Another Local Manifestation of Climate Denial

Republicans trashing potentially life-saving research in the name of short term cost savings

In their Project 2025, national Republicans have shed any pretense of acknowledging human-caused global heating (aka “climate change”). Project 2025 is the Republican game plan for the first hundred days of a Republican presidency. It proposes to dismantle the climate strategies of Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and green light drilling and digging fossil fuels. Project 2025 is full-on denial, an ambitious plan for a race to the bottom.

Some local Republican are slightly more subtle, showing their colors in more clever ways, often with short-sighted arguments that center on the idea of cost savings. Such is the argument presented by Sue Lani Madsen in her Thursday, September 7th column, “Focusing the agenda on recovery instead of politics” in the Spokesman. Madsen seeks aid for county residents burned out of their homes by the recent Gray and Oregon Road wildfires in the form of freedom from regulation in their quest to rebuild. She casts the State Building Code Council as the boogeyman from whom relief must be sought. 

It isn’t exactly the State Building Code Council as an institution to which Ms. Madsen objects, but rather to the “progressive majority” on the Building Code Council, people purposefully selected and appointed by Governor Inslee to enact“his extreme climate-focused agenda”. 

What’s her beef with the State Building Code Council? It’s new regulations enacted by the Council (with a lot of research and public input) that “include eliminating natural gas in favor of electric heat pumps, requiring preparation for EV charging, and tighter air leakage requirements”. She tosses out numbers for the additional home replacement costs that start at $24,000. Then, tellingly, to emphasize the imposition, she goes on, “Added costs may be over $55,000 in wildland-urban interface areas.” Wait a minute. Why does a re-build location at the “woodland-urban interface” more than double the originally quoted added cost to rebuild? The mandate for heat pumps, EV charging preparation, and air leakage requirements is already in that $24,000. Ms. Madsen conveniently avoids discussing the State Building Code regulations that would help fireproof a re-built home against the next wildfire—logical regulations she cannot tar by including them under the “extreme climate-focused agenda”. 

Ms. Madsen’s white knight in all this is Spokane County Commissioner Al French. Commissioner French, a developer by trade, also sits on the State Building Code Council—where he opposed the new regulations. His underlying reasons for opposition most likely stem from some combination of climate science denial, Republican orthodoxy against “regulation”, and concern that these regulations might cut into profits in the building trade. In her opinion piece Ms. Madsen wishes to re-cast Commissioner French as the staunch defender of the poor and beleaguered against an onerous, misguided regime of climate-science-motivated regulation. 

Like most economic arguments, Ms. Madsen’s is easy to turn on its head. The added cost associated with fireproofing a home at the “woodland-urban interface” might well be amortized through reduced home insurance costs. Certainly fireproofing add-ons in such locations should add to the re-sale value of the home, reduce the likelihood of another loss, and, importantly, reduce the cost to taxpayers of defending such a home in the next wildfire. Heat pump heating and tighter air leakage requirements are more expensive up front but will save money in the long run thanks to greater heating and cooling efficiency—while, at the same time, reducing the need to burn fossil fuels—but for Ms. Madsen and Mr. French reducing the burning of carbon is a bug, not a feature.

If Ms. Madsen and Mr. French’s true concern is to offer economic aid to those faced with rebuilding costs, they might consider supporting, as one quick example, the provision of low cost loans to families faced with rebuilding, loans that would align the time frame of the added costs with time frame of the amortization of those costs—rather than condemning the beleaguered to re-building sub-standard, vulnerable housing by assailing sensible regulation. 

As it stands, Sue Lani Madsen’s Thursday, September 7th column, “Focusing the agenda on recovery instead of politics” is, ironically, all about focusing on the politics of her denial of climate science, not on community recovery. Remember the disingenuous Republican media campaign “They’re coming for your gas stove!”?Madsen’s opinion piece is cut from the same climate-reality-denying cloth.

