Lincoln, Labor and Liberation

By Antonia Etheart

The free labor ideology of the nineteenth century was grounded in the beliefs that Northern free labor was superior to Southern slave labor. The key factor that made this system unique was “the opportunity it offers wage earners to rise to property-owning independence.” [1] It was this free labor ideology and not the republicanism of the Revolutionary War era that caused slavery to be problematic by the time of the Civil War. This ideology was comprehensive—it had economic, social, moral, and political aspects. All facets of the theory need to be explored in order to fully understand how and why slavery became such an important issue.

Free labor became the center of the Republican ideology in 1852, with the foundation of the Republican Party. It was the result of the economically expanding, enterprising, and competitive society of the early nineteenth century. The word “labor” had slowly begun to take on new meaning. Previously, it meant only those who were involved in the production of goods. Society was strictly divided into two main groups, those who worked and those who profited from the work of others. By the 1840s, the wage-earning labor class was defined as the entire North. It was made up of those men who owned their own farms, worked their own soil, were educated, and most importantly, were independent. Free labor ideology drew few distinctions between classes. A laborer was a craftsman, a merchant, a small businessman, or a farmer. Northern society offered opportunities to all who sought them, and enabled most to achieve independence and property. Northerners believed this economy would lead to a more equal distribution of wealth, rather than aid the development of an upper class. They resented and were insensitive to the plight of the poor, because they believed this condition was due to a lack of efforts to better themselves. [2]

This concept of the dignity of labor was not new. Most Americans came from a Protestant background, in which “nobility of labor was an article of faith.” [3] In Calvinist theology, each man had a divine calling. In order to properly live life, each man should provide evidence that he was predestined to enter heaven. Wealth became a way of serving God on earth in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Labor was a religious value and many aspects of a successful work ethic were obligations. These beliefs were more concentrated in the Northeast. In Rochester, New York, in the 1830s for example, Charles Finney, an evangelist during the Second Great Awakening, took part in this spiritual revival. The Second Great Awakening is known as “a missionary crusade that transformed America”. [4] People who wished to slow the social and political change of the Industrial Revolution and reinforce social control through Christian values organized this resurgence. They wished for modernity with Christian self-control. [5] Charles Finney’s arrival in Rochester provided a solution to the “social disorder” and “moral confusion” the town was facing. [6] The town was encountering much uncertainty with its adjustment to a free labor economy. Therefore, industrial capitalist beliefs of the free labor ideology became attached to visions of a perfect moral order based on individual freedoms.

Republicans placed much emphasis on economic growth and social mobility. It was these main concepts that led Northerners to justify the supremacy of their society and extensively criticize the South. Held up to Northern standards, Southern life appeared wholly different and inferior, and seemed to pose a threat to the survival of their cherished economy. To Northerners, slavery was the very basis of all that was wrong with the South. Southern society seemed an unchangeable hierarchy dominated by the aristocracy of slaveholders. The economic superiority of free to slave labor became a major part of their argument against slavery. The conservative Bostonian Robert Winthrop remarked, “the South is, upon the whole, the very poorest, meanest, least productive, and most miserable part of creation…” [7] Republicans noted intricate statistical comparisons between the North and South, and free states took the lead in population growth, manufacturing, property values, agriculture, railroads, canals, and commerce. [8] These comparisons proved that slave labor was an inefficient failure. They were far more convincing than the moral arguments presented by abolitionists and defenders of the Republicanism in the Declaration of Independence. This is not to suggest, however, that morality was not at all inherent in the Republican free labor ideology.

Morality was certainly part of it, but to attribute that to be the main cause is to miss the complete theory. For example, most moral opposition was centered in specific parts of the North, such as rural and small town New England, areas of rural New York, Pennsylvania, and the Midwestern areas settled by New England migrants. This movement grew from the beliefs of three main groups—the Quakers, freed people of color, and Evangelicals. [9] Religiously oriented abolitionism had a profound effect in the 1830s represented by such activists as William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Weld. They stressed the immorality of slavery and asked for its immediate abolition. As part of their arguments and speeches, these men spoke of the cruelties and injustices inflicted on slaves. Garrison’s New England newspaper The Liberator became the vessel for much of the era’s anti-slavery publications, such as Joshua Giddings’ 1858 speech “American Fidelity” in which all opponents of abolitionist activities were branded “infidels”. [10] Through these fighters for the cause, an extensive framework was developed and many peoples’ views were changed about slavery. In spite of this, not all Republicans shared this accepting attitude.

