FACED WITH THE PROSPECT OF IMMINENT DEPARTURE TO SERVE IN THE Confederate army, North Carolina farmer John Fletcher Flintoff instructed his family on life and faith in his diary entry of March 10, 1864: "I desire that you live on the premises I leave you and work the land to make your support--Rember my Father was a poor man--He was not able to leave his children anything to start upon the journey of life but I leave you 217 acres of land, 7 negroes, 3 good horses, 6 head of cattle 15 hogs and wagons, house & kitchen well furnished, plantation tools, etc.--a years supply of everything--I exhort you to be industrious, kind, persevering, thoughtful, economical, love and serve God and good to each other." (1) Fortunately, the forty-year-old Flintoff saw only local service, survived the war, and lived into the new century, all the while living as he preached, by hard work and through love of family and God. As the postwar years passed, his estate grew, revealing, he believed, God's favor in his ability to work for his children and their families and help them through their "journey of life."
Flintoff knew hard, manual labor as a young farmhand, as a struggling farm owner, and even as an elderly patriarch content with his fields, barns, and work stock. In reflections in his diary, especially on the anniversary of his birth, he recalled his early struggles in North Carolina and Mississippi, when he worked for wages or managed relatives' farms and plantations. Fondly did he hope that laboring for others would not be the lot of his children. As a poor boy, faith sustained him. He later urged his children to be religious and join the church when young, as he did by becoming a Methodist at age ten. Believing that education bolstered faith and opened opportunities, he attended Centenary College in Jackson, Mississippi, for two years. Back in North Carolina in 1850, he married Mary Pleasant of Caswell County and began to acquire slaves and livestock. Four years later at age thirty-one, having toiled long and hard, saved, purchased slaves, and borrowed heavily, he bought a farm and house of his own. Working beside his slaves, he performed all of the tasks necessary on a small piedmont farm: he raised corn, wheat, and oats; grew fodder for his animals; primed, topped, wormed, and harvested substantial tobacco crops; hewed logs and built houses, barns, wagons, and outbuildings; hauled logs and tobacco; and in winter made shoes for the family. And he prospered. "I want to try to make money to pay my debts. I work hard to do this with my heart raised up to God to his blessing," he recorded in 1856. Postwar labor adjustments proved difficult; in his view free blacks would not work honestly or steadily for wages, while whites faced the rigors of excessive work from dawn to dark. He resented idleness, even when found in his dearly beloved wife, whom he feared lived too much the life of a lady. In 1890 Flintoff boasted of a good year's work for his age and in 1891 recorded that "I am at work now in the field with the hoe 9 to 10 hours per day and am very thankful I am as well as I am and humbly trust in God for the future." (2)
Flintoff's life, steeped in faith and focused on hard, manual labor of the sort performed by slaves, reflected not one iota of the dictum that southerners derogated manual labor because it was, in the common idiom of the day, "nigger work." Flintoff was not a planter, and he was not rich; neither was he representative of the southern rural masses since his achievements in accumulating slaves and property and passing his wealth to his children were substantial. His work ethic, however, was shared by the masses of rural plain folk from whom he had emerged--those who worked with their hands and performed field labor even though some of them also benefited from ownership of a small number of slaves. Flintoff knew hard work and believed it honorable. On the one hand, his work was not menial labor. That was drudgery performed for another or directed by another, for which the worker received minimal benefit and profited but little in the long run--work typically performed by slaves. Manual labor performed at one's own behest and for the benefit of one's own family, on the other hand, was admirable. Mucking out one's barn, surely among the least pleasant farm tasks, was part of honorable work, given the right circumstances. Honorable work enabled Flintoff and his peers to attain that secure, independent existence that was the minimal goal of all. Logically a slave society might be expected to diverge significantly from Max Weber's Protestant ethic and reject outright many of Benjamin Franklin's precepts, but at the heart of the antebellum southern farmer, respect for hard work, independence, and the ability to provide for one's own were core values. Antebellum southern spokesmen might celebrate the leisured lifestyle of a planter elite and proclaim the virtues of an aristocratic existence even as Yankees and a few southerners denounced lazy white "trash," but farmers who earned their red necks honestly by steady labor, in season and out, understood the value and rewards of daily toil. Plain-folk endorsement of hard work, part of plain-folk honor, created a discordant note that was at best in suited to those who championed a distinctly non-Yankee South dedicated to gracious living. An examination of the labor of the plain folk and their attitudes and values, however, reveals that John Flintoff's work ethic was shared by the southern masses. Many of these attitudes resonated deep into the elite by the late antebellum period.
