own faculties, rising above their station in life.

They do not deny that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital. The error, as they hold, is in assuming that the whole labor of the world exists within that relation. A few men own capital; and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital, hire, or buy, another few to labor for them….Again, as has already been said, the opponents of the “mud-sill” theory insist that 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.

In the “mud-sill” theory, individuals are destined to play an unchanging role, hold a fixed status, in the nation’s economic and social life – no “anyone can join the ranks of the wealthy.” That is not the America ideal, the defining individualism of the country, so, as Lincoln characterized the attitude then, as conservatives will still claim it, the deserving advance in life; those who don’t are not deserving.

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.

That there continues to be opportunity in the United States for some of talent, initiative, hard work, and good fortune to advance far from where they began in life is indisputable. Many people will know of someone who has, and that knowledge, that case, helps maintain the ideal. But is it possible to say of the United States created by Reagan and the Bushes and the conservative and “trickle down” ascendancy of the past thirty years, and in the decline of organized labor, as Lincoln said, that

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.

Anyone who knows the economic facts of the the past three decades cannot say so in honesty or without shame. Lincoln framed his observations in detached exposition of the ideas of others, but he found a clever way to make his position known.

I have so far stated the opposite theories of “Mud-Sill” and “Free Labor” without declaring any preference of my own between them. On an occasion like this I ought not to declare any. I suppose, however, I shall not be mistaken, in assuming as a fact, that the people of Wisconsin prefer free labor, with its natural companion, education.

We need to recognize that for Lincoln here, “free labor” is not just in contrast to slave labor – it is labor by which people can express and advance their freedom through labor, and not be trapped and used always as “tools” and “mudsil,” what Republicans today would make of all but the very few who can still overcome the increasing obstacles set before them.

It being Lincoln, he managed to end a prosaic address on a loftier level.

And by the successful, and the unsuccessful, let it be remembered, that while occasions like the present, bring their sober and durable benefits, the exultations and mortifications of them, are but temporary; that the victor shall soon be the vanquished, if he relax in his exertion; and that the vanquished this year, may be victor the next, in spite of all competition.

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.

AJA

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