Presidents Day has come and gone, and with it the celebrations held by many states, cities and schools of the lives of two exceptional presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Behind these celebrations is the undercurrent of appreciation for America in its current form. Imperfect in its international dealings, and still incompletely equal in its distribution of opportunity, this America nevertheless has afforded countless families the ability to change their fortunes and make something new of themselves through sheer force of will and perseverance.
Or so the story goes. In truth, the American Dream has been kept alive by more than heroic protectors. In order to appreciate the opportunities that indeed are offered by our country, we must understand the sacrifices others have made to give it to us.
Free land is inextricably tied to the concept of changing one’s life. The dream itself is useless without practical tools with which to achieve it. While institutional elements such as freedom of speech and thought aid in the “pursuit of happiness,” early America had more differences with Europe than just constitutional innovations. We had free land. From conception to cultivation, the American Dream has benefited from the vastness of the continent and the availability of free land. How did this land come to be free? We have all learned about the genocide of Native Americans in the past, and many of us regret that it must be part of America’s legacy, but few consider how forced expulsion of Native Americans has added to the American ability to have a dream.
Colonists came to this land seeking either riches or religious freedom, but in order to accomplish their dream, they all had to use land previously occupied by Native Americans. When the British government issued the Proclamation of 1763, limiting western expansion to the Appalachian Mountains, the colonists reacted negatively. Part of this reaction was due to the decision’s being made without their consent, but part of it was because of the allure the land had for them. They too had fought in the Seven Years’ War, so they too felt entitled to the spoils. The first Americans incorporated land-grabbing into their ideology, and further western expansions at the expense of Native Americans gave immigrants and the poor access to the dream as well.
The concept of Western expansion, enshrined in the ideology of Manifest Destiny, further demonstrates the fulfillment of the American Dream via the taking of Native American land. The “tired, poor … huddled masses” of immigrants the Statue of Liberty promises to shelter found opportunity not just in a thriving American economy, but also in the availability of free land. Indeed, the free land and consequent agricultural expansion helped the economy thrive. The Homestead Act, signed into law by Lincoln in 1862, gave an official stamp to this idea. By 1900, the act granted 600,000 claims to more than 80 million acres of land; by its termination in 1986 the act would have granted about 10 percent of America’s land to homesteaders. While this can be measured, what cannot be measured is how this “free land” contributed to the sense that America is a place where enterprising and energetic individuals could make their way. That measurement lies in the realm of speculation and opinion articles in college newspapers.
A case could be made that the very concept of a frontier that must be tamed contributed to the American ideology of itself as a pioneering nation. Nevertheless, the importance of owning one’s own home resonated through to future generations of Americans. Herbert Hoover invoked homesteaders when trying to reform home ownership in the early depression — he was convinced home ownership added a spiritual element to the energy of the American economy. Roosevelt signed the Home Owners Loan Corporation into being in 1933 so that new generations of Americans could own their homes through federally subsidized loans. What these examples demonstrate is the lasting impact on the American psyche of the homesteading mentality. Popular songs, books and movies provide further testament to this effect.
What does this mean for you and me? I’m not arguing that our hands are bathed in the blood of Native American babies; nevertheless, I think our sordid past requires us to acknowledge the diverse sources of our current ability to pursue the American Dream. Celebrating the deeds of presidents must come hand in hand with recognition of those who made forced sacrifices and unwittingly aided in the creation of opportunity for others. Not that this should serve as a justification of the treatment of Native Americans. Somber recognition should encourage us to make the best of what we have, and to be watchful of our current and future actions, that we may not fall into the trap of creating opportunity for ourselves at the expense of others.
Dariush Nothaft is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.