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Abraham Lincoln on Labor and Capital James A. Stevenson Abraham Lincoln and virtually all of his frontier contemporaries were immersed in an inherited culture that extolled a hoary republican ideal. Lincoln, as a result, propounded economic ideas that were determined by his existence within a venerable and a compelling tradition. This tradition must be understood as an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historical/cultural phenomenon that transcended specific political, economic , and social ideologies. As a blending of all those aspects of life and thought, the republican ideal had, for those individuals holding it, a political dimension (a belief in personal liberty and in the political ideology of republicanism), an economic dimension (a belief in the free labor system and in economic independence based on the ownership of productive private property), and a social dimension (a belief in a nonelite , egalitarian society of small, independent producers who have an equal opportunity for social mobility). Maturing within the matrix of that culture, Lincoln shared it with those of the small producing and working class who maintained and/or practiced an equal-rights tradition, mutualism,1 an egalitarian-antimonopoly outlook, respect for the dignity of labor, faith in unlimited social mobility, personal independence based on the ownership of productive private property, and, most importantly, the labor theory of value. Given his life within such a cultural environment, Lincoln adopted an economic viewpoint which looked less to the future of a wholly industrial and hierarchical society than to the past of a largely rural and egalitarian 1 In the mid-nineteenth-century U.S. cultural context, mutualism may be defined as a social network of horizontal, socioeconomic personal relationships that have been established between independent but mutually helpful producers. Civil War History, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, ° 1992 by The Kent State University Press 198CIVIL WAR HISTORY society.2 Capturing that aspect of Lincoln's outlook, Daniel Walker Howe has written: The triumph of the northern bourgeoisie [after the Civil War] ushered in an era very different from anything Lincoln could have expected or wanted. His objective, in the broadest sense, was to defend and extend the kind of free society he had known in Springfield. This was a society of small entrepreneurs, market-oriented farmers, young men working for others until they could save enough to set up for themselves, and striving professionals like himself. . . . In 1859, Lincoln described this society and [stated] "Let us hope . . . that by the best cultivation of the physical world beneath and around us, and the intellectual and moral world within us," that this society and the aspirations it embodies "shall not pass away.'" While, as Howe argued, Lincoln's model for the future was based on the past, the underpinning of Lincoln's economic ideas rested on the labor theory of value. It was a concept about which he thought deeply. One sign of this is found in his 1859 speech before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society. In it, Lincoln acutely described some of the principal differences men had over this fundamental and divisive issue. As he rhetorically explored the subject, his own position was revealed by the weight of his argument. He began by stating, 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 -" Writers have differed greatly over Lincoln's economic prescience of lack of it. Following in the tradition of Charles Beard's belief that the pre-Civil War Republican party represented the "forces of emerging industrial capitalism," Gabor S. Boritt's touchstone economic interpretation has portrayed Lincoln as a forward-looking student of economic change. And, while David R. Wrone, fitting within Richard Hofstadter's view that Lincoln neither anticipated nor desired the form of the U.S. economy that arose after the Civil War, pictured Lincoln as a good man whose deficient economic knowledge allowed him to be overcome by the corporate property system, Melvin E. Bradford simply dismissed...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 197-209
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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