In Pursuit… Hardness and Happiness, Internalizing Weber, Ignoring Wilson

The Thinker, Auguste Rodin, 1902

Greetings to all. Welcome to another episode of happiness! As with the first installment of meditations on happiness my goal here is not to insist upon conclusiveness from the conclusions I draw, but to encourage contemplation of American ideals and to revive the lost American ideal: happiness.

As a jumping point I refer to a contribution from one of our commenters, Ralph B., who posted a link last week that stimulated my thinking on the connection between happiness and the American Dream. Thank you, RB.

Here’s the link:

Why Is U.S. Economic Mobility Worse in the South? – Bloomberg

It wasn’t the subject of this article that struck me most. it was the substance. It was what the underlying assumptions had to say about the greater contemplative consciousness in America: What we Think and How we Think.

Cass R. Sunstein looking like The Thinker

The premise of the article, from which all else proceeds:

Americans pride themselves on their intergenerational mobility. Our nation’s exceptionalism is organized around the American dream: No matter where you come from and no matter who your parents are, you can rise to the top of the economic ladder, so long as you are willing to commit yourself and work hard.

Its author, Cass R. Sunstein concludes that America has failed to aspire to its own ideal.  If one accepts his premise – his description of the American Dream – then indeed, he is correct. What he does not seem to do is question the substance of our national aspiration by examining its essential elements: egalitarianism, avarice, ambition, and hard labor.

Sunstein’s encapsulation of the American Dream is a good one in terms of generally accepted “wisdom” or convention. Some permutation of it reiterates across spacious skies, perpetuates across amber waves of grain, scales purple mountain majesties, and cuts across the fruited plain – the American dream makes America beautiful, and it is emblematic of our exceptionalism. Politicians from every point along the political spectrum define the American Dream in much the same way as Sunstein has done here.

The American Dream as it is conceived today is also a fabrication, a mythos, and a distortion of founding ideals. In short, the American Dream is completely false. The purported ideal elevates our national identity and by extension, our personal identities. But given that ideal is a subversion, it facilitates our illusory elevation while simultaneously facilitating our gradual decline.

Perhaps the place to start is calling out the American Dream for what it is: It is the Protestant Work Ethic. The Protestant Work Ethic, however, was not a component in the attempt to secularize national values when devising the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Another term for the Protestant Work Ethic is Puritan Austerity. Puritan Austerity is precisely what Enlightenment institutions intended to dispel. America was not founded as a Christian nation, but it was founded on secularized morals and values. The American Dream as we know it, however, does not a represent secularized morality intended to unite a diverse people as the Founding Fathers intended.

If we unpack the American Dream to reveal its inner layers, what we find are strata encoding not only what we think, but how we think. When we do peek through the surface, its inner sanctum looks a bit regressive for its vestigial religionist character. The American Dream may not articulate a specific God, but it it is upheld by a specific religious code – the Protestant Work Ethic.

Religious values and religious morals are embedded in the American Dream for the Protestant Work Ethic itself cannot be secularized. Hidden inside the Protestant Work Ethic is the old adage “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground.” Humanity is by nature evil, and humans will do evil if that impulse is not constantly controlled and incessantly put in check. Humanity must keep constant vigilance against the touch of Satan’s hands. If one can successfully keep pace against Satan’s influence, one will find reward both on Earth and in Heaven.

Job Tormented by the Devil by Hans Schaufelein

This is the conflation of idleness and sloth. The casting off of sloth (one of the deadly sins) implicitly manifests in the American Dream via the Protestant Work Ethic as “you can rise to the top of the income ladder, so long as you are willing to commit yourself and work hard.”

Sunstein’s take on the intergenerational aspect of the American Dream reveals another aspect about our general sense of the American Dream, perhaps one which goes unnoticed: how narrowly the American Dream is reduced to kin and region – in other words, how very tribal the American Dream really is. It is precisely the kind of tribalism that the Founders sought to prevent.

