Saturday, October 15, 2011

Who Will Become a Millionaire?

The American Dream about economic ascent begins in the area around the Rhine River known as the "Electoral Palatinate" at the end of the eighteenth century. Germany was then a land from which people emigrated. Craftsmen, farmers, and laborers climbed in the harbors of Europe into ships bound for faraway lands. Nobody knows the exact number of the millions of people who fled poverty. But what we do know, however, is which emigrant achieved the most in distant places: Johann Jakob Astor, born in 1763 in the small village of Walldorf near Heidelberg as the child of a poor butcher, died in 1848 in New York as the richest man in the United States. Ascents like his would later create the impression that in America even the simplest man could become rich, if only he tried sufficiently.

In Germany, on the other hand, often even the greatest effort didn't achieve much. The young Johann Jakob (he would later Americanize his name to 'John Jacob') saw this early in the case of his father, who traveled from farm to farm, in order to slaughter the cattle of the farmers. But most people couldn't afford to kill their animals and eat them, as the historian Alexander Emmerich writes in his biography of Johann Jakob Astor. Only on holidays did the older Astor earn reasonable money; the rest of the year, the family had to go hungry. For a while, Johann Jakob helped his father in his meager business, but then he made his way toward faraway places - at first, to London. There, his brother had learned the trade of building instruments. This is the first reason for the success that John Jacob Astor will later have: Astor had valuable flutes in his luggage, as he, merely twenty years old, arrived in America in January of 1784. The last few meters across the sea he finished by foot, and that might serve as an example of his determinedness. The South Carolina, the ship on which he traveled, actually got stuck in the ice near the city of Baltimore. Astor was too impatient to wait for warmer weather. He packed his things and walked over the frozen slabs of ice.

We see here two principles about immigration into the U.S.: first, temporary economic conditions can lead to permanent emigrations; Germany was mostly a prosperous nation, but during the few tough years it experience in the late 1700's people left. Secondly, immigrants are often very determined people - exceptionally decisive and adventurous.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Learning How To Do Democracy

At more than one time in American history, the lessons of democracy had to be learned: first, in the colonial days, when each colony had its own internal republicanism in the forms of town councils and legislatures; then in 1776, when a grander scale of democracy was introduced; and later, as the nation expanded westward, small towns formed in the wilderness and had to develop democracy for themselves. Professor Szasz, at the University of New Mexico, explains:

Churches and Sunday schools served as the bulwarks of social stability. Not only did they provide venues for regular services, their rooms held a variety of social gatherings as well, thus functioning as training grounds for political democracy. The numerous church meetings introduced people to such basic democratic principles as how to conduct public meetings via accepted rules of order, how to speak to the issue at hand, and (usually) respect for majority rule. Thus, the church and political gatherings of the era overlapped and reinforced each other.

The churches on the western frontier were ideal places for democracy to develop: the Christian principles of tolerance and kindness meant that when a church building was used for a political gathering, all people were welcome to express their opinions. A fundamental respect for every person, especially those with whom you disagree, was encouraged. It is no accident that these western states were largely against slavery, and it is no accident that the first woman elected to Congress (Jeannette Rankin from Montana, elected in 1916) came from this region.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Who Was Where?

In the early years of exploring North America, people from various parts of Europe made settlements and small towns. The ethnicity of these early groups would have a lasting impact on the formation of culture in the United States. As Cengages's textbook states,

In the mid-Atlantic region, settlers from all over northwestern Europe were creating a new ethnic mosaic. English colonists were probably always a minority, outnumbered at first by the Dutch, and later by Germans, Scots, and Irish, but New England was in every sense the most English of the colonies. New France was as French as New England was English. The farther south one went, the more diverse the population; the farther north, the more uniform.

Sometimes, reading history books, one might be tempted to think that the United States was formed mainly by the British: but evidence tells us that it was actually German and Dutch settlers who formed the core of American culture.