Throughout the medieval period a fixed social hierarchy was considered essential to social order. People were born to a particular station in life, be it peasant or nobleman, and generally they accepted this as part of the natural order of things. The idea of a fixed order was reinforced by the Church which presented it as God-given.
The early Puritan idea that hard work was a ‘sign’ of being one of God’s chosen was an essential first step in the association between work and status. Because a person’s fate was predetermined, work was a way of demonstrating to others that s/he was one of the chosen. Wealth was supposed to be the fruits of hard work and the sign of God’s blessing.
In England, through the seventeenth and eighteenth century, social position was increasingly based on market relations rather than tradition. Wealth had traditionally been associated with property, particularly land-ownership, but “Wealth became identified with money, or with property which could be transformed into money by sale on the market.”
In parts of Europe and in America wealth, rather than being a manifestation of virtue and the “favourable spiritual state of the inward man,” became an end in itself “leaving but the dry husk of material success to define the purpose of human existence”. And when material success became the end goal, religious virtues such as piety were gradually superseded by ‘virtues’ that led to that success: “initiative, aggressiveness, competitiveness, and forcefulness”, qualities that might have been frowned on in earlier times. “Protestantism had begun to elevate the concept of wealth, and the pragmatism that developed in America raised it still higher.”
Foreigners observed the industriousness of Americans as somewhat alien. They were “amazed at the intensity with which Americans approached work and business. They were both fascinated and appalled by the American dedication to get ahead, and were aghast over what appeared to be a crass effort at social mobility and money making.”
There is, probably, no people on earth with whom business constitutes pleasure, and industry amusement, in equal degree with the inhabitants of the United States of America. Active occupation is not only the principal source of their happiness, and the foundation of their national greatness, but they are absolutely wretched without it... Business is the very soul of an American: he pursues it, not as a means of procuring for himself and his family the necessary comforts of life, but as the fountain of all human felicity....
This singular devotion to business was also noted in England after the industrial revolution. Foreigners were sometimes disturbed by the English businessman’s determination to make money whilst ignoring the poverty in their midst. Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in 1856 that “the Englishman has pure pride in his wealth, and esteems it a final certificate.”