This week we looked briefly at the California Gold Rush of 1848-49, where I want to touch on a few different issues:
1. The link with land and opportunity
Americans since early colonization often associated this country with opportunity – be it economic or religious in nature. The Gold Rush did not present the lure of an easy life with easy riches. Travel was long and dangerous, finding gold was not guaranteed, nor could you be sure to protect your claim. Still, the possibility of changing your circumstance, of making something for yourself, proved irresistible to thousands. The idea of opportunity has always been powerful for Americans. Often this idea of opportunity was linked with land. We talked last year about how absurd the Americans must have seemed to the British with our near obsession for land. After all, even before the Louisiana Purchase we far exceeded England in terms of size. Today we still link home ownership, for example, with independence.
We can trace part of the difference in our approach to land in the different cultures. In England many lived and worked due to the patronage of a benefactor, usually someone in the aristocracy. In America the idea of patronage ran counter to our “do it yourself” mindset of personal independence. There is a lot to say for our attitudes.
But we should not view this European mindset as mere laziness. Many felt that if one had the means to hire a maid and a gardener, you had a duty to hire them and provide jobs. It could be considered part of the duties of one’s “station in life.” At its best, this mindset produced a sense of community and mutual responsibility. Mrs. Mathwin is a big fan of Downton Abbey, and I saw one scene where Matthew (who feels that all the servants are waste of time and money) is upbraided by Lord Grantham, who asks Matthew to think about where the butler will go if he had no job at Downton. The best aristocratic tradition saw having servants as a means to provide for others. But without a “benefactor class” in America, individuals had to make their own way, and land always played a key role in making that happen.
It is this belief in independence and opportunity that led many to oppose slavery who were not necessarily generous in their attitude to blacks. This attitude can be just as puzzling to us today as those who favored slavery in the name of liberty. But many Californians opposed slavery because slavery represented being rich enough to hire someone else to do your dirty work. In this line of thinking, slavery stood against the “do it yourself” ethic inherent in the 49ers, and so stood against the idea of independence and liberty. But we should be careful of thinking too highly of their motives. Again, many of them had no love for blacks per se, however much they opposed slavery. Others in the North shared this same attitude. Unfortunately, strict abolitionists were a distinct minority.
2. Institutions Travel
It is probable that many of the 49er’s simply thought of themselves as seeking their fortune. But institutions and economies would inevitably travel with them. With money came the need to protect it, and for that you ultimately need political institutions (unless you would prefer lawlessness and spoils going to the strongest). On Friday the students played a ‘Gold Rush Game.’ I hope they had fun, but I also hope they saw how 8 separate fortune hunters would inevitably want to create institutions. This was not always, however, a squeaky clean process, as violence became part of the picture — not unlike the real life of the old west. In fact, for at least one team, crime did pay! On the whole, this class strongly resisted forming any institutions that might limit their mobility on the board. The game will have to be tweaked a bit more next year to give more incentive to the formation of banks and towns.
3. Cultures Linger
As a curious side note, the names of the towns created by the Gold Rush reveals a lot about the people there. In contrast to much of the rest of the county that named towns with European associations (i.e. New York), Biblical references (i.e. Providence, Rhode Island), virtues (Philadelphia) or a virtuous past (i.e. Cincinatti for the Roman Cincinattus, and Columbus, Ohio). Gold Rush towns had very different names like Devil’s Thumb, Rough and Ready, Hangtown, etc. Clearly, many came to California with entirely different goals and outlook than those that settled North America initially in the 17th and early 18th centuries. There are those that say that California today marches to a different drummer than other parts of the country, and clearly this has its roots dating to the Gold Rush. The culture of a particular place will often have deeper roots than we think, and our actions have longer ripple effects than we usually imagine.
I will look forward to updating you next week, when we delve deeper in the slavery question and other issues that began to split the country in the 1850’s.