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Americans don't know if they love or hate commerce, which is almost like saying they don't know if they love or hate their own lives. So much of life in the United States consists of the work commerce provides, the objects industry manufactures and sells, and the structures built by commercial enterprises. For most immigrants, the American dream means a good job, in an economy whose life-blood is trade. The United States would not have been a place of hope and fulfillment for so many without the work commerce creates. Peddlers' carts, sewing machines, small restaurants, laundries, truck farms, grocery stores are icons in the classic tales of hard-earned success and Americanization.
On the other hand, commerce is always corroding our highest ideals and tarnishing our best selves. Although Plymouth Plantation would not have survived the desperate early decades without the cattle market in Boston, William Bradford complained that the passion to raise and sell animals destroyed the community at Plymouth as people scattered to get more pasture. Jeffersonian republicans thought a farmer had to have a market to keep his hand to the plow while fearing that commerce would bring with it luxury, weakened character, and corruption. In current academic accounts of the early Republic, the expansion of the market after the Revolution infected the nation with an ethic of self-interested profit seeking that destroyed an older devotion to community and the public good.
In our national myths, commerce is greed and selfishness, as well as opportunity and prosperity. Through all of American history, the huckster is a despised figure, whether in the form of the Yankee peddler, the high-pressure salesman, or the modern ad man, a person given to deceit, false promises, and the evocation of unwanted desires. He lures us away from the wholesome, simple life we know is best, toward luxury, self-indulgence, and extravagance, the life we know will ruin us.
Religion, like all idealisms, has long been ...