Abraham Lincoln on Freedom, Wage labour and Slavery

The liberal tradition is employed by the left and the right to justify their positions concerning contemporary “capitalist” society. An issue often raised concerns US slavery, whether it made life better for slaves, whether it was better or worse than wage slavery in the north. While we’ve all heard Noam Chomsky talk about this, it’s probably a good idea to look for other sources on what 19th century liberals actually thought about freedom. Micheal Sandel has written about Lincoln’s conception of freedom and how it relates to wage labour and slavery in a book called “Democracy’s Discontent: America in a search for Public Policy“.  The following quotations are taken from a chapter called “Free Labour versus Wage Labour”:

“Although he shared the abolitionist’ moral condemnation of slavery, Lincoln did not share their voluntarist conception of freedom. Lincoln’s main argument against the expansion of slavery rested on the free labour ideal, and unlike the abolitionists, he did not equate free labour with wage labour. The superiority of free labour to slave labour did not consist in the fact that free labourers consent to exchange their work for a wage whereas slaves do not consent. The differences was rather that the northern wage labourer could hope one day to escape from his condition, whereas the slave could not. It was not consent that distinguished free labour from slavery, but rather the prospect of independence, the chance to rise to own productive property and to work for oneself. According to Lincolm, it was this feature of the free labour system that the southern critics of wage labour overlooked: “They insist that their slaves are far better off than Northern freemen. What a mistaken view do these men have of Northern labourers! They think that men are always to remain labourers here – but there is no such class. The man who laboured for another last year, this year labours for himself. And next year he will hire others to labour for him.” (181)

“Lincoln did not challenge the notion that those who spend their entire lives as wage labourers are comparable to slaves. He held that both forms of work wrongly subordinate labour to capital. Those who debated “whether it is best that capital shall hire labourers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them, and drive them ot it without consent,” considered too narrow a range of possibilities. Free labour is labour carried out under conditions of independence from employers and masters alike. Lincolm insisted that, at least in the North, most Americans were independent in this sense: “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 favours of capital on the one hand, nor of hirelings or slaves on the other.”

“In Lincoln’s hands, the conception of freedom deriving from the artisan republican tradition became the rallying point for the northern cause in the Civil War. In the 1830s and 1840s, labour leaders had invoked this conception in criticizing northern society; wage labour, they feared, was supplanting free labour. In the late 1850s, Lincoln and the Republicans invoked the same conception in defending northern society; they superiority of the North to the slaveholding South consisted in the independence the free labour system made possible.” (183)

“The Union victory in the Civil War put to rest the threat of free labour posed by the slave power, only to revive and intensify the threat posed by the wage system and industrial capitalism. Lincoln had led the North to war in the name of free labour and the small, independent producer, but the war itself accelerated the growth of capitalist enterprise and factory production.” (183)

“In 1869 the New York Times reported on the decline of the free labour system and the advance of wage labour. Small workshops had become “far less common than they were before the war,” and “the small manufactures thus swallowed up have become workmen on wages in the greater establishments, whose larger purses, labour-saving machines, etc., refused to allow the small manufacturers a separate existence.” THe article criticized the trend it described in terms reminiscent of the labour movement of the 1830s and 1840s. THe fall of the independent mechanic to wage earner status amounted to ” a system of slavery as absolute if not as degrading as that which lately prevailed in the South.

The 1870 census, the first to record detailed information about Americans’ occupations, confirmed what many workers already knew. Not withstanding a free labour ideology that tied liberty to ownership of productive property, American had become a nation of employees.” (183)

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