The Invention of Slavery

Lincoln on whether technology makes us free
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Upon heading to Washington to assume the presidency in February 1861, Abraham Lincoln bound together two manuscripts of a lecture and entrusted them to an acquaintance for safekeeping. Four years later, at the start of his second term, he told a visiting scientist of his intention to put the lecture into final form, post-presidency or, as he put it, “when I get out of this place.” Lincoln, of course, did not live to carry out his revisions.

In the years leading up to his first term, as the nation was on the cusp of civil war, he had delivered various versions of this “Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions,” in which he presented both the promise and grave dangers of science and technology for the fate of human liberty. Apparently, this was material that Americans needed to ponder — in a wisdom-seeking spirit — even as the crisis of the house divided gathered steam. Another activity that kept Lincoln occupied during this time was the preparation of a book-length version of his already famous 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas over the expansion of slavery into the nation’s western territories.

The two writerly projects were related. At the very heart of the “Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions” is a claim about the effect of the invention of the printing press on the affairs of mankind. The medium of print allows one, Lincoln says, to “converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space.” Getting his debates with Douglas into print meant that, despite Lincoln’s electoral loss to Douglas in the Senate race, his forensic victory would stand “a better chance of never being forgotten,” whatever might befall the country — even if what happened was the continuation of the Democratic Party’s dominance and the nationalization of slavery.

The Bible as Encyclopedia of Technology

The two manuscripts Lincoln taped together were long thought to be separate efforts. They are indeed distinct — and we will look at them in turn — but they are best understood as parts of a single whole.

The “First Lecture” presents a survey of technological advances, as gleaned from the Bible. This is no ordinary account of human ingenuity:

All creation is a mine, and every man, a miner.

The whole earth, and all within it, upon it, and round about it, including himself, … are the infinitely various “leads” from which, man, from the first, was to dig out his destiny.

In the beginning, the mine was unopened, and the miner stood naked, and knowledgeless, upon it.

Lincoln begins by alluding to the biblical account of creation. He borrows the famous phrase “in the beginning,” but he also dares to rewrite the story. He presents man not in the Garden of Eden or even tossed out of it to be a tiller of the soil, but instead as a miner, a deep-digger, engaged in an extractive, industrial process. The mining metaphor, which coincidentally was much used by Francis Bacon, suggests that truth is hidden, and that nature, even our own nature, does not reveal itself without the application of labor. Examining the phenomenon of labor, Lincoln admits that other animals labor too, since they provide themselves with homes and food; but human labor is unique, since man is the only animal “who improves his workmanship.” Human labor, we might say, is scientific. Lincoln, however, doesn’t use abstract words like “science” or “scientific.” His language is more explanatory, more empirical. “This improvement,” he says, is accomplished “by Discoveries, and Inventions.” He gives a memorable illustration of those two operations: Man’s “first important discovery was the fact that he was naked; and his first invention was the fig-leaf-apron.” Inventions are responses to discoveries. Man discovered his uncovered nature and invented a cover-up. Lincoln claims that clothing is “the one thing for which nearly half of the toil and care of the human race has ever since been expended.”

From that starting point, Lincoln traces the scriptural evidence of human industry and its results, moving from clothing to iron to transportation, then agriculture, and finally various forces that can replace “man’s own muscular power,” namely animal power, wind power, water power, and steam power. Interestingly, Lincoln’s survey of human industry does not mention one of the most striking examples of technology and industry in Genesis: the firing of bricks for the building of the city and tower of Babel. His focus is more on “motive” power, the power to make things move. Still, the oversight is intriguing. It may be that he did not want to highlight God’s clearly expressed opposition to certain human technological aspirations. And given Lincoln’s own praise for speech, writing, and printing, he may not have wanted to feature the story of how God dispersed mankind by confusing their universal tongue.

Even though Lincoln’s attitude toward the human pursuit of knowledge and the meaning of human artfulness may not be completely in sync with the Bible’s doubts about these matters, he does rely on the Bible as his source. He quotes from and cites about two dozen verses, tracking such things as the first mention of “thread,” “instruments of iron,” or “chariots,” and he references another dozen or so passages without providing chapter and verse. His account draws exclusively from the Old Testament — with a single exception, his last reference. The only New Testament verse in the first lecture, “Two women shall be grinding at the mill” (Matthew 24:41) is offered to prove that the water wheel was unknown at that time. The verse refers to the Second Coming of Christ. Thus, the horizon of the first lecture stretches from the creation of the earth to the end of days.

