Americans are arguing about national identity. Is our nation’s identity wrapped up in slavery as alleged by the 1619 Project? Or is the Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, a testimony to the nation’s ideals of liberty and equality and the basis of American pride?
It’s a fundamental disagreement and one that echoes an older one from a few years ago. President Obama used to refer to so-called “untoward” aspects of American life as “not who we are.” Then came Trump voters who disagreed. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat captured this disagreement as one between views, the first being that America is “not-Anglo-Saxon, not-European; the prototypical American is not-white, not-male, not-heterosexual.” Trump supporters, by contrast, identified with “the Pilgrims and the Founders, with Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett and Laura Ingalls Wilder.”
The latest addition to the ongoing debate about American identity is the question of work. Jonathan Malesic’s recent essay in the New York Times discounting the importance of work in Americans’ lives doesn’t address the question of American identity per se. But since many of the myths Americans have told themselves for almost 250 years start with rags-to-riches tales of folks of humble origins working their way to prosperity, prominence, and influence, Malesic is implicitly challenging one of the more enduring and laudable features of the nation.
Part of Malesic’s argument is that the older approach to work – “the sanctity of the 40-hour week to the ideal of upward mobility” – has produced “widespread dissatisfaction” and “ubiquitous burnout.” Yet this was true even before the pandemic, when either the lack of work or working from home prompted Americans to rethink labor.
Malesic’s point is conventional in many respects. Indeed, work is where we often find meaning and purpose and how we “prove our moral character.” Malesic then pulls at the fabric of America’s national ethos. Since work leaves people dissatisfied, Malesic proposes an alternative to human dignity and purpose: he advocates leisure. “Dinner parties and concerts” and “in-person civic meetings and religious worship” are the sorts of activities where “we are fully ourselves and aspire to transcendence.” Acknowledging the importance of leisure means that “each one of us has dignity whether we work or not.”
The problem is that Malesic’s objections to work’s importance undermine a narrative of America as a society of immigrants, inventors, and industrialists whose labor made America remarkable, if not great.
The original hard-working American who became part of national lore was Ben Franklin. A man of unlimited energy and curiosity, Franklin worked his way up from a printing business to a community organizer to an inventor and internationally recognized scientist to a prominent diplomat. His advice, published in his “Autobiography,” was standard fare for American schoolchildren for generations. In it he recommended “industry and frugality” as the way to wealth and success. But in Franklin’s case, labor and modesty were useful for more than acquiring wealth. It was also the path to distinction and accomplishment – the way he “literally [stood] before kings.”
The value of work even influenced America’s greatest contribution to philosophy: pragmatism. The simple idea that William James explained in his famous 1907 book “Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking” was that something is true if it works. “Truth happens to an idea,” he wrote. “It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process.” Such a utilitarian approach, whatever its philosophical merits, was a call for more work by all people, from college professors to ordinary day laborers and shopkeepers. Everyone had the capacity to verify the truth of an idea or belief by testing its practical effects.
Franklin and James both point to the productive nature of national ideals. Hard work is how you earn your way in America. Specific thoughts about ordinary activity are how Americans gain wisdom. Leisure and speculation may be valuable for an elite class of philosophers and nobles. But the democratic side of America calls for something more accessible, practical, and empirical.
Melasic acknowledges that questioning the importance of work could have consequences. “Work sits at the heart of Americans’ vision of human flourishing. It’s much more than how we earn a living. It’s how we earn dignity: the right to count in society and enjoy its benefits.” But like others who have recently raised doubts about the nation’s past, Malesic presses on. America needs “a humane ethos.” The nation’s work ethic is not yielding it.
But what would America be without its work ethic? President Obama was hard-pressed to find an alternative to the work ethic as the basic ingredient of the American character. On Labor Day in 2011, he affirmed an economy built on middle-class security, fairness, “the same set of rules for everybody from Wall Street to Main Street.” America was a nation “where hard work pays off and gaming the system doesn’t pay off.” In fact, “the American Dream” depended on the industriousness of our nation’s workers.
The time may have come for a different set of myths to unite and inspire Americans. Perhaps the virtue of hard work is to give way to leisure as part of that revision. If so, it will be a serious break with the way important Americans, from Franklin to Obama, have understood the nation.
D. G. Hart is a distinguished associate professor of history at Hillsdale College and writes about Christianity in the United States. He is the author of several books, including most recently, “Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant” (Oxford University Press).