"I Go To America," Reaching For The American Dream
By Miriam B. Medina

Author's Note:

Though the  resources below cover immigration thoroughly, I wanted, on a personal level, to write for myself what it must have been like. Part of that exercise was to rehash the academic material in my own words--a writing assignment to myself, if you will. I share it here with you, at least a small part of it, in hopes that my essay on immigration will encourage you to try something similar with your dream.

PART I
The Circumstances

Introduction:

Much attention has been paid over the years to United States immigration during the period of the 19th century into the early 20th century. A great mass of emigrants from various origins would leave their places of birth in pursuit of the "American Dream", which symbolized for them democracy, equality, liberty, justice and most of all material well-being.

 To facilitate a better understanding of this phenomenon central to America's identity, I have focused on this period of the 19th century into the early 20th century, emphasizing the obvious pattern between the seemingly disparate movements.

 Many of Europe's inhabitants suffered tremendous hardships. Wars, calamities generating poverty, racial prejudices, religious persecution, political oppression, economic causes, tyranny, and prevention of individuals from reaping the rewards of their hard work, were a consistent part of the emigrant's daily existence. As long as those who were victimized remained in their countries, they knew they would continue to be subjected to more of the same. 

Of course, not all Europeans were affected; some would choose to leave their country on a temporary nature, seeking better economic opportunities elsewhere before returning home. Often, however,  those that ventured to America and prospered economically would remain in their adopted country.

The Era of Industrial and Economic Growth in America

"The Industrial Revolution was one of the great forces that developed the American Dream. The Industrial Revolution, amidst all the government corruption of the Gilded Era, resulted in the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs. (1)

Following the War between the States, there was a period in the United States known as "The Gilded Age" where great advancements in technology contributed to the rapid industrialization of America. As more and more cities and towns were established, the demand for more laborers also grew. The Chinese and Irish immigrants became the workforce for most of the backbreaking jobs.

The stagecoach was becoming obsolete: America demanded faster and more comfortable transportation. The railway was the solution to the problem for the people of the far west. Federal subsidies were generously granted to the builders, helping bring this gigantic project to fruition. Contractors put out the word for hired help. From all over the United States and beyond came an eager response to the promise of a "$2.50 a day" wage. This was even a better offer for the Irish immigrants who currently were making 50 cents a day working on the East Coast's Erie Canal. Soon Irish, responded; strong muscular German and Chinese immigrants were working side by side.

Some of the Union and Confederate veterans who were in great financial need were also hired by the Union Pacific. The men worked fast and furious, with their weapons close at hand, always looking over their shoulder, in case the Indians would attack or disrupt their work by tearing up the tracks and rails. "Terminus towns" became a temporary social center, where the laborers, drinking heavily and gambling away their earnings, sought out the brothels and sociability of the saloons. Death from Indian attacks and frequent confrontations between the ethnic groups often resulted in hastily made unmarked graves left behind as the laborers moved on to their next destination. Swift transportation across the continent was a product of "the Industrial Revolution."

Between 1850-1890, the American railway system expanded prodigiously. The 200,000 miles of track that were laid down by 1890 encouraged economic growth, facilitating industries ' swifter shipment to the public markets (2) "Before the turn of the century the United States had become the world's leading manufacturer of farm machinery. As a result of the new commercialized farming, the agricultural map of the nation was sharply divided into a "corn belt," a "wheat belt," and a "dairy belt." Farming had become a highly specialized enterprise in many parts of the nation. Agriculture offered economic security to those who could afford the investment in large-scale commercial farming." (3)

The Capitalists

Some families made great fortunes from their investments throughout the second half of the 19th century. They had the money and leisure to indulge in conspicuous consumption, furthering a new emphasis on Society manners. The Astors were one of the landholding and mercantile families that made great private fortunes during the early nineteenth century. Cornelius Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie, giants in the nation's growth, were multimillionaires resulting from their investments in transportation and industry. "Through his association with Philadelphia's old established firm of Drexel & Co, J. P. Morgan came to the forefront of American finance, at a time of big opportunity." (4) Other business giants of the era were Rockefeller in oil, the Armours, Swifts, and Morris in meat-packing, the Havemeyers in sugar, and the Dukes in tobacco. The peak of power and wealth of these financial giants was during the years 1866-1897.

Before they even had the warmth of cash in their hands, the new millionaires were deciding upon the mansion they would build, one which would satisfy even their pampered wives and daughters. Soon there would be nonstop invitations to balls for themselves and their family. There-or at the most exclusive men's clubs-- they would rub elbows with the elite. Old money was essentially dead. Money, if enough of it, talked, however recently it was produced.

The Match: Labor Needs and Laborers' Needs

The gold rush to California attracted immigrants from every part of the world. . Much of America's workforce twas on the east coast, and before long the workers left the factories and industries to seek their fortunes out west. Factory owners on the eastern seaboard began losing money and cheap-labor.

Everyone was looking for a piece of the action as America expanded. Steamship companies, railroad companies, state immigration bureaus, as well as industrial firms and private enterprises, turned to workers in Europe. Ruthless businessmen hired unscrupulous agents to work on commission. They were sent to Europe with a collection of enticing pamphlets, advertisements, drawings and pictures. "Remember promise them anything, just get them over here. There's big bucks in it for you."

The commissioned agents, the "Smooth Operators," exploited the vulnerability of the masses. These operators promised wealth that would prove an illusion. But to the oppressed people of Europe, the hope of economic betterment for themselves and their children was the promise of a life they had long dreamed of. The smooth operator convinced the downtrodden that land was cheap, that jobs were plentiful and that some day they could return to their home country as wealthy land owners.

To close the deal, the smooth operator played his last card. " My employer is willing to loan you the money to pay for your passage and lodgings, and when you begin to work in America you can pay him back out of your wages." Who would say no to such a proposition?

(Continue Part II The Departure)
 


 

 

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