Provision of Food

The tables throughout this essay trace Lincoln’s biblical history of innovation in his first “Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions,” arranged in Lincoln’s own order of topics and biblical references. The first column offers Lincoln’s words alluding to or quoting from the Bible. In his speech, he sometimes included a citation to chapter and verse (elided below); sometimes he did not. The second column thus offers all Bible verses to which he directly or indirectly referred.

Ants, and honey-bees, provide food for winter; but just in the same way they did, when Solomon refered the sluggard to them as patterns of prudence.Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.
Proverbs 6:6
Technological Progress and Slavery

By turning to the Bible to ascertain the facts about the history of technology, Lincoln is employing Scripture in a rather unorthodox way. Perhaps a pious man turns to the Good Book on all occasions (just as a good American turns to Lincoln), but still, this is making the Bible serve a purpose that seems altogether alien to it. Matthew 24 is about the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and Christ’s prophecy of His return in power and glory; it is not about when the knowledge of hydropower was discovered. It’s hard to avoid asking, “What the heck is Lincoln doing?”

I want to suggest that Lincoln is quite aware of what he is doing and that he has carefully selected these Bible references in order to tell two stories simultaneously. The first is a story of technological progress — slow but perceptible. The other is a story of sin, slavery, and divine punishment. Each human invention that is mentioned, beginning with that fig-leaf apron, is linked to a tale of disobedience and suffering.

On occasion, Lincoln’s examples barely fit within the official history of technology, while clearly featuring the aspect of wrongdoing. Thus, after telling of the invention of clothing in response to the discovery of nakedness, Lincoln says “The Bible makes no other allusion to clothing, before the flood. Soon after the deluge Noah’s two sons covered him with a garment; but of what material the garment was made is not mentioned.” This is another story of nakedness and shame. Lincoln doesn’t mention the third son of Noah, Ham, who both saw and spoke of “the nakedness of his father” and whose descendants were said to be cursed with enslavement as a result. Well-known to Lincoln and his audience was that this story was a staple of pro-slavery apologetics, providing a supposed theological justification for African slavery.

This is not the only allusion to slavery. Indeed, the four centuries of Hebrew enslavement in Egypt — with obvious parallels to American slavery — form the subtext of Lincoln’s speech. He wants his audience to perceive his double inquiry into technological progress on the one hand and moral non-progress on the other.

When we follow his “leads,” we discover another dimension of man’s destiny, a political dimension, in his repeated reference to Egypt. The last topic in the first lecture is steam power. Lincoln points out that the Egyptians understood the principle, for they had a steam-powered toy: The aeolipile was a steam-filled sphere with tubes protruding that would make the sphere spin. However, the Egyptians never applied the principle of steam power to “useful machinery.” He doesn’t say so, but one wonders whether in their pride and stubborn reliance on slave power, the Egyptians failed to pursue the liberating potential of technology. Lincoln emphasizes that the ancient world relied on manpower and animal power, to the neglect of the “motive power” of wind, water, and steam. An early prophet of renewable energy, he predicts that “quite possibly one of the greatest discoveries hereafter to be made, will be the taming, and harnessing of the wind.”

For good reason, many scholars regard Egypt as emblematic of the mindset that seeks human control over nature. Leon Kass in The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis argues that “Egypt places its trust in technology and administration.” While Lincoln acknowledges Egypt’s role in originating many of the technical arts (especially spinning and weaving), he also stresses the limits upon the scope of their practical imagination. Blinded by political despotism, they failed to see, or be interested in, labor-saving applications of theoretical insights.

The reliance on slave labor, then, breaks the natural link between the working and thinking aspects of the human being. In another 1859 address, delivered at the Wisconsin State Fair, Lincoln asserts that “no other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as agriculture.” That combination does not exist, however, in a slave system. The deification of the one, the Pharaoh, leads to the brutification of the many, the slaves.

