Capital and Labor*

Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage

“Whatever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them”
(Matthew 7:12).

The greatest war the world has ever seen is between Capital and Labor. The strife is not like that which in history is called the Thirty Years’ War, for it is a war of centuries, it is a war of the five continents, it is a war hemispheric. The middle classes in this country, on whom the nation has depended for holding the balance of power and for acting as mediators between the two extremes, are diminishing; and if things go on at the same ratio as they are now going, it will not be long before there will be no middle class in this country; but all will be very rich or very poor, princes or paupers, and the country will be given up to palaces and hovels.

The antagonistic forces are closing in on each other. The telegraphic operators’ strikes, the railroad employees’ strikes, the Pennsylvania miners’ strikes, the movements of the boycotters and the dynamiters are only skirmishes before a general engagement, or, if you prefer it, escapes through the safety valves of an imprisoned force that promises the explosion of society. You may pooh-pooh it; you may say that this trouble, like an angry child, will cry itself to sleep; you may belittle it by calling it Fourierism, Socialism, St Simonism, Nihilism, or Communism; but that will not hinder the fact that it is the mightiest, the darkest, the most terrific threat of this century.

All attempts at pacification have been dead failures, monopoly is more arrogant, and the trade unions more bitter.

“Give us more wages,” cry the employees.

“You shall have less,” say the Capitalists.

“Compel us to do fewer hours of toil in a day.”

“You shall toil more hours,” say the others.

“Then, under certain conditions, we will not work at all,” say these.

“Then you shall starve,” say those.

And the workmen gradually using up what they accumulated in better times, unless there be some radical change, we shall have soon in this country 3.0 million hungry men and women. Now, 3.0 million hungry people cannot be kept quiet. All the enactments of legislatures, all the constabularies of the cities, and all the army and navy of the United States cannot keep quiet 3.0 million hungry people. What then? Will this war between Capital and Labor be settled by human wisdom? Never. The brow of the one becomes more rigid, the fist of the other more clinched.

But that which human wisdom cannot achieve will be accomplished by Christianity if it be given full sway. You have heard of medicines so powerful that one drop would stop a disease and restore a patient. I have to tell you that one drop of my text properly administered will stop all those woes of society and give convalescence and complete health to all classes. “Whatever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them.”

I shall first show you this morning how this quarrel between monopoly and hard work cannot be stopped, and then I will show you how this controversy will be settled.


Blaming the Rich

In the first place, there will come no pacification to this trouble through an outcry against rich men merely because they are rich. There is no member of a trade union on earth that would not be rich if he could be. Sometimes through a fortunate invention, or through some accident of prosperity, a man who has nothing comes to large estate; and we see him arrogant and supercilious, taking people by the throat as other people took him by the throat.

There is something very mean about human nature when it comes to the top. But it is no more a sin to be rich than it is a sin to be poor. Some rich persons have gathered a great estate through fraud. Then there are millionaires who have gathered their fortune through foresight in regard to changes in the markets and through brilliant business faculty. Every dollar of their estate is as honest as the dollar the plumber gets for mending a pipe or the mason gets for building a wall.

Some persons are impoverished because of their own fault. They might have been well-off, but they smoked or chewed up their earnings, or they lived beyond their means, while others on the same wages and on the same salaries went on to competency. I know a man who is all the time complaining of his poverty and crying out against rich men, while he himself keeps two dogs, chews and smokes, and is filled to the chin with whisky and beer!

Micawber said to David Copperfield: “Copperfield, my boy, one pound income, twenty shillings and sixpence expenses: result misery. But, Copperfield, my boy, one pound income, expenses nineteen shillings and sixpence: result, happiness” [in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield]. And there are vast multitudes of people who are kept poor because they are the victims of their own improvidence.

It is no sin to be rich, and it is no sin to be poor. I protest against this outcry I hear against those who, through economy, self-denial, and assiduity [carefulness], have come to large fortune. This bombardment of commercial success will never stop this quarrel between Capital and Labor.

Chastising the Poor

Neither will the contest be settled by cynical and unsympathetic treatment of the laboring classes. There are those who speak of the workers as though they were only cattle or draught horses. Their nerves are nothing, their domestic comfort is nothing, their happiness is nothing. They have no more sympathy for them than a hound has for a hare, a hawk for a hen, or a tiger for a calf.

When Jean Valjean [in Les Miserables], the greatest hero of Victor Hugo’s writings, after a life of suffering and brave endurance, goes into incarceration and death, they clap the book shut and say, “Good for him!” They stamp their feet with indignation and say just the opposite of “Save the working-classes.” They have all their sympathies with Shylock, and not with Antonio and Portia [from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice]. They are plutocrats [rich], and their feelings are infernal. They are filled with irritation and irascibility [anger] on this subject. To stop this awful imbroglio [entanglement] between Capital and Labor they will lift not so much as the tip of the little finger.


