Clio Logo
The Wisconsin State Fair in 1859 was located in Milwaukee where the Wisconsin Agricultural Society drew thousands of people to the city to look at the exhibits of produce and livestock. The keynote speaker for the fair was none other than Abraham Lincoln, the future president of the United States. During his speech, Abraham Lincoln spoke against the proslavery "mudsill" theory, which asserted that farmers and laborers would always remain on the bottom floor of society. Proponents of the mudsill theory, like South Carolina Senator James H. Hammond, held that the people who control capital will also be above labor for hire or slaves. Proponents of this theory placed free workers in the same class with enslaved people but Lincoln argued that this theory didn't make sense. A farmer is a free laborer, he says, who works with both his hands and his mind. Education is therefore key to keeping up with technological innovations and new techniques in farming, something that the mudsill theory dismisses. The spot where he gave the speech is commemorated with a plaque at the corner of 13th and Wells outside Marquette’s Schroeder Hall.

  • Plaque on the corner of 13th and Wells commemorating Lincoln's speech

Milwaukee in 1859 was chosen to host the Milwaukee State Fair. It had started in 1851 in Janesville and had moved to different locations each year. The fair hosted a number of exhibits on machinery, livestock, and produce. The fair managed to pull in $5,000, which was distributed to the winners of the various competitions being held that day like best swine, biggest poultry, and so on. The State Fair in Milwaukee was notable because the future president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, gave the keynote speech.

           In the first half of the speech, Lincoln spoke about the farmer’s ability to make do with what little he had and how new technology would help him produce more crops. Then he spoke about a prevailing social theory at that time, the mudsill theory. The theory states nobody works for free and that those with capital control people like hired laborers and slaves. Proponents of this social theory would place the farmer in the lowest level because they only see the world as those who have capital and those who must work for it. Abraham Lincoln denied that this theory had any merit. Lincoln says those who espouse this theory don’t recognize that there are people outside labor for hire or slaves. He said only look at the free laborer in the United States like the farmer. The free laborer must be both good with his hands and his mind. That’s why, Lincoln said, education is so important. Through cultivated thought and hard labor, the farmer finds both profit and pleasure in what he does. Lincoln said, “I know nothing so pleasant to the mind, as the discovery of anything which is at once new and valuable – nothing that so lightens and sweetens toil, as the hopeful pursuit of such discovery.” The spot where Lincoln gave his speech is located on the corner of 13th and Wells near Marquette University’s Schroeder Hall