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Culture, Government, Life

Misquoting Lincoln: Historical distortion for political gain

While I was on Facebook a few days ago someone who I am friends with, and who is decidedly “progressive” in his thinking, liked a post by a group calling itself “Union Thugs.”  The post had a “quote” from Abraham Lincoln where, based on the quote, Abe was apparently siding with unions (or labor) in the labor vs. corporation battle.  The quote is as follows:

“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.”

The problem is that Lincoln never said (or wrote) that.  He did say something similar though in a speech in an address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society.

“They hold that labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed; that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior ‘greatly the superior’ of capital”

You may say that this is not greatly different than the previous quote.  Except for three little words you would be right.  Those words are at the beginning, “They hold that…”  Those words are very important to the context of what Lincoln was saying.  He was discussing the idea that there are only two models for labor and capital.  One that capital hires (or buys) people to do its work or the view that labor is what makes capital possible and that the hirelings are what makes the world work.  Lincoln was saying that both views are incorrect and that the greater number of people labor for themselves not working for someone else nor hiring anyone.

“A large majority belong to neither class  neither work for others, nor have others working for them.”

“In these free States, a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. 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 favors of capital on the one hand, nor of hirelings or slaves on the other.”

Clearly Lincoln was not trying to make the point that “Union Thugs” wanted him to be making.  And this is the danger of just believing one side of a debate or the other.  Many people don’t care about facts; don’t care about right or wrong.  They only care about winning an argument (surprising from someone calling themselves “thugs”).  The world works according to rules that are outside of you and me.  Wanting those rules to be different doesn’t make it so.

On a humorous note, one of the commenters to the post said merely “Honest Abe.”  Too bad the people who posted about it weren’t so honest.  But then again, progressives have been re-writing history since the early 20th century.



2 thoughts on “Misquoting Lincoln: Historical distortion for political gain

  1. Lincoln was a corporate PR candidate, and would justify whatever fiats suited his benefactors; but he’d wrap them up in such rhetoric that his audience would derive from it whatever they wanted to hear– the common trick of politicians, since a straight answer is rarely popular.
    Secession was just as legal under the US as it is under the UN, but Lincoln’s industrial backers wanted their protectionist tariffs; and he held that laws were “extremely thin and airy” in terms of original agreement vs. modern pragmatism– i.e. all that mattered was what people would BELIEVE, while what actually happened was irrelevant. As Machiavelli wrote, The Prince should do whatever keeps him in power; and Lincoln was a real prince.

    Posted by Sarah Goodwich | October 7, 2013, 10:02 am
    • The question as to if secession was legal then is not a settled matter. One could, pragmatically, state that because the secession was challenged by the federal government and was nullified through the civil war that it is a moot point. Arguments exist on both sides, however, as to it’s philosophical legality. That said, it is not the same as the UN as a nation does not have to belong to the UN as states belong to the US (Kosovo, Taiwan, and Vatican City are all legitimate countries but not members of the UN).

      Just like the founding fathers you can always find flaws in Lincoln, but that’s because they are human. We all have them. In general we like to see the flaws in others rather than ourselves (especially if that person disagrees with us or our views).

      Posted by Far Out Madman | October 7, 2013, 4:53 pm

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