Lincoln: “Free Labor insists on universal education.”

Written by Kerry Ellard on January 7, 2022

In 1832, shortly after moving from the sparsely populated area in which he grew up, to the frontier village of New Salem, twenty-three-year-old Abraham Lincoln ran for the Illinois state legislature, encouraged by local friends who thought the position would be a good fit for him.[1]

In a letter to the local newspaper, Lincoln announced his candidacy and offered a brief explanation of his “sentiments with regard to local affairs,” including “the subject of education.”

Lincoln’s remarks indicated that his idea of the purpose of education was in line with the New England tradition. Despite the vast difference in the formal education attainments of the two men, Lincoln took the Emersonian approach of “[not] presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it.”

Still, it was “of vital importance,” for every man to receive at least “a moderate education,” so that he could “appreciate the value of our free institutions.” Lincoln said that if elected to the legislature, he would endeavor to make education “much more general than at present.” The key lines are as follows:

“That every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance, even on this account alone, to say nothing of the advantages and satisfaction to be derived from all being able to read the scriptures and other works, both of a religious and moral nature, for themselves. For my part, I desire to see the time when education, and by its means, morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry, shall become much more general than at present…”[2]

However, over time, the way Lincoln talked about education changed from an emphasis on understanding the values of one’s community to an emphasis on securing one’s autonomy, in both judgment and action, which he seemed to think would result in individuals rising to a defense of community values. (This was also part of the New England tradition, which spread west and became the “Yankee” democratic tradition.)[3]

In the early 1850s, in a eulogy of statesman Henry Clay, Lincoln remarked that Clay’s “comparatively limited” [formal] education was a “profitable lesson” for Americans, declaring that “in this country, one can scarcely be so poor, but that, if he will, he can acquire sufficient education to get through the world respectably.”[4]

In 1859, between the Lincoln-Douglas debates and his nomination for the presidency, Lincoln made striking remarks about education at a Wisconsin agricultural fair, after indicating his opposition to theories that presumed fixed economic classes.

“…now, especially in these free States, nearly all are educated—quite too nearly all, to leave the labor of the uneducated, in any wise adequate to the support of the whole. It follows from this that henceforth educated people must labor. Otherwise, education itself would become a positive and intolerable evil. No country can sustain, in idleness, more than a small per centage of its numbers.The great majority must labor at something productive. From these premises the problem springs, ‘How can labor and education be the most satisfactory combined?’

By the ‘mud-sill’ theory it is assumed that labor and education are incompatible; and any practical combination of them impossible. According to that theory, a blind horse upon a tread-mill, is a perfect illustration of what a laborer should be—all the better for being blind, that he could not tread out of place, or kick understandingly.According to that theory, the education of laborers, is not only useless, but pernicious, and dangerous. In fact, it is, in some sort, deemed a misfortune that laborers should have heads at all

But Free Labor says "no!" Free Labor argues that, as the Author of man makes every individual with one head and one pair of hands, it was probably intended that heads and hands should cooperate as friends; and that that particular head, should direct and control that particular pair of hands. As each man has one mouth to be fed, and one pair of hands to furnish food, it was probably intended that that particular pair of hands should feed that particular mouth—that each head is the natural guardian, director, and protector of the hands and mouth inseparably connected with it; and that being so, every head should be cultivated, and improved, by whatever will add to its capacity for performing its charge. In one word Free Labor insists on universal education.”[5]

Lincoln went on to say that he supposed he would “not be mistaken, in assuming as a fact, that the people of Wisconsin prefer free labor, with its natural companion, education,”[6] and spoke, much like Booker T. Washington later did, of “the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought.” Unlike many later reformers, Lincoln gave a more concrete and practical explanation of how learning via direct practical experience would work.

“I know of nothing so pleasant to the mind, as the discovery of anything which is at once new and valuable—nothing which so lightens and sweetens toil, as the hopeful pursuit of such discovery. And how vast, and how varied a field is agriculture, for such discovery. The mind, already trained to thought, in the country school, or higher school, cannot fail to find there an exhaustless source of profitable enjoyment. Every blade of grass is a study; and to produce two, where there was but one, is both a profit and a pleasure. And not grass alone; but soils, seeds, and seasons—hedges, ditches, and fences, draining, droughts, and irrigation—plowing…saving crops…diseases of crops, and what will prevent or cure them—implements, utensils, and machines, their relative merits, and [how] to improve them…cattle…trees…fruits, plants, and flowers—the thousand things of which these are specimens—each a world of study within itself.

