Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s battle to get the better of his state’s unionized public employees reminds us that a century and a half ago, on September 30, 1859, Abraham Lincoln appeared at the Wisconsin state fair in Milwaukee to deliver a well-wrought speech on the subject of “labor.”
He collected $100 for a witty and sparkling meditation on the joys of all disciplined work. Quipping that farmers should beware of politicians singling them out for praise –since farmers “are neither better nor worse than other people,” only “more numerous”– he gave them the higher compliment of taking their work seriously.
As a young man, Lincoln had preferred books to his father’s farm implements. But as a 50-year-old politician he spoke appreciatively, even wistfully, of a rural landscape where the mechanical arts progressed amidst natural rhythms. He sounded like a Walt Whitman evoking a world of daily wonders.
“Every blade of grass is a study,” he mused, “and to produce two, where there was but one, is both a profit and a pleasure. And not grass alone; but soils, seeds, and seasons — hedges, ditches, and fences, draining, droughts, and irrigation — plowing, hoeing, and harrowing — reaping, mowing, and threshing — saving crops, pests of crops, diseases of crops, and what will prevent or cure them — implements, utensils, and machines, their relative merits, and how to improve them — hogs, horses, and cattle — sheep, goats, and poultry — trees, shrubs, fruits, and flowers — the thousand things of which these are specimens — each a world of study within itself.”
The Milwaukee speech isn’t well known today. But part of what Lincoln said in 1859 at the Wisconsin state fair — and repeated nearly word for word in his better-known Annual Message to Congress on December 3, 1861 — turned up recently on Democratic and progressive websites during Governor Walker’s showdown with his state’s public workers and Democratic legislators.
The Sheboygan County Democratic Party website quoted Lincoln as saying, “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.”
Those are indeed Lincoln’s words, but they didn’t mean to him what they suggest to us. We imagine he’s siding with working people in their perennial campaign to wrest higher wages or greater job control from their employers. We think he’s giving his support (“higher consideration”) to “labor” in its negotiations or stand-offs with “capital.”
But Lincoln meant something different. When he spoke of labor and capital he was rejecting the idea that in America any essential conflict existed between them. Labor got “higher consideration” from him because labor took logical and historical precedence. It was the replenishing source of economic value. It lay at the root of all capital.
Lincoln’s own personal image of the quintessential laborer may well have been the man wielding his trusty ax, turning a swath of forest to productive use like this barefoot, Paul-Bunyan-style Lincoln created by Charles Turzak in the 1930s.
In America, Lincoln thought, people willing to work hard could expect eventually to convert their labor into some small pool of capital. He was sure no permanent wage-earning class existed in the U.S. Labor kept renewing its vitality as individuals kept clearing land or inventing new machines — like the hoped-for “steam plow” that Lincoln examined at length in his Wisconsin speech.
In a speech in New Haven, Connecticut, in March 1860, he did publicly endorse the right of working people to strike (referring to a shoe strike in Lynn, Mass.). But to him that just meant that free laborers were not slaves. Free workers could “strike” — stop toiling — whenever they wished. If their employer didn’t respond adequately to their grievances, they could seek opportunity elsewhere. Dissatisfied workers needed only the right to quit, something slaves would never get.
As David Donald points out in his biography Lincoln (p. 234), the rail-splitter somehow managed to miss “the growing disparity of wealth between the poor and the rich,” and “gave scant attention to the growing number of factory workers who had little prospect of upward social mobility.”
Had Lincoln lived into the late nineteenth century, would his views have evolved? We’ll never know. What we do know is that he always felt special affection for those who started on a low rung of the economic ladder and strove to climb higher. If he’d ever come to sense that American laborers’ upward path was blocked by new industrial conditions, he might well have given “higher consideration” to what we now call “pro-labor” views.
Abraham and Mary Lincoln employed a number of hired servants over the almost two decades at their Springfield residence. Among the many individuals who served them was a black house servant named Epsy Smith. Her association with the Lincoln family undoubtedly accounts for this lengthy obituary that appeared in the
(Springfield) Illinois State Journal, on Tuesday, May 10, 1892, p. 1, col. 6:
SHE WORKED FOR LINCOLN
Death of a Negress Who Knew
Much About Father Abraham.