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. As owners and tenants of housing we rarely give more than a passing thought to fire safety or home heating and cooling efficiency—at least until disaster is upon us or our energy bills get out of control. We passively relegate those safety and energy savings concerns to the experts who serve in agencies like the State Building Code Council. Here’s just one example that stands out for me in the meticulous research being done and rarely seen, research that is then expressed in the sort of sensible regulations that Ms. Madsen and Mr. French oppose:

Click on “Ember Entry: Vents”. Watch the video then click on and skim the article “Vulnerability of Vents to Wind-Blown Embers”. Why wouldn’t you want to have the insights gained in research like this incorporated into your re-built home?

A School Board Tale

A Lesson For Voters–Why we need to pay attention

The takeover of the West Bonner County (Idaho) School District (WBCSD) got under way in the off-year general election in November of 2021. In Zone 2 of the WBCSD voter engagement was particularly dismal. Candidate Susan Brown won a seat on the WBCSD school board over two other candidates with 176 votes out of just 349 cast. Well over a thousand registered voters didn’t bother to cast a ballot.*

That year the story was the same in Zone 4 of WBCSD. Keith Rutledge won another of the five school board seats with just 244 votes, only 7 more votes than the other candidate, in a race with similarly dismal voter turnout.*

The WBCSD is geographically large. The district is centered on Priest River and includes the communities of Laclede, Oldtown, Blanchard, and Coolin. (See map.) It serves just under a thousand students. (For contrast, Spokane Public Schools student population is nearly 30 times that.) The WBCSD is divided into five zones (similar to Central Valley School District in Spokane valley). Each zone of WBCSD elects a member to the board. (In contrast, Spokane Public Schools elects board members district-wide.)

Mr. Rutledge (Zone 4) and Ms. Brown (Zone 2) took office on the WBCSD school board in 2022. By August they began showing their ideological colors. That month, in an action that produced only a little news, Brown, Rutledge were joined by Trustee Reinbold (elected in 2019) and voted to revoke the previous approval of the district’s English language arts curriculum. They cited “liberal indoctrination” as the boogeyman of the rejected curriculum. The move cost the district at least ten thousand dollars, contributed to the resignation of Superintendent of Schools Jackie Branum, and left the curriculum in disarray with no replacement. (Tellingly, some community members recommended adoption of a curriculum developed by the ultra-conservative Hillsdale College, a curriculum not listed among the Idaho State Department of Education’s approved curricular materials.) 

In the May 2023 primary election Rutledge and Brown publicly refused to support a replacement school levy for the district. The levy failed district-wide on a vote of 1595 for and 1700 against, leaving the district with a loss of a third of its budget. 

In June of 2023 during a raucous meeting Rutledge and Brown were again joined by Mr. Reinbold, in voting 3-2 to hire a controversial figure, Branden Durst, an education policy analyst for the ultra-conservative, “free market” Idaho Freedom Foundation, as the new Superintendent of Schools for WBCSD. Durst, although he lacked the credentials required for the position, was elected by the board over the highly qualified interim Superintendent, Susan Luckey. Alarm bells started to ring. The Idaho Freedom Foundation is a staunch antagonist of public schooling. 

The Coeur d’Alene Press published this bizarre justification by Rutledge of the choice of Durst for superintendent:

“At this day, at this time, I think Susie Luckey is an excellent superintendent for a school district that was highly functioning and is running smoothly,” board chairman Keith Rutledge said. “At this point, I think that change needs to happen. And I think Branden is the guy to do that.”

Could the not-so-smooth functioning have to do with losing a third of the budget?

Durst wasted no time in stirring up controversy by firing district office staff and calling for a “forensic audit”. Since the levy failure, 31 teachers left the district. School board meetings over the summer were heated. To many it seemed that Durst, along with Trustees Rutledge, Brown, and Reinbold were taking a wrecking ball to the school district. 

The electorate finally, belatedly, woke up to this insanity. In a campaign titled Recall, Replace, Rebuild a group self-identified as Idaho Moms 7b collected signatures from the respective school board zones to hold a recall election of Rutledge and Brown. 

