Abraham Lincoln Quotes About Labor and Work

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Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis)

Spielberg’s film follows 56-year-old Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, from January of 1865 until his death in April. The portrait on the left was taken in 1864.

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Abraham Lincoln by Nathan Nash

“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, say its advocates, is free labor—the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all—gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume III, “Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Milwaukee, Wisconsin” (September 30, 1859), pp. 478-479.

“No country can sustain, in idleness, more than a small percentage of its numbers. The great majority must labor at something productive.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume III, “Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Milwaukee, Wisconsin” (September 30, 1859), p. 479.

“Labor is the true standard of value.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume IV, “Speech at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” (February 15, 1861), p. 212.

“The world is agreed that labor is the source from which human wants are mainly supplied. There is no dispute upon this point.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume III, “Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Milwaukee, Wisconsin” (September 30, 1859), p. 477.

“I am always for the man who wishes to work.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume VII, “Recommendation For Unidentified Man” (August 15, 1864), p. 495.

“If at any time all labour should cease, and all existing provisions be equally divided among the people, at the end of a single year there could scarcely be one human being left alive—all would have perished by want of subsistence.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume I, “Fragments of a Tariff Discussion” (December 1, 1847), p. 415.

“Labor is the great source from which nearly all, if not all, human comforts and necessities are drawn.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume III, “Speech at Cincinnati, Ohio” (September 17, 1859), p. 459.

“Wanting to work is so rare a merit, that it should be encouraged.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume IV, “Letter to George D. Ramsay” (October 17, 1861), p. 556.

“Beavers build houses; but they build them in nowise differently, or better now, than they did, five thousand years ago. Ants, and honey-bees, provide food for winter; but just in the same way they did, when Solomon referred the sluggard to them as patterns of prudence. Man is not the only animal who labors; but he is the only one who improves his workmanship.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume II, “First Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions” (April 6, 1858), p. 437.

“Property is the fruit of labor…property is desirable…is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume VII, “Reply to New York Workingmen’s Democratic Republican Association” (March 21, 1864), pp. 259-260.

“Every man is proud of what he does well; and no man is proud of what he does not do well. With the former, his heart is in his work; and he will do twice as much of it with less fatigue. The latter performs a little imperfectly, looks at it in disgust, turns from it, and imagines himself exceedingly tired. The little he has done, comes to nothing, for want of finishing.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume III, “Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Milwaukee, Wisconsin” (September 30, 1859), p. 475.

“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.” Lincoln’s First Annual Message to Congress, December 3, 1861.

“Upon this subject, the habits of our whole species fall into three great classes—useful labour, useless labour and idleness. Of these the first only is meritorious; and to it all the products of labour rightfully belong; but the two latter, while they exist, are heavy pensioners upon the first, robbing it of a large portion of it’s just rights. The only remedy for this is to, as far as possible, drive useless labour and idleness out of existence.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume I, “Fragments of a Tariff Discussion” (December 1, 1847), p. 412.

“Work, work, work, is the main thing.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume IV, “Letter To John M. Brockman” (September 25, 1860), p. 121.

“And I am glad to know that there is a system of labor -> where the laborer can strike if he wants to! I would to God that such a system prevailed all over the world. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume IV, “Speech at Hartford, Connecticut” (March 5, 1860), p. 7.

“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 not get along anywhere.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume II, “Letter To John D. Johnston” (November 4, 1851), p. 111.

“I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good. So while we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume IV, “Speech at New Haven, Connecticut” (March 6, 1860), p. 24.

“…half finished work generally proves to be labor lost.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume I, “Communication to the People of Sangamon County” (March 9, 1832), p. 5.

“And, inasmuch [as] most good things are produced by labour, it follows that [all] such things of right belong to those whose labour has produced them. But 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] to each labourer the whole product of his labour, or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of any good government.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume I, “Fragments of a Tariff Discussion” (December 1, 1847), p. 412.

“…the working men are the basis of all governments, for the plain reason that they are the most numerous…” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume IV, “Speech to Germans at Cincinnati, Ohio” (February 12, 1861), p. 202.

NOTE: All page references to The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln refer to the 1953 edition published by the Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

The wonderful artwork at the top of the page is by Nathan Nash, 25, son of Bill Nash. Be sure to visit Bill’s excellent Lincoln blog here.

Several good single volume sources of authentic Lincoln quotes are: (1) Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln compiled and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher. (2) A Treasury of Lincoln Quotations edited by Fred Kerner. (3) Of the People, By the People, For the People and other Quotations from Abraham Lincoln edited by Gabor S. Boritt. (4) Abe Lincoln Laughing: Humorous Anecdotes from Original Sources by and about Abraham Lincoln edited by P.M. Zall.

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