One subtle, but crucial omission from the American Dream is definitive identification of “common good” or “we the people” and what those phrases meant to the vision the founders had in mind for the new society to be created out of the Constitution.  Herein lies the sham of the American Dream – “we the people” or “public liberty” was their vision of the American Dream. Yet, this notion is entirely absent or at best loosely implied in the general understanding of “if you work hard, you get ahead.” “If you work hard, you get ahead” also signifies a specific context: capitalism. Dakinikat recently wrote a wonderful piece on finding “we the people” within 21st century capitalism. It’s an excellent read. Her post is here:

What ever Happened to “We” the People? | Sky Dancing

James Wilson

I think the most sublime encapsulation of the genuine American Dream comes from the great erudite and mentor to every other leading thinker of the Founding Generation: James Wilson. From his Of Man, As a Member of Society:

When we say, that all men are created equal; we mean not to apply this equality to their virtues their talents, their dispositions, or their acquirements. In all these respects, there is, and it is fit for the great purposes of society that there should be, great inequality among men. In the moral and political as well as in the natural world, diversity forms an important part of beauty; and as of beauty, so of utility likewise. This social happiness, which arises from the friendly intercourse of good offices, could not be enjoyed, unless men were so framed and so disposed, as mutually to afford and to stand in need of service and assistance. hence the necessity not only of great variety, but even of great inequality in the talents of men, bodily as well as mental. Society supposes mutual dependence: mutual dependence supposes mutual wants: all the social exercises and enjoyments may be reduced to two heads – that of giving, and that of receiving: but these imply different aptitudes to give and receive.

In this passage Wilson describes the secular morality upon which the Constitution would function, the principles upon which it was designed. Note his recognition of diversity, the very diversity that capitalism exploits in its spirit of competition – in its Social Darwinism. But Wilson articulates a very different vision, one that connects happiness and diversity to equality and egalitarianism. In this scenario, “hard work” connotes a meaning not of working for individual success or achievement, but for the happiness of the whole. Individuality isn’t denied, rather it is fully recognized as a component of natural diversity.  Moreover, thriving, diverse individualism is contingent upon others rather than solely on the self.

John Dickinson

John Dickinson, writing in defense of the new Constitution expressed it this way in his Fabius Letters:

Humility and benevolence must take place of pride and overweening selfishness. Reason, rising above these mists, will then discover to us, that we cannot be true to ourselves, without being true to others – that to love our neighbors as ourselves, is to love ourselves in the best manner – that to give, is to gain – and, that we never consult our own happiness more effectually, than when we most endeavour to correspond with the divine designs, by communicating happiness, as much as we can, to our fellow-creatures.

Happiness and the American Dream from this Constitutional perspective strictly revolved around union and interdependence, not the individual “rugged” struggle implied in the American Dream of today. The true American Dream isn’t to work “hard” for personal gain; it is to work “together” to create a mutual space where all may prosper.

Locating the dream in monetary success is another slice of the faux-ideal I would consider rudely cut and a bit off the mark. Well, that’s an understatement. I’d consider it diametrically opposed to founding intent. One of the primary goals in creating a new government out of the ashes of the Articles of Confederation was addressing wealth inequality.

Again, the founding vision for the new society was not “if you work hard, you get ahead.” It was “if we work together we all get ahead.” The analogy from the Constitutional Convention was the short but stout pyramid, very wide at its base but not ascending to great height. By virtue of inherent diversity as described above by Wilson, individuals scaling to the highest rung was not the ideal. This original American Dream envisioned all individuals, each with varying abilities ascending the rungs of the prosperity ladder at varying levels, broadening prosperity rather than narrowing it.

Hence the Founder’s goals were to delimit wealth inequality in their own time, but also generationally, step by step (rung by rung), generation by generation through time. But the way to do that was not by valuing the top rung of prosperity; it was by valuing the many staggered rungs distributed horizontally. In other words, not desiring the top rung.  As a matter of policy and governance, inhibiting wealth inequality meant curbing avarice and ambition.

