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The Free labor ideal was a philosophy which developed in the American north during the 1840s and 1850s. Free labor referred to laborers who were not slaves, not to laborers who worked for nothing, and free labor ideas accounted for both the successes and the shortcomings of the economy and society taking shape in the North and the American West. Spokesmen for the ideal supported the ideas of hard work, self-reliance, and independence, and they supported the concept of self-made men such as Abraham Lincoln, who was said to have been a country-born son of illiterate farmers who went on to become a lawyer and President. Lincoln believed that wage labor was the first rung on the ladder toward self-employment and eventually hiring others. The ideology believed that people could succeed or fail based on their skills, and it supported free markets and competition. The ideal ultimately won over the "Cotton kingdom" system during the American Civil War, as free laborers in the north powered the Union victory. The ideal, however, assigned to both hard work and talent, and to poverty, as it implied that the poor Irish and free African-Americans were at fault for their own situations. The ideal failed to explain the poverty which came with the industrialization of cities such as New York City and Philadelphia and immigration to those cities. Supporters of the ideology would justify the situation of African-Americans by pointing out their abilities to be free, to own their own farms, and to vote, and their poor lot in life; they believed that they were at fault for their failures. The ideal also led to labor strikes in the North, which had to be suppressed in the decades following the Civil War. However, the ideology is still dominant in the United States, emphasizing hard work, freedom, and competition.

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