From the FSF Blog
September 7, 2020

Labor Day 2020
Randolph May
Abraham Lincoln is not often associated with, or quoted on, Labor Day, a holiday first observed a quarter century after his assassination. But there is good reason, especially now but for all seasons, to consider Lincoln's views on what, before the Civil War, was called the "free labor" movement.

An integral part of the anti-slavery "Free Soil" movement was rooted in a "free labor" philosophy. Here is how prize-winning historian Eric Foner put it in Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War:

"For the concept of ‘free labor’ lay at the heart of the Republican ideology, and expressed a coherent social outlook, a model of the good society. Political anti-slavery was not merely a negative doctrine, an attack on southern slavery and the society built upon it; it was an affirmation of the superiority of the social system of the North—a dynamic, expanding capitalist society, whose achievements and destiny were almost wholly the result of the dignity and opportunities which it offered the average laboring man."

In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln famously called for a "new birth of freedom." Given his background and his philosophical grounding in "free labor," anti-slavery principles, which he consistently related to the Declaration of Independence's ideals, it is not surprising that Lincoln often joined freedom to an individual's natural right to enjoy the fruits of his own labor. For Lincoln, such right was inherent in the Declaration's self-evident truth that all men are endowed with the unalienable right to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."

In many of his addresses, including as far back as 1847 speaking at a Whig event, Lincoln said this, usually in more or less the same words:
"I believe each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor, so far as it in no wise interferes with any other man’s rights and that the general government, upon principle, has no right to interfere with anything other than that general class of things that does concern the whole."
As often, Lincoln reminded his audiences that, "I always thought the man that made the corn should eat the corn."
This colloquial Lincolnian expression is stated in a decidedly less philosophically formal fashion than John Locke's famous injunction contained in his Second Treatise of Government:
"[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."

As President, Lincoln affirmed this Lockean view of labor in his Reply to the New York Workingmen's Democratic Republican Association in 1864:

"Property is the fruit of 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 my Free State Foundation colleague Seth Cooper and I show in our book, The Constitutional Foundations of Intellectual Property, Lincoln's views regarding free labor and property rights extended to protection of intellectual property as well. In Chapter 10, "Adding Fuel to the Fire of Genius: Abraham Lincoln, Free Labor, and the Logic of Intellectual Property," from which much of this special message is drawn, we discuss Lincoln's 1859 Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, where he said this:

"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."

As we celebrate Labor Day in 2020, at a time when many in America seek to divide us based on all manner of discrete "identities," including race, gender, religion, and class, it is worth taking more than a moment to reflect on Lincoln's understanding of the importance of the "free labor" concept, and especially its integral relationship to a proper understanding of property rights, and of freedom itself.

On Labor Day, and every day, we should never forget the dignity that is inherent in an individual's natural right to enjoy the fruits of his or her own labor – and as Eric Foner put it, free labor's central role in America's "dynamic, expanding capitalist society, whose achievements and destiny were almost wholly the result of the dignity and opportunities which it offered the average laboring man."


And an important postscript: It is especially proper – you could say essential – to acknowledge the extraordinary contributions of so many "essential workers" who, in so many ways, have provided and maintained many crucial services during the pandemic. Thanks to these special individuals who have labored for the benefit of us all.
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