If there were any question as to the far right Republican culture warrior credentials of these two, Susan Brown was open about dispelling that doubt:

“I led the investigation into the Wonders K-12 curriculum recommended by Susie Luckey which was riddled with (critical race theory) derived teaching methods and was 20% over budget. When we found out that the (social emotional learning) being pushed by the recall organizers was a backdoor through Idaho law to promote CRT and LGBTQ+/- agendas, I led the effort to send it right back to its publishers,” Brown said.

The special election (with the recalls as the sole ballot item) was held on August 29. Thanks to the effort of many concerned voters the result was overwhelming. The special election produced a “presidential election turnout” with 61% of voters on average in the two Zones casting a ballot. The tallies were decisive, Brown was recalled 624 to 322 votes, Rutledge by 762 to 454. (Contrast that to the 176 and 244 that elected the two, respectively, in 2021.) 

But the drama was still not over. The recall wouldn’t be final until certified in the “official canvass” by the Bonner County Board of Commissioners on September 7th, nine days after the election. In that gap, the WBCSD Board, led by Rutledge and Brown, despite the slap down of the recall election, sought to hold a special lame duck meeting in which they planned to firm up Durst’s contract, presumably in the hope that the new board would be unable to remove him. In addition they were prepared to vote on an item that would have required the district to pay [Durst’s] full salary if he was terminated for any reason. This from two board members, Rutledge and Brown, who pretended to be fiscal conservatives. 

Fortunately, members of the group that pushed for the recall were vigilant. Having gotten wind of the meeting, they successfully appealed to a local judge for a temporary restraining order “prohibiting the board from taking any action that would financially or contractually obligate the district until the recall was certified.”

So much for any notion of democracy and “the will of the people” from these two right wing culture warriors. 

The lesson: If you don’t pay attention to who’s running—even among school board candidates—and vote accordingly—you risk ceding governance—and public education—to a minority of determined extremists. 

It will take time for the dust settle after this controversy in West Bonner County, Idaho, but the electorate has awakened to the threat and is newly empowered. 

It would have required a whole lot less sweat and tears if more voters had paid attention in 2021. Let that be a lesson for the upcoming November election here in eastern Washington.

Keep to the high ground,


*Exact numbers are hard to come by for 2021. The West Priest River precinct (with 691 registered voters) is split between Zone 2 and Zone 4 of the WBCSD.

P.S. For more on this story (but without the late twist of the Temporary Restraining Order) I recommend’s coverage: 

and Ballotpedia’s details at:,_West_Bonner_County_School_District,_Idaho_(2023)

P.P.S. Take note that all this occurred in a Bonner County, a county in which two thirds of the voters in the 2020 election marked their ballot for Donald Trump. Clearly, many of those in the two zones of the WBCSD board who voted to recall Rutledge and Brown, the two public school trashing ideologues, were folks in the habit of voting for Republicans. It is heartening to see that many Republicans, even in Idaho, value public education.

Co-opting Christianity

I can’t unsee this

In these Substack posts I try to focus on the civics and politics of eastern Washington. In the Inland Northwest we have more than our share of militant, off-the-rails (often self-appointed, see P.S. below) “pastors” who think of themselves as expressing Christian values. The self-ordained pastor of On Fire Ministries and former Washington State Representative Matt Shea with his “The Biblical Basis for War” is a perfect example. Or how about Pastor Jason Graber of the Sure Foundation Baptist Church at 307 W Francis Ave in Spokane, who went briefly viral on social media last April with a video of a sermon in which he proclaimed that “parents of transgender children should be shot”. We’re familiar with Pastor Ken Peters of the non-denominational Covenant Church (the name at the time) on Princeton Ave and his “The Church at Planned Parenthood” used his his idea of Christianity as an excuse to harass people seeking health care at Planned Parenthood. Even Richard Butler of the infamous Aryan Nations compound near Hayden Lake claimed for himself the religious cover of the alliterative, white supremacist “Church of Jesus Christ–Christian”. Viewed from my Methodist upbringing these folk are using a twisted view of Jesus’ teachings to justify violent, hateful, political ends. 

As far as I know none of the above-mentioned pastors and personalities claim any formal theological education or support within an institutional framework, but all claim they are personally channeling a higher power to justify what they preach. But there is a national figure with formal theological training, an ordained Southern Baptist Pastor, Mike Huckabee, who follows a related far right path.