In this way, decreasing inequality and increasing egalitarianism could be realized. Modest existence in order to sustain the masses was the American value. This value very specifically contradicts the capitalist value of unlimited wealth accumulation by individuals. Short” step” pyramids and tall, narrow pyramids are two distinct and mutually exclusive ideals. Today’s American Dream implies the latter and doesn’t even give lip service to the more authentic former ideal. Indeed, the capitalist ideal is generational only in terms of generating more wealth – unlimited wealth generation in the short term. The true American ideal is wealth generation for sustainability, frugality and modesty to preserve subsistence for all in both short and long terms.

While I can’t say I can precisely trace the degradation in the American Dream that took place between the Founding Generation and our own, I suspect Max Weber is a good start.

Max Weber

Weber coined the term “Protestant Work Ethic.” In The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism he claimed that the Founders possessed this eponymous ideal and engaged in explicitly capitalist pursuits. He asserts that they associated capitalism specifically with religion. Weber is an important figure in the history of ideas, but I disagree with his interpretation. The Founders weren’t capitalists. If anything they were an amalgamation of proto-capitalists and proto-socialists. The Constitution was imbued with a secular communitarian ideal which combined elements of what we now might call capitalism AND what we now might call socialism. What I think Weber does is he mythologizes proverbial frugality – the kind that might be found in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. Weber then translates this popularized “ideal” as Puritan Austerity. I question his entire thesis, but the main point here is his conceptualization of capitalism and American values.

Weber’s ideas were more influenced by 19th century economic development than by previous eras; in this regard his historicity isn’t so nifty. His time was the golden age of the robber barons. It seems to me Weber inaccurately attempts to define an ideological line of continuity between the Founders and the late 19th century. I respect Weber’s attempt, but I do think he draws incorrect conclusions about founding ideals.  In my view, the 19th century largely re-worked and, quite frankly, undid the founding ideals that forged the nation. Neither unfettered capitalization nor massive industrialization were regarded as positives by 18th century standards. Jefferson, for instance, disliked industrialization. He lamented newly emerging factories especially in terms of their negative impacts on the citizenry as a society of individuals – in an individual’s ability to achieve personal sovereignty. Hamilton held the view that capitalism should primarily serve the interest of the government of the people rather than an individual’s personal interest.

I suspect, too, that the myth of the rugged individual — the noble-spirited “hard worker” evolved from three primary factors: 19th century institutionalized servitude that arose in response to capitalization and industrialization combined with the exploitation of the American frontier; and in the 20th century the rise of fascism, Cold War/Red Scare hysteria that transformed capitalists and capitalism into heroic antagonists battling “collectivist tyrant-dictators.”

Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This is only speculation on my part – matters to think on. It seems to me the myth of the rugged individual evolved out of the frontier experience, but not so much our historical experience, rather our fictional one. Westward Expansion marked the period when America developed its own distinct literature which is uniquely defined by rugged individualism. Although there are extraordinary letters, diaries, essays, and memoirs to be had from the 18th and 17th centuries, no colonial or uniquely American literary tradition evolved then. Even the most famous American novel depicting 17th century Puritanism, The Scarlet Letter, was published in 1850. Curiously enough, all its main characters are drawn with varying degrees of “rugged individualism.” It is more of a scathing commentary than an historical rendering, to be sure. Another thought on that point – the community isn’t the communitarian ideal expressed by the Constitutional defenders. The Puritanical community in the Scarlet Letter is quite plainly tyrannical.

And now for an abrupt halt. As this post has gotten quite long, perhaps this is a good place to pause for a segue-way into the next portion – the 20th century.

For now, perhaps we can focus on not taking the American Dream for granted. And maybe ways in which we might transform the American Dream into a more authentic aspiration which specifies happiness,  genuine egalitarianism, and sustainability.

A couple of questions that I’m trying to answer:

Does the American Dream make sense?

Does it enhance happiness or does the American Dream today actually sabotage happiness?

