The truth about Labor Day

Behind this weekend’s holiday lies a strange civil war


On Monday, millions of Americans will celebrate Labor Day in a time-honored way – by deliberately avoiding labor. They’ll attend barbecues and beach parties; they might even kick back in their hammocks and lawn chairs with a feeling of entitlement, secure in their understanding that the first Monday in September is just a hard-earned reward for the American worker.

They’re wrong about Labor Day. And not only are they wrong, but by the lights of Labor Day’s founders, their whole attitude toward the day makes them less than good Americans.

In 1884, when President Grover Cleveland signed the bill making Labor Day a national holiday on the first Monday in September, he and its sponsors intended it not as a celebration of leisure but as a promotion of the great American work ethic. Work, they believed, was the highest calling in life, and Labor Day was a reminder to get back to it. It was placed at the end of summer to declare an end to the season of indolence, and also to distance it from May Day, the spring event that had become a symbol of the radical labor movement.

The day most of us now spend in happy leisure was created to urge Americans to work more, not less. The holiday’s inventors would have been dismayed to see that Americans today would use it only to float in a pool, play putt-putt golf, or – even worse – to fantasize about a life in which they do nothing but play.

Labor Day, perhaps more than any other holiday, has always embodied a contradiction in American society, the deep gulf between the nation’s self-image and the way its people often behave. And to understand why is to get a clearer look at an important but little-understood piece of our own history: America’s long civil war over fun.

The philosophical conflict embodied in Labor Day dates to the earliest days of the nation’s history. In 1625, just five years after the first Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, a rival settlement called Merry Mount was founded at the site of present-day Quincy. The inhabitants of Merry Mount shunned Puritanical injunctions and embraced the pleasures of the flesh. They drank great amounts of whiskey and beer and shamelessly fornicated. At the beginning of each May they erected a maypole, a pagan invention that had become the symbol of fun in villages across England, and danced around it with libidinal abandon.

Merry Mount’s population of hedonists grew faster than the godly brethren of the Puritan settlements, threatening to create a new land that looked less like the Puritans’ vision of a pure society and more like their version of hell. So in 1628 the elders in nearby Plymouth Colony sent Captain Myles Standish and a force of men armed with muskets and swords to wipe their competitors from the earth. The Puritan army quickly conquered Merry Mount, arrested its leaders, and chopped down the maypole.

Shortly thereafter New England authorities tightened the already exacting restrictions on parties, dancing, and public expressions of sexuality. More importantly, the Puritans planted the seed of what became the great American work ethic – the belief that work in itself is virtuous. This belief in work became one of the central elements of American national identity, an article of faith that united political leaders, clergy, business owners, and even labor leaders and radicals.

Yet among rank-and-file Americans the spirit of Merry Mount and the maypole lived on. Despite the violent admonitions of the Puritans, most European settlers in Colonial America lived as if they had never heard of the work ethic. Workers in the early American cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia drank beer throughout the workday and took frequent breaks for liquor and lounging. When confronted by moral authorities who commanded them to put down their cups and labor with “godly alacrity,” workers in craft shops, according to the historian Peter Thompson, “jealously defended heavy drinking as a right and a privilege.” Employees in heavy industries like construction and shipbuilding simply refused to work unless employers provided them with beer.

The length and intensity of the workday were treated with a similar laxity. In the Colonial culture it was commonly accepted for workers to decide when they would show up and when they would go home. Long breaks for eating, drinking, and sleeping were assumed to be part of the job. The day of godly rest on Sunday was followed by another day of a different kind of rest known as “Saint Monday.” Ben Franklin, who revived and promoted the Puritan work ethic as a necessary cultural component of an independent nation, complained that Saint Monday “is as duly kept by our working people as Sunday; the only difference is that instead of employing their time cheaply in church, they are wasting it expensively in the ale-house.”

During the War for Independence and the birth of the new republic, the Founding Fathers, fearing that a government of the people would become a government of laggards and drunkards, launched a campaign against fun. The members of the First Continental Congress, who included John Adams, Patrick Henry, George Washington, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock, declared they would “encourage frugality, economy, and industry, . . . [and] discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.”

The conflict between the work ethic and the popular love of leisure was so strong that when British forces appeared poised to invade Philadelphia in the fall of 1777, John Adams told his wife of his secret wish for the revolutionary capital to be captured by the British, for it “would cure Americans of their vicious and luxurious and effeminate Appetites, Passions and Habits.”