Mike Huckabee is not only an ordained pastor, but he has stature in the national Republican Party. He was the governor of the State of Arkansas from 1996 to 2007. He ran for President of the United States in 2008 and 2016. His daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, served for two years as Donald Trump’s White House press secretary and is now the governor of Arkansas. 

Huckabee hosted a talk show on the Fox News Channel from 2008 to 2015. Since 2017 that same show, Huckabee, has aired on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, “an international Christian-based broadcast television network and the world’s largest religious television network.” As a formally ordained pastor he speaks for The Southern Baptist Convention, “the largest Protestant and second-largest Christian denomination in the United States”, which makes his presentation in the video below all the more sobering.

My Methodist upbringing and values rebel at Huckabee’s words: If Trump is kept from winning (or even running) by what Huckabee claims are President Biden’s “banana republic” tactics “…2024 will be the last election decided by ballots rather than bullets” . Decide for yourself if Huckabee’s words are a prediction or a not-so-subtly worded call to arms. Either way this is the sort of pseudo-Christian rhetoric that infects the ears of listeners to Republican right wing media both nationally and locally. Huckabee discards the basic principle of democracy. Either his candidate wins the election or the election is surely rigged. For Huckabee the proper response to such an election is “bullets” and the abandonment of voting. The outcome is pre-determined.

Ten or twenty years ago it wouldn’t have occurred to me that Mick Huckabee could make a statement like this, but this is what former governor Huckabee, the Southern Baptist Convention—and the Republican Party—have come to. 

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. Understand that the word pastor does not in itself confer any sort of institutional approval. The word pastor comes from the Latin word of the same spelling, meaning “shepherd”. Taking on the appellation “pastor” merely suggests that one wishes or has been able, by the power of one’s preaching and personality, to gather a loyal audience, a flock. Self-declared pastors like Matt Shea, Ken Peters, or Jason Graber claim the mantle of Christianity and personal inspiration from a higher power to justify what they preach. Presumably, each of them sincerely believes they are guided by God in their leadership. I am reminded by my Methodist upbringing of the Biblical warnings against “false prophets”. Whom did Jesus tell us to hate and shun? Whom did Jesus tell us to kill? What sort of arms training did Jesus recommend? Did Jesus encourage armed conflict in the face of his own impending crucifixion?

P.P.S. If you have any doubts as to just how far off the rails this has gotten check out Matt Shea associates Caleb Collier’s and “Pastor” Gabe Blomgren’s Church and State videos.

This Evening at 5:30-6:30

Lecture on The Social Contract at the South Hill Library on Perry and 34th

Dr. Shane Gronholz Ph.D. offers “Social Contract Theory”, the first in a four part series “Introduction to Political Philosophy”. The social contract is the philosophic basis for living in a society ruled by law. Dr. Gronholz is the Current Affairs Specialist at the Spokane Public Library. Here is an excerpt from this description on the Library website explaining the relevance of the topic:

In his role as Current Affairs Specialist, Shane frequently reflects on the nature of our political disagreements and the state of civic dialogue. He posits that many of these disputes stem from differing underlying political philosophies. While understanding these philosophies may not resolve all disagreements, it can foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of perspectives different from our own.

The central question we’ll explore is: Where does the authority of the government come from? The government makes a lot of rules about who gets to do what. Governments have told people whom they can marry, what drugs they can take, how much they have to pay in taxes, what rights have to be respected (and which ones do not), and much, much more. Our question is simply: why do they get to do that?

This is a fundamental inquiry in political philosophy, and your answer to it can significantly shape your views on what the government is entitled to do. Join us as we unpack this question and explore its far-reaching implications.

This is the first in four sequential Wednesday evening lectures. I urge you to click on this link for more detail—and then attend the lecture. Each Wednesday evening lecture is “designed to stand alone”, but I expect there will be some small additional value to starting at the beginning. 

At this time I know of no plans either to livestream the lectures or to record them, so take this opportunity to visit the newly renovated South Hill Library and take advantage of a free lecture on a fascinating and highly relevant topic. For those who cannot attend on this short notice, if I hear of a livestream or a recording of this first lecture I will pass it along as soon as I know. 