At the first interview of the Almighty with Adam and Eve, after the fall, He made “coats of skins, and clothed them.”Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them.
Genesis 3:21
Soon after the deluge Noah’s two sons covered him with a garment; but of what material the garment was made is not mentioned.And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
Genesis 9:23
Abraham mentions “thread” in such connection as to indicate that spinning and weaving were in use in his day … and soon after, reference to the art is frequently made.That I will not take from a thread even to a shoelatchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich.
Genesis 14:23
“Linen breeches,” are mentioned, … and it is said “all the women that were wise hearted, did spin with their hands” … and, “all the women whose hearts stirred them up in wisdom, spun goat’s hair.”
And thou shalt make them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; from the loins even unto the thighs they shall reach.
Exodus 28:42
And all the women that were wise hearted did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, both of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, and of fine linen.
Exodus 35:25
And all the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun goats’ hair.
Exodus 35:26
The work of the “weaver” is mentioned.Them hath he filled with wisdom of heart, to work all manner of work, of the engraver, and of the cunning workman, and of the embroiderer, in blue, and in purple, in scarlet, and in fine linen, and of the weaver, even of them that do any work, and of those that devise cunning work.
Exodus 35:35
In the book of Job, a very old book, date not exactly known, the “weavers shuttle” is mentioned.My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and are spent without hope.
Job 7:6
A New Egypt

Like Egypt, the American South was a slave power, elevating the few slaveholders at the expense of the many, both black slaves and poor, landless whites. The South restricted access to education and was not inclined toward technological innovation, although Southerners were of course willing to adopt inventions if they buttressed slavery. The cotton gin, which was patented in 1794, had given the institution of slavery a new lease on life, but it was invented by Eli Whitney of Massachusetts. Statistical evidence that the slaveholding South was neither theoretically-inclined nor mechanically-minded comes from a comparison between the U.S. Patent Office and the Confederate Patent Office: “The Confederate Patent Office issued only two hundred and sixty-six patents during the whole war, as against more than sixteen thousand granted by the Union,” wrote Robert V. Bruce in Lincoln and the Tools of War (1956).

It was the North that had a genius for invention. Lincoln makes a grim joke about this sectional difference in that other 1859 address. A major theme of the Wisconsin speech is the contrast between free labor — which he calls “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” — and the alternative “mud-sill” theory according to which the great majority of men are destined for the treadmill of either slavery or menial wage-slavery. With mordant wit, Lincoln observes that “a Yankee who could invent a strong-handed man, without a head, would secure the everlasting gratitude of the ‘mud-sill’ advocates,” since they regard it as “a misfortune that laborers should have heads at all.” Lincoln despises the mud-sill theory, refuting it by reference to the structural integrity of divinely created persons:

As the Author of man makes every individual with one head, and one pair of hands, it was probably intended that heads and hands should co-operate as friends, and that that particular head should direct and control that particular pair of hands…. and that being so, every head should be cultivated and improved, by whatever will add to its capacity for performing its charge. In one word, free labor insists on universal education.

While Lincoln’s anthropology and moral position are clear, he is also aware that the genius for invention can spiral out of control. Some Yankee might figure out how to make a “man without a head” to fit the specifications desired by the slaveocrats — an early specter of genetic engineering.

Even without such transhumanist, science-fiction speculations, the career of Eli Whitney is testimony enough to the moral ambiguity of invention. Whitney’s quest for Yankee efficiency reinvigorated the moribund plantation economy of the early 1800s, giving us King Cotton. But that same Eli Whitney who invented the cotton gin was a pioneer in developing standardized, interchangeable parts, which revolutionized industrial production in Northern factories, especially armories, thus playing a key role in the Union victory in the Civil War.

Returning to “Discoveries and Inventions,” if it is the case that Lincoln gives us a history of technology through the Bible so that he can deliberately tell two stories at once, what does he hope to achieve thereby? White Americans, who had long believed that they were the new Israel, might not welcome being told that they are really the new Egypt, with their black slaves in the role of the chosen people of God. The radical abolitionists frequently invoked this unflattering Biblical parallel, but Lincoln had done so explicitly only once, at the close of his speech on the Supreme Court’s notorious pro-slavery Dred Scott decision in 1857, where he compared America’s enslaved population to the “children of Israel,” who “went out of Egyptian bondage in a body.”

