This may be hard to believe, but the Pilgrims did not come to a new continent seeking a flat tax. Once upon a time the American Dream was not about getting rich.

There were some greedy people in early America, of course, but according to this article in the Boston Review, amassing great wealth was not the life goal of our founders. The article lists a census from 1860 where Lincoln listed a home worth $5,000 and a home worth $12,000. That was his personal propertry.

Not only was great wealth an aberration in Lincoln’s time, but even the idea that the accumulation of great riches was the point of a working life seemed foreign. Whereas today the most well-off frequently argue that riches are the reward of hard work, in the Civil War era, the reward was a “competency,” what the late historian Alan Dawley described as the ability to support a family and have enough in reserve to sustain it through hard times at an accustomed level of prosperity. When, through effort or luck, a person amassed not only a competency but enough to support himself and his family for his lifetime, he very often retired. Philip Scranton, an industrial historian, writes of one representative case: Charles Schofield, a successful textile manufacturer in Philadelphia who, in 1863, sold his interest in his firm for $40,000 and “retired with a competency.” Schofield, who was all of 29 years old, considered himself “opulent enough.” The idea of having enough frequently trumped the ambition for endless accumulation.

(Thanks to Donna Ramsey for the link.)