America's First Advocate for Less Work

During the third Republican debate, Jeb Bush punctuated his criticism of Marco Rubio's spotty attendance in the Senate with the swipe, "The Senate, what is it like, a French work week? You get, like, three days where you have to show up?"

Evoking the image of the indolent French whiling away their copious leisure in cafes while Americans measure their greatness by the sheer volume of hours worked is a potent one-two combination in today's political cage matches. It would not have played so well, however, with some of America's Founders, including Benjamin Franklin, who was well acquainted with the French and knew a thing or two about work and leisure.

Franklin is an ironic figure. Described by the historian Gordon Wood as the "patron saint of business," he is someone Donald Trump would have no trouble conjuring as a kindred spirit, like The Donald idolizing hard work and infinite wealth. The renowned sociologist Max Weber portrayed Franklin as the prototype of America's version of the Protestant Ethic–extolling frugality, industriousness, and with a constant eye on turning pennies into fortunes. Yet Weber misunderstood Franklin, failing to dig deeply enough to get beyond caricature to the real man.

Franklin indeed preached industry, thrift, and wealth, yet neither for their own sake nor as symbols of success. He saw nothing wise or noble about the man who kept "his Nose all his Life to the Grindstone," choosing to live to work rather than work to live. Asking, "Can wealth give happiness?" Franklin emphatically answered, "Look round and see--What gay distress! What splendid Misery! . . . That Wealth is Bankrupt and insolvent Gold." For Franklin, sufficient work and wealth promised a greater prize–leisure.

Franklin, who died at 84, retired from business at 42. With the remaining 42 years to live as a self-avowed "Man of Leisure," he enjoyed "a great Happiness, Leisure to read, study, make experiments, and converse at large."

Taking pains to explain that a "Life of Leisure and a Life of Laziness are two Things," he believed that free time was for anything "useful" beyond what he described as the "necessaries" of life.

Franklin made extraordinarily good use of his leisure, occupying it with science, philanthropic projects, service to his country, and travel in Europe. He even had a chance to partake in the Paris salons, where he was celebrated not for the long hours of labor he logged, but for the leisure and wisdom to live well.

In short, Franklin personified the American Dream of getting ahead by working hard. But where he was headed was not hard work and wealth as ends in themselves, but instead toward the richness of social progress and self-development purchased through free time.

So if Jeb Bush had leveled his criticism at Franklin, Ben's riposte might have been words he shared with Benjamin Vaughan:

If every Man and Woman would work for four Hours each Day on something useful, that Labour would produce sufficient to procure all the Necessaries and Comforts of Life, Want and Misery would be banished out of the World, and the rest of the 24 Hours might be Leisure and Pleasure.

Amen and vive la France!

*For more about leisure and the original American Dream, I recommend Benjamin Hunnicutt's superb book, Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream.

Charles Sylvester is emeritus professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington