Free Labor

The Railsplitter, 1860

“When he was nineteen, still residing in Indiana, he made his first trip upon a flat-boat to New-Orleans. He was a hired hand merely.”Lincoln autobiography, 1860

In 1858, South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond declared that every society needed a class of people “with a low order of intellect and but little skill” to perform menial labor. White Southerners, Hammond claimed, had a slave population “inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes.” Hammond called this population the mud-sill of society and his ideas came to be known as the mudsill theory of labor. A mudsill is the lowest supporting timber in a building frame.

In a widely distributed address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859, Lincoln derided the mudsill theory for treating each worker like “a blind horse upon a treadmill.” Lincoln took particular offense at the mudsill theory because it fixed workers in their condition for life, rendering any effort to better oneself “not only useless, but pernicious, and dangerous.”

In contrast, Lincoln endorsed free labor ideology, which championed universal education and the potential to rise based on one’s own merit. Like his fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay and other Whigs, Lincoln believed passionately in free labor because of his own life experiences, which included working as a general store proprietor, surveyor, postmaster, lawyer, and politician.

Lincoln’s first experience as a hired laborer came in 1828, when he transported a flatboat of meat, corn, and flour from Indiana to New Orleans. On the way, Lincoln and his companions stopped at sugar plantations and witnessed slavery firsthand. These flatboat trips whetted Lincoln’s appetite for independence and earned him a reputation as a young man willing to try his hand at many different types of work.