The American Work Ethic and the Changing Work Force: An Historical Perspective

By Herbert Applebaum | Go to book overview

2
COLONIAL FARMERS

In the beginning America was the land and the land was America. Land was the dream that drew settlers to American shores, the dream of ownership that had eluded most of them in Europe. Land was waiting for them, waiting to be acquired, granted, seized, bargained for, rented, and above all, worked on and accumulated for one's family and heirs. In the beginning land was so abundant there seemed no way to exhaust it or fill it.

Settled land was of little use without backbreaking and continuous work. Work was the key to success. Those who would not work could starve, go back to England, or die in the wilderness. There were shirkers, but they were ostracized, embarrassed, or punished by the tiny communities struggling for a foothold on the edge of a continent. The early American work ethic was agrarian, and the early towns, villages, and urban areas were never far removed in spirit and outlook from the farms which fed them. Early America was fluid. There was little strict division of labor. Almost everyone worked and did many things, combining the work of a farmer with that of an artisan, the work of a planter with that of a trader, the work of a fur trader with that of a shipper. And early America was open to that which was new and novel. The settler may have come as an artisan, but was ready to turn to farming. Yet, in spite of diversity, the land was the foundation of society: "At the beginning of settlement and for many generations thereafter, agrarian society and the leadership that an agrarian society developed played a paramount part in the civilization of North America" ( Wright, 1957:1).

Most settlers knew that without work they would not survive. They willingly accepted their responsibilities and worked shoulder to shoulder planting fields, repairing fences, fixing roads, harvesting crops, building fortifications, and accepting guard duty. Even leaders set to work. Tragically, John Carver, first governor of the Plymouth Colony, died because he was not used to the hard work in which he was engaged. Land was worked communally, but after a time, individuals and

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