The Great Depression, 2008

Are we on the brink of another Great Depression? Are the economic events of summer and fall 2008 mirror-imaged to those of the summer and fall of 1929?

It’s a good question. I’m not an economist, but as an American historian I can draw some comparisons:

1. Of course, things didn’t just go sour in 1929. For a good decade the American economy had been expanding too rapidly, as the newly invented credit industry took off. For the first time Americans were buying big-ticket items on monthly installment plans. Why? Because of electricity. New appliances, ranging from washing machines to vacuum cleaners to radios, lamps, and toasters were on the market for the first time, and people had to have them. Car ownership was also growing rapidly.

The parallel? Our “electricity” is the new financial markets, created by and for Wall Street, which allowed banks and other financial firms to invent all manner of complicated and very fishy deals, from credit swaps to loan bundling. The difference is that Americans in the 1920s may have been making manufacturers and banks rich, but they were also getting some value from the deal–those new labor-saving and entertainment-making inventions. Today, the average American saw no benefit from Wall Street’s risky endeavors.

2. In the 1920s, the U.S. government was loathe to intervene in the economy, even as signs of unsustainable growth became apparent. And once the crash came, the government still hovered, waiting for it to turn out to be yet another temporary panic.

The parallel is that since the Internet boom of the 1990s, the U.S. government has refused to intervene to stop the Internet bubble, the housing bubble, the CEO pay bubble, the Dow-at-15,000 bubble, or the rampant fraud on Wall Street. In the 21st century, experts were all sure that another Great Depression simply could not happen.

3. In 1929, ruined business were allowed to die. The economy was allowed to go into critical condition. FDR instigated a recovery, but not by breathing new life (through money) into failed businesses, but by creating a whole new world of federal jobs.

The parallel here is that there is no parallel. Today, Wall Street is repeatedly described as “too big” to let it fail. We cannot let these banks go bankrupt. No correction can be allowed; Wall Street must be allowed to continue its ruinous ways, for no apparent reason.

Perhaps Americans today are unwilling to suffer like their grandparents did. But were Americans in 1929 really “willing” to suffer 10 years of misery? No. They weren’t willing, but they accepted it as inevitable. And the government made that easier to do, by refusing to offer an alternative. And the market eventually corrected, and improved, and was more sound.

That could happen in 2008. It isn’t likely, though; too many powerful people have too much to lose, and too many average Americans have too little say. The Great Depression of the 21st century, if it is coming, will not come quite yet. Check back in 2009.

The Protestant work ethic debunked!

The final installment of my Truth v. Myth series on the Protestant or Puritan work ethic is here. Let’s examine the idea that the prosperity of the United States was founded on Puritan hard work.

We’ve seen that the Puritans left England when their ambitious social reforms—most notably eradicating poverty—came to nothing in the early 1600s. England was in the grips of an anti-Puritan campaign originally launched by King James by the time the Puritans set sail for America in 1630, and there seemed to be no hope of reforming any part of English society.

When they arrived in America, founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony with its headquarters in Boston, the Puritans did indeed work hard. But this was not really because they wanted to implement their radical social reforms. It was because hard work was required to settle the land—at least in an English way.

Remember that the Puritans were almost entirely city people. They were not farmers. Even those who had lived in the country had not been farmers. So when they arrived in America, and suddenly had to become farmers, it was extremely difficult for them. Three things were against them: first, the land was not great, being rocky and not too rich; second, they had no farming knowledge; third, they refused to adopt American farming strategies. If they had been willing to farm like the Massachusetts people did, life would have been much easier.

There are many howling complaints from early Puritan settlers about the inexplicable injustice of heathen Americans seemingly laying around all day, doing only the smallest amount of farm work, yet bringing in bountiful harvests while the God-fearing Puritans broke their backs from sunup to sundown without ever having much of a food surplus.

Puritan farmers did adopt some American tools and techniques, but mostly they struggled along, never doing very well. So that hard work was not part of a solid plan, or “work ethic,” but a reaction to stark necessity and a fruit of ignorance.