In “Discoveries and Inventions,” Lincoln instead proceeds by indirection, avoiding vituperation and moral fervor, but dropping plenty of hints about God’s punishment of Egypt, as when in the context of the history of transportation he cites a verse describing the fate of those who pursued the fleeing children of Israel: “the horse, and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” The contrast between Lincoln’s muted, allusive rhetoric and that of the abolitionists is striking. The abolitionists loved to quote Isaiah, the prophet who pronounced judgment upon his people with lines of terrifying vividness: “Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts is the land darkened, and the people shall be as the fuel of the fire; no man shall spare his brother” (Isaiah 9:19). Lincoln, by contrast, mentions Isaiah twice, and only to trace the first mentions of “oar” and “sails” and then to document the difficulties of controlling the power of the wind. Even these references to Isaiah, however, are sure to conjure up in the minds of his pious listeners those terrible prophecies of national punishment they knew so well. Lincoln’s mode here is the opposite of the moral harangue; it is oblique and evocative — inviting thoughtfulness, moral humility, and further examination.

In the same way, for those who follow Lincoln’s “leads,” the verses in Matthew 24 that immediately follow Lincoln’s only New Testament quotation are resonant with meaning for his listeners. These verses describe a house divided and broken apart, as a result of divine intervention:

Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up.

It is with that implied warning that Lincoln shifts to the second part of the lecture, where he focuses, now forthrightly, on the United States.

Iron Tools
How could the “gopher wood” for the Ark, have been gotten out without an axe?Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.
Genesis 6:14
Tubal-cain was “an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron.”And Zillah, she also bare Tubalcain, an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron: and the sister of Tubalcain was Naamah.
Genesis 4:22
After the flood, frequent mention is made of iron, and instruments made of iron. Thus “instrument of iron” …; “bed-stead of iron” …; “the iron furnace” … and “iron tool.” … Very distinct mention of “the ax to cut down the tree” is made; and … the promised land is described as “a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass.”
And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.
Numbers 35:16
For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants; behold his bedstead was a bedstead of iron; is it not in Rabbath of the children of Ammon? nine cubits was the length thereof, and four cubits the breadth of it, after the cubit of a man.
Deuteronomy 3:11
But the Lord hath taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt, to be unto him a people of inheritance, as ye are this day.
Deuteronomy 4:20
And there shalt thou build an altar unto the Lord thy God, an altar of stones: thou shalt not lift up any iron tool upon them.
Deuteronomy 27:5
As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbour, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live.
Deuteronomy 19:5
A land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness, thou shalt not lack any thing in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass.
Deuteronomy 8:9
Young America’s Mastery

“We have all heard of Young America,” Lincoln begins. He describes Young America as a personage, sort of like Uncle Sam. Whereas Uncle Sam is a personified symbol of the U.S. government, Young America is an embodied version of the American character or spirit. Lincoln details how this personage, this “most current youth,” fares with respect to the specific arts — clothing, agriculture, and transportation — that were examined through Scripture in the first part. Young America is a figure of consumerist luxury, wearing fabrics and enjoying delicacies brought from all over the globe:

Look at his apparel, and you shall see cotten fabrics from Manchester and Lowell; flax-linen from Ireland; wool-cloth from Spain; silk from France; furs from the Arctic regions, with a buffalo-robe from the Rocky Mountains, as a general out-sider.

Lincoln notes that some people regard Young America as “conceited, and arrogant,” but he also admits that Young America’s high opinion of himself has some basis in fact since “Men, and things, everywhere, are ministering unto him.” Lincoln raises a curious question about this figure: “Is he not the inventor and owner of the present?” Americans live not just in the moment, but in the modern moment, a privileged moment that asserts its superiority over the past, in effect denying the past. Lincoln seems to be suggesting that America has pioneered or invented the idea of modernity.

In poetic images, he mentions two particular technologies, both of which minister to Young America’s desire for immediacy: the railroad and the telegraph.

