Lecture 5:
The Influence of the Puritans

The Puritan influence in the United States has been far greater than their actual numbers would imply. They were greatly outnumbered by colonists and settlers who were not Puritans; yet their attitudes and ideas persisted and spread. The Puritans planted the seeds of democratic government in the new colonies; a revolution calling for independence from England probably would have happened even without the influence of the Puritans, but it's unlikely that it would have resulted in a democracy without the precedents established and carried on by the Puritans and their descendants.

But even more than that, the Puritans established the foundation for attitudes and ideas which still persist, in varying forms, in the United States. The most obvious of these is the Protestant Work Ethic.

The masterwork on this is Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1905. Max Weber was a German who spent time in the United States. He was primarily an economist and legal historian, and argued that scholars needed to examine economic life within the context of the historical development of the culture as a whole.

Weber separates capitalistic enterprise from the pursuit of gain, which has always existed and has nothing to do with capitalism. Capitalism, Weber argues, involves "regular orientation to the achievement of profit" through peaceful economic exchange. He defines capitalism as the continual accumulation of wealth for its own sake, rather than for its material rewards. For example, a wealthy man may acquire wealth to enjoy its benefits--luxuries, comforts, power--but that does not make him a capitalist. A capitalist would acquire the money and use it as capital to reinvest, so that the money itself is earning more money. If I use my paycheck for rent, food, and other material needs or wants, I am not a capitalist, no matter how large my paycheck might be or how rich I may become. But if I invest my paycheck in stocks or real estate or some other money-making enterprise, so that the money replicates itself, then I am, in a small way, a capitalist--I am using my money as "capital," to make more money, rather than using it to buy stuff. "[A capitalist] is dominated by the making of money," Weber says, "by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs."

Weber argues that this capitalist attitude is, at its core, distinctively moral, and demands unusual self-discipline. The entrepreneurs who developed capitalism most often combined the impulse to accumulation of wealth with a frugal lifestyle.

Weber ascribes this to the "this-worldly ascetiscism" of Puritanism. The idea of a "calling" was introduced by the Reformation, with the idea that the highest moral obligation of an individual is to fulfill his duty in worldly affairs. This projects religious behavior onto the day-to-day world, in contrast to medieval Catholicism, which found this world of little interest except as a "passing-through place" on the way to the afterlife, and taught that the way to get closer to God was to transcend the demands of mundane existence. In addition, Protestant doctrine rejected the Catholic "sin-confession-repentance-forgiveness" cycle, and held that moral action was cumulative. So one's moral choices and actions in this world took on heightened significance, since one would be held to account for all of them when death came.

The idea of a "calling" was present in Luther's doctrine, but was more developed in various Puritan sects, such as Calvinism, Methodism, Baptism, and Pietism. Especially important is the Calvinist version of Predestination, which taught that only some human beings are chosen by God to be saved from damnation. No one could be sure of being graced, and one's actions could not change one's fate, which was determined even before birth. But external signs could reveal one's ultimate fate. Material rewards might be a sign of God's grace...maybe. So working hard and achieving success became important in their own right, rather than for the material rewards they could bestow. Weber says, "In its extreme inhumanity, this doctrine must above all have had one consequence for the life of a generation which surrendered to its maginficent consistency...a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness." From this inner torment, the spirit of capitalism was born:

Calvinism, therefore, supplies the moral energy and drive of the capitalist entrepreneur.

Calvinism combines with this the moral impulse it inherited from Judaism, in which the prophet offers the example of his own life as a model for followers to strive for.

Weber points out that the Protestant Work Ethic is just one strand in the development of Western capitalism. But without the Protestant/Puritan ethic, industrial capitalism might not have existed.

Ironically, once capitalism was established, it eradicated the specifically religious origins and elements which produced it. "...the idea of duty in one's calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs." Weber's conclusions, in 1905, about the future of capitalism were bleak. Puritanism, he said, played a part in creating the "iron cage" in which modern man has to exist: an increasingly bureaucratic order from which the "spontaneous enjoyment of life" is ruthlessly expunged. "The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so."

Indeed, many economists and historians have linked the rise of capitalism to the growth of Social Darwinism, a late 19th century school of thought who chief theorist was Herbert Spencer. He held that social evolution worked the same way as biological evolution: "survival of the fittest." Social inequalities were explained and made to seem natural and inevitable by this theory. Wealth naturally flowed to those who were morally and intellectually (and in some cases biologically) superior, while those it passed by remained poor because of their moral and intellectual failings. In other words, if you were poor, it was because you deserved to be. You may remember that in "A Model of Christian Charity," Winthrop makes it one's duty to help others who are less fortunate. Social Darwinism eliminated that duty, as it held that those who were poor had "sinned" in some way and thus deserved no help.

Not everyone agrees that the Protestant Work Ethic is a good thing. Karl Marx, in particular, hated the corruption and devaluation of the human spirit that it has engendered in its secular form. Certainly there is always the danger of carrying it too far: article after article in the popular press discusses ways to balance work, family, and leisure. And the idea of associating wealth with moral goodness and poverty with moral failing has caused more suffering than we can measure. But whether we like it or not, the Protestant Work Ethic is engrained in our culture, and it's important to understand its power and its effect on both our lives and on American literature.

Benjamin Franklin

Ben Franklin is remembered as one of the Founding Fathers, and of course as the guy who flew a kite to experiment with electricity. But his influence and accomplishments reach further than that. Franklin is the more moral and cheerful face of the Protestant Work Ethic, and his writings helped make the secular form of the Protestant Work Ethic both palatable and popular.

Franklin was forced to leave school at age 10 to help work in his father's business; later he was apprenticed to his older brother, a printer, and wrote articles for his brother's newspaper. He later bought a struggling newspaper, The Philadelphia Gazette, and made it successful.

During the 1930s, he published a series of alamanacs called Poor Richard's Almanack. The narrator was "Richard Saunders," a rather preachy old gentleman who included, along with weather forecasts and poetry, a lot of witty sayings that gave advice on how to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. Your reading for this week, "The Way to Wealth," is an introduction to the 1757 edition in which Richard Saunders (by now known as the "Poor Richard" of the title) gives a lecture to a group of people, who applaud his advice, and then ignore it to do as they wish. Richard Saunders is the narrator of the almanac, but Ben Franklin advocated a lot of what Richard says, and his collected advice is, as was Franklin's life, a model of the Protestant Work Ethic, as it existed before Social Darwinism drained all the joy, charity, social responsibility, and compassion from it. Franklin worked hard and made himself a wealthy man; he also founded the first free lending library in Philadelphia; he helped found the University of Pennsylvania; he helped craft the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution; he experimented with electricity and invented the lightning rod; he invented bifocals; he invented the Franklin stove, which creates more heat using less fuel, and which is still used in many homes today (he refused to apply for a patent for it, since it was created for the public good); he started the first volunteer fire department in Philadelphia; he bought slaves in 1748, but over the next decade, came to understand much more about slavery; he freed his slaves in 1760 and became a passionate abolitionist. He was a diplomat, serving as Amabassador to France. He was the first to propose and help implement tax relief for charitable organizations, and he was the first to propose and help create matching grants. He resisted being affiliated with any organized religion, but donated money to many denominations. And this is just a fraction of what he did.

For more information on this topic, go to the Links page.

--The mural on this page is called "Rural Highway." It's the mural painted for the Middleport, N.Y. Post Office by Marianne Appel in 1941. More information about this mural can be found at Western New York Heritage Press.

--During the Depression in the 1930s and early 1940s, the U.S. government commissioned a number of murals for post offices across the United States. Many of these were quite amazing. To read more about them, CLICK HERE.