While the omega of historical insight into the work ethic has not been reached, the alpha originated with Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the famous essay that inaugurated a one-hundred-year debate (or hopelessly futile academic squabble) over the spirit of capitalism and the nexus of capitalism and religion. Weber's Protestant ethic emphasized the moral obligation to work to glorify God and the methodical use of every God-given moment of time. God called everyone to productive labor--to a world of hard, unending, physical or mental work--and the greatest of sins was idleness. Because the result of labor might be wealth and consequent idleness, asceticism became a way of life--an asceticism that rejected leisure and the spontaneous enjoyment of life. (3) While critics of Weber's thesis have dominated the scholarly melee, one recent authority maintains that "it is just as difficult to demolish Weber's thesis as it is to substantiate it." (4) Despite partisan contention, the thesis has influenced scholarly thinking as well as popular conceptions concerning the relationship of economic progress, the valuation of work, and religious faith. Weber's idea has been used to buttress historical images of Yankee drive and southern sloth. Although Weber intended his analysis as an objective evaluation and not as an admiring moral judgment, many antebellum Americans (and some scholars since) attached their own positive value to the key traits that Weber identified as forming the Protestant ethic.
Weber and subsequent writers located the strongest bastion of the Protestant ethic in Puritan New England and Quaker Pennsylvania, but few had anything positive to say about the moral value of work in the land of cotton and slaves. Historian Edmund S. Morgan, however, voices a dissenting view, arguing that the Puritan ethic--that cluster of values, ideas, and attitudes advanced by Weber--influenced all Americans by the time of the Revolution. Nevertheless, Morgan emphasizes "the evil effect of slavery on the industry and frugality of both master and slave...." Among southerners, he holds, slavery "eroded the honor accorded work.... " (5) But did the plain folk, whom Morgan does not discuss, suffer from the stigma on work supposedly inherent in a slave society? Both Rhys Isaac and Christine Leigh Heyrman suggest that yeomen developed immunity to slavery's presumed debilitating effect, stressing the influence of the First Great Awakening in fostering a more Weber-like attitude in the South. Conversion to an evangelical faith encouraged, even sanctified, a simple life richer in spiritual than material rewards and thus challenged if not transformed the hedonistic lifestyle of the planter leadership. (6)
Although the intensity of religiosity in early New England and the concept of work as God's calling declined as the country embraced secularization in the age of Jackson, the Second Great Awakening in both the North and South rekindled earlier faith. Simultaneously, a market revolution encouraged dedication to work and economic advancement. Many people lived with both a secular ethic and an ethic attuned to faith; sometimes an individual's work ethic had a reinforcing religious dimension, though at other times it did not, leaving a Weberian ethic without asceticism. According to Daniel T. Rodgers, a work ethic remained "the core of the moral life," finding its strongest affirmation among the Protestant bourgeoisie. It was "the distinctive credo of preindustrial capitalism" entrenched in "artisans' shops, farms, and countinghouses." Rodgers identifies four ingredients in the mid-nineteenth-century work ethic: "the doctrine of usefulness"; "an intense, nervous fear of idleness" (both of which were "legacies of the Reformation"); "the dream of success"; and "a faith in work as a creative act." The South, Rodgers discovers, was considered a deviant society. When the dignity of labor emerged as a distinctive feature of northern politics and culture, Republican leaders and other middleclass spokesmen savaged the South for its perversion of values, poverty and degradation of the masses, and general economic backwardness. Abolitionist criticism and Republican rhetoric best encapsulated the southern ethic: "shiftlessness and exploitation were the rule." The South reflected "a nightmarish inversion of Northern work values, where idlers ruled and laborers stood in chains." (7)
In 1967 David Bertelson's The Lazy South pronounced judgment upon the South's work ethic. Bertelson argues that southerners' penchant for leisure and idleness was caused by what he labels the doctrine of "allurement," not by the traditional suspects of slavery, climate, disease, or parasites. The virgin lands of the earliest southern colonies attracted Englishmen with the allure of fortunes to be made in the international tobacco trade. When the Old World's demand for tobacco met the opportunity abounding in the new lands, unrestricted freedom to enrich oneself resulted in fortunes for many and created a rigid adherence to individualism with a consequent lack of community spirit that boded poorly for socially useful labor. Thus southerners were attentive to self-interest, not the common good; the inducement to work came not from within but from the promise of material reward. Virginians, Marylanders, and later South Carolinians and other southerners busily set about exploiting natural resources and labor and expanding farms and plantations; the end of labor was personal wealth and leisure, not salvation, godly community, or local or regional economic development. (8)