The iron horse is panting, and impatient, to carry him everywhere, in no time; and the lightening stands ready harnessed to take and bring his tidings in a trifle less than no time.

Much of the treatment of locomotion in the first part of the lecture involved the horses and chariots of Pharaoh; those horses that drowned in the Red Sea during the Exodus have been replaced by the “iron horse.” And while the ancients were unable to harness electricity, Americans did, and produced an instrument of instant communication across vast distances.

There are scholars who regard Lincoln as an unabashed booster of the Baconian project to master nature. But this is a serious misreading. This is not to say that he was hostile to technological advance — after all, he is the only American president to have obtained a patent for an invention. Issued in 1849, the patent was for a device that would lift boats over sandbars. But although Lincoln sought to make a contribution to transportation technology, he was acutely aware that not every discovery or invention is a boon for mankind. His reservations about technology are grounded ultimately in his recognition that the human quest for mastery is morally questionable.

Lincoln expresses these reservations inimitably in his mocking portrait of Young America. His celebration of American achievement and inventiveness rings hollow, not surprisingly, since “Young America” was a campaign slogan associated with his arch political rival Stephen Douglas. Lincoln’s satiric riff on it — and on “Manifest Destiny,” another slogan of the Democratic Party — becomes especially pointed when he alludes to the Mexican War and to American slavery:

[Young America] owns a large part of the world, by right of possessing it; and all the rest by right of wanting it, and intending to have it. As Plato had for the immortality of the soul, so Young America has “a pleasing hope — a fond desire — a longing after” territory. He has a great passion — a perfect rage — for the “new”; particularly new men for office, and the new earth mentioned in the revelations….

Then comes his reference to the Mexican War:

He is very anxious to fight for the liberation of enslaved nations and colonies, provided, always, they have land, and have not any liking for his interference.

… and to slavery:

As to those who have no land, and would be glad of help from any quarter, he considers they can afford to wait a few hundred years longer.

Young America, he goes on,

is the unquestioned inventor of “Manifest Destiny.” His horror is for all that is old, particularly “Old Fogy”; and if there be any thing old which he can endure, it is only old whiskey and old tobacco.

Here Lincoln takes a partisan swipe at Young America’s hubris and hypocrisy, his greed for continental expansion and habit of self-congratulation. Young America’s land hunger is so great and so impious that he believes he should be the conqueror of the “new earth” foretold in Scripture.

The oldest recorded allusion to the wheel and axle is the mention of a “chariot.”And he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried before him, Bow the knee: and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt.
Genesis 41:43
That the chariot then mentioned was a wheel-carriage drawn by animals, is sufficiently evidenced by the mention of chariot-wheels …, and the mention of chariots in connection with horses.And [the Lord] took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the Lord fighteth for them against the Egyptians.
Exodus 14:25
But the Egyptians pursued after them, all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh, and his horsemen, and his army, and overtook them encamping by the sea, beside Pihahiroth, before Baalzephon.
Exodus 14:9
And the Egyptians pursued, and went in after them to the midst of the sea, even all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.
Exodus 14:23
If we pass by the Ark, which may be regarded as belonging rather to the miraculous, than to human invention, the first notice we have of water-craft, is the mention of “ships” by Jacob.Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for an haven of ships; and his border shall be unto Zidon.
Genesis 49:13
It is not till we reach the book of Isaiah that we meet with the mention of “oars” and “sails.”
But there the glorious Lord will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby.
Isaiah 33:21
But there the glorious Lord will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby.
Isaiah 33:21
Thy tacklings are loosed; they could not well strengthen their mast, they could not spread the sail: then is the prey of a great spoil divided; the lame take the prey.
Isaiah 33:23
You Didn’t Build That

After parodying his political opponents, Lincoln immediately moves to higher ground, inquiring whether Young America does indeed have the advantage over Old Fogy, and if so, what the “great difference” really is. In his own version of the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns, Lincoln starts by returning to the mode of biblical exegesis, calling to the bar “the first of all fogies, father Adam.”