Puritans did do away with holidays in America. In England it had been impossible to block out the hordes of rabble-rousing celebrants on the scores of religious holidays, but in America they could impose a strict policy of forsaking “the observation of days.” All days were alike, all days were holy because they were given by God, and holidays were banned as excuses to get drunk and fornicate (which is, in truth. what they were to most people at that time). But Puritans did not work 365 days a year. Many days of fasting and prayer were called in Puritan Massachusetts, when problems were facing the colony, and many days of thanksgiving were celebrated in good times. On these days work was dropped or minimized. And on Sunday, of course, no work was done.

Another contributing factor to the “work ethic” was that the early Puritans (1620 to about 1684) did not engage in the slave trade in any substantive way. Rich households included enslaved Native Americans, and sometimes enslaved Africans or black Americans. But most households were too poor to purchase slave labor, and some felt it was wrong to avoid the work God gave you. Therefore, New Englanders necessarily worked more hours than, say, Virginians, who almost immediately adopted the plantation system and staffed it with indentured servants and enslaved people, and who practiced Anglicanism in its impure state, celebrating many holidays.

If the Puritans worked hard in 17th-century New England, then, it was by necessity rather than choice. This hard work kept the vast majority of families living hand-to-mouth from harvest to harvest without ever creating a lot of wealth. And Puritan farmers could not be said to have worked harder than Virginian indentured servants, enslaved people, or yeoman farmers. All farm work was hard in colonial America (for non-native Americans, at least).

So the Puritans did bring hard work to America, in the sense that they brought with them a way of farming uninformed by experience and unsuited to their new land. But it was the same hard work done in other colonial English settlements, and it was not part of a plan, or work ethic. And it is difficult to say how this hard work created a legacy that later New Englanders, and then all Americans, tapped into as they built the nation. Then why does the myth of the Protestant work ethic exist? There are two reasons.

Reason 1: In this situation, where life was hard and success elusive, some people did well. Outsiders–non-puritans–looking on decided that doing well must be a sign of God’s favor. The idea that material success was a sign of God’s approval had existed amongst Puritans back in England, and was applied to America, even though it was definitely not part of Puritan religious belief. Pastors constantly reiterated the Puritan theological rejection of the idea that anyone could earn God’s grace with their work.

Most Puritans, then, worked hard in order to avoid being singled out by others as lazy and not doing their fair share to keep settlements afloat. This was an anxiety about community, about being excluded or avoided by fellows, more than an anxiety about God.

Reason 2: It was a 19th-century reaction to Irish Catholic immigration. As “hordes” of Catholic immigrants “flooded” American cities, the usual aversion amongst prejudiced native-born Americans to any immigrants except one’s own sainted ancestors kicked in, and the largely Protestant home crowd let loose with insults about the Irish newcomers’ laziness, criminality, vice, and Catholicism. How unlike our own Protestant ancestors, said ubiquitous editorial voices, who came here and built a nation with their unceasing toil! They never asked for charity! They never sent their children begging in the streets! It’s Catholicism itself that is to blame, came the conclusion; it is a pestilent religion that breeds vice. Prejudice, then, did its work, and created a Protestant, nay Puritan, work ethic.

So between these two reasons, the Puritan fear of failing and being rejected by their community, and the anti-Catholic/anti-immigrant stance of 19th-century Americans, a myth was born. It was unfortunate in the 17th century, harmful in the 19th century, and if it is truly the reason why Americans work so many more hours than employees in other developed nations, it is still harmful today.

The Puritans leave England for America

Welcome to part three of my Truth v. Myth series on the Protestant or Puritan work ethic. Here we will see how the ambitious Puritan political platform played out in England and was then transplanted to the New World.

We’ve seen that the English Puritans wanted to wipe out poverty, encourage private enterprise, and vigorously embrace the newly emergent capitalist system. Their religion spurred them to achieve these goals, but they did not rely on God to work a miracle for them. The Puritans had many converts from the nobility, powerful men who sat in the House of Lords, and most Puritans of common birth were politically active. The Puritans had members in both houses of Parliament and agitated constantly at court and in the popular press for the changes they desired.

