Thrift – the forgotten virtue

Writing a Presidents’ Week column in National Review this week, Amity Shlaes rightly calls Calvin Coolidge the “prophet of thrift,” also pointing out that thrift is the most neglected virtue in modern life. Whatever happened to thrift, anyway?

The generation of Calvin Coolidge, perhaps particularly those of that generation born and raised in New England, were weaned on the life and writings of Benjamin Franklin, to whom thrift meant working productively, consuming wisely, saving proportionally, and giving generously. After all, “thrift” finds its etymological root in the verb “to thrive.” 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, exemplified by later works like Samuel Smiles‘ treatise on Thrift. Smiles starts out his 400-some page opus by observing that “some of the finest qualities in human nature are intimately related to the right use of money – such as generosity, honesty, justice, and self denial – as well as the practical virtues of economy and providence.”

Most people shared the view that thrift is both a private virtue that helps to develop the best in human character, and a public virtue. Indeed, as Smiles writes, “it is the savings of individuals which compose the wealth – in other words, the well-being – of every nation. On the other hand, it is the wastefulness of individuals which occasions the impoverishment of states. So that every thrifty person may be regarded as a public benefactor, and every thriftless person as public enemy.”

On the eve of America’s entrance into World War I, the leaders of the nation’s major civic organizations began to think about how they could support preparedness efforts for the battle ahead. The YMCA launched National Thrift Week, to be observed every year starting on January 17th, Benjamin Franklin’s birthday, to teach children – and adults – habits of saving money and using it wisely. Though it was endorsed at its founding in 1916 by Herbert Lord, later the second director of the U.S. Bureau of the Budget, the popularity of Thrift Week grew significantly in the years to come. Here’s a New York Times article on Thrift Week 1922.

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