Here is one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., a fitting thought for Labor Day.
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
Instead of trying to improve upon Dr. King – which is difficult to do in any event – I am pasting in immediately below my message from last Labor Day. While not new, I don’t think it is out of date. And, of course, the line from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr., while surely not always straight and true, nevertheless is a line that continues to have meaning with respect to the close relationship between free labor and individual freedom.
Labor Day: Abraham Lincoln, Free Labor, Freedom and Free Enterprise
By Randolph J. May
On Labor Day – as on many other days – I often find my thoughts turning to Abraham Lincoln’s words. And so it was on this past Labor Day, for Lincoln had much to say that is worth considering concerning “labor” and its relationship to individual freedom and the American free enterprise system.
Lincoln, of course, was America’s first Republican president. But I fear that far too few today know that the party of Lincoln grew out of the antebellum “Free Soil, Free Labor” movement, itself grounded, of course, in the growing antislavery agitation leading up to Lincoln’s election in 1860.
As Seth Cooper, my Free State Foundation colleague, and I showed in our recent book, The Constitutional Foundations of Intellectual Property, Lincoln’s thought concerning “free labor” was grounded largely in his understanding of the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, most particularly the Declaration’s proclamation that all persons are endowed with certain inalienable rights, including “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” For Lincoln, this meant, consistent with the Lockean view, that every person possesses a natural right to enjoy the fruits of his or her own labor. As Lincoln put it as early as 1847, “each person is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruits of his labor.”
Or, as Lincoln later put it more colorfully: “I always thought the man that made the corn should eat the corn.”
And here is Lincoln, in his 1859 Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, eloquently connecting his understanding of “free labor” to the opportunity for individual advancement in the American free enterprise system:
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. If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.
Of course, when Abraham Lincoln uttered all these words, the evil of slavery had yet to be eradicated. And much more needed to be accomplished in the decades after the Civil War to protect the rights of those who had been enslaved to make meaningful the opportunity to reap the benefits of “free labor.”
That said, as we think about Labor Day, I submit it’s certainly worth taking a little time to consider what Lincoln had to say about free labor, freedom, and free enterprise. Like much of what Lincoln said, his words still resonate – and have meaning – in 2016.
PS – If you are interested in learning more about Lincoln and the Free Labor movement, especially including what Lincoln said about protecting intellectual property rights in the context of a person’s natural right to enjoy the fruits of his or her labor, see Chapter 10 of our book, The Constitutional Foundations of Intellectual Property – A Natural Rights Perspective.