18 Comments on “In Pursuit… Hardness and Happiness, Internalizing Weber, Ignoring Wilson”

  1. Fannie says:

    The whole world sucks, and I want to print your article out, and can’t afford to buy ink just yet. Three birthdays in one week wiped out my cash flow.

    I really appreciate you sharing your knowledge on the subject matter on the lost dream, and lack of happiness. Today, a lot of inner conflict came into play,which had to do with acceptance, equality, and opportunity. The opportunity I though was my input in communicating with another woman who happened to be part of the Missouri Fair. A wave of emotion came over the both of us, and it turned into a shouting match. My initial reaction was to express the dislike/negative feelings I had when their association decided to use Obama as the bulldummy at the fair. I clearly stated that this kind of behavior had negative effects on children and others about respecting the office of presidency, and make me sick to my stomack…………..she told me that she was Christian, and they all were, and he was muslim, and you know, that just about set me on fire. Next time, it will be a woman president, and this kind of thing will never end. She couldn’t relate to me, and I couldn’t relate to her. There was no happiness to be found, we might just as well build our own separate worlds. I admit to wanting to learn new approaches to the oldest problem in the world, hope you can help me.

    Truth is that I gained a lot of knowledge via my life experiences, and can tell you that I worked extremely hard, pitting peaches, and working in the tomato fields of the Sacramento Valley. It was like up and at it by 4:30 am, and I worked with poor people like myself. Most spoke Spanish, which I did not, but we seemed to connect with each other because of the long hours, and the heat, and occasional snakes and rats in the fields. And those people, poor, have been life long friends to me. They are part of my tribe, and that makes me happy. Is it actually about one’s experience or not?

    • bostonboomer says:

      Oh Fannie. That’s awful. I admire you for speaking up. I’d probably just turn around and walk away from someone like that, because I hate to deal with ignorant people. But even if they don’t get it, it’s probably good to shake up their bizarre worldviews from time to time.

  2. bostonboomer says:


    This is a fascinating post. I don’t have your knowledge of the founding fathers and their writings–I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t even heard of James Wilson or John Dickinson before reading this. I love the idea of the American dream being based on community and cooperation. The only problem I have is that the founders only included white male property owners in their conception of equality and rights of the individual.

    I agree that the notion of the rugged individual stems largely from the frontier experience. That experience was so powerful for Americans that even when I was a child in the 1950s, it was an important part of our consciousness. We watched “westerns” in movies and TV, and as children we played “cowboys and Indians.” When JFK sought a name for his goals as president, he chose “the new frontier.”

    Still, I think there was always a strong sense of individualism in the American character, because so many of the people who came here from Europe were rebellious types–people who wanted to practice a different religion or way of life–even criminals released from prison to become settlers.

    Thanks so much for this post–so much food for thought that it’s difficult to come up with immediate reactions.

    • bostonboomer says:

      I’m also interested in your argument that American fiction didn’t really start to develop until the 19th century. For example, Moby Dick was published in 1851, Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.

      Apparently there were some American novels published in the 18th century, but they don’t seem to have stuck in our consciousness–maybe because some of the best-selling ones were written by women. From Wikipedia:

      …important women writers also published novels. Susanna Rowson is best known for her novel, Charlotte: A Tale of Truth, published in London in 1791. In 1794 the novel was reissued in Philadelphia under the title, Charlotte Temple. Charlotte Temple is a seduction tale, written in the third person, which warns against listening to the voice of love and counsels resistance. In addition to this best selling novel, she wrote nine novels, six theatrical works, two collections of poetry, six textbooks, and countless songs. Reaching more than a million and a half readers over a century and a half, Charlotte Temple was the biggest seller of the 19th century before Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although Rowson was extremely popular in her time and is often acknowledged in accounts of the development of the early American novel, Charlotte Temple is often criticized as a sentimental novel of seduction.

      Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette: Or, the History of Eliza Wharton was published in 1797 and was also extremely popular. Told from Foster’s point of view and based on the real life of Eliza Whitman, this epistolary novel is about a woman who is seduced and abandoned. Eliza is a “coquette” who is courted by two very different men: a clergyman who offers her the comfort and regularity of domestic life, and a noted libertine. She fails to choose between them and finds herself single when both men get married. She eventually yields to the artful libertine and gives birth to an illegitimate stillborn child at an inn. The Coquette is praised for its demonstration of this era’s contradictory ideals of womanhood.

      Both The Coquette and Charlotte Temple are novels that treat the right of women to live as equals as the new democratic experiment. These novels are of the Sentimental genre, characterized by overindulgence in emotion, an invitation to listen to the voice of reason against misleading passions, as well as an optimistic overemphasis on the essential goodness of humanity. Sentimentalism is often thought to be a reaction against the Calvinistic belief in the depravity of human nature. While many of these novels were popular, the economic infrastructure of the time did not allow these writers to make a living through their writing alone.

      The first author to be able to support himself through the income generated by his publications alone was Washington Irving. He completed his first major book in 1809 entitled A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. Charles Brockden Brown is another early American novelist, publishing Wieland in 1798, Ormond in 1799, and Edgar Huntly in 1799.

  3. peej says:


    I do think it is actually about one’s experience, but not one’s experience only. Your experience in the fields of the Sacramento Valley needs to be shared. Thank you for sharing. And absolutely, making life long friends makes one happy. It’s wonderful to have life long friends. My oldest friend has been my friend since I was 5… so a long time. Sometimes she knows me better than I know myself! 🙂

    It is precisely due to experiences like the one you have described that I question the American Dream. I question hard labor in America – does it make for upward mobility like our American Dream suggests it should? I don’t have a comprehensive solution, but I don’t think anyone in America should work hard and remain poor and struggling.

    To your confrontation with the woman at the fair – I’m so sorry you had to experience it. I’m sure it was frustrating. I mean what do you say when someone says something to you that doesn’t make any sense at all? What do you say when confronted with such intentional viciousness like using the President of the United States as a bulldummy? I think you had the right idea, though, about the negative effects. You spoke out against the irrational with the reality – you were absolutely right about the office of the presidency and you spoke for all of us who believe in “we the people” – thank you.

    The challenge of our times, I think, is figuring out the anger and frustration that erupts from our political discourse. Even the woman that shouted at you was frustrated and angry because she believes the propaganda and lies she’s been told. So, perhaps one way to think about it is to remember that people really believe nonsensical propaganda. Shouting matches don’t make anyone feel happy. I’m sorry you had to go through that. One of the things I’ve been trying to figure out is how to counter that propaganda. It isn’t easy. How does one open a closed mind? I don’t know, but I’m still trying to figure it out. I think kindness and rationality are pieces to that puzzle.

  4. peej says:


    I don’t think it is entirely accurate to assume founding ideals included only white male property owners – that ending position in the Constitution was a compromise. 18th century women weren’t liberated by any means, but I think far more so than periods preceding. The Paines, Franklins and others actually did have progressive ideas with respect to women. And there were strong, independent women breaking conventions at the time. I should hope our own time wouldn’t be judged by the worst of us – like the Rush Limbaughs etc. but by the best of us, like the Bostonboomers. 🙂 It might be a little dismissive and a little inaccurate to assume that founding ideals intended to benefit only white male property owners when those explicit compromises were made with the idea that posterity would correct their errors. That we do not is the more damning.

    And I don’t think racism meant the same thing as it might now. Slaveholders were racist. Northerners were racist. Abolitionists were racist. But let’s value abolitionism just the same. And it would be wrong to assume that there weren’t contentious ideas African American suffrage because there were. Dismissing revolutionary ideals as non-inclusive also kind of diminishes the African American experience and women’s contributions too.

    But on another note, the founding vision was progressivism – that our values, our institutions, and our governing documents shouldn’t remain static but meet the needs of the day – so even if the founders didn’t include African Americans, Native Americans, or women entirely in all their conceptions of equality and egalitarianism – we can in the 21st century. There’s nothing philosophically limiting about equality and egalitarianism in that respect.

