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.