Dream vs. Reality: Prospecting for Gold.
In the early nineteenth century, the United States was an overwhelmingly rural society , and the prevailing republican ideology of the time reflectedthe country's agrarian orientation. The American Dream, as most then understood it, was not to win fabulous wealth, but rather to achieve "competency"—the independence that came from owning enough landto support a large family, free from debt or ignoble dependency on wage labor for sustenance. Industriousness, prudence, and frugality—not enterprise or speculation—were the traits that would allow aman to achieve his competency, maintain it, and pass it on to his children.
Throughout the early nineteenth century, this American Dream of the yeoman farmer became harder and harder to achieve.Rapid population growth, rising land costs, improved transportation networks , the development of the factory system of industrial production, and the expansion of banking and the casheconomy combined to draw more and more erstwhile independent farmers into dependence on the market. At the turn of the nineteenth century, only 12% of American workers were wage laborers; by 1840, 60% were. ManyAmericans, fearful that wage labor would never allow them to escape dependency upon their employers, denounced the emerging economic regime as "wage slavery" and sought to restore the old agrarianorder. They supported Andrew Jackson in his quixotic effort to roll back the market economy by destroying the banking system. They organized the first American labor unions. They flocked to thecommunitarian churches of the Second Great Awakening. Most dramatically, they migrated thousands of miles to the western frontier , where free land allowed them to recreate old-fashioned agriculturalcommunities . Their American Dream was backward-looking, a nostalgic hope for the restoration of an agrarian ideal that had been undermined by the market revolution.
The Gold Rush was fueled by the...
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