Unfortunately, the Puritans would not abandon their insistence that the Anglican Church (or Church of England), the state church, be radically “purified” (hence their name) and stripped of its remaining Catholic qualities. Elizabeth I and James I after her took a firm hand in stopping such religious agitation, which invariably led to bloodshed and public turmoil, and seemed to promise eventual civil war. (These fears would be realized in the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War.) England had gone through extremely divisive religious conflict during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary, and had landed as a unique Protestant nation: the original Catholic church in England was taken over by the English government, completely separate from the Roman Catholic Church governed by Rome. The Anglican church was sort of neutral or Protestant-by-default, but it was not Lutheran or Calvinist. Anglicanism avoided both submission to Rome and affiliation with European Lutherans or Calvinists.

This policy had maintained a fragile peace in England since 1558, when Elizabeth I took the throne. Puritans who agitated for further reformation, with a Calvinist bent, were not looked upon with kindness. James I particularly loathed the Puritans and their near-relations, the Separatists, who decided Anglicanism could not be purified, and therefore separated from it, leaving the church. Puritans and Separatists were persecuted in England as traitors.

By refusing to drop their demands for religious change, the Puritans sabotaged their efforts to get their social reforms passed. By the 1620s, many Puritans were beginning to fear that God had abandoned England, and was about to punish it, perhaps destroy it. When William Laud, a pro-Catholic Puritan hater, was made Archbishop of Canterbury–head of the Anglican church–in 1630, he launched a Puritan eradication campaign that made life very dangerous for Puritans of all walks of life.

In that year, a small group of influential Puritans left England. Led by John Winthrop, a well-known royal lawyer and property owner, they left to establish a safe space in America where Puritans could wait out God’s wrath on England. While England was punished, America would thrive, regenerating a holy people to lead England back to God’s grace. They founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, with its seat of government in Boston.

Next time: Here the work ethic begins?

Puritan social justice (aka Protestant work ethic)

In part 2 of my Truth v. Myth series on the Protestant work ethic, we look at why the Puritans were the first powerful, politically organized group in England to try to wipe out poverty.

First, 16th-century Puritans, like many northern European Protestants, were strongly influenced by humanism. Humanist philosophers, like Erasmus, promoted the idea that all human life had dignity and worth and that human reason could discern right and wrong. Humans didn’t need to rely on revelation from the supernatural, from God, to figure out how to live their lives. Humans were able to reason out which form of society and government best promoted human happiness and then to construct that society and government, and were even obligated to do so. Not using our reason was an affront to the God which endowed us with it.

Now the English Puritans believed in the individual. Their religious beliefs were centered on the individual person seeking God’s wisdom and receiving God’s grace. The only real way to learn about God and what God wanted was to read the Bible. The Puritans, like all Protestants of the time, thought the Catholic method of having a priest read a portion of the Bible to an assembled congregation was a travesty. The passage was chosen in Rome to fill out the church year, it was read out in Latin to people who didn’t understand it, and the individuals in the congregation felt no connection to it. To the Puritans, every person had to be able to read the Bible for themselves, choosing passages based on their own unique spiritual needs, or based on insights gained from sermons or Biblical study groups. Only by reading God’s word, in silent contemplation, might one receive an understanding of God’s will, and the realization that they had received God’s grace–salvation from Hell. Reading the Bible was the only path to discovering one’s salvation (or damnation).

This meant, astoundingly, that the 16th-century Puritans believed everyone–even girls and women–must be taught to read. This was a wild, liberal, revolutionary plank in their platform. Universal literacy was undreamt of at the time. But the Puritans demanded it; it was the only way people could understand God’s will and the state of their own souls.