Neither will there be any pacification of this angry controversy through violence. God never blessed murder.

The poorest use you can put a man to is to kill him. Blow up tomorrow all the country seats on the banks of the Hudson, and all the fine houses on Madison Square, Brooklyn Heights, Bunker Hill, Rittenhouse Square, and Beacon Street; and all the bricks, timber, and stone will fall back on the bare head of American labor. The worst enemies of the working classes in the United States and Ireland are their demented [senile] coadjutors [bishops]. Assassination—the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Mr Burke in Phoenix Park, Dublin, Ireland, in the attempt to avenge the wrongs of Ireland, only turned away from that afflicted people millions of sympathizers. The recent attempt to blow up the House of Commons, in London, had only this effect: to throw out of employment tens of thousands of innocent Irish people in England.

In this country the torch put to the factories that have discharged hands for good or bad reason; obstructions on the railroad track in front of midnight express trains because the offenders do not like the president of the company; strikes on shipboard the hour they were going to sail, or in printing offices the hour the paper was to go to press, or in mines the day the coal was to be delivered, or on house scaffoldings so the builder fails in keeping his contract—all these are only a hard blow on the head of American labor, cripple its arms, lame its feet, and pierce its heart. Take the last great strike in America—the telegraph operators’ strike—and you have to find that the operators lost $400,000 worth of wages, and have had poorer wages ever since. Traps sprung suddenly on employers, and violence, never took one knot out of the knuckle of toil, or put one farthing of wages into a callous palm. Barbarism will never cure the wrongs of civilization. Mark that!

Frederick the Great admired some land near his palace at Potsdam, and he resolved to get it. It was owned by a miller. He offered the miller three times the value of the property. The miller would not take it, because it was the old homestead, and he felt about as Naboth felt about his vineyard when Ahab wanted it (1 Kings 21:1-14).

Frederick the Great was a rough and terrible man. He ordered the miller into his presence; and the king, with a stick, in his hand—a stick with which he sometimes struck his officers of state—said to this miller: “Now, I have offered you three times the value of that property, and if you won’t sell it I’ll take it anyhow.”

The miller said, “Your majesty, you won’t.”

“Yes,” said the king, “I will take it.”

“Then,” said the miller, “if your majesty does take it, I will sue you in the Chancery Court.”

At that threat Frederick the Great yielded his infamous demand. And the most imperious outrage against the working classes will yet cower before the law. Violence and contrary-to-law will never accomplish anything, but righteousness and according-to-law will.


Well, if this controversy between Capital and Labor cannot be settled by human wisdom, if today Capital and Labor stand with their thumbs on each other’s throat—as they do—it is time for us to look somewhere else for relief. It points from my text roseate and jubilant, puts one hand on the broadcloth shoulder of Capital and the other hand on the homespun-covered shoulder of Toil, and says, with a voice that will grandly and gloriously settle this, and everything, “Whatever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them.”

Loving One Another

The lady of the house will say, “I must treat the maid in the kitchen as I would like to be treated if I were downstairs, and it were my work to wash, cook, and sweep, and it were the duty of the maid in the kitchen to preside in this parlor.”

The maid in the kitchen must say, “If my employer is more prosperous than I, that is no fault of hers; I shall not treat her as an enemy. I will have the same industry and fidelity downstairs as I would expect from my subordinates, if I happened to be the wife of a silk importer.”

The owner of an iron mill, having taken a dose of my text before leaving home in the morning, will go into his foundry, and, passing into what is called the puddling room [where the ore is worked], he will see a man there stripped to the waist, sweaty and exhausted with labor and toil, and he will say to him, “Why, it seems to be very hot in here. You look exhausted. I hear your child is sick with scarlet fever. If you want your wages a little earlier this week, so as to pay the nurse and get the medicine, come to my office anytime.”

After a while, crash goes the money market, and there is no more demand for the articles manufactured in that iron mill, and the owner does not know what to do. He says, “Shall I stop the mill, run it on half-time, or cut the men’s wages?” He walks the floor of his counting-room all day, hardly knowing what to do. Toward evening he calls all the laborers together. They stand all around, some with arms akimbo, some with folded arms, wondering what the boss is going to do now.

