During my two years in Congress, I heard an awful lot of speeches. Some of them were delivered by some of the finest public speakers in America today – like Barack Obama, Neil Abercrombie, John Lewis, Anthony Weiner and Alcee Hastings. But none of them was as profound and poignant as the one that I’m about to share with you. It was delivered to a Joint Session of Congress by President Abraham Lincoln, exactly 150 years ago today. The focus of the President’s speech was, of course, the Civil War. But President Lincoln took a short detour, and with a few bare sentences, he summed up an issue that remains with us to this day.
This is what President Lincoln said to Congress, to America, and to us:
"It is not needed, nor fitting here [in discussing the Civil War] that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions; but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effect to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor, in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them, and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded thus far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.
“Now, there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.
“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. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights."
If I were still in Congress, I would have repeated President Lincoln’s speech on the Floor of the House this week, in the same spot where he rendered it 150 years ago. “Labor is the superior of capital.” And we must not “place capital . . . above labor in the structure of government.” Thank you, Mr. Lincoln. If I had to sum up my job as a Congressman in 25 words or less, that would do it.
I realize that for a statement as profound as this one, it is “far beyond [my] poor power to add or detract” (as Lincoln himself said, two years later, at Gettysburg). But I’ll try anyway, recognizing that “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say.
I find it startling to read something like this, and realize how timeless these battles are. As the French say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”) In fact, you can hear echoes of Lincoln’s words in what Elizabeth Warren said just ten weeks ago: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.”
Now, admittedly, capital is wealthier, better organized, and far more powerful today than it was in Lincoln’s time. Capital gorges on Republican tax cuts for the rich, on bailouts, on government contracts and corporate welfare, on free money from the Fed, and on monopoly profit. Capital treats politicians and whole political parties like puppets. Capital creates and perpetuates a system where Labor is unemployed, where Labor is in debt up to its eyeballs, where Labor cannot see a doctor when ill, where Labor is pitted against Labor. There probably are plenty of well-meaning people who realize this, throw up their hands, and say, “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
And then there are us. People with a head, and a heart. People who want to occupy Wall Street, occupy K Street, and occupy America with the simple concept of justice for all. People who understand that the very fact that this fight has been going on for 150 years or more, and will continue after you and I are gone – that very fact – makes this a fight that is worth fighting for.
And gradually, things do get better. I know, I know -- two steps forward, one step back. But then two more steps forward.
Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming.
When Lincoln spoke, 150 years ago today, his time was the twilight’s last gleaming. And today, you can see the dawn’s early light.
Can you see it?