Examining that “first of all inventions, … the fig-leaf apron,” Lincoln shows that Adam “had first to invent the art of invention,” an art that depends on the prior habits of observation and reflection, habits that themselves depend on the faculty of speech. And speech, says Lincoln, does not appear to be “an invention of man, but rather the direct gift of his Creator.” Even if it is a human invention, speech is only possible, says Lincoln, because of fixed biological features like “the capacities of the tongue, in the utterance of articulate sounds” — capacities he declares “absolutely wonderful.” He seems to have done an experiment of his own, calculating these natural capacities. He reports the following statistics: “You can count from one to one hundred, quite distinctly in about forty seconds. In doing this two hundred and eighty three distinct sounds or syllables are uttered, being seven to each second; and yet there shall be enough difference between every two, to be easily recognized by the ear of the hearer.”

Speech enables communication, the interchange of thoughts. There is a kind of multiplier effect that results from thus combining more than one person’s powers of observation and reflection. Illustrating his meaning, Lincoln mischievously adds:

And this reminds me of what I passed unnoticed before, that the very first invention was a joint operation, Eve having shared with Adam in the getting up of the apron. And, indeed, judging from the fact that sewing has come down to our times as “woman’s work” it is very probable she took the leading part; he, perhaps, doing no more than to stand by and thread the needle.

Their confabulation was “the first and most perfect ‘world’s fair’” — “all inventions and all inventors then in the world, being on the spot.”

One remarkable feature of Lincoln’s lecture is the respectful attention he gives to women and women’s work. In the first part, he quoted two Bible passages about spinning that emphasize women’s wisdom: “all the women that were wise hearted, did spin with their hands” and “all the women whose hearts stirred them up in wisdom, spun goat’s hair.” In a version of the speech now lost to us but reported in a newspaper account, Lincoln was said to have “paid a feeling tribute” to “plaintive songs,” singling out “the triumphal exultation” of Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron who led the women of Israel in songful celebration of their deliverance from Egyptian bondage.

Lincoln is chastising Young America. That boastful youth was inclined toward chauvinism of both the male and national varieties. Lincoln’s extended comparison between Old Fogy and Young America repeatedly reminds his audience of the humbling things they might prefer to forget, like their dependence on their given nature, as well as their dependence on others, including women. It should come as no surprise that this lecture, which Lincoln delivered half a dozen times around Illinois, was not popular. He chastened us in the hour of our pride, and Young America did not much care to be chastened.

Not only are human beings beholden to their natural endowment and their partners in speech, but there are intergenerational debts as well. We are beneficiaries of the advances made by those “very old fogies” of earlier times. Along with Adam and Eve, Lincoln mentions Moses, as by his time writing had clearly been invented. Just as he had with speech, Lincoln indicates that writing, which he calls “the great invention of the world,” is only possible because of “the wonderful powers of the eye” that again are not of human making. Returning to his earlier example of the numbers from one to one hundred, he now quantifies how long it takes to peruse a written list of those numbers. His conclusion is that the eye is about twice as fast as the tongue. Moreover, writing has the immense advantage of releasing us from the prison of the present, “enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space.”

Lincoln suggests a humbling thought experiment:

Suppose the art [of writing], with all conception of it, were this day lost to the world, how long, think you, would it be, before even Young America could get up the letter A. with any adequate notion of using it to advantage?

It is Lincoln’s Obama-esque “you didn’t build that” moment, stressing our position as privileged and much-too-complacent heirs of the achievements of others.

Nevertheless, a change took place with the advent of modernity. Improvements were achingly slow for most of human history until the invention of printing, which Lincoln calls “the other half — and in real utility, the better half — of writing.” If the metaphor of halves and better halves refers to marriage, then writing is Adam and printing is Eve. Printing expands the field for invention — including political inventions like our Constitution — because printing awakens in human beings the thought of “rising to equality,” of realizing that the educated are not “superior beings” and that we might acquire learning ourselves. Printing is the emancipation proclamation of the mind.