The manufacturer says: “Men, times are hard; I don’t make $20 where I used to make $100. There is little or no demand now for what we manufacture. You see I am at vast expense, and I have called you together this afternoon to see what you would advise. I don’t want to shut the mill, because that would force you out of work, and you have been faithful. I like you, and you seem to like me. The bairns [children] must be looked after, and your wife will after a while want a new dress. I don’t know what to do.”

There is a dead halt for a minute or two. Then one of the workmen steps out from the ranks of his fellows and says: “Boss, you have been good to us. When you prospered, we prospered. Now you are in a tight place and I am sorry, and we have got to sympathize with you. I don’t know how the others feel, but I propose that you cut our wages. When the times get better, you can raise them again.” The workman looks around to his comrades, and says: “Boys, what do you say to this? All in favor of my proposition say ay.”

“Ay! ay! ay!” shout two hundred voices.

But the mill owner, getting in some new machinery, overexposes himself, takes cold; it settles into pneumonia, and he dies. In the procession to the tomb are all the workmen, tears rolling down their cheeks and spilling on the ground. An hour before the procession gets to the cemetery, the wives and the children of those workmen are at the grave waiting for the arrival of the funeral pageant. The minister may have delivered an eloquent eulogy before they started from the house, but the most impressive things are said that day by the working classes standing around the tomb.

That night in all the cabins of the working people, where they have family prayers, the families remember the widow and the orphans in the mansion. No glaring populations look over the iron fence of the cemetery; but, hovering over the scene, the benediction of God and man is coming for the fulfillment of the Christlike injunction, “Whatever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them.”

“Oh,” says some man here, “that is all Utopian, that is apocryphal, that is impossible.”

No. Yesterday, I cut out of a paper this: “One of the pleasantest incidents recorded in a long time is reported from Sheffield, England. The wages of the men in the iron works at Sheffield are regulated by a board of arbitration, by whose decision both masters and men are bound. For some time past the iron and steel trade has been extremely unprofitable, and the employers can not, without much loss, pay the wages fixed by the board, which neither employers nor employed have the power to change. To avoid this difficulty, the workmen in one of the largest steel works in Sheffield hit on a device as rare as it was generous. They offered to work for their employers one week without any pay whatever. How much better that plan is than a strike would be.”

Go with me and I will show you—not so far off as Sheffield, England—factories, banking houses, storehouses, and costly enterprises where this Christlike injunction of my text is fully kept, and you could no more get the employer to practice an injustice on his men, or the men to conspire against the employer, than you could get your right hand and your left hand, your right eye and your left eye, your right ear and your left ear, into physiological antagonism.

Helping One Another

Now, where is this to begin? In our homes, in our stores, on our farms—not waiting for other people to do their duty. Is there a divergence now between the parlor and the kitchen? Then there is something wrong, either in the parlor or the kitchen, perhaps in both. Are the clerks in your store irate against the firm? Then there is something wrong, either behind the counter, or in the private office, or perhaps in both.

The great want of the world today is the fulfillment of this Christlike injunction, that which He promulgated [made known] in His sermon Olivetic [from the Mount of Olives]. All the political economists under the arch or vault of the heavens in convention for a thousand years cannot settle this controversy between monopoly and hard work, between Capital and Labor.

During the Revolutionary War there was a heavy piece of timber to be lifted, perhaps for some fortress. A corporal was overseeing the work, and he was giving commands to some soldiers as they lifted: “Heave away, there! yo heave!” Well, the timber was too heavy; they could not get it up.

A gentleman riding by on a horse stopped and said to this corporal, “Why don’t you help them lift? That timber is too heavy for them to lift.”

“No,” he said, “I won’t; I am a corporal.”

The gentleman got off his horse and came up to the place. “Now,” he said to the soldiers, “all together—yo heave!” and the timber went to its place. “Now,” said the gentleman to the corporal, “when you have a piece of timber too heavy for the men to lift, and you want help, you send to your commander-in-chief.” It was General George Washington.

Now, that is about all the gospel I know—the gospel of giving somebody a lift, a lift out of darkness, a lift out of earth into heaven. That is all the gospel I know—the gospel of helping somebody else to lift.

Sharing With One Another

“Oh,” says some wiseacre, “talk as you will, the law of demand and supply will regulate these things until the end of time.”

No, they will not, unless God dies and the batteries of the Judgment Day are spiked, and Pluto and Proserpine, king and queen of the infernal regions, take full possession of this world. Do you know who Supply and Demand are? They have gone into partnership, and they propose to swindle this earth and are swindling it. You are drowning. Supply and Demand stand on the shore, one on one side, the other on the other side of the lifeboat, and they cry out to you, “Now, you pay us what we ask you for getting you to shore, or go to the bottom!”

