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Why was America's philosophy "right" for economic development?

"Ninety-eight out of one hundred of the rich men in America are honest. That is why they are rich."

-Rev. Russell Conwell

-from his sermon "Acres of Diamonds."


The Reverend Russell Conwell made that statement over 6000 times. It was part of an attempt to preach a certain philosophy about success. Andrew Carnegie, onee of America's leading industrialists also preached hard work and frugality in his "Gospel of Wealth." Americans had certain philosophies that drove them to hard work, philosophies begun by the Puritans a hundred years before. America was to become, as John Winthrop had foretold, "A City Upon A Hill."

The rapid industrialization of the late nineteenth century was not begun by machines. It was begun by men and women working towards the creation of a new and different powerful nation. It was, in reality, a search for the attainment of money, wealth and power. That was the American dream. No longer was success a small plot of land to farm on the prairie. This was big business. None of this would have been possible if the nation had not created certain conditions that made industrialism possible. Today we will examine those philosophical positions.

There were primarily three philosophies that drove America towards industrial greatness. Each of these philosophies had Puritan values as their foundation. Values such as hard work and the notion that God destined some to greatness and others to a life of toil are laden throughout these philosophical principles.

Laissez Faire Capitalism

Laissez faire capitalism is capitalism in its purest form. As an economic philosophy it literally means "hands free" or government hands off of business. The notion was that the best way for government to help business and promote industrialization was to leave it alone, to do nothing. This meant no regulations, no laws governing business, nothing. In this unfettered environment industry was free to expand unchecked and take whatever actions it deemed necessary. If workers or the public were hurt in the process, so be it. It was not the governments role to help, they should help themselves.

Rugged Individualism

This was the idea that it was a persons responsibility to help themselves. If a person was down on their luck they had to "pick themselves up by the bootstraps" and make something of their lives. There would be no government safety net, no welfare. This philosophy instilled and reinforced the hard work ethic.

Social Darwinism

This was the application of Charles Darwin's philosophy of "survival of the fittest" to humanity. It was the basic belief that those that deserved and were strongest would become wealthy and those that were poor were obviously not fit enough. This philosophy did not allow for peoples circumstances as an excuse. Either you were fit, or you were not...overcome the obstacles or become a member of the nations underclass.

It should be clear that all of these philosophies have a similar tone. Small , non intrusive government was the theme of the day. Hard work and personal achievement were the methods and the goals. America was to be a "meritocracy," or a nation where people earned their achievements based upon their merits. Nobody summed up these ideas better than Horatio Alger. Alger's books told the stories honest , hard working young men who made their fame and fortune through these traditional values. His books were the best selling books of the time.

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