Choices that Become Part of the American Ethos

Isaac Watts, an 18th century English hymn-writer, had some strong ideas and opinions on being industrious versus lazy behavior.  As the early colonialists struggled to establish their roots in the New World, hymns and their lyrics were important sources for encoding an American ethos.  Watts, in a 1720 hymn Against Idleness and Mischief, wrote the following:

“How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!

How skilfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.

In Works of Labour or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For idle Hands to do.

In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last.”

Do you feel Watts’ hymnal words were evoked or fixed into visible form in early Colonial America?  Your thoughts?


About roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.
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22 Responses to Choices that Become Part of the American Ethos

  1. B. Mann says:

    These words make a playful example of how hard work results in great reward and that reward will withstand the test of time. I feel that the words “let my first years be past, That I may give for every day some good account at last” were a starting point to inspire those to look to the future and be accountable for the productivity of society. These words, were more than likely not what evoked the productivity of society per se, but you can definitely see a shift during this time. Successful colonies were being developed with distinctive influences on religion, social classes, architecture as well as the development of governments. This progresssion forward reflects the work of proactive hands.

  2. Kristy Asato says:

    The form that I immediately thought of was early American stitch samplers. Whenever I see the phrase “idle hands” I picture little girls hard at work learning to read and sew while creating pieces of embroidered cloth. Some contained the alphabet, a phrase, decorative borders, and elaborate images and took over a year to make. These young women took this teaching exercise and turned it into something special. Most of the sayings they copied were bible references, but a lot involve the virtues of patience, hard work, and duty. I have dabbled in some embroidery and find it tedious. Watt’s hymn makes me think of those industrious colonial women who really did not have time to be idle.

  3. dutchvanderjagt says:

    I think that Watts words were ‘fixed’ in early Colonial life. The people; men, women and children, all worked extremely hard to survive. They didn’t have time to be ‘idle’. The home, the fields, hunting, etc. needed to be attended to during the daylight hours and at night, they were probably too exhausted to do much of anything, but teach their children what they knew. This hymn teaches hard work and the dangers of laziness. This poem gives off a very strong sense of family and community.

  4. eric burwell says:

    I think he finds a hybrid version of this. We can see how that when one needs to survive that we build what makes us. I see the early American Colonies to be a product of themselves. This is just basic information, nothing that needs to be dug deep in philosophical roots. I think we might undervalue our hands and how they shape our world around us. So in general I feel to come over and see what he wrote would just be a product of accident. Th stuff will exist as long as we have need for it, no lazy when hungry.

  5. Amber Eilers says:

    Of course the words of Watts were derived from the byproduct of hard work that comes from building states and growing as a society. I believe as an artist and a preacher he had every intention to motivate the people around him who were not pushing their weight. I do think that as Colonial America became to be some of what was said in this poem came to be truth. The same being, however, for any society and state that wants to succeed. It is a great philosophy that has been lost this day in age.

  6. Hwanhee Lee says:

    From my understandings, I believe Watts’ words were evoked. Everyday we witness and live through hardships. It doesn’t matter who you are, the past, present, or the future. Yes, the times have changed and labor is different, but until today, people can still heed these words that Watts wrote. As long as people strive and have means of survival, the world will still turn. For people who wants IT the most, will see better days, with hard work and determination and for those who dont, well its self explanitory when Watts says,
    “In Works of Labour or of Skill
    I would be busy too:
    For Satan finds some Mischief still
    For idle Hands to do.”


  7. I think Isaac Watts’ intention with his poem was to motivate and inspire the people of Colonial America by showing the example with “the little busy Bee.” I would imagine people in early Colonial America would have needed the push to build something from nothing and be prosperous. With his words, “How doth the little busy Bee / Improve each shining Hour, / And gather Honey all the day / From every opening Flower!” Watts gives a model of how the people could “Improve each shining Hour” in the New World by putting in a strong effort into development.

  8. Peter Fajardo says:

    Personally, this hymn has a hint or even a sarcastic undertone. In the section that reads- “I would be busy too:For Satan finds some Mischief still For idle Hands to do.”, the excerpt sounds like a stab at leading a simple life with insufficient resources. This is strictly a personal opinion. Overall the passage reads to be well intended as a motivation for early colonialist…

  9. Jess C. says:

    Watts’ words were definitely meant to inspire the colonists to be hard workers. They would have had nothing if they weren’t inspired to build for their safety and well being. If a colony was lazy, they wouldn’t have survived and then the part about “idle hands and mischief” would have been true. The lazy colonists probably would have ransacked another colony that was growing and becoming prosperous and that would end badly for both sides. People need to be pushed and inspired to things and this hymn helped fulfill that need.

  10. Caitlin M. says:

    I think that Watts’ words were evoked in early Colonial America because he was surrounded by the need for constant progress in order to form successful colonies. Living during that time when development and moving forward were key ambitions he had to have realized that hard work does pay off. The opening of the hymn is an analogy to a worker bee – the importance of working hard can’t get more obvious. He shows how the skillful bees hard labor creates “sweet food” which can be directly compared to his fellow settlers. He is trying to motivate people throughout his community to work hard and make their own sweet rewards. There would be no advances in a colony filled with lazy people, it wouldn’t grow or prosper at all.

