“Go West, young man” still applies.
In many of his books, but most notably in The Americans series, historian Daniel Boorstin chronicles some of the famous and not-so-famous risk-takers who helped to build up our country. In the book The Americans: The National Experience, Boorstin compares the social classes of early America with the social classes of Europe of that same period.
In Europe, the lowest classes were rooted to the ground like a tree stump in that they had no opportunity for mobility whatsoever. Meanwhile, the upper middle class and the aristocracy were well known throughout Europe for taking grand tours of the continent or the world, or they would take scholarly pilgrimages or study at foreign universities. With class comes privilege, I suppose.
In America, this idea seemed to be turned on its head, however. The American upper classes—if they could truly be called that when compared to their counterparts in Europe—were the ones tied down by their farms and estates, their social status, and their responsibilities. And then there were the American middle and lower classes. These folks were not tied down by anything, and thus were able to venture out to explore the country, to make their claim, to literally and figuratively strike it rich. In other words, they had the freedom to dare to dream.
Boorstin puts it best when he says, “And it was the middle and lower classes—seeking their fortunes in the wagon companies going west, in the transient mining camps, and in the upstart towns—who were on the move. They moved frequently, and moved everywhere.”
Folks that was and should still be us. America has always been known as the place where anyone can take risks to go to the proverbial West to seek their fortune. The simple phrase “Go west, young man!” does not have to be explained to us, or at least it didn’t use to.
Every one of those pilgrims coming from the Old World, the pioneers who kept pushing West, and the millions of immigrants that came through Ellis Island—all of them gave up the comforts of their old lives to seek bigger and better things elsewhere. Every one of them was a considerable risk taker. They risked their lives, their fortunes, and even their families in an attempt for a better life.
What happened to that American spirit? Let’s get it back!