Art Madsen, M.Ed.

Transnational Research Associates

During the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries in Europe, economic conditions were causing extreme hardship particularly among the peoples of Ireland, England, Germany, Poland and Portugal. Hundreds of thousands of people were suffering from hunger and deprivation due to the Potato Famine in Ireland and a number of armed conflicts, ranging from the Franco-Prussian War to World War I on the Continent. Hopes and dreams of a peaceful, prosperous life were being repeatedly shattered by these and many other disruptive socio-political events.

The New World had long been in the imaginations of the people of Western Europe who were increasingly oppressed by cruel and undemocratic governments. They were dissatisfied with the conditions under which they were living in Europe. Few had homes, few had possessions and many were working six or seven days a week in the fields of Portugal, or in the factories of Poland. Their wages were being ravaged by inflation, as in the Weimar Republic of Germany where wheelbarrows of cash were being brought to retail stores simply to purchase bread and vital commodities.

Under these conditions, the hopes and aspirations of these desperate people were soon directed toward the bustling factories and cities of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. They sold their meager possessions and bought tickets on steamships, like the ill-fated Titanic and the Lusitania, in order to travel to America. Most of their ships arrived, of course, and, between 1890 and 1920, hundreds of thousands of immigrants swarmed ashore at Ellis Island in New York and at other ports of entry like Boston and Baltimore. In their hearts they carried both the suffering of their past lives in Europe and the dream of building a new life in America, the land of Benjamin Franklin's Declaration of Independence and of Jeffersonian Democracy. They knew that the autocracies and aristocracies of Europe were not part of the American Republic.

Many thousands of immigrants arriving from Britain and Ireland, in particular, settled in Boston and in New York. They brought with them professional skills and talents which helped them to adjust to their new land. From other nations, like Portugal and Poland, immigrants settled in locations such as New Bedford and Wheeling. In turn, they brought the trades and know-how of their forefathers in the fishing industry and in mining. The Great American Melting Pot was taking shape.

Although many of the newly arrived families harbored in their hearts what were the beginnings of The American Dream, they were in reality creating this dream through hard work, persistence and honesty in all of their daily dealings. Soon the farms and industries of America were producing crops and merchandise which fed the economic engine of the country.

The combination of a fair and just political system, a dynamic new generation of immigrants and the vast wealth of the fields, mines and cities of America created a nation which, at long last, was able to provide a certain standard of living for its population. Although there was a rich and privileged class in the United States, it did not deprive the vast majority of the citizens of a fair and decent living. Indeed, the Middle Class in this country began to grow and prosper. Soon, almost everyone was able to afford nutritious food for their families, a home or apartment in which to live, schooling and professional growth opportunities. Letters and newspapers began to circulate back home in the Old Country concerning the wealth and the potential of America. The first wave of immigrants in 1890 encouraged still another wave in 1920 and, even today, in Miami and in Los Angeles immigrants form the entire world, Asia, Latin America and Africa, continue to flood into the United States, the land of Abraham Lincoln, of John Jacob Astor and of Bill Gates.

The second wave of immigrants, perhaps in the 1920s, began to speak distinctly of "The American Dream", a concept that captured the imaginations of the entire world. How wonderful it would be to own a personal family home, to ensure an education for one's children, to enjoy gainful employment and to exercise the Rights granted all Americans under the First Ten Amendments of the Constitution!

It would be unfair to state that The American Dream, as it took shape in these early years of immigration and industrial development, was a clear-cut, well-defined concept. Many people felt that simply (1) owning a home, (2) having an adequate amount of money, (3) enjoying reliable transportation and (4) attending the Church of the family's choice was enough to claim that you had achieved The American Dream. And this may have been the case before the impact of the Great Depression and World War II.

These two dramatic and tragic events in World History were enough to interrupt the blossoming idea of the American Dream for a period of approximately 17 years, from 1928 to 1945. But even during the restrictions imposed on the American people throughout the Depression and subsequent World War, the Dream still lived and thrived in the hearts of the people. Many people claimed that they were fighting the War to ensure that the Dream could continue to live. The dictatorships of Japan, Italy, Spain and Germany during these years were the ominous force that could have crushed the Dream.

Toward the end of this somber period, in 1944 and 1945, the American Dream was revitalized by an Allied Victory in Europe and in the Pacific. In the aftermath of World War II, America was generous enough to offer to rebuild Europe, under the Marshall Plan, and to continue to construct its own future at home. From Boston to San Francisco, Americans prospered and rebuilt the Dream which had been taken from them temporarily by the Depression and War. Now, not only a "chicken in every pot" was possible as in the 1930's, but suburban ranch homes, refrigerators, washing machines, dish washers and two-car garages became part of this Dream. Indeed, the American housewife began to enjoy appliances, conveniences and comforts unknown by previous generations of mothers. Fathers had employment with improved salaries and benefits. Employment conditions included certain guarantees of seniority, tenure or regular promotion.

What about the larger American Dream, however? Beyond the homes and jobs which every child and grandchild of the 1920 immigrants now seemed to possess in the United States, under the heading of the American Dream, there was another "version" of the Dream. Businessmen in positions of influence dreamed of fabulous wealth and power. Politicians, scientists and even clergymen began to imagine enormous riches which, using their positions, they could amass. The world had always heard stories of poor men rising to positions of wealth in America, but now stories of ‘massive concentration of wealth' well beyond the original intent of the American Dream were beginning to emerge.

Africans, Europeans, and Asians in the 1980s and 1990s are hearing about Bill Gates, Sam Walton, Donald Trump and Howard Hughes. These men have been able to achieve far more than the original American Dream, but they have probably made it impossible for others to achieve it. Americans must not lose sight of the original intention of America's Founding Fathers who dreamed of a fair, just and equitable land for all.