The American Spirit of Work

Pittsburgh, 1790s.

Arthur Young, an English writer who was supposedly enlightened and known for his writings about agriculture commented that “Everybody but an idiot knows that the lower class must be kept poor or they will never be industrious.” Derek Jarrett, England in the Age of Hogarth, (London, 1974), 79-80.

This English belief, that the lower rungs of society were not entitled to an equal chance with their peers, captured the view of many for centuries leading up to the American Revolution. Most people in England believed that “people would not work unless they had to.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 324.

Benjamin Franklin, in 1784, asked the question: “Is not the Hope of one day being able to purchase and enjoy Luxuries a great Spur to labour and Industry?” Benjamin Franklin to Benjamin Vaughn, 26 July 1784. In the 1790s and early 1800s, farmers were now working hard and participating in national commerce “to increase their purchase of luxury goods and become more respectable,” not just to stay “out of poverty” or work by mere necessity. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 324.

The equality amongst citizens in the early Republic was not only captured in the Constitution, but also had become woven into the fabric of American society. There was a universal belief that individuals were capable of accomplishing goals, of moving up in their profession, and of not being hindered by their modest means.

Some would look to these formative years as the spark that led to the great American economy. It is not clear how this culture emerged, or what prompted this culture to emerge, but it became obvious by the early 1800s that the American economy was a force to be reckoned with, largely in part because of its burgeoning population and rapid expansion westward.

That American spirit of work carries forward to today. Often, many politicians, commentators, and common folk are quick to explain that the American dream is dead. At least a part of the American dream, the ability for individuals to generate enough income to purchase luxuries to enjoy, has been present in Americans’ minds since the early Republic. Few would question whether this portion of the American dream is still being fulfilled by ordinary Americans.

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