In all this, book-learning is available. A capacity, and taste, for reading, gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others. It is the key, or one of the keys, to the already solved problems. And not only so. It gives a relish, and facility, for successfully pursuing the [yet] unsolved ones. The rudiments of science, are available, and highly valuable. Some knowledge of Botany assists in dealing with the vegetable world—with all growing crops. Chemistry assists in the analysis of soils, selection, and application of manures, and in numerous other ways. The mechanical branches of Natural Philosophy, are ready help in almost everything; but especially in reference to implements and machinery.”[7]

What he said next had interesting social and political implications:

“The thought recurs that education—cultivated thought—can best be combined with agricultural labor, or any labor, on the principle of thorough work—that careless, half performed, slovenly work, makes no place for such combination. And thorough work, again, renders sufficient, the smallest quantity of ground to each man. And this again, conforms to what must occur in a world less inclined to wars, and more devoted to the arts of peace, than heretofore. Population must increase rapidly—more rapidly than in former times—and ere long the most valuable of all arts, will be the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community whose every member possesses this art, can ever be the victim of oppression of any of its forms. Such community will be alike independent of crowned-kings, money-kings, and land-kings.”

Reading of his first message to Congress in December 1861, Lincoln’s matured philosophy of education is now discernible.

“It may be affirmed without extravagance that the free institutions we enjoy have developed the powers and improved the condition of our whole people beyond any example in the world. Of this we now have a striking and an impressive illustration. So large an army as the Government has now on foot was never before known without a soldier in it but who had taken his place there of his own free choice. But more than this, there are many single regiments whose members, one and another, possess full practical knowledge of all the arts, sciences, professions, and whatever else, whether useful or elegant, is known in the world; and there is scarcely one from which there could not be selected a President, a Cabinet, a Congress, and perhaps a court, abundantly competent to administer the Government itself. Nor do I say this is not true also in the army of our late friends, now adversaries in this contest; but if it is, so much better the reason why the Government which has conferred such benefits on both them and us should not be broken up.”[8]

An upcoming piece will speak about Lincoln’s ideas on education more generally, but it is evident that he, like Emerson, had come to see the value of America’s largely uniquely decentralized and democratic “Government,” and the collective knowledge “network” that had resulted from it. By “universal education,” Lincoln did not mean equal access to a standardized national system of schooling, but rather that each person was recognized as having a “head” of his or her own, and that this head was his or her “natural guardian, director, and protector.” The idea that every human being could use his or her mind to act meaningfully, and that he or she had the right to do so, was far more radical and democratic in Lincoln’s time than most later reformers portrayed it.

1. See Zach Klitzman, “A Universal Right for All — Lincoln and Education,” President Lincoln’s Cottage, September 4, 2019, https://www.lincolncottage.org/a-universal-right-for-all-lincoln-and-education.

2. Abraham Lincoln to the People of Sangamon County. [1832-03-09]. /documents/D200008. The Papers of Abraham Lincoln Digital Library. https://papersofabrahamlincoln.org/documents/D200008.

3. See Weibe, R.H. (1996) Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy (“At a deeper level, self-selection powered the entire democratic process [in 19th century America]. No principle lay closer to the core of its operations than the one governing participation: the way to get into American democracy was to get into it. Ask nobody's permission, defer to nobody's prior claim. Just do it.”)

4. Quoted in Kliztman, “Lincoln and Education.”

5. Abraham Lincoln, “Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society,” September 30, 1859, via Abraham Lincoln Online, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/fair.htm.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Abraham Lincoln, “July 4th Message to Congress,” July 4, 1861, via Miller Center, University of Virginia, https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/july-4-1861-july-4th-message-congress. What Lincoln says next is suggestive: “Whoever in any section proposes to abandon such a government would do well to consider in deference to what principle it is that he does it; what better he is likely to get in its stead; whether the substitute will give, or be intended to give, so much of good to the people. There are some foreshadowings on this subject. Our adversaries have adopted some declarations of independence in which, unlike the good old one penned by Jefferson, they omit the words "all men are created equal." Why? They have adopted a temporary national constitution, in the preamble of which, unlike our good old one signed by Washington, they omit "We, the people," and substitute "We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent States." Why? Why this deliberate pressing out of view the rights of men and the authority of the people? This is essentially a people's contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the Government for whose existence we contend.

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.

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