Aunt Epsy Smith Passes Away in a Rick-
etty Tenement House in Chicago –
Her Eventful History.
“It was in one of the dilapidated old frame tenement houses on Dearborn St. near Sixteenth, Chicago, where the rattle and roar of constantly passing trains never cease, and where such a thing as a garbage cart or street sweeper is unknown, that “Aunt” Epsy Smith died. It was near 1 o’clock Sunday morning that she breathed her last. She was of African descent and unknown, so to speak, in the great metropolis, but she had an eventful life — one of almost historic interest.
Away back in 1827 she was a protégé of Ninian Edwards, at the time governor of Illinois. She was present at the wedding of Abraham and Mary Todd, and after the wedding was a servant in Lincoln’s home. She nursed Robert T. Lincoln, the present minister to the court of St. James, when he was a baby. Her death was caused by the grip, from which she had been suffering since last March. Her exact age is not known, for she was born a slave and no record of birth was made. But as near as could be told she was about 72 years old.
Epsy Arnsby Smith was her name in full and she was born on the plantation of Arnold Spear, near Shelbyville, Ky. The Spears were old friends of Ninian Edwards and shortly after his election as governor Mrs. Spears visited the family and brought Epsy, who was at that time 7 or 8 years old, along as a waiting maid. She was bright and active and the governor took a liking to her, and when Mrs. Spears was getting ready to return home, she gave the child to him.
When Epsy was a miss, Miss Mary Todd, Mrs. Edwards’ sister, came from Kentucky to live with the governor’s family. About this time Abraham Lincoln became a frequent visitor at the governor’s mansion and he generally asked for Miss Todd. It was Epsy’s duty to answer the call and in after years she used to tell her children and grandchildren how she used to usher “Massa Linkum” into the house when he was “a cortin’ Mistus Mary.”
She witnessed the wedding ceremony when Lincoln was married, and during the first few years of his married life she was his house servant. Then she became engaged to Robert Smith, a colored man living in Vandalia. Shortly before her wedding she came back to live with the family of Governor Edwards and was married at his house by the minister who performed the ceremony for Lincoln. And the dress she wore on that occasion, a black brocaded silk, was a present from Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln.
Years rolled by: Lincoln was elected president; the war came and the slaves of the south were freed. Among the first negroes to come north was “Aunt” Epsy’s father, and the proudest day of his life was when his daughter told him that she had worked for the man who had set him free.
In 1861 her husband died and then she sold her little home and moved to Greenville, where she lived with her daughter Mrs. Julia Barbee, until last March, when she went to Chicago to live with another daughter, Mrs. Catherine Jackson, 1630 Dearborn street. Mrs. Jakie Smith, also her daughter, went with her. She had been there but a few days when she became ill with the grip. Enfeebled by old age she lingered along until Sunday morning, when she was taken with a spasm and died. As there was no physician in attendance at the time of her death the matter was reported to Lieutenant Gallagher of the armory, who notified the coroner.
After relating the story of her mother’s life Sunday night Mrs. Smith spoke of the anxiety the poor old “mammie” felt lest she should not be buried by the side of her dead husband in the old graveyard at Vandalia. “But we are too poor to send the body there,” she continued, “and I am afraid her dying request cannot be granted. I know if Massa Robert Lincoln were here he would help us. But then he is so far away we can’t let him know
The funeral will be held today from the dingy tenement house where the old woman died.”
The question arises, Was Epsy Smith the same person as an indentured mulatto girl named Hepsey? Indentures were contractual relationships in which minors were taught employable skills in return for having their basic needs provided. Ninian Wirt Edwards, who would become Abraham Lincoln’s brother-in-law, signed an indenture of apprenticeship on October 29, 1835, for Hepsey, who was described as “a mulatto girl aged eleven years …having no parent or guardian.” Edwards agreed to provide her “good holesome (sic) and sufficient meat drink washing lodging and apparel suitable and proper for such an apprentice and needful medical attention in care of sickness and will cause her to be instructed in the best way and most approved manner of domestic housewifery and will cause her to be taught to read and at the expiration of her term of service will give unto her a new bible and two new suits of clothes suitable and proper for summer and winter wear.” This arrangement lasted until Hepsey’s 18th birthday.
