The Controversial Virtue of Thrift in the Early American Republic

Daniel Walker Howe

in Thrift and Thriving in America

Published in print July 2011 | ISBN: 9780199769063
Published online May 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199896851 | DOI:
The Controversial Virtue of Thrift in the Early American Republic

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This chapter shows thrift to be a subject of long-standing and often bitter disputes over which vision of human thriving would define the character of American society. It argues that the very notion of thrift has been from the earliest days a robustly contested idea, practice, and public ideal. The competition to define thrift has played out between Calvinist theology, classical republican thought, and Scottish moral philosophy, and against the transition from early America's largely agriculture-based economy to the industrialized, urbanized America of the late 19th century. The results were multifarious. On the one hand, city living multiplied temptations to spend and indulge. On the other hand, it helped bring into being a prosperous middle class that embraced thrift as a guiding virtue. Thrift thus underwent various recalibrations as the young nation vacillated between rural and urban development, between consumptive refinement and productive sobriety, and between private and public interests. In each case, thrift has been subject to competing definitions and demands.

Keywords: American society; thrift; Calvinist theology; republican thought; Scottish moral philosophy; economic development

Chapter.  11471 words. 

Subjects: Economic Sociology

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