If you can borrow $5,000, you can keep from failing in business. Supply and Demand say, “Now, you pay us exorbitant usury, or you go into bankruptcy.” This robber firm of Supply and Demand say to you: “The crops are short. We bought up all the wheat, and it is in our bin. Now, you pay our price or starve.” That is your magnificent law of supply and demand.

Supply and Demand own the largest mill on earth, and all the rivers roll over their wheel, and into their hopper they put all the men, women, and children they can shovel out of the centuries, and the blood and the bones redden the valley while the mill grinds. That diabolic law of supply and demand will yet have to stand aside, and in its place will come the law of love, the law of cooperation, the law of kindness, the law of sympathy, the law of Christ.

Have you no idea of the coming of such a time? Then you do not believe the Bible. All the Bible is full of promises on this subject; and as the ages roll on, the time will come when men or fortune will be giving larger sums to humanitarian and evangelistic purposes, and there will be more James Lenoxes, Peter Coopers, William E Dodges, and George Peabodys [philanthropists]. As that time comes, there will be more parks, more picture galleries, more gardens thrown open for the holiday people and the working classes.

I was reading only this morning in regard to a charge that had been made in England against Lambeth Palace, that it was exclusive; and that charge demonstrated the sublime fact that to the grounds of that wealthy estate 800 poor families have free passes, 40 croquet companies, and on the hall-day holidays 4,000 poor people recline on the grass, walk through the paths, and sit under the trees. That is gospel—gospel on the wing, gospel out-of-doors worth as much as in-doors. That time is going to come.

That is only a hint of what is going to be. The time is going to come when, if you have anything in your house worth looking at—pictures, pieces of sculpture—you are going to invite me to come and see it, you are going to invite my friends to come and see it, and you will say, “See what I have been blessed with. God has given me this, and so far as enjoying it, it is yours also.” That is gospel.

In crossing the Alleghany Mountains, many years ago, the stage halted, and Henry Clay dismounted. He went out on a rock at the very verge of the cliff, stood there with his cloak wrapped about him, and seemed to be listening for something.

Someone said to him, “What are you listening for?”

Standing there, on the top of the mountain, he said: “I am listening to the tramp of the footsteps of the coming millions of this continent.”

A sublime posture for an American statesman!

You and I today stand on the mountaintop of privilege, and on the Rock of Ages, and we look off, and we hear coming from the future the happy industries, smiling populations, consecrated fortunes, and the innumerable prosperities of the closing 19th and the opening 20th century.

Befriending One Another

While I speak this morning, there lies in state the dead author and patriot of France, Victor Hugo. [Hugo died 22 May 1885.] The $10,000 in his will he has given to the poor of the city are only a hint of the work he has done for all nations and for all times. I wonder not that they allow eleven days to pass between his death and his burial, his body meantime kept under triumphal arch, for the world can hardly afford to let go this man who for more than eight decades has by his unparalleled genius blessed it. His name shall be a terror to all despots, and an encouragement to all the struggling. He has made the world’s burden lighter, its darkness less dense, its chain less galling, and its thrones of iniquity less secure. Farewell, patriot, genius of the century, Victor Hugo! But he was not the overtowering friend of mankind.

The greatest Friend of capitalist and toiler, and the One who will yet bring them together in complete accord, was born one Christmas night while the curtains of heaven swung, stirred by angelic wings.

Owner of all things—all the continents, all worlds, and all the islands of light. Capitalist of immensity, crossing over to our condition. Coming into our world, not by gate of palace, but by door of barn. Spending His first night among shepherds. Gathering after around Him fishermen as His chief attendants. With adze [mallet], saw, chisel, and ax, in a carpenter shop, showing himself brother with the tradesmen.

Owner of all things, and yet on a hillock back of Jerusalem one day resigning everything for others, keeping not so much as a shekel to pay for His obsequies [funeral], by charity buried in the suburbs of a city that had cast Him out. Before the cross of such a Capitalist, and such a Carpenter, all men can afford to shake hands and worship.

Here is the everyman’s Christ. None so high, but He was higher. None so poor, but He was poorer. At His feet the hostile extremes will yet renounce their animosities, and countenances that have glowered with the prejudices and revenge of centuries will brighten with the smile of heaven as He commands, “Whatever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them.”

“Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge temperance, to temperance patience, to patience godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, to brotherly kindness love. If these things be in you and abound, you will not be barren or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8).

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Dewey Arch Madison Square (c 1900)
Featured for this series are photographs of old New York.

*Adapted from “Capital and Labor,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], New Tabernacle Sermons Vol I (New York: George Munro, 1886). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.


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