  11. danielle nazareno says:

    The hymnal words were evoked. There is a sense of playful sarcasm. When reading this, my initial thoughts were the images causes me to envision a nice decent society as he states “How skilfully she builds her Cell! How neat she spreads the Wax! And labours hard to store it well With the sweet Food she makes.” This part of the hymn “evokes” a pleasant and ideal image of the the colonialists and American ethos; however, because he states “In Works of Labour or of Skill I would be busy too: For Satan finds some Mischief still For idle Hands to do” it displays the laziness form of Colonial America and shows that this happy image is not “fixed” image at all.

  12. Jennifer Frazell says:

    I feel that Watt’s hymn was an inspirational message for the colonists. It was a very long and difficult process to move away from their homes to create an entire new world. They had to completely build everything from the ground up and they had to do it together. The hymn parallels the bees and the colonists; to have a successful colony and bee hive, it takes hard work from everyone in the community. It warns them, “For Satan finds some Mischief still for idle Hands to do.” If they become lax, they will face the repercussions. It also shows them their hard work will pay off in the end, “Let me first Years be past, that I may give for every Day some good Account at last.”

  13. Alec Carbonel says:

    For me it seems like Watts’ was evoked but i also think that the colonist were probably building on that theme . When I read this hymn, I’m convinced that he sees the “bee” as a metaphor for the colonist and their work is fascinating as they progress. When he sings “In works of Labour or of skill I would be busy too” I believe that he is stating that the colonist along with everybody else knows that they have still a lot of work yet to be done.

  14. dianah674 says:

    Bees had to be very important to the colonists because they had to make their own candles from wax and they may have collected honey. The busy bee and the busy colonists, they all worked hard and had tremendous faith, sailing across the ocean and adapting to the New World climate and environs.

  15. Patricia Luisi says:

    I believe that Watts’ words were fixed in early forms of Colonial America. Watts’ hymn purely talks about the value of hard work, bees are known as one of the most hard working animals. In Colonial times you had to be as “busy as a bee” to survive. Watts’, through his hymn, was trying to motivate people to pull their own weight in society and if you do not, as he states, “… Satan finds some Mischief still for idle Hands to do.”

  16. Lin X. says:

    These words definitely reflect the ideas and mentality of the people from colonial America. They worked extremely hard like the bee to survive those “first Years”. All they could do was work hard and hope that these beginning years pass and that every day brought to them something good. These words also reflect how deeply rooted and faithful the people were when he mentions that idle hands could bring mischief.

  17. Cheuk Sham says:

    Watts was an influential hymn writer, and I believe his words must had made an impact on the people’s lives during the early colonial America, regardless of the fact that many people at that time came to America to search for religious freedom. Hard works are always awarded. During the early development of the colony, everyone needed to work hard as a bee or aunt for their society to grow and progress. And for this to happen, I believe Watts understood that people needs to be inspired and motivated by a leader and that his words have the potential ability to guide and lead.

  18. Josh Beauchamp says:

    Isaac Watts hymn were most certainly evoked in early Colonial America almost as a necessity to be simply survive in those days. The ability to constantly be working and improving your craft or trade day by day at first was necessary just to simply afford to take care of your family in much harsher living conditions compared with today, but eventually that hard work and determination helps to build the foundation for a better society for everyone. We can see as America progressed from the colonial days on how much it has thrived. I can see his point about idleness leading to mischief. I think in general when people don’t have anything to do or improve upon they get complacent and lazy.

  19. Heather Roberts says:

    I think this poem has everything to do with early Colonial America. This hymn is inspirational and a reinforcement of how much hard work these people went through. In the end when he writes “Let my first years be past, that I may give for every Day some good Account at last.” That statement just reminds people that staying busy and doing the work even when its hard will have its rewards in the end. This hymn is was intended to lift people’s spirits and give them hope, I think it still has that effect. Very well written..

  20. Jason Carrara says:

    I think the major weakness with colonial America and their ideals and philosophies is their fixation on religious values. This limits them to differing perspectives and doesn’t allow for a lot of conversation or growth of ideas. I know it is very very early in American history to be thinking about ideas of progression and social change– it just seems like innately people should strive to grow and create right off the bat when forming a new society.

  21. JennaLarkin says:

    The first person I thought of when I read this Hymn was my dad. Ever since I was little I have been watching him get up early, go to work, come home, work on our house, help us with homework, and then stay up late grading papers or writing his dissertation when getting his PhD. My dad went from being a cop and helping out at the YMCA to getting his degree and later founding and becoming the president of a Christian college on the east coast. My dad could not have done any of this if it weren’t for his hard work. Being idle doesn’t really get you anywhere. I believe that this hymn is basically describing my dad. Hard work will help you reach your goals.
    I agree with Amber when she says that “he had every intention to motivate the people around him who were not pushing their weight”. Life back then was not easy and if you did not do anything then you did not get anywhere. And I agree again when Amber says that, “It is a great philosophy that has been lost.” Too many people are just trying to get away with taking advantage of others when I feel like they should be doing everything in their power to work harder, not be lazy, and achieve some higher goals.

  22. Caleb Kelly says:

    Busy hands are what formed this Nation. Hard work is what continues to drive America. I would have hated living in colonial times. I am such a forward thinking person, that to be in such a traditional society would drive me mad. The kind of work that Watt’s is talking about may or may not include artistic work. Physical labor was the primary source of consideration to be called work.

    Today, if you introduce yourself as an artist, and you’re not widely known, the first question people will ask: “But how do you eat?”

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