THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
AND THE AMERICAN WORK ETHIC
While the cries of liberty and equality rang in the towns and countrysides of colonial America in 1776, the wheels of eighteenth-century history slowly trundled out another and equally important message--work was expected of all citizens and the fancied life of the leisured classes was not to be tolerated in democratic, revolutionary America. Before this idea ran its full course in the nineteenth century, there were few who dared publicly proclaim that they did not work for their livelihood. Gordon Wood's thesis about the American Revolution includes the idea that Americans during and after the Revolution regarded aristocratic leisure with contempt and turned labor into a universal badge of honor.
John Adams concluded in 1790 that the main issue of any society would forever be who shall do the work. Adams answered that question by holding to the distinction between gentry and commoners, believing that leisure must be the portion of the few who would serve in government. Others, like Benjamin Rush, asserted that all men and women in society ought to work, adding sarcastically that a man bred as a gentleman cannot work because his hands and legs are rendered useless by having others to work for him. Rush argued that those who perform no work and live by the fruits of other men's labor had no right to make laws as they are too far removed from the people at large.
Abraham Bishop, mayor of New Haven, a 1778 graduate of Yale and a lawyer, sought to convince common people through speeches and pamphlets that they ought not feel inferior to the wealthy classes. There was a long tradition in England, carried over to the colonies, that fostered the idea that elites were best qualified to govern society. Bishop conceded that the aristocracy were the best informed, best educated, and most versed in history and political science. However, Bishop believed that for these very reasons they were not equipped to rule society. His