Work Ethic in America

In How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838), Harriet Martineau suggests that, as the geologist can tell what are the occupations of the inhabitants of an area based upon his observations of the geological features of the land that they occupy, so the observer of society can tell what are the morals of a given people group based upon her observations of the society’s occupations (89-91). By observing the means of employment available to the members of a society, you are indirectly observing the morals to which that society holds—you are getting a feel for what we would call the “work ethic” of that society.

Martineau consistently applies this principle of looking at a society’s work in order to understand its ethic in her observations of early nineteenth-century U.S., Society in America (1837). In the excerpts from the text that we read this week, Martineau comments upon the work ethic of the American people, and specifically upon the discrepancy between that in the northern and that in the southern states.

Martineau makes the blunt observation of the people in the northern states that “[t]he youths must, without exception, work hard; or they had better drown themselves” (2.2.5). Surprising though this statement may seem, Martineau goes on to explain how the absolute necessity of working hard brings about the positive qualities of ingenuity and thoughtfulness in those who perform it. Indeed, in these northern states wealth and the leisure that it brings are viewed as a misfortune because they do not foster such positive qualities in those who possess said wealth and leisure. Though “[t]he time will come, when the society is somewhat older, when it will be understood that wealth need not preclude work … at present, there are no individuals so forlorn, in the northern states, as young men of fortune” (2.2.5). Based upon the language that Martineau employs in this section, you get the impression that she approves of this approach to work—that this work ethic is close to that found in her theoretical ideal society.

In contrast to the almost universal engagement in hard work amongst those in the northern states, in the southern states “[t]he vicious fundamental principle of morals in a slave country, that labour is disgraceful, taints the infant mind…” (2.2.5). Martineau speaks with scorn and pity of the attitude of all in the southern states toward any sort of manual labor. She further shows how this attitude and the society in which it exists leads ultimately to anxiety and constant work on the part of the slave owners, who must reprimand their slaves for not performing tasks to their liking rather than simply performing the tasks themselves. The work ethic—or rather lack of it—that is found in the southern states, in contrast to that in the northern states, is far from Martineau’s ideal.

This particular example demonstrates the consistency and conformity between Martineau’s principles for observations as recorded in How to Observe Morals and Manners and her application of those principles in Society in America—no great surprise when one realizes from their respective publication dates that the principles followed and more than likely grew out of their application.

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