Monday, September 5, 2011

The importance of context

"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." --Abraham Lincoln

I read this quote and I loved it.  But because I'm a pretty skilled reader, and because I've seen Lincoln quotes abused and even fabricated before, I wanted to know more.  So, after a very little digging (it was the first non-"inspirational quote" site that came up on a google for "Lincoln quotes about labor"), I found this website, the Library at Northern Illinois University's Historical Digitization Project.  And in context, the quote means something different.

Lincoln is addressing an agricultural society in Wisconsin, a Northern state--the very definition of a Northern state, in 1859.  He's not talking about labor vs. capital at all, he's talking about how we get people to work; he's talking about free labor vs. slavery.  The coup de grace is that he's not coming down unambiguously in favor of labor.  He's outlining in broad strokes two different positions on the issue.  Pro-labor people (like me) like the above quote because it sounds like he's saying that money is less important, and entirely dependent on, work.

But consider this quote:

"Labor is available only in connection with capital –  nobody labors, unless somebody else owning capital, somehow, by the use of it, induces him to do it."  --Abraham Lincoln.

This seems to be in favor of capital, although if looking at it closely, the assumption clearly collapses into absurdity.  But this comes from the same speech, before the "labor" quote. Lincoln's not so pro-labor all of a sudden, eh?  He's not coming down on the side of pro-labor in this speech.  He does, however, come down on the side of pro-free-labor.

But it's still a fun quote to pull out this Labor Day.

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