7.The Work Ethic in America
Roger B. Hill, Ph.D.
© 1992, 1996
Although the Protestant ethic became a significant factor in shaping the culture and society of Europe after the sixteenth century, its impact did not eliminate the social hierarchy which gave status to those whose wealth allowed exemption from toil and made gentility synonymous with leisure (Rodgers, 1978). The early adventurers who first found America were searching, not for a place to work and build a new land, but for a new Eden where abundance and riches would allow them to follow Aristotle's instruction that leisure was the only life fitting for a free man. The New England Puritans, the Pennsylvania Quakers, and others of the Protestant sects, who eventually settled in America, however, came with no hopes or illusions of a life of ease.
The early settlers referred to America as a wilderness, in part because they sought the spiritual growth associated with coming through the wilderness in the Bible (Rodgers, 1978). From their viewpoint, the moral life was one of hard work and determination, and they approached the task of building a new world in the wilderness as an opportunity to prove their own moral worth. What resulted was a land preoccupied with toil.
When significant numbers of Europeans began to visit the new world in the early 1800's, they were amazed with the extent of the transformation (Rodgers, 1978). Visitors to the northern states were particularly impressed by the industrious pace. They often complained about the lack of opportunities for amusement, and they were perplexed by the lack of a social strata dedicated to a life of leisure.
Work in preindustrial America was not incessant, however. The work of agriculture was seasonal, hectic during planting and harvesting but more relaxed during the winter months. Even in workshops and stores, the pace was not constant. Changing demands due to the seasons, varied availability of materials, and poor transportation and communication contributed to interruptions in the steadiness of work. The work ethic of this era did not demand the ceaseless regularity which came with the age of machines, but supported sincere dedication to accomplish those tasks a person might have before them. The work ethic "was not a certain rate of business but a way of thinking" (Rodgers, 1978, p. 19).
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