THE WESTWARD MOVEMENT
The colonial period appears to have been a second edition of the European original. After having come over at quite different levels, the classes drew still further apart during the eighteenth century. But during the nineteenth century, could not every man go West to the rich virgin lands and make good? That he could is commonly believed by many interpreters of American history.Next Page
If ever the theory of social class stability were taxed, it was during the period of rapid westward expansion. The record of that movement has usually been written up in such a manner as to leave the impression either that opportunity enabled me to compete freely and equally or that those persons who traveled westward were, in some vague way, of equal status.
The door of equal opportunity. "To the struggling eastern farmer, dissatisfied tradesman, religious dissenter, oppressed mechanic, or ambitious young lawyer, the West was a sort of 'promised land' the gates of which were ever open," 1 says Carman. In his history of the lost state of Franklin, Williams tells that "cheap land promoted individualism and economic equality." 2 But in the same paragraph he writes: "The owners of the larger farms in the fertile valleys were also holders of slaves . . . . " The latter statement is more revealing of the true situation than the former.
Coman, following the Turner thesis, states the American Dream of this period in these lines: 3
Workmen and operatives thrown out of employment by the curtailment of industry turned to the unclaimed lands beyond the Mississippi as an opportunity not only to earn a livelihood but to attain the independence that was the dream of every American citizen . . . thousands of the more impercunious families made their way . . . to the land of freedom and plenty. Allured by tales sent back by the pioneers or by the prospectuses distributed by speculators, they undertook the journey with the strong conviction that fortune lay before them, but with small comprehension of the risks and hardships of the new life.
The difference between expectation and fulfillment were, then, to be learned the head way by the pioneers, although the complete story of the movement does not always find its way into the descriptions and interpretations of the period.
Turner lists the wonderful opportunities offered by the West in the following manner: 4
Here were mill sites, town sites, transportation lines, banking centers, openings in the law, in politics -- all the varied chances for advancement afforded in the rapidly developing society where everything was open to him who knew how to seize the opportunity.
But speculative capital and business-trained insight, the heritage of the upper and middle classes, were rarely the tools of the lower classes. It may be said, again and again, that if there were great opportunities in the West for the little man, there were double and treble chances for advancement for the middle and upper classes. What was to be had cheap by the poor was available to the rich with still greater ease. This was particularly true of mill sites, town sites, transportation lines, banking centers, openings in the law, politics. These things were open to all those who could purchase them or who had been trained to know how to attain them by careful calculation, concentration, and application.
The settlement of Iowa appears to have been more heavily weighted with middle class elements than were Kentucky and Louisiana, for instance. The explanation for this is not to be found in the chances of eastern workers acquiring homesteads and equipment and saving pennies. Instead, the following statement by Ross offers a better key to the explanation: "When I was a boy in Iowa the farmer's son, on the twenty-first birthday was presented by his father with a team, a wagon, and perhaps a few farm implements." 5
1. Harry J. Carman, Social and Economic History of the United States, vol. I (Boston, 1930) p. 499.
2. Samuel Cole Williams, History of the Lost State of Franklin (Nashville, 1924) p. 270.
3. Katherine Coman, Economic Beginnings of the Far West, vol. II (New York, 1930) pp. 67 - 68.
4. Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York, 1920) p. 272.
5. Edward Alsworth Ross, The Social Trend (New York, 1922) p. 55.