C. Vann Woodward joined this discussion in 1968, arguing for the existence of a distinct southern ethic within a Puritan world. Woodward' s southern ethic deviates from the concepts of Weber or maxims of Franklin and scores high on leisure or laziness, depending on whether one opts for "an attractive" or "an unattractive countenance" of the mythical "Janus-faced" South. With his typically telling and witty commentary on the relevant literature, especially the work of Bertelson and Morgan, Woodward offers several hypotheses in explanation of the southern leisure-laziness ethic but attributes special salience to the impact of slavery. Evidence of southern distinctiveness, in this instance leisure-laziness, was everywhere: "Where there is so much smoke--whether the superficial stereotypes of the Leisure-Laziness sort, or the bulky literature of lamentation, denial, or celebration that runs back to the seventeenth century, or the analytical monographs of the present day--there must be fire." (9)
For most historians who have analyzed agriculture, labor conditions, and slavery in the Old South, the existence of a flawed work ethic--if there was a work ethic at all--is axiomatic. Some stress the leisured aspects of the South, others the lazy aspects. To Eugene D. Genovese, writing in 1965, a dominant planter elite, commanding politics and setting the tone for social life, fastened aspirations to luxury and ease upon the Old South. Even aggressive, nouveau southwestern planters, the southern Yankees, reflected merely a time lapse and not a strong work ethic; these hardworking farmers, planters to be, were only a generation removed from refinement and aristocratic graces. Genovese concludes that slavery inevitably produced feelings of contempt for all labor and especially menial labor--labor performed for another. (10)
Leisure and laziness surface in extreme form in the works of historian Grady McWhiney, who argues that planters and plain folk alike, as descendants of Celts notoriously unburdened by a work ethic, avoided steady labor--rigorously, constantly, and conscientiously. McWhiney agrees with one visitor to the South who concluded that the word haste was not in the southern vocabulary. Careless, unhurried farmers and herdsmen lived lavishly upon the abundance of field and forest and the labor of an ample supply of bondpeople; but McWhiney's special interpretation emphasizes how inherited cultural traits--rather than slavery, climate, disease, or parasites--explain attitudes and values that the masses considered rational and superior.
Being lazy to Celts and Southerners did not mean being indolent, shiftless, slothful, and worthless; it meant being free from work, having spare time to do as they pleased, being at liberty, and enjoying their leisure. When a Celt or a Southerner said that he was being lazy he was not reproaching himself but merely describing his state of comfort. He suffered no guilt when he spent his time pleasantly--hunting, fishing, dancing, drinking, gambling, fighting, or just loafing and talking. (11)
To outsiders, an unambitious plain folk lived in squalor, but to the white rural masses, enjoying an easy living from livestock that roamed in the woods and a sufficiency of fish and game, there was no pressing need to labor as long as they possessed an abundance of tobacco, liquor, and food.
The views of Genovese, McWhiney, and many others might appropriately be called the conventional historical wisdom of the 1970s and 1980s, despite the earlier, somewhat-novel view of Frank L. Owsley and his students, who emphasized steady labor and seriousness of purpose among the plain folk. (12) Much of the conventional wisdom stressed the hegemony of the planter class and popular images of gentlemen and refined ladies. Nevertheless, yeomen and community studies in the 1980s and 1990s eroded the so-called Big House interpretation of the South and enormously expanded our understanding of the values and attitudes of the plain folk. Instead of seeing them as "no account folk," lazy hellions, a miserable underclass lacking an ethic of work and success, or the willing dupes or deferential underlings of planters, we have an image of a sturdy, industrious, self-sufficient folk, tough, proud, and fiercely independent. In fact, the republican independence of the plain folk, a desire to control their own destiny and scorn of being controlled, plays a pivotal role in every study of yeoman communities. (13) The accumulation of a certain level of wealth provided the basis of independence, but the primary goal was acquisition of respectability achieved through personal independence and family self-sufficiency, often augmented by status within a religious community. Plain-folk farmers exhibited a typically American faith in upward mobility--that hard work paid over time and that it was not unreasonable to expect an increase in wealth as one approached middle age. Farming was both an honorable occupation, worthy in and of itself, and an opportunity for advancement that drew many middle-class and lower-middle-class farmers, men on the make, to the piney-woods frontier. (14) Work, if not an end in itself, surely was the means to republican independence and self-sufficiency and was the major daily activity of yeomen and their wives. It was not a degrading sign of slave-like status but rather a means of differentiating themselves from slaves by achieving and maintaining independence.
This last point has not been fully appreciated because of popular misconceptions about the lazy South, the idee fixe that white society scorned manual labor as "nigger work," and a lack of consensus among the historians conducting community studies. Some in the latter group continue to stress the importance of leisure-time activities, especially hunting, drinking, and …