Many shared the nativist outlook, which included the complete renunciation of all immigrants of their Old World traditions. They desired all to share a commitment to assimilation of white America’s customs and beliefs. Many strongly maintained that races were not all created equal, but that a Protestant toleration of all ethnicities and religious groups was necessary. On the other hand, there were some who thought newcomers were to blame for the increasing social problems in urban areas. A nativist group, called the Know-Nothing Party, sought governmental regulation on the number of immigrants allowed into the nation. However, Republicans were against any sort of legislation by the United States government that would prohibit these groups from advancing economically or socially, if they desired to do so by their own will. William H. Seward, a leading Republican, as well as many others believed “that the combined influx of immigrant labor would help secure the free labor ideal of social mobility and a steadily improving standard of living for Americans”. [11] Restricting immigration conflicted with two major goals of the free labor ideology—free labor control of the Western territories, and Northern economic expansion.

Northerners became united in their free labor, anti-slavery beliefs in the mid nineteenth century. It was not a sudden resurgence of obligation to the Republicanism of the Declaration of Independence that began “all men are created equal”. The fathers of the country thought it best not to make any statement about slavery, in the political arena at least; because they were aware of the repercussions such an argument would have on the nation. During the making of the Constitution of 1787 it was noted many disapproved of the slave trade, but that the issue should be ignored. The representative from Connecticut was recorded by James Madison as saying “it was expedient to have as few objections as possible to the proposed scheme of government” and “he thought it best to leave the matter as we find it”, which was unhappily unresolved. [12] What was resolved at this meeting was “The migration or importation of such persons as the several States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Legislature prior to the year 1808.” [13] George Washington did not endorse any mention of slavery because “believing as he did that slavery was a cancer on the body politic of America that could not at present be removed without killing the patient.” [14] Many politicians in the years following the Convention of 1787 claimed the Constitution endorsed slavery. John Laurance, representative of New York to Congress in 1790, argued certain provisions of the document recognized the existence of slavery and provided temporary protection for those states wishing to import Africans, thereby condoning it.

Other legislation passed after 1800 acknowledged and supported slavery. Slavery and slave holding were created in areas of national jurisdiction as the United States began to expand westward. Slavery was permitted in the areas of Louisiana and Florida, and finally the Missouri Compromise (1820) allowed slavery to cross the Mississippi River. At this time, slavery was not allowed North of the southern border of Missouri, which was located at 36°30’. The annexation of Texas and the Compromise of 1850 only compounded Northern aggressions and belief in a conspiratorial Slave Power grew. By the passage of a more strict Fugitive Slave Law (part of the Compromise of 1850), and the decree of popular sovereignty in the new territories acquired through the Mexican War (1846-1848), many Northerners had had the proverbial “last straw”. The lands won from that war completed America’s desire for manifest destiny and included modern-day California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, for example. Popular sovereignty would allow the people in the territories to vote on whether they would enter the Union as slave or free states. [15] Any former faith in the republican ideals of the Revolution was long forgotten.

Many blacks—slave and free, rural and urban, artisan and field worker, illiterate and literate—tried to claim freedom on the grounds of Revolutionary ideals in the late eighteenth century. Around 1765, slave unrest was more intensive and widespread than any other period. Northern blacks, more concentrated in urban areas, which were mostly native-born and English speaking, were generally well versed in the ideology of the times. They cited the philosophical arguments that white revolutionaries were making in their own oppressive battles. [16] However, in the South, the commitment to slavery was much more involved, and few educated blacks there perceived the ideology of aristocracy.

Some blacks gained their freedom through services rendered in the Revolutionary War, in this manner consistent with the Republican ideals of the time. Many blacks fought on the side of the British and were promised their liberty, believing in the cause of their own freedom. [17] For example, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, was forced to recruit slaves due to the shortage of loyalists. When the war was being fought more in the South in 1778, many blacks flocked to the British lines. When the British left America at the end of the war, they carried thousands of former slaves to Great Britain, the West Indies, Canada, and Africa. Numerous slaves were freed by their British masters and eluded them and stayed in the country. Many blacks fought with Patriots as well and earned their own freedom, some grateful masters freed their slaves, and occasionally states liberated individual slaves by special agreements. [18]

