Labor Day 2013: Lincoln, Labor, and Liberty

Published November 2, 2013

I’ve just finished reading Rich Lowry’s new book, Lincoln Unbound, and as someone who has read a lot of books on Lincoln, I happily commend it to you.

The book’s rather long subtitle is “How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream – and How We Can Do It Again.” As the dust jacket puts it:

Lincoln lived the American Dream and succeeded in opening a way to it for others. He saw in the nation’s founding documents the unchanging foundation of an endlessly dynamic society. He embraced the market and the amazing transportation and communications revolutions beginning to take hold.

At the end of his enjoyable book, Mr. Lowry takes what he understands to be Lincoln’s philosophical dispositions and policy perspectives and suggests how they might be applied to address today’s problems. This is an interesting, thought-provoking exercise, but you’ll have to get the book to see whether or not you agree.

For today, I just want to comment on how Lincoln’s thoughts concerning what he called “free labor” relate closely – indeed, are integral – to a proper understanding of our free enterprise system and property rights and to what the Declaration of Independence refers to as the “unalienable Rights” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. While Lincoln could not have anticipated Labor Day as it has evolved today, I want to suggest that his own understanding of “labor” ought to have a special resonance as we think about the meaning of this Labor Day.

As Lincoln’s thinking evolved, and especially by the time of the Lincoln – Douglas debates, Lincoln increasingly based his argument against the abomination of slavery on his understanding of the meaning of the natural rights secured, in his view, by the Declaration of Independence. But long before rising to national prominence for his stand against human bondage, Lincoln had espoused, over and over again, his belief that an individual should reap the reward of his own labor.

As Mr. Lowry points out, in 1847 Lincoln wrote that “each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor.” Or, as he put it in a more colloquial Lincolnism: “I always thought the man that made the corn should eat the corn.”

Lincoln’s views concerning free labor – and the Declaration’s affirmation of the natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – were grounded in the Founders’ understanding and acceptance of John Locke’s work, with which they were intimately familiar and often relied upon. In his famous Second Treatise of Government, Locke put it this way:

[E]very man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

Note the explicit way that Locke linked an individual’s own labor to his property interest.

Following Locke, James Madison, the principal drafter of our Constitution, declared that individuals possess property rights “in their actual possessions, in the labor that acquires their daily subsistence, and in the hallowed remnant of time which ought to relieve their Fatigues and soothe their cares.”

In his opposition to slavery, but also in a more universal sense, Lincoln repeatedly articulated the Lockean view that all individuals, of whatever race or creed, possess a natural right to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, to make those fruits their own property.

Moreover, Lincoln understood that the intertwining of free labor and property rights was essential to securing and maintaining the liberty espoused by the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the Constitution – and that free labor, individual initiative, and property rights are essential elements of the American free enterprise system.

Finally, in extolling the virtue of labor and property, Lincoln frequently admonished those who would set one man or class against another. As he put it in 1864 in his reply to the New York Workingmen’s Democratic Republican Association:

Property is the fruit of labor…property is desirable…is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself….

As early as 1847 Lincoln had expressed the same thought this way:

[I]t has so happened in all ages of the world, that some have laboured, and others have without labour, enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong and should not continue. To [secure] each labourer the whole product of his labour, or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of any good government.

To my mind, it is always timely to consider Lincoln. And as Labor Day approaches, it is especially timely – and useful – to consider Lincoln’s views on free labor, and to contemplate the inextricably intertwined nature of labor, property rights, individual freedom, and the American free enterprise system which Lincoln championed.

Whether you are working this Labor Day, or merely contemplating Lincoln’s thoughts on labor, my best wishes for an enjoyable Labor Day weekend.

[First published at the Free State Foundation blog.]