Most leading families in Springfield used hired help. Indentures from the period of the 1830s and 1840s showed that blacks and “mulattos” were the source of this hired help. If Edwards was using a phonetic spelling for Hepsey, there is little difference between Hepsey and Epsy. (The same is true with early Lincoln campaign biographies that confused Abram with Abraham.) That Epsy was clearly part of the Edwards household and witnessed the Lincoln marriage suggests that Elizabeth sent Hepsey to work for her sister Mary after her service ended with the Edwards family. In fact, Hepsey and Epsy were undoubtedly one and the same.
History is not like wine or scotch; it does not get better as it gets older. Much of the time it turns sour as the distance grows between the original event and our telling of it.
Yet in some cases the original story was vanishingly told by one person to another, who never wrote it down at all. Then, it must be rediscovered. Such a rediscovery happened two weeks ago at the Presidential Library.
In March 1901 a lady with good handwriting wrote from Boston to a well-known Lincoln collector in Chicago named Charles Gunther. She enclosed, by registered mail, a highly interesting artifact. She wrote:
“I send you the letter written by Willie Lincoln. It is probably the only one in existence. It was kept in the same box with a bon-bon he gave my uncle that was taken from the table at the banquet given for the Prince of Wales at the White House and some of it melted during the warm weather and got on the letter. Very sincerely, Adele Rathbun.”
Miss Rathbun was mostly incorrect. Was her 1901 attention fixed upon the death of Queen Victoria 6 weeks earlier, and the ascent to the throne of the Prince of Wales? That Prince, known now as Edward VII, had indeed been fêted at the White House, but in October 1860, by President Buchanan.
So Willie took no such bon-bon. Nor was this the only letter he ever wrote; about 10 survive today.
Still, this one is the earliest survivor. In its entirety it reads:
Springfield April 1859
I will write you a few lines to let you know how I am getting along I am pretty well The roads are drying up It is Sunday and a pleasant day I have not any more to say so I must bring my letter to an end
Wm W Lincoln
Who was Adele’s “my uncle”? Who was Willie’s “Dear friend”? Since Willie makes no mention of an enclosed sweet, we assume that its recipient put the letter into a box with some chocolate – where else to save a letter from your friend?
The State Historical Library (now the ALPLM) acquired this letter and Adele’s in 1978 from a Chicago dealer, without any story. It has lain orphan-like with a few later (and clean) missives by the dutiful Willie. Gwen Podeschi, Reference Librarian at the ALPLM, was asked to start hunting ‘Rathbun.’ She found dozens of possibilities, but never an Adele, and no one the right age. The key was her turning up of the marriage, in Springfield in June 1858, of Hannah Rathbun to Dr. John Shearer. Aha: that would be Hannah Shearer, close friend of Mary Lincoln. Some Maryists would know (but this historian did not) that Hannah’s first husband, Edward Rathbun, had died in Brooklyn, leaving her with two boys, Edward Rathbun, Jr., and James Miner Rathbun, obliging Hannah to move to the home of her brother, Springfield. Hannah soon met and married Dr. Shearer, and they settled on 8th Street across from the Lincolns. The ‘uncle’ to whom Adele Rathbun referred was thus one of these Rathbun boys, sons of the Shearers.
The other clue was found, plainly enough, in Mary’s published letters. On April 24, 1859, she sent the first of her 11 known letters to Hannah Shearer, who had left Springfield after only 8 months on 8th Street, for the clear air of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. These letters are spicy, full of gossip (not all of it kind), as well as wistfulness for a distant friend whose boys were nearly the same ages as Willie and Tad Lincoln. Mary wrote on April 24th – Easter Sunday – and one can picture Willie sitting politely next to his mother, writing to his friend, too. Mother to mother; son to son.
