President Calvin Coolidge, 1923-1929, was giving a talk in January 1925 to the Society of American Newspaper Editors in Washington, D. C. when he noted:
“After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.”
He added, lest he be misunderstood by some as pillaring the American penchant for making or acquiring wealth, “Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence,” he said. “But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well-nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it…But it calls for additional effort to avoid even the appearance of the evil of selfishness. In every worthy profession, of course, there will always be a minority who will appeal to the baser instinct. There always have been, probably always will be, some who will feel that their own temporary interest may be furthered by betraying the interest of others.”
Or as Michael Douglas’s character, Gordon Gekko, said in the 1987 movie Wall Street, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
For the other side of the coin, nothing is clearer than Scripture, especially when Paul wrote his young disciple Timothy, “for the love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10, KJV).
A few years ago, Eric Saugera, a French scholar, wrote a wonderful, immensely well documented history of the vine and olive colony, Reborn in America: French Exiles and Refugees in the United States and the Vine and Olive Adventure, 1815-1865, published by the University of Alabama Press. The story of Demopolis is fascinating, but several passages about wealth and Americans are right on the mark.
One of the French colonists, Jacques Lajonie Lapeyre, when queried about what Americans were like, answered “without wanting to put you off America, it is indispensable that I warn you that the Americans’ favorite phrase is make money…make money is the rallying cry of all Americans.”
And Lajonie added the intention of most immigrants—then and now— “We are going to imitate them!”
Are/were we always that devoted to making money? A new book by a Univ. of North Carolina historian, Benjamin Waterhouse, The Land of Enterprise: A Business History of the United States, argues that the history of American business is not a sidebar to the work of political, ideological and cultural leaders but instead is “a key aspect of our national story that helps explain how the United States developed into the land it is today.” (WSJ, June 8, 2017, A15) That’s a mouthful!
Waterhouse makes his argument persuasively, following business history from the Constitution to today.
So, who is right? Scripture and the Apostle Paul, or the mavens of Wall Street and other institutions all associated directly with making money? It is an important question to answer, perhaps the most important in determining our national being, past, present, and future.
It is, let me suggest, more important than politics, tweets, entitlements, taxes, race, sex, addictions, computers, gays, and let’s throw in freedom, liberty, opportunity and the First Amendment for good measure, or any other category you care to offer as central to understanding our life as a people.
I think Coolidge basically got it right. The country is driven by the competitive spirit, or to produce, buy, sell, invest and prosper in the world. The evil in the formula is when self-interest turns into greed and the good of all is subverted by the greed of individuals.
Why do so many in the world want to emigrate to the United States? The answer is in two parts: freedom on the one hand, and opportunity to grow and prosper in liberty. Some, of course, are fleeing political persecution. They come seeking the sanctity of law and order.
But most come here to work and make a new life. And work has been a central ingredient in driving the business ethic in America since well before Independence.
We work not simply to make money, but because we like to invent in the sciences, heal in medicine, create new devices, be productive in our various callings, ponder our minds and spirits, and sometimes even search the cosmos beyond earth for answers.
Published as “The Business of Americans is Business” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, June 25, 2017.