Minimalists in History: Early Republicans

Mt St Helens

“A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy.”

– Samuel Adams

As I mentioned in my earlier posts on Puritans and Quakers, many early settlers of the American colonies believed hard work is a virtue. The combination of plentiful resources in the New World and what we now call the “Protestant work ethic” resulted in great prosperity.

By the 1760s, imports of luxuries from London had skyrocketed. Some worried the colonies displayed only materialism and impiety without virtue or spirituality.

Due to disputes with Britain over taxation and other issues, the doctrine of republicanism gained support. Republicanism rejected the monarchy in favor of a government representative of and responsible to the people. Early republicans expected wise and virtuous custodians to rule in the public interest.

“Save Your Money and You will Save Your Country”

– Pennsylvania Journal

In the past, colonists concerned about loss of piety had attributed it to weakness in the face of temptation. Now, republican colonial leaders said the colonies had lost their focus on simplicity and piety because of the British Empire’s corruption and love of luxury. They claimed the British encouraged American extravagance so as to increase sales of its wares and keep America under Britain’s thumb.

This belief, as well as resistance to British taxes and regulations, resulted in an American boycott of British products and a desire for independence from Britain. For a time, plain living was a symbol of patriotism. Communities established non-importation associations and encouraged self-sufficiency. “Patriotic” spinning, weaving and knitting circles became popular.

“If our liberties are not worth the difference between a homespun and a broadcloth coat…on what are to be found our hopes of retrieving our rights?”

– Arthur Lee

Once the British repealed some of the taxes in 1770, however, these groups disappeared and merchants began trading with Britain again. During 1771, imports of British luxury goods soared to record levels.

Republican activists, including Samuel Adams, continued to call for boycotts, but with little popular support. Adams, often called “the last Puritan,” was concerned with the decline in plain living for political as well as spiritual reasons. He believed when people became engrossed in material concerns, they became less protective of their political liberties.

Instead of helping the idealists’ cause, the Revolutionary War led to an outpouring of greed, profiteering and speculation. People seized the opportunities created by war to expand their commercial activities, and things didn’t improve when the fighting ended. Ads for European finery filled newspapers, and British traders offered easy credit.

Postwar proposals to establish public schools as agents for moral and civic development failed. Few families taught their children the virtues of simplicity and frugality.

“We have, probably, had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation.”

– George Washington

It wasn’t long before the Founding Fathers realized that people were not, in fact, unified by a sense of virtue and restraint. Log-rolling and pork-barreling dominated government. In 1790, John Adams said America was “more avaricious than any other Nation that ever existed.”

When Republicans came to power in 1801, they tried to make the government conform to the ideas of traditional republicanism. President Thomas Jefferson wore plain clothes and adopted policies designed to lead the country back to frugality and simplicity.

His policies were not popular. Merchants evaded trade restrictions. Despite his hopes that Americans would embrace the simple life once again, the country became, in the words of Founding Father Dr. Benjamin Rush, “a bedollared nation,” obsessed with money. This is particularly telling since Dr. Rush believed wealth is good for democracy so long as the pursuit of wealth doesn’t define the soul.

“[I]f machines could be so improved and multiplied…there would be nothing to hinder all mankind from becoming philosophers, poets and votaries of art.”

– Timothy Walker

Many republican idealists believed labor-saving devices and rising standards of living would elevate the American character, allowing the laboring classes “ample time for self-improvement.”

Model factory centers in planned factory towns were the rage in the early 19th century. Workers were closely supervised by paternal factory owners (for instance, church attendance was mandatory), and a variety of intellectual and cultural activities, including free lectures, were offered.

As has happened throughout history, though, the owners ended up living in luxury while publicly espousing the republican virtues of simplicity and frugality to their workers. Profits, rather than people, become their primary concern. Workers endured pay cuts while being required to work harder. They no longer had time to read or attend lectures.

Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, complained that although prosperity was “beyond expectation,” it seemed that “general demoralization was the consequence.” He went on to say that he doubted “whether general happiness is increased.”

 Interested in Learning More about the Early Republicans?

For more information, read The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture by David E. Shi. Also, while it’s not the book’s focus, Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove touches on some of these issues.

If you’re a history buff, check out Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States) by Pulitzer-Prize winner Gordon Wood. At nearly 800 pages, this excellent book can even double as a weight-lifting tool. How’s that for minimalist?