The sadness of this story, striking like so much in Mary Lincoln’s life, came by degrees. The Shearers never quite managed a long-planned visit to the White House in 1861, implored though they were; and Willie died on Feb. 20, 1862. War and death spoiled everything for nation and friends. Mary never wrote Hannah again … except in November 1864 when she heard that Hannah’s oldest, Edward, Jr., had died. And never after that. How painful, yet again, must Mary’s memory of her own lost boy have been, in the reflection of his friend’s early death.
That death left the younger ex-neighbor, James Miner Rathbun, as the father of Adele. Edward Jr. was thus the uncle in Adele’s 1901 letter.
The Rathbun boys, shortly after moving to Pennsylvania with mother Hannah and her new husband Dr. Shearer, welcomed a new baby brother, or rather half-brother. The boy was christened William Lincoln Shearer.
The chocolate letter, for all its sad associations in the lives of Mary Lincoln and Hannah Rathbun Shearer, can now be remembered in a better way. It remains as a happy, and colorful, remembrance of friendly mothers and sons, sharing two Easter Day letters. Another Prince of Wales will soon ascend to the throne of the United Kingdom, new stories will be invented around that occasion. Please keep your letters and emails, pass them to kids, and get the stories right.
If Abraham and Mary Lincoln were largely responsible for destroying their own family papers before leaving for Washington, D.C., in 1861, then what did Robert T. Lincoln burn in later years? Fortunately for historians he wrote down a listing of destroyed documents, in a volume sold as Burr’s Library Index. His index was created to navigate through his extensive retained correspondence files. Near the end of the volume there is an entry with the cryptic heading “Papers burned in 1895 and after.” It is worth transcribing the entire contents of that list, in order to give insight into Robert Lincoln’s behavior.
Papers burned in 1895 and after
All my family letters
All M.L. letters of 1875-6
Cheques, 1869-87 incl. 88-89-90-91 & 92
Rects [receipts] 1870-87 incl. 88-89
Washington House lease and papers
Old S&L Docket
All M.H.L. Cheques
Dec 98 All Cash books and ledgers except those current
Dec 00 Old Telephone & Gas Company papers
Dec 03 1897 Res [residential] repair and alterations receipts
Nov 03 Letters to R.T.L. 1877/1879
May 1911 Letters to R.T.L. Since to now—except 10 cases sifted letters kept
May 1911 All Receipts except my late ones
Oct 1913 All Hildene building correspondence
Oct 10-14 All but half a dozen old letters to R.T.L. while attor(?) from Chicago
Oct 10-14 All cheques up to 1905
The list clearly shows that Robert destroyed not his father’s papers, but his own. It was a common practice to destroy personal letters of a private nature, which accounts for burning the correspondence between himself and his wife. The period of 1875-6 follows his mother’s confinement and conservatorship, which was undoubtedly a difficult period for both mother and son. But Robert did not destroy all of these letters, as is evident from the materials that comprise “the insanity file” he kept as a separate folder (the basis for a book published in 1986). Everything else were things he no longer needed, such as old cancelled checks and business correspondence, materials that most people today put through a shredder rather than burn.
It is likely that Robert lost some of his father’s papers in the 1871 Chicago Fire, or at least he used that fire as an excuse. In response to one autograph seeker, Robert responded: “I am not the possessor of any autograph letter of my father. Everything of that kind owned by me was burned in the Chicago Fire.” When thieves broke into the stable adjoining Robert’s Chicago mansion, he dismissed the matter, claiming the items were “a great many old odds and ends such as books, possibly letters, and that class of things which a man hardly knows what to do with, and yet is very averse to destroying.”
Nicolas Murray Butler’s claim, after Robert’s death, that he prevented Robert from destroying his father’s letters feeds a popular notion of Robert as cold, calculating, and secretive. Those who knew Robert found him much like his father, and certainly no son did more to patiently deal with the endless requests for a document signed by Abraham Lincoln, endorse a book or painting about Abraham Lincoln, or satisfy the curiosity of the general public who wanted to know his father’s likes and dislikes. Too much of Abraham Lincoln’s life was already on display for public consumption to be altered by a conspiracy to burn his papers. The most damning accusations were not contained in Lincoln’s letters but in the published recollections of his associates and friends that lack any independent verification. It is time to let this conspiracy charge go up in smoke.