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The MYTH and the DREAM


“The United States must show by example the sufficiency of human reason for the care of human affairs and that the will of the majority, the Natural Law of every society, is the only safe guardian of the rights of man.” --Thomas Jefferson



Immigrants came to America, in many instances to escape the excesses of the Old World, running from the oppression of serfdom in Russia, or the pestilence and famine in Ireland, or the instability and revolution in France, Italy and Germany.  Running from an Old World that was more often than not intolerant, arrogant, and corrupt.  The New World however, was the experiment, often cited as the haven and refuge amid the chaos of the known world.


The longing for America was not for land and riches as much as it was for freedom, liberty, fraternity, and equality.  The spirit of these three words were to form the gist for a new nation and for a revolution in Europe which would demolish the foundations of the concept of rule by aristocracy—of a ruling class “chosen by God” and church to rule at its whim.  In this vein, Philadelphia was founded by William Penn as a haven of religious freedom, offering settlers tolerance.  It was the same religious freedom sought by the earlier settlers of Massachusetts, the Puritans, during their influx to America.  Indeed the foundation of America was built on a dream, which came to be seen as a beacon to the world, that this was a society being built on the principles of Justice, Freedom, and Reason, the Rights of Man.  As Baruch Spinoza, the philosopher, stated in his theological-political treatise:  “…reason is the light of the mind, and without her all things are dreams and phantoms…”

America was to be a pillar of the power of reason, in fact the antithesis of the power of the Inquisition, which had forced Spinoza’s family out of Portugal, and seeking refuge instead in the Netherlands.  Indeed even before the Bill of Rights, or the Constitution had been penned, its basic tenets were forming the very fabric of the country to be, and formed the origin of the American Dream.


The dream though would come in time to be altered, largely due to the greed, the avarice of a few.  In fact, it was to be altered as a result of another dream as old as man himself—the drive for power and self-aggrandizement.  Ask any immigrant today why he came to America, and with little variation you will hear a recitation of the great myth that was promulgated during the 19th century when cheap labor was needed by an emerging industrial giant; America; “Streets are paved in gold, employment guaranteed, and steamship passage paid for those willing to work…” read one such leaflet that was distributed in Ireland.  The message was the same in Germany, England, and the rest of northern Europe: land, riches, and prosperity, all available to those willing to come to America to work.

The great ‘Iron Horse’, the railroad, was just beginning to extend its tentacles and the mad rush west, for gold in California, was on.  Immigrants came in droves to find opportunity and riches but the reality was more often laden with hard labor, desolation, and to many, death in a wilderness yet to be tamed.  The Dream, the American Dream was being sold as an opportunity to advance in life, to surpass class barriers, to be able to receive the fruits of one’s own labor, to own land, and be treated neither as slave, nor serf, nor inferior but rather as an equal with the same rights as any other human being.  The attraction was so convincingly powerful that by 1907, at its apex, Ellis Island was admitting 5000 immigrants per day, seven days a week.  The American Dream was now a half truth, being brandished in the struggle for power as a weapon by those brazen enough to lie and cheat, if need be.


The American Dream was becoming a tall tale sold to the ignorant and the desperate in order to enrich the greedy and powerful; the Vanderbilts and Carnegies of America who needed brute strength and unadulterated resolve for Western expansion and domination.  The railroads had obtained land grants from the federal government, in order to lay down rail, but had to do so in a timely basis or lose the grants. Those companies who were successful would make their owners, fortunes and so would the steel companies fabricating the rails and locomotives, or the mining companies which needed more labor to be able to harvest newly discovered reserves of coal.


Today, as we witness the shredding of the Bill of Rights, at the behest of the architects of the Patriot Act, as we witness the checks and balances implemented by this nation’s Forefathers dissolved by Congress, we can also discern—if are careful to observe—that the remnants of the American Dream are becoming vestigial ideas surpassed by the times.  The American Dream today exists not as it did during the dawn of this country’s birth, but rather as a continuation of a fabrication used by the powerful:  the desire for your own home, and the best that money can buy, no matter what that may be.  All and everyone, it seems are for sale.  The more the better at any price !  The working rule today appears to be a materialism which although imperceptible on the surface, we nonetheless are exposed to by the corrupting power of money.


In our luxury, we forget the origin, veracity and basis of the American Dream, not the adulterated form of the 19th and 20th centuries, but rather the one so clearly and eloquently espoused in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

May America once again find its way out of the darkness, and into the light, and embrace its dream again.


V. S.




Further Reading:


1. Lee Chew's account of his life as a Chinese Immigrant in California from The American Nation

2. The Iron Road, produced by Neil Goodwin of Peace River Films, is the story of the building of the first railroad link connecting the East to the West.


3. Streets of Gold  by Marie Raphael (2001)

One may classify this book as an inspirational novel about Polish immigrants who were the great-grandparents of the author. Marie Raphael is a teacher living in California. The action takes place during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, the period 1901-1908, which included the height of immigration from Eastern Europe. The Bolinski family makes a dramatic decision to leave their farm for America, taking along their four children.


4. The Iron Horse: the impact of the railroads on 19th century American society

15/30 (IV) Colonizing the West: Land Departments and Bureaus of Immigration

By Marieke van Ophem


5. Railroad Land Grants

The first major railroad land grants came about with the 1862 legislation that enabled the transcontinental railroad. At that time, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads were granted 400-foot right-of-ways plus ten square miles of land for every mile of track built.


6. Immigration Laws 1800-1900

7. The Alien Contract Labor Law of February 26, 1885 (23 Stat. 332) restricted immigration even further. Congress learned that, since 1869, employers had been running advertisements in foreign newspapers describing great wages and employment opportunities in the United States. Immigrants, attracted by the promise of jobs and high wages, arrived in the United States to find few jobs and low wages.


8. Immigration and the Railroads

"In 1870, after several decades of industrial growth, the United States had a manufacturing output equal to that of France and Germany combined, but only about three fourths as large as that of the United Kingdom; by 1913 the American manufacturing output equaled that of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined!" A total of more than 28 million immigrants made the trip to America between 1865 and 1915 in order to participate in this economic prosperity.


9. Social Control, Social Displacement and Coal Mining in the Cumberland Plateau, 1880-1930.

The industrial revolution was ultimately driven by steam-engines fueled by coal. As it progressed so did the demand for a plentiful and cheap source of coal energy. In America that source was bituminous coal, found in the Appalachian Mountains which run from Pennsylvania to northern Alabama. In Tennessee the portion of that mountain chain where coal is found is the Cumberland Plateau.  How did people from Hungary, Russia, and Italy get to the Cumberland Plateau anyway? Coal companies often sent agents to eastern seaports to attract unsuspecting immigrants who were rushed on trains to the coal fields.


10. The French and American Revolutions Compared

Most revolutions consume those who start them; in France, Marat, Robespierre, and Danton all met violent deaths. But when Washington was offered a virtual dictatorship by some of his officers at Newburgh, New York, he resisted his natural impulse to take command and urged them to support the republican legislative process. Professor Andrew C. McLaughlin has pointed out: "To teach our youth and persuade ourselves that the heroes of the controversy were only those taking part in tea-parties and various acts of violence is to inculcate the belief that liberty and justice rest in the main upon lawless force. And yet as a matter of plain fact, the self-restraint of the colonists is the striking theme; and their success in actually establishing institutions under which we still live was a remarkable achievement. No one telling the truth about the Revolution will attempt to conceal the fact that there was disorder. . . . [yet] we find it marked on the whole by constructive political capacity."


Updated  April 28, 2005

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