'Work, Work, Work': Recovering the Lincoln Ethic

Anyone with a warm and fuzzy image of Abraham Lincoln should consider his letters to his stepbrother, John Johnston.

Johnston was living the life of the small-time farmer that Lincoln himself had worked so hard to leave behind. In 1848, Lincoln was a politician and lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, while his stepbrother was just scraping by, looking for a loan of $80 from his successful, if not yet illustrious, relation. 

Lincoln's response was harsh and unsparing: 

At the various times when I have helped you a little, you have said to me "We can get along very well now" but in a very short time I find you in the same difficulty again. Now this can only happen by some defect in your conduct. What that defect is I think I know. You are not lazy, and still you are an idler. I doubt whether since I saw you, you have done a good whole day’s work, in any one day.

How's that for tough love? When Johnston said in 1851 that he wanted to move from Illinois to Missouri, Lincoln rebuked him again: 

What can you do in Missouri, better than here? Is the land any richer? Can you there, any more than here, raise corn, & wheat & oats, without work? Will any body there, any more than here, do your work for you? If you intend to go to work, there is no better place than right where you are; if you do not intend to go to work, you can get along any where. Squirming & crawling about from place to place can do no good.

He wanted Johnston “to face the truth—which truth is, you are destitute because you have idled away all your time. Your thousand pretences for not getting along better, are all non-sense—they deceive no body but yourself." 

"Go to work is the only cure for your case," Lincoln admonished.

All his life, two principles were central for Lincoln--hard work and the right to keep the proceeds of it. He evangelized for them and exemplified them, and they formed the basis of his opposition to slavery.

In 1855, Isham Reavis wrote Lincoln about studying law with him. Lincoln told him he was away from the office too often to take him on as a student, but offered this advice: “If you are resolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself, the thing is more than half done already. It is but a small matter whether you read with any body or not. I did not read with any one. Get the books, and read and study them till, you understand them in their principal features; and that is the main thing." Before signing off he urged: “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing.” 

A few years later, a young man named John Brockman asked him “the best mode of obtaining a thorough knowledge of the law.” Lincoln replied, “The mode is very simple, though laborious, and tedious. It is only to get the books, and read, and study them carefully. Begin with Blackstone’s Commentaries, and after reading it carefully through, say twice, take up Chitty’s Pleading, Greenleaf’s Evidence, & Story’s Equity &c. in succession. Work, work, work, is the main thing.” 

Work was a good in itself, a discipline and a mode of self-improvement. But that wasn't all. The worker was entitled to what he earned, and anything that fundamentally violated this principle constituted a kind of tyranny. 

In the late 1840s, Lincoln wrote in notes about tariff policy, “In the early days of the world, the Almighty said to the first of our race ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.’” Except that “it has so happened in all ages of the world, that some have laboured, and others have, without labour, enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong, and should not continue. To [secure] each labourer the whole product of his labour, or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of any good government.” 

In the much more important debate over slavery, he constantly returned again and again to the Biblical injunction to live from your own sweat. He slammed “the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it.” In contrast, Lincoln upheld the principle that “each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor.” In more informal terms, “I always thought that the man who made the corn should eat the corn.” 

In notes written in the late 1850s, Lincoln said this principle had been “made so plain by our good Father in Heaven, that all feel and understand it, even down to brutes and creeping insects. The ant, who has toiled and dragged a crumb to his nest, will furiously defend the fruit of his labor, against whatever robber assails him. So plain, that the most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged. So plain that no one, high or low, ever does mistake it, except in a plainly selfish way.”

Lincoln felt this so deeply that, looking back at how his father hired him out to labor for others as a youth and took his earnings (as was his right until Lincoln reached age 21), he said, “I used to be a slave." He referred to real slavery famously in his Second Inaugural as “unrequited toil.”

This country needs a revival of both Lincoln’s appreciation of work and his protectiveness of its proceeds. It needs, again, to be a country where you can earn your way and where you have to earn your way. It needs to be a country—to borrow the terms Lincoln’s Whigs used to describe their electoral base—of “sober, industrious, thriving people.”

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review and the author of Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream — and How We Can Do It Again.


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