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'Citty upon a hill'

2010 Books Issue | British authors say the vision that primed America's economy is the one that can save it

Issue: "2010 Books Issue," July 3, 2010

In the beginning were the Puritans. And they got it right, say Kenneth and William Hopper, British authors of The Puritan Gift: Reclaiming the American Dream Amidst Global Financial Chaos (I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2009).

In contrast to earlier settlers in Virginia and New England-a largely uneducated lot who set out for the New World with scant provisions or planning and succumbed to disease, hardship, and mass death-the Great Puritan Migration of 1630 was "a brilliant exercise that established the English-speaking people on North American soil."

While more than enough has been written about the moral and cultural impact of the Puritans on American society, not enough is said about how their faith-based entrepreneurship laid a foundation for the economic powerhouse that the United States would become. The Puritan Gift does that in what the Hopper brothers-one an investment banker and the other an engineer and industrial consultant-call "a love poem to America written in non-technical language." The authors told me their interest began in the 1960s, as Kenneth gave seminars in factories across the United States and says he discovered "a Puritan behind every door"-a common managerial culture that could be explained only in terms of the country's religious heritage.

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The book, released in Great Britain in March 2007, predicted the credit crunch and near financial collapse that engulfed the United States 18 months later. While it received abundant notice among academicians and management gurus like the late Peter Drucker, it's had scant popular attention in U.S. mainstream media. That may be partly due to the British colloquial tone of the authors; but Kenneth, who is 84, and William, 81, bring to their project rich experience and one-of-a-kind research in business and manufacturing, ranging from post-war Japan to Manhattan's financial district-along with a rare transatlantic fondness for America at its best.

The Massachusetts Bay Company, a joint-stock company founded in London by well-connected Puritans who kept careful records, foreshadowed what the authors label "the Great Engine" companies-blue-chip manufacturers that prospered into the mid-20th century (think General Electric, Procter & Gamble, U.S. Steel, and the Pennsylvania Railroad). The New England settlement would cost the Bay Company the equivalent of $40 million in today's dollars, but by 1640 the company sent 200 ships and 14,000 settlers to Massachusetts.

Led by John Winthrop, the expedition established business and management principles that persisted in early American commerce: careful planning, a disregard for social class in selecting management, an ethic of work combined with a habit of thrift, placing the good of the community above the individual, and a desire to create a kingdom of heaven on earth. "Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke . . . wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world," Winthrop told his company. His son would build the first factory in America-a blast furnace-and those principles would launch economic growth through the Industrial Revolution and beyond.

Cotton Mather would one day comment that Puritan "religion begot prosperity and the daughter had destroyed the mother," but the authors go to great lengths to show that the core principles of Puritan commerce persisted well beyond the first generation of Americans and extended to other parts of the world, particularly Asia. A 1917 plaque at the Newport News shipyard is an example: "We shall build good ships here, at a profit if we can-at a loss if we must-but always good ships." Civilian leaders in occupied Japan used the slogan to train post-war electronics workers; one went so far as to help clean the offices of a dirty but promising firm working then with less than $600 in capital and in old army huts where staff members held umbrellas over their desks in a rainstorm. The puritanical lesson paid off; the company went on to become Sony.

What changed? The Hoppers believe American business lost sight of the principles underwriting its success, beginning most noticeably in the 1950s and climaxing in 1970-the year Pennsylvania Railroad declared bankruptcy. Specifically, management turned from bottom-up practices to top-down and the "Cult of the (so-called) Expert" took over not only the nation's boardrooms but its business schools. "Management experts" replaced execs with experience on the factory floor. Numbers mattered more than product and quality. One of the new conglomerates acquired the Newport News shipyard in 1969, and had its famous plaque moved to the Mariners' Museum (footnote: It was returned after Northrop Grumman acquired the shipyard in 1986). And mid-century gurus like novelist Ayn Rand-whose hero in Atlas Shrugged declared, "I will never live for the sake of another man"-replaced altruistic business leaders.

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