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The Inaccessible American Dream: Troubles of the 1860s to 1940s

Updated on October 2, 2011

The American dream has always been a fantasy since the founding of this nation and has been marked with providing those who work hard to obtain basic rights such as equality, opportunity and promises of a better lifestyle. What the American dream fails to mention is that religion, ethnicity and gender all play a factor in how successful a person may become. For people who come from a strong Christian, Caucasian and male background during the 1860s to 1940s, the American dream is as obtainable and as easy to grasp like going to the bank and cashing a check. For the unlucky minority of people that didn’t fit these criteria during the 1860s to 1940s it was hard and near impossible to cash the American dream and more often then not, the only way to be successful was to metaphorically rob the American dream bank, which was most of the time unsuccessful. In the end what started as the ultimate dream for all Americans later turned into a nightmare for most whom, by the end of the day, felt the lack of American prosperity they were promised and instead were left with the feeling of being cheated by the very system they were working for.

At the end of the American Civil war in 1865 the North triumphed over the South and a promise of change filled the air. New laws were going to be put into effect that would change the working conditions and guarantee certain liberties to different ethnic groups. One major group that would be affected by the outcome of the Civil War would be African Americans. Starting with the 13th amendment that congress added in 1865, this amendment would abolish slavery within the entire United States. Later on in 1868 a 14th amendment would be added and guaranteed citizenship to people born in the United States and gave certain rights to all citizens that fell under its criteria.  By this point in time things began to change, but many including the current president of the United States, who at the time was Andrew Johnson, opposed and tried to minimize reconstruction within America. President Johnson and other like-minded people opposed the 14th Amendment due to how it would transform the Federal government and allow it to conduct itself so it could interfere with the state’s attempts to regulate individuals. Johnson’s philosophy at the time was to allow states to rule on the will of the majority and believed they had the right to control individual behavior. Luckily Johnson did not have his way and during his term he was impeached for his views towards white supremacy. Unfortunately congress lacked the votes necessary to kick him out of office, but the impeachment did serve as a sign that politics were changing even though redeemers (people like Johnson) were resistant to fair and equal treatment for all Americans. However, the time of political and economic freedom would be cut short and African Americans would begin to find themselves in the same situations they were in before the Civil War started.

Up until 1870 the American government had delivered on its promise to free African Americans and help them gain a better life. New laws were instated and the reconstruction movement was on track, but unfortunately things began to shift and starting in 1870 Northern support for blacks began to slowly crumble. Several factors caused this waning of support, but the four major reasons for its crumbling support were: Northern racism towards blacks, Northern industry wanted to use cheap black labor again, Southerners continued to deny blacks equality, and Northern Republicans no longer needed the black vote in 1870’s to get re-elected to control the United States. All these reasons became apparent when in 1877 president Ruford B. Hayes was elected to office. In return for his seat of power President Hayes agreed to order his remaining troops out of southern territory, allow Federal aid to the South for internal improvement, to let Southerners handle race relations for themselves, and finally he promised the south that the Federal government would not enforce the new 13th 14th and 15th Amendments that were previously passed into law. These promises would later be called as the compromise of 1877, but for Blacks it meant the end of Civil Rights.  The end result of this compromise ended with African Americans being re-enslaved and more lynchings than ever before (due to the fact that some African Americans resisted being slaves again). What started as a fantasy brought to life, quickly ended in a pipe dream of broken promises and in 1877 African Americans realized the time of Reconstruction had failed, died, and withered away.

Before and during the Civil War between the North and the South there was a flood of new immigrants that came to the United States hoping for a better life and earning more income. Among this tidal wave of new immigrants, Chinese laborers were one of many groups of nationalities that came in the hopes of striking it rich in mining. This was a false expectation however and when Chinese laborers did arrive in the United States they were treated with very little welcome and also were a group that became heavily taxed. According to a website called article called The Chinese and Western Expansion the author states, “in the 1850s, the California legislature passed a law taxing all foreign miners. Although stated in general terms, it was enforced chiefly against the Mexicans and the Chinese through 1870. This discrimination occurred in spite of the fact that the Chinese often contributed the crucial labor necessary to the mining enterprise” (1). Chinese and Mexican labor was crucial during this time period within America and was vital in stimulating the capitalist economy that the United States was founded on. When the government then continued to tax heavily on the two immigrant groups the economy began to suffer slightly and most workers began to leave the United States, or they would find another state within America that did not tax them so heavily. As time moved on the situation did not improve for the Chinese and to make matters worse they were constantly mocked and criticized by the media. During this time major newspapers began to print racist and derogatory cartoons that would belittle Chinese Americans. More often then not, these cartoons were a lot like the racial cartoons of African Americans and a great majority of them were characterized by hurtful stereotypes. In 1885 and 1886 hate and violence towards the Chinese reached a new peak. In an online article called The Anti-Chinese Hysteria of 1885-1886 the author says, “During this period, Chinese communities were harassed, attacked, or expelled…Property of the Chinese in America, worth millions of dollars, was damaged or destroyed in mining regions…”(1). Things became so bad that Chinese immigrants had to argue for there right for citizenship, which was justified in an 1898 court case called United States v. Wong Kim Ark. During this ruling, which was 6-2, Wong Kim Ark won his case and the court justified that the 14th amendment provides citizenship to all people born within the United States.