And accordingly we find that, even before the fall, the man was put into the garden of Eden “to dress it, and to keep it.”And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
Genesis 2:15
And when afterwards, in consequence of the first transgression, labor was imposed on the race, as a penalty — a curse — we find the first born man — the first heir of the curse — was “a tiller of the ground.”
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread….
Genesis 3:19
Therefore the Lord God sent [Adam] forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
Genesis 3:23
And [Eve] again bare [Cain’s] brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.
Genesis 4:2
Animal Power
The earliest instance of [climbing upon the back of an animal, and making it carry us] mentioned, is when “Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass.”
And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
Genesis 22:3
Accordingly we find that when the servant of Abraham went in search of a wife for Isaac, he took ten camels with him; and, on his return trip, “Rebekah arose, and her damsels, and they rode upon the camels, and followed the man.”And Rebekah arose, and her damsels, and they rode upon the camels, and followed the man: and the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.
Genesis 24:61
The Red-sea being safely passed, Moses and the children of Israel sang to the Lord “the horse, and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.”Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.
Exodus 15:1
Accordingly we find that Joseph’s bretheren, on their first visit to Egypt, “laded their asses with the corn, and departed thence.”And they laded their asses with the corn, and departed thence.
Genesis 42:26
Also it would occur that animals could be made to draw burthens after them, as well as to bear them upon their backs; and hence plows and chariots came into use early enough to be often mentioned in the books of Moses.
Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together.
Deuteronomy 22:10
And he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried before him, Bow the knee: and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt.
Genesis 41:43
And Joseph made ready his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen, and presented himself unto him; and he fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while.
Genesis 46:29
And [the Lord] took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the Lord fighteth for them against the Egyptians.
Exodus 14:25
Dis-Inventing Slavery

The final section of the speech further pursues the question of whether modern people are superior to their ancestors. Lincoln adds two more modern achievements — “the discovery of America, and the introduction of Patent-laws” — both of which have played a role in vastly accelerating the rate of discovery and invention and shaking off “the dust of ages.” In the midst of his genuinely appreciative account, Lincoln stops suddenly:

Though not apposite to my present purpose, it is but justice to the fruitfulness of that period, to mention two other important events — the Lutheran Reformation in 1517, and, still earlier, the invention of negroes, or, of the present mode of using them, in 1434.

The year 1434 is when Portuguese explorers first rounded the treacherous Cape Bojador on the western coast of Africa, a feat of navigational expertise and daring that led almost immediately to the start of the African slave trade.

Once again, the oddity of Lincoln’s procedure is striking. He just drops in that ironical phrase “the invention of negroes” and then resumes his appreciative consideration of printing. What are we to think now of the contrast between ancients and moderns? In the first part of the lecture, we learned of the slaveholding Egyptians who never realized the power of steam; in the second part, we get the full-steam-ahead Americans who have unleashed “the intellects and energies of man” and yet have also contrived to turn other human beings into inventions.

Lincoln has mentioned five modern events. Together, they provide a genealogy of the crisis of the house divided. The two seminal inventions of modernity presage the conflict: The invention of printing pointed humanity toward freedom; “the invention of negroes” created a new form of slavery. The discovery of America provided the ground on which both forces — freedom and slavery — eventually converged. The Reformation added religious support for the cause of political liberty. The advent of patent law, like the discovery of America, is ambiguous or double-edged. If the enslavement of Africans is an invention, then it can presumably be patented, which is essentially what happened when the Royal African Company was granted exclusive rights to the slave trade in the seventeenth century, or when the cotton gin was invented and the Southern states were re-founded on what Lincoln, in his sixth debate with Stephen Douglas, called “the cotton-gin basis.” We might say that Lincoln’s entire public career was devoted to dis-inventing the American slave. Lincoln sought to move him from his status as an invention to his rightful status as a human being.

In dis-inventing the slave, Lincoln had to contend with the perverse inventiveness of Stephen Douglas. For context, we must look at another of Lincoln’s speeches, one delivered in Edwardsville, Illinois in 1858, where he inquires into “what Douglas really invented, when he introduced, and drove through Congress, the Nebraska bill” — legislation that effectively countenanced the westward expansion of slavery. Lincoln spells out Douglas’s invention with brutal frankness: “He discovered … the right of the white man to breed and flog” slaves. Lincoln makes liberal use of the n-word in this passage, but it must be stressed that he employs this coarse language in order to illustrate the brazen and barbaric character of Douglas’s anti-human racism.