As the 19th century progressed, the founders’ campaign against fun and leisure was reflected in a new industrial discipline in American workshops, with strict and longer hours, bans on drinking, and enforced obedience to the boss. Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett famously urged Americans to live spare and rugged lives. Abraham Lincoln and leading abolitionists objected to slavery in part because it removed the incentive to labor intensively.

American schools and textbooks taught children to avoid the “frivolities” of play and overcome their desire for pleasure. The best-selling primer of the 19th century, Noah Webster’s “American Spelling Book,” warned that “[a] wise child loves to learn his books, but the fool would choose to play with toys.” Once the Industrial Revolution took hold in the decades following the Civil War, this notion of the moral value of work fused with the demands of new industries to create a crushing schedule for American laborers. In factories, they typically worked 10 to 16 hours per day, six days a week.

Workers, however, never lost their interest in leisure time – and contrary to the urgings of their spelling books, they resisted these demands mightily. By the end of the century, nearly every major American city had experienced major strikes for shorter hours. According to the Wisconsin commissioner of labor, the idea of a shorter work day “was the topic of conversation in the shop, on the street, at the family table, at the bar, in the counting room, and the subject of numerous able sermons from the pulpit.” Several historians have found that newly industrialized workers – especially migrants from the Southern United States and immigrants from pre-industrial cultures in southern and eastern Europe – engaged in daily informal strikes against factory discipline. Shirking, drinking on the job, and even sabotage of machines were everyday occurrences in most American industries. Outside the workplace, the late 19th century saw the rise of the saloon, especially in immigrant-dominated northern cities. Chicago, for example, had 3,500 saloons in 1884, more than existed in all 15 Southern states combined.

Another working-class response to the conditions of industrial labor was to do things that were not work. The late 19th century saw the rise of baseball, boxing, horse racing, commercial gambling, ethnic theater, nickelodeons, penny arcades, amusement parks, dime novels, and popular music. These were all predominantly working-class forms of leisure, and they were all attacked by moral reformers as threats to the great American work ethic.

Curiously, even the radical movements that arose to stand up for American workers embraced the work ethic. Socialist and anarchist labor leaders in the 1880s, wanting to transform the economy into a workers’ collective, seized on the concept of May Day as a rallying point, declaring a workers’ holiday on the old day of spring dancing. But they weren’t exactly in favor of fun. The anarchist leaders of the Haymarket rally for the eight-hour day in Chicago in 1886 – which culminated in a gun battle that left eight policemen and at least four demonstrators dead – attacked capitalism not just for exploiting the labor of the working class but also for forcing workers into periods of “compulsory idleness.” They issued a manifesto promising a society in which “every one be compelled to work who makes a demand to live.”

Against the pleasure ethic of American workers and the radicalism of May Day proponents, business and political leaders offered a new holiday, one designed to celebrate the work ethic and do it in a suitably patriotic way.

When President Cleveland signed Labor Day into existence in 1884, the conservative American Federation of Labor endorsed the new holiday. In deliberate contrast to “slackers,” union members used their government-approved day off to march in their work clothes alongside floats showing off the tools of their trades. They carried signs declaring the “honor” and “nobility” of work. Labor Day marches were praised by the press as “sober, clean, quiet” demonstrations of “the honest American workingman.” Yet as we know, the spectacular rise of commercial entertainment during that time – and in the century since – suggests that many American workers would far rather have been relaxing at the ballpark than marching to celebrate their jobs.

The sociologist Daniel Bell called this long civil war over fun the “cultural contradiction of capitalism,” the system’s simultaneous demand for work discipline and production of pleasure that undermines that discipline. Today, work itself even more strongly exemplifies that contradiction. The typical American worker spends most of his or her day toiling at a keyboard – a regimen that requires intense self-discipline – but produces services and goods that facilitate or incite leisure activities.

Though we might imagine that today’s embrace of an idle long weekend at the end of summer suggests that a truce has been reached in the civil war, the two sides – workers and the official culture – remain in their trenches.

While pop stars urge us to “Just Dance,” political and business leaders continue the Puritan tradition of calling, as President Obama did in his inaugural address, for us to “set aside childish things” and shun “those who prefer leisure over work.” This weekend, as you join the millions of Americans celebrating what they call Labor Day but treat as Leisure Day – and do it through nothing more strenuous than playing softball or having a picnic – you, too, will be taking a side.

Thaddeus Russell is a historian and cultural critic. He is the author of “A Renegade History of the United States,” to be published by Free Press/Simon & Schuster in 2010.  


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