Keep to the high ground,

The Importance of Civic Education

An opinion piece from the NYT worth reading

Part of the reason I write these posts is to force myself to better understand local civics. In my recollection, I learned basic civics as part of my early public school education back in Wisconsin before I went off to college. The curriculum covered the basics of state history and the outlines of state and local governments early on. What I didn’t realize back then was that each of the fifty states functions under a slightly different constitution and framework of laws. As a result, details that I learned in my Wisconsin public school education did not necessarily translate when taking up residence in a new state. 

The article that I’ve pasted below from the September 3rd New York Times addresses the need for civic education at the college level, specifically at Stanford. I see it as an important article with which I heartily agree—but I would advocate to expand its call for civic education as a significant part of public (and private) education before college. 

At the same time we should be aware that significant parts of the Republican Party are headed in exactly the opposite direction. Project 2025, the blueprint for the Republican Party’s takeover of the federal government in 2025, begins its section on education with “Federal education policy should be limited and, ultimately, the federal Department of Education should be eliminated.” Certainly no mandate for nationwide civics education there. 

The anti-public education religious wing of the modern day Republican Party includes people like Michael Farris, a Gonzaga Law-educated Evangelical religious zealot recently profiled in the Spokesman (here and here). Farris has devoted himself to developing clever wording, lawsuits, and protests to “take down the education system as we know it today”. Instead, he is in favor of public funding for home schooling. (Just one of his ten children attended public school—for two months of kindergarten—convincing him that the public education system was bent on indoctrinating children with the “religion” of secular humanism.) Clearly, Mr. Farris wants to school his offspring and ours in his particular brand of theocratic governance, not with a civics education, an education that would help equip all students to live in a society with a diversity of opinions. 

Keep to the high ground,


By Abandoning Civics, Colleges Helped Create the Culture Wars

By Debra Satz and Dan Edelstein

Professor Satz is the dean of Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, where Professor Edelstein is the faculty director of the civic, liberal and global education program.

Free speech is once again a flashpoint on college campuses. This year has seen at least 20 instances in which students or faculty members attempted to rescind invitations or to silence speakers. In March, law school students at our own institution made national news when they shouted down a conservative federal judge, Kyle Duncan. And by signing legislation that undermines academic freedom in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis is carrying out what is effectively a broad assault against higher education.

We believe that this intolerance of ideas is not just a consequence of an increasingly polarized society. We think it also results from the failure of higher education to provide students with the kind of shared intellectual framework that we call “civic education.” It is our responsibility as educators to equip students to live in a democratic society whose members will inevitably disagree on many things. To strengthen free speech on campuses, we need to return civic education to the heart of our curriculum.

Throughout the 20th century, many colleges and universities had a required first-year course that honed these skills. Typically, this course was known as Western Civ (short for “civilization”). Such courses became standard during the interwar period, as immigration transformed the student body and liberal democracy itself was under threat around the world.

Western Civ also served another, often unintentional, purpose: It provided a mutually intelligible set of references that situated students’ disagreements on common ground.

Generations of students grappled with Socrates’ argument that the rule of law cannot survive if people simply ignore laws they don’t support. By debating plausible answers, students learned to see disagreement as a necessary ingredient of both learning and of life. They also confronted hard questions about civil disobedience and social change. And the common references that students picked up in their first year provided a foundation for future conversations and courses.

The limitations of Western Civ are evident from its title. It exposed students to Western ideas only, implicitly (or sometimes explicitly) suggesting that these ideas were superior to those from other cultures.

Eventually, these limitations proved intractable. In 1987, activists at Stanford denounced the “European-Western and male bias” of the university’s first-year requirement, then called Western Culture. The course was replaced with a program that had no Western focus.

From 1964 to 2010, almost all selective schools (Columbia being an exception) abandoned first-year requirements featuring a common humanities curriculum. Instead, they opted for a “buffet” model, in which students could choose from various curricular tracks. Between 1995 and 2012, Stanford students could pick from around a dozen first-year humanities classes, from a course on gender roles in Chinese families to Technological Visions of Utopia. While many of these courses were excellent, they had no common core of readings nor any transparent rationale for why they were required.

