THE AMERICAN WORK ETHIC
IN THE COLONIAL PERIOD
Colonial American history is about a land that was wild and unspoiled, about a people full of hope and opportunity, and about a culture brimming over with youth and energy. It was a time when America was greening, with its vast canopy of forests and unspoiled mountains, its rivers and lakes all teaming with fish, and game roaming the grassy plains, woods, and deserts, while at night, only a few sparkles of light appeared from campfires lit by human hands. It was also a land filled with mystery, unpredictability, savagery, and imagined horrors. After nearly two hundred years, colonial Americans in 1790 still only numbered 3,900,000, and most of them lived within fifty miles of the Atlantic Ocean. It was an abundant land nurturing many Native Americans who lived in balance with their environment, but both the land and the Native-American cultures would soon be overrun by men and women imbued with a sense of mission, believing they were favored by Providence to take control of the New World.
Colonial America represents half of U.S. history, two centuries out of four since the founding of Jamestown in 1607. It is also the period when the framework for governing the country was fashioned, a framework which remarkably has withstood the tests, changes, and challenges of societal and cultural transformations over the last two hundred years. Finally, the colonial period was the time when the ideology of work, the American work ethic, took root, and that too has withstood the test of time. Americans still value work and still consider it an obligation to society, to oneself, and to one's family.
One of the striking things about life in colonial America was the informality, as well as the uncertainty in all aspects of life, including work. Work did not proceed according to the clock nor any regular or regimented routine. If the winter was harsh and the harbor froze, the artisan might not have enough materials to carry on his work. Like the artisan, the farmer was faced with uncertainties, being subject to the vicissitudes of weather, varying fertilities of soils, and insects and pests which