While the American dream was out of reach in the 1980s for immigrants and African Americans, the 1900s became a starting point for activist groups to emerge and fight for rights that were being denied. One trial that would spark support and optimism for African Americans around the nation would be the Henry Sweet Trial of 1926. In this trial a man named Ossian Sweet was charged with the murder of a man who invaded Ossian’s house. During this trial Ossian Sweet told the all white jury about his self defense and his motivation to protect his family. In the closing words of Ossian Sweet’s defense attorney “I would like to see a time when man loves his fellow-man, and forgets his color or his creed. We will never be civilized until that time comes…I believe the life of the Negro race has been a life of tragedy, of injustice, of oppression. The law had made him equal, but man has not…” (Clarence Darrow). Luckily for Ossian Sweet, he was acquitted and let go along with eleven other African men charged with the murder. Along with this case many more court cases began to unfold more in favor with African Americans, but for the majority of court cases the law was still unjust and unfair. Immigrants during the 1900s were also still considered bad for America and many U.S. citizens began to wage an internal war to decide if immigration should be capped at a certain limit. In two opposing articles this debate can clearly be seen. The first article called Immigrants Harm American Society written in 1914 by Andrew Ross talks about the problems that immigrants bring to America. In the article Ross says, “By their presence the foreigners necessarily lower the general plane of intelligence, self-restraint, refinement, orderliness, and efficiency. With them, of course, comes an increase of drink and of the crimes from drink. The great excess of men among them leads to sexual immorality and the diffusion of private diseases” (1). He then goes on to finish his argument by saying, “Barriers of speech, education, and religious faith split the people into unsympathetic, even hostile camps. The worst element in the community makes use of the ignorance and venality of the foreign-born voters to exclude the better citizens from any share in the control of local affairs.” (2). Countering the view points of Ross however was a different author by the name of A. Piat Andrew who in 1914 wrote his article called Immigrants Do Not Harm American Society. In his article Andrew sites the fact that all Americans (except for Native Americans) are the by-product of immigration from Europe. Arguing,  “One must, indeed, have little faith in the future of the United States who, in the face of such comparisons, believes that the population of this country as a whole is approaching the saturation point, or that from the standpoint of the country as a whole we need to be terrified by the dimensions of present immigration…”(8). Between Andrew and Ross’s ideas immigration continued to be a heated topic in America that continued to provide no clear-cut answer.

Today the American dream has become much more obtainable for both new immigrants and different ethnicities, like African Americans. Much of history has changed, but there are pieces of history that continue to stay within the circle of controversy. The most prevalent topic has come to be about the immigration of illegal Mexican workers into the United States. While some people believe that the influx of workers has helped the U.S. economy like the Chinese did when they first arrived, others are resorting to the arguments that Ross made in 1914. Bordering on the line of being racist some people feel that the people who are against illegal immigration do so out of white supremacy feelings that can be compared to the same feelings that the South had in the 1860s. Even within the American court system politicians are beginning to bring up changing the 14th amendment to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming to this country. If passed this dangerous change could spell disaster for a nation that, up until now has relied solely on the ancestors of immigrants to keep it going.

Immigrants and African Americans have had a long and tedious battle with both the law and the general public. Their dream has always been to live a life that provides them with the benefits of citizenship that was afforded to their white brethren at the end of the Revolutionary War. While today’s world has changed significantly for the better for both of these groups, it is important to realize that it is still an ongoing battle. A battle that we as the people of the United States of America must realize and constantly keep in the back of our heads. For the moment we forget our history and all that we have fought for, will be the moment that we will lose all of our progress and the American dream.

Do you think the U.S. should limit the amount of immigrants allowed into the country?

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      7 years ago

      Lot of good info here , And it goes even deeper as to the resistance of change imposed by the civil war . What's Interesting to me is this , the influx of many cultures into America is completely based on what those cultures have to offer. In the same time frames you discuss , the Scottish and Irish for cheap labor , the french Canadians for the same, The economics of Americas corporate influences has always dictated immigration! Miners , the railroads, construction , Whatever the call of corporate America , the answer came from poor immigrants . Ranchers , Transportation , you name it .There have been many more issues of slave labor in this country , America ! Than political correctness will allow us to admit . But who gets all the limelight today African and hispanic Americans. There is no greater influence in north America than the Irish famines for instance. In truth and reality there is little to show in the south especially , for the freeing of slaves because of the civil war. Cheap labor = cheap labor, no matter what color you are or where yu're from.Great hub !Important issue.


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