Many colleges said the change was a pragmatic one, given the disagreements about which texts should be mandatory. We believe there was another reason universities turned toward an à la carte curriculum: They had come under the spell, like much of society at that time, of a free-market ideology. In this vision, individual choice and individual advancement take center stage. Requirements are recast as paternalistic; freedom is understood as doing as one pleases.

Freedom of choice is an important value. But without common foundations, it can lead to people shouting one another down. An educational model that leaves no room for a core curriculum shaped by the demands of 21st-century democracies leaves students woefully ill equipped for dealing with disagreements. In a world where individual choice is supreme, how do we learn to accept that there are alternative perspectives to our own that may also be valid? If my goals are the only ones that matter, those who do not share them can too easily be viewed as obstacles that need to be swept away. In the educational context, the invisible hand can turn into an iron fist.

The widespread adoption of a free-market approach to the college curriculum has had other noxious effects, as well: It has fueled a rampant vocationalism among students, leading them to desert humanities classes in favor of pre-professional tracks aimed at lucrative careers. When universities do not signal the intrinsic value of certain topics or texts by requiring them, many students simply follow market cues.

Civic education, by contrast, is a public good. Left to the market, it will always be undersupplied. It is rarely a priority for employers or for job seekers to promote the skills of active listening, mutual reasoning, respecting differences and open-mindedness. We need to reinvest in it.

In the absence of civic education, it is not surprising that universities are at the epicenter of debates over free speech and its proper exercise. Free speech is hard work. The basic assumptions and attitudes necessary for cultivating free speech do not come to us naturally. Listening to people with whom you disagree can be unpleasant. But universities have a moral and civic duty to teach students how to consider and weigh contrary viewpoints, and how to accept differences of opinion as a healthy feature of a diverse society. Disagreement is in the nature of democracies.

Universities and colleges must do a better job of explaining to our students the rationale for free speech, as well as cultivating in them the skills and mind-set necessary for its practice. The free-market curriculum model is simply not equipped for this task. We cannot leave this imperative up to student choice.

At Stanford, since 2021, we once again have a single, common undergraduate requirement. By structuring its curriculum around important topics rather than canonical texts, and by focusing on the cultivation of democratic skills such as listening, reasonableness and humility, we have sought to steer clear of the cultural issues that doomed Western Civ. The new requirement was approved by our faculty senate in May 2020 without a single dissenting vote.

Called Civic, Liberal and Global Education, it includes a course on citizenship in the 21st century. Delivered in a small discussion-seminar format, this course provides students with the skills, training and perspectives for engaging in meaningful ways with others, especially when they disagree. All students read the same texts, some canonical and others contemporary. Just as important, all students work on developing the same skills.Preliminary assessments and feedback suggest that our new program is meeting its goals.

To be clear, our civic education does not aim at achieving consensus among students, nor at producing moderation. Our students, like all of us, will continue to disagree on many things. Nor are our students the only ones in need of such civic skills — numerous members of Congress and governors could no doubt use this curriculum, as well. (We’d be happy to share it.)

But it is our belief that by restoring a common curricular foundation centered on the democratic skills our students need to live in a diverse society, they will turn to more constructive ways to engage with those with whom they disagree than censorship or cancellation.

Labor and Wealth

Some Labor Day Weekend history from Professor Heather Cox Richardson

I read historian Heather Cox Richardson’s Substack post “Letters From an American” every morning. I know that many of my readers also receive her posts. For those who do not, I urge you to visit her website and sign up.

As a Labor Day post I thought her September 2 email was spot on. Hence, I’ve copied Professor Richardson’s post below. 

Note that, although the modern Republican Party still holds “Lincoln Day” dinners, claims Lincoln as their founder, and pretends to be the Party that abolished slavery, the modern day Republican Party bears little resemblance to the Party that Abraham Lincoln founded. Consider, as just one of many possible examples, the modern Republican adherence to “trickle down” economics (what Republicans refer to as “Supply Side Economics”), the theory that overall economic benefit at every level will result from less taxation and regulation of business and the wealthy—a Republican article of faith at least since the Reagan presidency. 