Wind Power
That the difficulties of controlling this power [the wind] are very great is quite evident by the fact that they have already been perceived, and struggled with more than three thousand years; for that power was applied to sail-vessels, at least as early as the time of the prophet Isaiah.Thy tacklings are loosed; they could not well strengthen their mast, they could not spread the sail: then is the prey of a great spoil divided; the lame take the prey.
Isaiah 33:23
Water Power

In speaking of running streams, as a motive power, I mean it’s application to mills and other machinery by means of the “water wheel” — a thing now well known, and extensively used; but, of which, no mention is made in the bible, though it is thought to have been in use among the romans. The language of the Saviour “Two women shall be grinding at the mill &c” indicates that, even in the populous city of Jerusalem, at that day, mills were operated by hand — ­having, as yet had no other than human power applied to them.

Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
Matthew 24:41, Luke 17:35
The Emancipation of the Mind

Lincoln concludes the “Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions” by returning to the one invention he considers most efficacious for good: the printing press, which helped to break the “slavery of the mind.” Slavery has been present throughout the speech: first, by implication, in his references to the Israelites in Egypt; then in his denunciation of American expansionism into “enslaved nations and colonies”; and then in that gruesome line about the “invention of negroes.” Now, at the end of the speech, Lincoln shows that there is another aspect of slavery, an internal or spiritual aspect that has afflicted mankind at large, leaving most people ignorant of the highest capacities of human nature, and thereby exposed to the unjust political dominance of the few. Before the print revolution,

the great mass of men … were utterly unconscious, that their conditions, or their minds were capable of improvement. They not only looked upon the educated few as superior beings; but they supposed themselves to be naturally incapable of rising to equality. To immancipate the mind from this false and under estimate of itself, is the great task which printing came into the world to perform.

And yet, Lincoln indicates, technology by itself is insufficient, since it only supplies the “means of reading.” Print doesn’t guarantee literacy. For that you need teachers — who, Lincoln laments, have not been “very numerous, or very competent.”

America is dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal,” but it is only through education, and a certain kind of education, that individuals actually become capable of “rising to equality.” Of course, we need training in the STEM fields, and, yes, our regime is uniquely open to and encouraging of science, but we should not forget that applied science can underwrite slavery almost as easily as it can undergird liberty. We need civic education and liberal education — education that reminds Americans of the great difference between self-aggrandizement and self-government, between mastery of self and mastery over others. We need education that promotes not only science and useful arts, but wisdom, Lincolnian wisdom — a wisdom that is Bible-infused though not strictly speaking biblical.

Diana Schaub, “The Invention of Slavery,” The New Atlantis, Number 66, Fall 2021, pp. 74–96.
Header image: Alamy. / Image credits, in order of their appearance: La vie dans la nature, Henri Coupin (1890), Shutterstock; Rome with Illustrations, Francis Wey (1887), British Library/Flickr; Toy Spinning Wheel, Walter Praefke (1937), remixed by rawpixel; Report of an Expedition down the Zuni and Colorado Rivers, Captain L. Sitgreaves et al. (1853), British Library/Flickr; One Hundred Years’ Progress of the United States, Linus Pierpont Brockett et al. (1871), Old Book Illustrations; An Introduction to the Study of Metallurgy 3rd ed., Sir William Chandler Roberts Austen (1894), British Library/Flickr; Palestine, Historical and Descriptive; or the Home of God’s People, William Leonhard Gage (1888), British Library/Flickr; The Young Voyager, Michel Möring (1853), British Library, enhanced by rawpixel; Six Weeks Vacation, Paul Poire (1880), British Library/rawpixel; Aris-Nine, Or Dream and Reality. Great Phantasmagoria, Charles Simon Pascal Soullier (1861), British Library/rawpixel; Zigzag Journeys in the Levant, with a Talmudist Story-teller, Hezekiah Butterworth (1886), British Library/Flickr; A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry: Manufacturing and the Technical Arts in Plates, Selected from l’Encyclopédie, Charles Coulston Gillispie (1959),; The Illustrated London News, April 18, 1874, HathiTrust.

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