Some politicians of the time actively pursued the issue of slavery as well. Benjamin Franklin signed a petition in 1790 that demanded the immediate liberation of slaves. [19] After the death of Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, touched by Franklin’s commitment to the anti-slavery cause, wrote that he knew the neutral ground on which the national government stood was a violation of Revolutionary ideals. George Washington made elaborate provisions in his will to ensure that his slaves be freed upon the death of his wife. He also guaranteed that Mount Vernon be sold and part of the proceeds used to support his freed slaves and their children for several decades into the future. [20]

Despite some of these conflicting sentiments, the bottom line was that the Founding Fathers never intended that particular line of the Declaration of Independence to include everyone. In 1776, for example, when the Continental Congress had commissioned John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson to design a seal for the United States they produced an emblem depicting Americans of English, Scottish, Irish, French, German, and Dutch descent. [21] There were no blacks or Native-Americans in the picture. No statesmen ever endorsed, or even contemplated, a biracial society at that time. In the end, only property-owning white males were intended to be equal, because those were the only people allowed to vote. It wasn’t until the fusion of free labor and Christian ideals in the early nineteenth century that all white males gained the right to vote and the “Era of the Common Man” began. [22]

Northerners may have had many different beliefs about race, abolitionists, nativism, politics, and many other issues, but they were united in their belief in the free labor ideology. With the election of Abraham Lincoln, Americans could uphold a Republican president whose beginnings were in a simple log cabin. He said, “I am not ashamed to confess that 25 years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son!” [23] But Lincoln claimed his belief in the improvement of his condition, which any free man could have had, was what gave him hope. The free labor system allowed this. Lincoln stated that lack of hope, energy and progress in the South was what divided the nation due to slavery. And although moral and social writers of the time, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and her best-selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin plucked many heartstrings, it was the economic manifestations of slavery that generated more controversy. George William Curtis observed:

There is very little moral mixture in the anti-slavery feeling of this country. A great deal is abstract philanthropy; part is hatred of slaveholders; a great part is jealousy for white labor, very little is consciousness of wrong done and the wish to write it. [24]

The Republican Party ideology was the comprehensive title of these elements. None of the above factors could stand alone; they melted into one another and emerged as the free labor creed. These beliefs surpassed the Revolutionary ideals of the Founding Fathers and they were the true roots of anti-slavery sentiments.

Works Cited

Brown, Richard D. Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000

Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 2001

Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995

Hall, Jeff. Discussions taught at Binghamton University 9/10/2001, 10/18/2001, 10/25/2001, 11/14/2001

Johnson, Paul E. A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978

McConville, Brendan. “The New England Way” (9/10/2001) “Great Awakening” (10/1/2001), “To the Declaration” (10/15/2001), “Republicanism” (10/22/2001), “American Thermidore” (10/29/2001), “Crisis of the 1790s” (10/31/2001), “Slavery from Rebellion to Revolution” (11/5/2001), “Early American Industry” (11/14/2001), “Revival to Reform” (11/21/2001), “Jacksonian Democracy to Sectional Conflict” (11/28/2001), “The Abolitionists” (12/3/2001). Lectures given at Binghamton University

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988

Tanner, Kevin. “Sectionalism: 1850s” Lecture given at Binghamton University 12/5/2001


[1] Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: the Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), IX

[2] Foner, 24

[3] Foner, 12

[4] Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 5

[5] Jeff Hall, Discussion taught at Binghamton University November 15, 2001

[6] Johnson, 135

[7] Foner, 43

[8] Professor Brendan McConville, “From Jacksonian Democracy to Sectional Conflict”, lecture given at Binghamton University November 28, 2001

[9] McConville, “The Abolitionists”, December 3, 2001

[10] Foner, 111

[11] Foner, 235

[12] Richard D. Brown, Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 409

[13] Brown, 410

[14] Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knoph, Publisher, 2000) 158

[15] Kevin Tanner, “Sectionalism: 1850s”, lecture given at Binghamton University December 5, 2001

[16] Brown, 274

[17] Brown, 281

[18] Brown, 282

[19] Ellis, 81

[20] Ellis, 158

[21] McConville, “Slavery From Rebellion to Revolution”, November 5, 2001

[22] McConville, “From Jacksonian Democracy to Sectional Conflict”, November 28, 2001

[23] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), 28

[24] Foner, 309

Last Updated: 11/19/14