Ragged Dick and the American Dream
Event: The Writings Of Horatio Alger
Lie: “A good many distinguished men have once been poor boys. There’s hope for you Dick, if you’ll try.”–Horatio Alger, from Ragged Dick, p. 75. One of many “pluck and luck” books written by Horatio Alger from 1867-1890, Ragged Dick tells the tale of a young bootblack who works hard and rises to middle class respectability.
Born in Massachusetts in 1832, Horatio Alger was surrounded by Puritan legacy. His family could trace their origins directly to Plymouth Pilgrims and they were staunch Congregationalists, so much so that Horatio’s father had decided his eldest son would pursue a life in the ministry. It was here that young Horatio got his first lessons in what would later be called the “American” or “Calvinist/Puritan” work ethic.There are countless examples of the notion that hard-work was the path to greatness: Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard”–“All things are easy to industry, all things difficult to sloth”; Election of 1840–William Harrison was portrayed (falsely) as a man of the earth, from a log cabin in the west, and hard cider drinker while his opponent, Martin Van Buren, was portrayed as a wealthy elitist from the East; Abraham Lincoln–a man born simple in a log cabin rises to President. By the time Horatio Alger sat down to write his stories of young boys who worked hard and rose the social ranks in life, the ideal of the “Calvinist work ethic” had become firmly entrenched in the American conscience.
Lasting Impact: In the years following the Civil War, the United States saw an influx of immigrants from Europe. Some immigrants came because of religious persecution at home–Russian and Eastern European Jews. Many came because of troubling economic times at home–including high unemployment and limited opportunities. And some came for the “American Dream”. It was the work of Alger that captured the imagination and hopes of immigrants. With a little hard work, the American Dream could be realized. Having faced a world with limited opportunities Ragged Dick and the many other novels inspired waves of Southern and Eastern European immigrants to filter through Ellis Island, settle in New York or Boston or Chicago, and strive for the elusive American Dream.
What the immigrants found instead were ghettos, tenements, corrupt local officials, unscrupulous factory managers, and uncaring factory owners. The vast majority of immigrants never found the American Dream no matter how hard they worked. However, their work ethic prevailed. You could see it in the way Americans faced the adversity of the Great Depression and World War II. Recently, this work ethic has come under assault as being either blatantly racist or elitist (Source and Source). Their argument is that the wealthy abused the poor to get their status, in turn bastardizing the Puritan work ethic. The other view could be that without the hope of a better life for their children and maybe themselves, the immigrant’s “work ethic” toward an American Dream may have been weaker and the accomplishments made during America’s Gilded Age may never have been achieved. Either way, this ideal made popular by Horatio Alger had a major impact on America today.
Smallest amount of lying goes the longest way: Luck. Sometimes for a lie to work out you need a little luck. For Horatio Alger a little luck in timing and place helped his “lie” roll into an ideal. Having failed as a minister–because he probably he had an “unnatural familiarity with boys”–and as a school teacher, Alger’s “pluck and luck” books proved the work ethic. He persevered, found a niche, and filled it. His niche just happened to be during one of the greatest influxes of immigrants in American history who attached to his message like infants to the teat. Whether or not you accept that the “Calvinist/Puritan” work ethic was good or bad for America, it must be conceded that without it this nation would look remarkably different.
Event: Mexican-American War
Lie: “…after a long-continued series of menaces [the Mexicans] have at last invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil.”– President James Polk’s War Message 1846.
On the eve of the Mexican-American war, the United States had been “reawakened”. A second wave of religious fervor swept the nation, primarily its western states–Kentucky, Tennessee–and there was a general feel of accomplishment and achievement–except for anyone who identified as Native America, women, or slave; but things were on the eve of change for most of them, also. America had experienced a period of “good feelings”–though those good feelings were about as great as the feelings of week-long incontinence. In this specter of joy, a newspaper editor and political hack, John O’Sullivan, wrote about American destiny. He called it Manifest Destiny and by 1845, the notion dictated every aspect of American politics and society. However, the concept wasn’t new. In 1776, a writer–only known as Salus Populi–wrote a piece called “To The People Of North-America On The Different Kinds Of Government“. In it, the author declared:
I cannot help cherishing a secret hope that God has destined America to form the last and best plan that can possibly exist; and that [H]e will gradually carry those who have long been under the galling yoke of tyranny in every other quarter of the globe, into the bosom of perfect liberty and freedom in America.
Polk was a political ally of Andrew Jackson–working with Jackson during his Bank War. He also understood the political climate of America and while men like Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren were trying to distance themselves from expansionism, Polk dove headlong into it declaring that Texas should be “re-annexed” and Oregon “re-occupied.” This stance got Jackson’s personal blessing and would thrust Polk into the White House.
Lasting Impact: Two words: Civil War. The Mexican-American War is often characterized as one of darkest blemishes on the face of America. Polk’s behavior in Mexico could be seen as the modern equivalent of Aesop’s “The Cat and The Cock” fable where the cat finally catches the cock and then has to devise a reason why it should devour him. But, we cannot forget that Mexico had a part in this behavior also–they impeded American commerce and often plundered it, imprisioned American citizens, spurned all the envoys that Polk had sent to negotiate. Today, we view “the strong and the weak” as a test of right and wrong. A strong nation, the United States, should never have behaved toward Mexico, the weaker, in the ways it did; however, weakness should not justify impudence, insolence, or threats.
The war happened. Live with it. The Mexican-American War’s lasting impact has little to do with how crass or absurd or wrong American expansion was during the 1840s, but the impact of Texas’ annexation had on the people of the United States. Abolitionists in the New England states were right in their beliefs that the annexation of Texas may have been justified under the concept of “Manifest Destiny” or an attempt to bring those living in tyranny into the loving bosom of the United States, but it was morally wrong. It was morally wrong to grab land in the West just to expand slavery. America was just expanding its own tyranny westward.
Smallest amount of lying goes the longest way: Conscience. Or a lack there of. When a person lies enough, they tend to believe the lie as truth. In this case, the lie was our manifest destiny to do God’s work, but somehow that work got distorted in a myriad of other issues. James Russell Lowell warned America, specifically the annexationists, of the harm in believing the lie and moving it into the collective conscience and eventually moving into Texas when he wrote in his poem “The Present Crisis” (1845) “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide/In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side…. They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.” We are still burdened with the issues that Manifest Destiny wrought upon the U.S. in 1845.
Read Part 2 here
Read Part 4 here