Combine this religious conviction with the humanist conviction that all people have value, and you get the Puritan belief that everyone must have the chance to better themselves, both spiritually and materially. For if you are poor, then you have no home, no Bible, and no education. You can never read the Bible, and you can never be anything but a burden on others. So the poor are damned, both on this earth and in the afterlife. On earth, they are disdained and mistreated, and they bring others down with them. In the afterlife, they are damned.

Eradicating poverty, then, was just the first step in creating a government in England which allowed people to live dignified and productive and religious lives. If people are taught to read, they can do business, and make money for themselves, and buy a Bible, and read it and receive God’s grace. At this time in England, capitalism as we know it was just gathering its first steam. Merchants and other businessmen were able to build considerable wealth.

Most of the early Puritans were city-dwellers, mostly in London, and they were self-employed businessmen who were doing pretty well–often very well. They were eventually able to fund the company that sponsored the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1630). They felt themselves on the cutting edge of a new world, wherein anyone could start a business and prosper if only they were hard-working, literate, and righteous. Everyone should take that path. Poverty should not be encouraged or tolerated.

Next time: Failure in England and determination in America

Truth v. Myth: The Protestant Work Ethic

Welcome to part 1 of my Truth v. Myth series on the powerful idea of the “Protestant work ethic,” which has often been supposed to have built this country.

The Protestants described in this phrase are the 17th-century Puritans in New England who, by virtue of their dedication to hard work, long hours, and thrift, are described as not only increasing their own wealth and power, but instilling within all later Americans the idea that hard work is a virtue that always pays off.

The Protestant work ethic has been hauled out since the 19th century to describe “uniquely” American virtues. The innovations of the Industrial Age that poured out of the U.S. were seen as the result not just of American smarts, but of Americans’ ability to work longer and harder than the people of any other nation. We work hard, and we reap the benefits. Today, in the 21st century, the work ethic is almost always included in discussions of the fact that U.S. workers have the least amount of holiday/vacation/sick leave of any industrialized nation.

The basic notion is that Americans work had because it’s in our blood, and we wouldn’t have it any other way; to take more than two weeks’ vacation would not only be lazy, but it would mean turning our backs on our ancestors, our history, and our own national character.

All of this begs the question of whether the Puritans of 17th-century New England actually venerated hard, unending work like we think they did.

The Puritans of New England are the subjects of many myths–that they only wore black, banned singing and dancing, hated sex, banned alcohol, went to church every day, and were constantly burning people as witches. If these myths were true, there would have been nothing for the New England Puritans to do but work! These myths are not true, but there is a grain of truth to associating the “work ethic” idea with the Puritans of America. It’s a long story, so let’s start at the beginning.

One of the most radical planks of the Puritan political platform in their native England was their determination to eradicate poverty. For over 1,000 years, the Catholic church had taught that the poor were blessed by God and a blessing to humankind. The poor gave everyone else a chance to practice charity, which, in Catholic dogma, was a way to redeem your soul and get to Heaven. Since the poor gave others this wonderful opportunity, they were a blessing. Since God gave them this role on Earth, they were blessed by God.

Therefore, no attempts were made by the church as a whole to stamp out poverty. Rather than try to better the condition of the poor, the church made it possible for many people to live in poverty. Monasteries, hospitals, convents, and other institutions existed to provide charity to the poor. (In the middle ages, hospitals were like hostels for the poor to stay at, and not places to go for medical treatment.) These institutions were supported by donations from the public, and created a comfortable system in which the number of poor never decreased, but the poor did not have to lay out in the streets begging or upsetting people with their terrible condition.

It’s anachronistic, but the situation was like a car with a broken window that has been very skillfully covered with plastic and securely duct-taped in place. The window is still missing, but the fix is very livable, and the owner may never get the window replaced. Not perfect, but very workable.

The Puritans smashed into this set-up with a vengeance. They were the first powerful, politically organized group in England to say that poverty was a curse and a sign of God’s displeasure, and that it ought to be wiped out. Today we are very used to the “war on poverty,” and it’s hard to remember that this was a completely alien idea in the late 1500s when the English Puritans introduced it.

Next time: Why did the English Puritans want to stamp out poverty?