    Yes, individualism has always been part of the American character. I don’t think your example of religious types is a good one to make your point, though. Those were dissenters and Puritans – they didn’t exactly come here in such a noble, individualist spirit – they were pretty much kicked out of Europe for their intolerance. They didn’t have anywhere else to go. Same with the criminals. And the Puritans weren’t individualists in the sense that once they settled here they instituted a pretty rigid theocracy where individual dissent from the community was usually met with pretty harsh treatment – ostracizing, banishment. These weren’t freethinkers by any stretch of the imagination. They were rigid conformists. I think that was one somewhat accurate point Hawthorne was trying to establish in The Scarlet Letter. He wasn’t writing about the Founding generation. He was writing about the Puritans, the very religionist spirit the Founding generation rejected. Anyway… I’m going to explore the rugged individual a little further, I think, in future posts.

    Yes, there were writers and women writers in the 18th century and in the colonial period. But, I wouldn’t say they were distinctly or uniquely American. I’ll have to put some thought into the interpretation that The Coquette and Charlotte Temple represent the new Democratic experiment. Maybe I’ll do a post on women writers on the period. I kinda like that idea.

    Wilson and Dickinson aren’t the household names, I realize. But they were founding fathers in every sense. And they were important figures. Wilson, in my estimation, was the most important and would have been The Household Name we all know and his face would be on our currency had he not died in 1798. Reading some of his works and certainly his remarks at the Constitutional Convention – well, it’s difficult not to be in awe of him. He was the most learned, the most perceptive, and his ideas come closest to the modern day.

    More later. 🙂

    • bostonboomer says:

      Well, the fact is that the “founding fathers” wrote slavery into the constitution, and women and non-property owners couldn’t vote.

      A post on early women writers would be fantastic! I think Herman Melville and Edgar Allen Poe were uniquely American in many ways. And Mark Twain of course. Huckleberry Finn is my candidate for the Great American Novel.

      • Beata says:

        Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is my candidate.

      • peej says:

        With all due respect, it isn’t a fact that the founding fathers wrote slavery into the Constitution. Slavery was never federalized in the Constitution. Slavery permissible under state law and the details of suffrage were both compromises in dire circumstances and with the knowledge that these questions weren’t settled.

        Also about the Puritans – I’m not sure I was so clear there. The point with the Puritans is that they’re completely mythologized as well. I mean they don’t exemplify the drive for individual initiative that seems to characterize the “American Dream.” Their conflicts in Europe stemmed from fanaticism not individualism. They were not proponents of religious freedom. As to the frontier – I think I’ll save that for another post. 🙂 You are right, though, the Wild West is part of our national consciousness.

        Okay, I’ll do a post on early women writers. And I’d be hard pressed to disagree with Huckleberry Finn as a candidate for the Great American Novel. We are definitely entirely in agreement there.

  5. Beata says:

    This is a very interesting post, peej. Thank you for writing it. Lots of ideas to ponder.

    • peej says:

      Thank you, Beata. Yes, there are lots of ideas in here. I hope I put them in some reasonable order. I hope there are some that resonate with you. 🙂

  6. Sasha says:

    This was a unique read. Thanks for taking time to write it.

  7. Sociological theory. Be still my heart. 🙂

  8. Wow, what a post. I have to re-read this when my mind is more awake Peej. But I gotta say that the quote you have up top from Dickinson reminds me of the sort of things Marley and the Three Spirits were telling Scrooge in Dickens book A Christmas Carol.

    • peej says:

      🙂 Take your time. I’m just putting out ideas to think about. Ooh – that’s a great connection with Scrooge. You’re right. I’ll be following up on that. Especially interesting given the commentary on industrialized society. When I think on large trends like industrialization, I sometimes forget that England industrialized prior to America and therefore experienced its impact before we did.

  9. Fannie says:

    Thanks Peej and BB……………