This passage, from Lincoln's first State of the Union address given in December of 1861, is eerily prescient. I've broken it up a but (and added my own emphasis), so that I can comment on certain sections, but if you stitch the blockquotes together, it's whole. I don't want Rush Limbaugh accusing me of taking Lincoln out of context.
It continues to develop that the insurrection is largely, if not exclusively, a war upon the first principle of popular government--the rights of the people. Conclusive evidence of this is found in the most grave and maturely considered public documents, as well as in the general tone of the insurgents. In those documents we find the abridgment of the existing right of suffrage and the denial to the people of all right to participate in the selection of public officers except the legislative boldly advocated, with labored arguments to prove that large control of the people in government is the source of all political evil. Monarchy itself is sometimes hinted at as a possible refuge from the power of the people.
I'd love to see a historian's take on this. What was the context? Obviously, the Civil War had begun (it started less than a month after Lincoln took office, in April, 1861), so when Lincoln speaks of the insurrection, he's speaking of Confederacy. But Lincoln hadn't issued the Emancipation Proclamation yet, so his reference to the South's advocacy for eliminating voting rights was necessarily understood as eliminating suffrage for free southern whites. Lincoln says that elite southerners even went so far as to suggest that democracy was "the source of all political evil".
In my present position I could scarcely be justified were I to omit raising a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism.
It is not needed nor fitting here 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 effort 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 so 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.
This line is key. Lincoln is speaking out against capital (money) involvement in government. Note this: He's not saying that money shouldn't dominate government; he says that capital should not even have "equal footing" with labor in the structure of government!
This is hard to reconcile with the arc of Lincoln's career (he had been a railroad lawyer played in important role on acquiring government subsidies that launched many railroad robber baron fortunes), but there's no denying the substance of his words, especially when they are placed into the context of what follows.
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. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class--neither work for others nor have others working for them. In most of the Southern States a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters, while in the Northern a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families--wives, sons, and daughters--work for themselves on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand nor of hired laborers or slaves on the other. It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital; that is, they labor with their own hands and also buy or hire others to labor for them; but this is only a mixed and not a distinct class. No principle stated is disturbed by the existence of this mixed class.
Again, Lincoln is emphasizing that hard work is comes before and is superior to capital. Sure, capital has rights and should be protected, but it should never be allowed preferential treatment relative to labor. In fact, Lincoln explicitly says, "Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." There is simply no ambiguity when it comes to interpreting those words.
Lincoln then closes, tying everything together, with a crescendo:
Again, as has already been said, there is not of necessity any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. Many independent men everywhere in these States a few years back in their lives were hired laborers. 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 is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all. No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.
The emphasized segment above is so powerful as to require unpacking one sentence at a time.
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.
Have you ever seen a more succinct explication of the idealized American small business arc? This trajectory is exactly what is meant when people all around the world look to America as "The Land of Opportunity." Lincoln got that.
This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all.
Do you hear the echoes of democratic principles here? "...opens the way to all, gives hope to all... progress and improvement of condition to all."
No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned.
WOW! In extolling the virtues of the self-made, Lincoln implicitly condemns those that acquire fortunes in other ways. After all, if there are "none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned" than those that labor for their gains, then those that earn their living by leveraging capital must be more likely to cheat and steal. And isn't that what we'e witnessed through and through the finance industry?
But the stealing isn't the worst consequence of allowing capital equal footing in government relative to labor. Lincoln finishes:
Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.
Lincoln says that the consequence of empowering capital interests in our government will surely be the dis-empowerment of the people. Not only will capital interests amass power, but they'll use it to concentrate more power, and ultimately, they will become the enemies of the people and democracy. Ultimately, "all of liberty will be lost"; democracy will fail.
So who do you think Lincoln would be standing with today? The people at #OccupyWallStreet, or the bankers that mock them by drinking champagne on their balconies?