101 ways to say “died”

Vast Public Indifference is in the middle of a wonderful series on the many ways old gravestones describe death. Check it out! It helps destroy the myth that the Puritans (many of the stones are from their time) were dour and ungrieving of their dead–or didn’t know how to tell a good story in a few words!

I put all the epitaphs from my town’s old burying ground into a Word document, and it was hard not to choke up over the extremely sad epitaphs of children. It’s hard for the people living today in the Puritans’ old villages to comprehend how common it was to lose children to disease.

The average 25 year-old in 1700 would have been married, and probably already experienced the loss of one or two of their own children. They would have lost a handful of siblings as they grew up, and probably as many friends, relatives, and neighbors.

But they were never hardened to death. It hit them hard, every time, over and over again, and the gravestones they stood over the graves of their children will break your heart.

But don’t be afraid to go over to VPI–it’s a great site and will provide as many laughs as tears (see also her great ongoing series on odd names from the Puritan past (just one example: Orange Wedge).

Country First–but first…

I see that Republican Party presidential candidate John McCain’s slogan is, as of late August 2008, “Country First.” This is clearly a slight reworking of the old “My country right or wrong.” And that’s a problem.

“My country right or wrong” is a sentiment going back millennia, but it was first recorded for posterity as coming from the mouth of Stephen Decatur, a U.S. naval commander who went to the North African port of Algiers, headquarters of the Barbary States (extending from Tangiers to Tripoli), during the Second Barbary War in 1815. Decatur was to negotiate with the Barbary States for the release of some American sailors who had been captured by pirates and held in slavery, and also for the end of the practice of paying tribute to the Barbary States (European and American states paid the Barbary States annual tributes of gold, arms, and other supplies in return for protection from Barbary pirates).

Decatur’s way of negotiating was to capture two Barbary ships, including their flagship Mashouda, and then blow into Algiers with guns leveled at the city and demand the American prisoners and an end to tribute. It was perhaps the first example of the U.S. using “gunboat diplomacy”. Decatur got everything he wanted. (This is why the Marine Hymn begins with the lines “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli; we will fight our country’s battles in the air, on land, and sea”.)

When Decatur returned to the U.S., as a great hero, he was given a banquet in Norfolk, Virginia, during which he gave a speech that included these words: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”

This was morphed into “My country right or wrong” so quickly that by 1872, Wisconsin Senator Carl Shurz could refer to the phrase in a Senate speech and know that his audience would understand what it meant. Decatur’s qualifying “may she always be in the right” had been rapidly dropped, leaving “my country right or wrong” as the philosophy of the zealous American patriot. Shurz knew “my country right or wrong” was pulled out to at once kill any questions about American political policies (particularly overseas) and assert the justice of those policies.

But Shurz chose to reiterate the qualifier. His words are far more stirring to the real patriot than Decatur’s:

“‘My country, right or wrong.’ In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

Shurz elaborated this further in an 1899 speech:

“I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”

The true American patriot knows that what she is proud of is the principles this nation was founded on, and on our willingness and commitment to live up to them. America will go astray, because living up to those principles is hard. But true patriots will use all their energy when America goes astray to get it back on course. The first step, of course, is to admit America has gone wrong, and veered off course.

And that’s exactly what cannot happen if one’s slogan is “Country First.” Because this slogan assumes that anything America does is right, and anyone who questions that is putting something else–fear, weakness, ignorance–ahead of America and its interests. Country can only come first in the sense that we work tirelessly to put our founding principles of equality and justice first. “Principles First” would be a more heartening slogan for the American patriot.

“Country First” assumes somehow that Americans are separate from the country of America, and that we must put our needs and values aside to promote our country. And then maybe the country will check in with us later. That’s not how a democracy works. We are America, and so must put ourselves first, and always vote for the policies that promote the justice and equality we are founded on.

So let’s vote with the slogan “Principles First” as we go to the polls in November, and let’s remember that the most patriotic thing is to set one’s country right when it stumbles, not to enshrine the stumbling as a principle.