Franklin's Thrift: The Lost History of An American Virtue

Franklin's Thrift: The Lost History of An American Virtue

Edited by David Blankenhorn, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and Sorcha Brophy-Warren

Templeton Press, 2009 - 272 pages

Americans today often think of thrift as a negative value – a miserly hoarding of resources and a denial of pleasure. Franklin's Thrift challenges this state of mind by recovering the rich history of thrift as a quintessentially American virtue.

Subject: Thrift

More by: David Blankenhorn, Sorcha Brophy-Warren and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

Additional Information

Americans today often think of thrift as a negative value – a miserly hoarding of resources and a denial of pleasure. Franklin's Thrift challenges this state of mind by recovering the rich history of thrift as a quintessentially American virtue. The contributors in this volume trace how from the eighteenth century on, the idea and practice of thrift has been a robust part of the American vision of economic freedom and social abundance. For Benjamin Franklin, who personified and promoted the idea, thrift meant working productively, consuming wisely, saving proportionally, and giving generously. Franklin's thrift became the cornerstone of a new kind of secular faith in the ordinary person's capacity to shape his lot and fortune in life. Later chapters document how in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, thrift moved into new domains. It became the animating idea behind social movements to promote children's school savings, create mutual savings banks and credit unions for working men and women, establish a federal savings bond program, and galvanize the nation to conserve resources during two world wars.

The picture of thrift that emerges in these pages is the opposite of small and small-minded. Thrift, the historical evidence suggests, is big and big-hearted. It is big in several ways. It is rooted in a broad conception of social thriving. It encompasses two classic, and sometimes competing, traditions in American life – self-help and mutual aid. From Benjamin Franklin to the philanthropist Edward Filene, thrift advocates have believed in giving people the opportunity to achieve independence through their own efforts and initiative. At the same time, they rejected a radically individualistic notion of "do-it-by-yourself." Cooperative institutions and associational bonds were central to their broad conception of thrift. By building institutions of mutual aid, thrift lenders believed, Americans from poor and "middling" ranks could do better together than they could do apart.

Today, as the nation faces the failure of major financial institutions, a crisis of overindebtedness, and the depletion of our natural resource wealth, our generation is called to the task of renewing thrift once again.

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