During the 18th century, industry was a core virtue, perhaps even the preeminent virtue after justice. Let’s examine the most admired and widely read ethical writer in colonial America leading up to the Revolution: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin published both newspapers and books over several decades expressing his ethical wisdom most often through his alter ego, Poor Richard. Here’s a classic:
“... Early to Bed, and early to rise, makes a Man healthy, wealthy and wise. So what signifies wishing and hoping for better Times. We may make these Times better if we bestir ourselves. Industry need not wish, as Poor Richard says, and He that lives upon Hope will die fasting. ...” [“Poor Richard Improved”, 1758]For Franklin hard work wasn’t a postlapsarian punishment nor a form of self-denial. In an early essay he challenges the notion that self-denial is even required for virtue and uses “justice” and “industry” as examples.
“It is commonly asserted, that without Self-Denial there is no Virtue, and that the greater the Self-Denial the greater the Virtue. ... If to a certain Man, idle Diversions have nothing in them that is tempting, and therefore he never relaxes his Application to Business for their Sake; is he not an Industrious Man? Or has he not the Virtue of Industry?” [“Self-Denial Not the Essence of Virtue”, 1734]He notes that one may have to cultivate virtue by practice until it becomes second nature; but virtue and flourishing ultimately go hand-in-hand. Furthermore, when a virtue is widely accepted it contributes to the welfare of a nation. He speculates on such matters in “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind”, 1751:
“... I have heard it remarked that the Poor in Protestant Countries on the Continent of Europe, are generally more industrious than those of Popish Countries, may not the more numerous foundations in the latter for the relief of the poor have some effect towards rendering them less provident. To relieve the misfortunes of our fellow creatures is concurring with the Deity, ’tis Godlike, but if we provide encouragements for Laziness, and supports for Folly, may it not be found fighting against the order of God and Nature, which perhaps has appointed Want and Misery as the proper Punishments for, and Cautions against as well as necessary consequences of Idleness and Extravagancy.”In the same essay he turns a critical eye on the America’s “peculiar institution”:
“... Slaves also pejorate the Families that use them; the white Children become proud, disgusted with Labour, and being educated in Idleness, are rendered unfit to get a Living by Industry. ...”
Franklin was the apostle of the virtue of industry his whole life. In his last decade he wrote a celebrated essay on the character of the American people: “Information on Those Who Would Remove to America.” It has been widely republished and it is worth reading in its entirety. The essay is a warning to Europeans about what they can expect if they emigrate to America.
He describes Americans as independent hard-working people where ancestry and privilege are not the currency of the realm. Those expecting a cushy lucrative government appointment are warned:
“.. it is a Rule establish’d in some of the States, that no Offices should be so profitable as to make it desireable. The 36 Article of the Constitution of Pensilvania, runs expresly in these Words: As every Freeman, to preserve his Independence, (if he has not a sufficient Estate) ought to have some Profession, Calling, Trade or Farm, whereby he may honestly subsist, there can be no Necessity for, nor Use in, establishing Offices of Profit; the usual Effects of which are Dependance and Servility, unbecoming Freemen, in the Possessors and Expectants; Faction, Contention, Corruption, and Disorder among the People.”Expecting a free lunch?
“... every one will enjoy securely the Profits of his Industry ... he must work and be industrious to live ... In short America is the Land of Labour, and by no means what the English call Lubberland, and the French Pays de Cocagne, where the Streets are said to be pav’d with half-peck Loaves, the Houses til’d with Pancakes, and where the Fowls fly about ready roasted, crying, Come eat me!”He suggests that Europeans “... read the Constitutions of the several States, and the Articles of Confederation ...” to see that there is no welfare, start-up funds, subsidies for manufacturing, or protectionism. Protectionism leads to sloth and liquor! In sum:
“... those Vices that arise usually from Idleness are in a great Measure prevented. Industry and constant Employment are great Preservatives of the Morals and Virtue of a Nation. Hence bad Examples to Youth are more rare in America, which must be a comfortable Consideration to Parents.”This is a small sample of an inspiring essay which, judging from the term papers offered for sale online, must still be assigned with some regularity.
As our nation was being founded, there were two revolutions in the field of ethics. Immanuel Kant introduced the “categorical imperative” in such a way as to categorize everything instrumental as being irrelevant to morality. Industry, for example, is desirable but has nothing to do with virtue. Jeremy Bentham developed utilitarianism; he retained instrumentality but put it in service of the collective. Thus when someone says they work hard and make a decent living, they have said nothing of moral worth until they explain how they serve the community with their wealth.
This is such a major paradigm shift from the founding era that I fear it obscures our reading of the founders. It’s not that the founders didn’t praise charity, engage in public endeavors, and appreciate good deeds. It’s how they construct their worldview to position some ethical concerns at the center while situating others on the periphery. It’s the way they held industry to be righteous and not just a practical detail in the service of other virtues.
The virtue of industry created the kind of person who demanded and fought for liberty. Sloth and dependency corrupt the soul and make the citizenry ripe for tyranny. This was the moral vision of our founding fathers and I've given only a sliver of the picture.
[All passages can be found online here.]