Lincoln’s words support the idea of an economy built from the middle out and the bottom up, not one built on trickle down from the top.

Keep to the high ground,


September 2, 2023

Heather Cox Richardson

On March 4, 1858, South Carolina senator James Henry Hammond rose to his feet to explain to the Senate how society worked. “In all social systems,” he said, “there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life.” That class, he said, needed little intellect and little skill, but it should be strong, docile, and loyal. 

“Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization and refinement,” Hammond said. His workers were the “mud-sill” on which society rested, the same way that a stately house rested on wooden sills driven into the mud. 

He told his northern colleagues that the South had perfected this system by enslavement based on race, while northerners pretended that they had abolished slavery. “Aye, the name, but not the thing,” he said. “[Y]our whole hireling class of manual laborers and ‘operatives,’ as you call them, are essentially slaves.” 

While southern leaders had made sure to keep their enslaved people from political power, Hammond said, he warned that northerners had made the terrible mistake of giving their “slaves” the vote. As the majority, they could, if they only realized it, control society. Then “where would you  be?” he asked. “Your society would be reconstructed, your government overthrown, your property divided, not…with arms…but by the quiet process of the ballot-box.” 

He warned that it was only a matter of time before workers took over northern cities and began slaughtering men of property. 

Hammond’s vision was of a world divided between the haves and the have-nots, where men of means commandeered the production of workers and justified that theft with the argument that such a concentration of wealth would allow superior men to move society forward. It was a vision that spoke for the South’s wealthy planter class—enslavers who held more than 50 of their Black neighbors in bondage and made up about 1% of the population—but such a vision didn’t even speak for the majority of white southerners, most of whom were much poorer than such a vision suggested. 

And it certainly didn’t speak for northerners, to whom Hammond’s vision of a society divided between dim drudges and the rich and powerful was both troubling and deeply insulting.

On September 30, 1859, at the Wisconsin State Agricultural Fair, rising politician Abraham Lincoln answered Hammond’s vision of a society dominated by a few wealthy men. While the South Carolina enslaver argued that labor depended on capital to spur men to work, either by hiring them or enslaving them, Lincoln said there was an entirely different way to see the world.  

Representing an economy in which most people worked directly on the land or water to pull wheat into wagons and fish into barrels, Lincoln believed that “[l]abor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed—that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior—greatly the superior of capital.” 

A man who had, himself, worked his way up from poverty to prominence (while Hammond had married into money), Lincoln went on: “[T]he opponents of the ‘mud-sill’ theory insist that there is not…any such things as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life.”

And then Lincoln articulated what would become the ideology of the fledgling Republican Party: 

“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 for 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.” 

In such a worldview, everyone shared a harmony of interest. What was good for the individual worker was, ultimately, good for everyone. There was no conflict between labor and capital; capital was simply “pre-exerted labor.” Except for a few unproductive financiers and those who wasted their wealth on luxuries, everyone was part of the same harmonious system. 

The protection of property was crucial to this system, but so was opposition to great accumulations of wealth. Levelers who wanted to confiscate property would upset this harmony, as Hammond warned, but so would rich men who sought to monopolize land, money, or the means of production. If a few people took over most of a country’s money or resources, rising laborers would be forced to work for them forever or, at best, would have to pay exorbitant prices for the land or equipment they needed to become independent. 

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since Lincoln’s day, but on this Labor Day weekend, it strikes me that the worldviews of men like Hammond and Lincoln are still fundamental to our society: Should our government protect people of property as they exploit the majority so they can accumulate wealth and move society forward as they wish? Or should we protect the right of ordinary Americans to build their own lives, making sure that no one can monopolize the country’s money and resources, with the expectation that their efforts will build society from the ground up? 


Selections from the Letters and Speeches of the Hon. James H. Hammond (New York: John F. Trow & Co., 1866), at

Abraham Lincoln, September 30, 1859, “An Address by Abraham Lincoln Before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Fair.”