One hundred years before the Mayflower, the French had already begun looking for fame and fortune in the New World, working the cod banks off Nova Scotia. The Spaniards, led by the Italian Christopher Columbus, were not far behind.
A full eight inches taller than the average Spaniard of his day with flowing red hair and exuberant ways, Columbus must have looked as odd as his notion of sailing west to deliver a letter to the Grand Khan of China. The voyage was thought to be impractical, dangerous, and expensive.
“Everyone to whom I spoke of this enterprise thought it a mere jest,” he said.
But the promise of El Dorado was enticing enough that Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were finally persuaded to finance an exploratory expedition. On August 2, 1492, Columbus and his crew went on board for confession and set sail with the tide “for gospel and for gold.”
Columbus and his crew sailed through August and September across what was then called the Sea of Gloom without finding any of the islands they expected. As they entered October, his crew and the captains of the other two ships begged him to turn back.
On October 11, Columbus wrote in his ship’s log he “prayed mightily to the Lord.” The following day he sighted land, now known as San Salvador in the Bahamas. From there, Columbus went on to explore Haiti and Cuba before heading back to tell what he had found, bringing with him samples of spice and gold.
His patrons were so impressed that Columbus was given a fleet of l7 ships for his second voyage. Rumors of gold leaked out and a desperate rush of would-be adventurers began to besiege him for space on his ships.
“Not a man,” Columbus said, “down to the very tailors does not beg to be allowed to become a discoverer.”
About a hundred years later, the British celebrated the return of Sir Francis Drake from an expedition that had taken him to Brazil, Chile, and Peru. Drake brought back so much plunder his flagship could barely list into port. His success fueled the vision of a New World of unbounded virgin land and untold riches.
As a result, the London Company, a commercial trader, financed a British expedition to America. Intent on settling to the north of the Spanish and the south of the French, they came up the Chesapeake Bay and entered the James River in what is modern day Virginia. With that, the longest and most determined gold rush in history began, but it would not find full expression until the Republic was formed and the power of the people unleashed.
“The discovery of America opened a thousand new paths to fortune, and led obscure adventurers to wealth and power,” de Tocqueville would say of that time. “In America, every one finds facilities unknown elsewhere for maintaining or increasing his fortune. The spirit of gain is always on the stretch.”
The pursuit of happiness is one of the inalienable rights upon which this country rests. In the words of James Adams, “The whole American Dream has been based on the chance to get ahead, for one’s self or one’s children.”
Opportunity comes from liberty and is made possible by equality. When fed by ambition and sustained by courage, the pursuit of happiness has limitless possibilities.
At the same time, we must recognize the happiness of some has always been purchased at the expense of others. It is a story as old and as shameful as our treatment of Native Americans and as recent as the current as the plague of corporate greed. There are always those who cannot see beyond their immediate personal interests without concern for the broader consequences of their actions.
Though they compel our attention, fill our courts, and challenge our sense of justice, these people are the exception and not the rule. Intuitively, most people know the single-minded pursuit of self-interest cannot be sustained in a democracy. It corrodes the foundation on which it rests.
America is the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases that frame our society and support that purpose still resonate today. They remind us of who we are, what we stand for, and what we will die for.
In the words of Lyndon B. Johnson, they are “a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in man’s possession; it cannot be found in his power, or his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others.”
To de Tocqueville’s aristocratic eyes, the spectacle of men and women liberated to make their own destiny must have seemed a bit unsettling.
“As they are always dissatisfied with the position which they occupy,” he wrote, “and are always free to leave it, they think of nothing but the means of changing their fortunes, or increasing it. To minds thus predisposed, every new method which leads by a shorter road to wealth, every machine which spares labor, every instrument which diminishes the cost of production, every discovery which facilitates pleasures or augments them, seems to be the grandest effort of the human intellect.”
The rich and powerful, like de Tocqueville, are satisfied with their lot and do not leave it. The promise of America is for the rest of us: we who dream of a better life. The inscription of the Statute of Liberty is the best evidence of this fact.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the inscription reads, “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
The “golden door” Liberty refers to is the entrance to New York Harbor. The Statue of Liberty, a gift of friendship from the people of France commemorating the 100th anniversary of American independence, stands there welcoming all who come to that harbor.
The sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, said the Statue was intended to be “an immense and impressive symbol of human liberty.” It was certainly that for the millions of immigrants, who came to America during the last two centuries seeking freedom and the opportunity to make their dreams come true.
Four years after the Statue of Liberty was erected, nearby Ellis Island was selected as the site of a much needed “immigration depot” at a cost of $75,000. On the first day of operation, 2,251 people were inspected on Ellis Island. In the next six years, the number of hopeful new Americans increased to more than a million. Today, 60 percent of all Americans are descended from someone who came through Ellis Island.
In the hundred years between 1824 and 1924, 34 million immigrants from around the world landed on American soil. The first wave of immigrants were primarily Northern Europeans fleeing the starvation, oppression, and the social upheaval brought about by the Industrial Revolution.
The second wave of immigrants streamed out of Southern and Eastern Europe. Most sought greater economic opportunities, but many were also the victims of religious persecution. It was said that the faces of a thousand nations were on board when the great steamships of the early 20th century sailed into New York Harbor.
Like Columbus and the pilgrims and pioneers before them, each passenger on those ships sought the promise of America. The old world lay behind them. Gone were the monarchies and kings, the systems of caste and peasantry, of famine and numbing poverty. Ahead was a new world, the promise of a new life, and the opportunity to carve their own destiny.
People vote with their feet. For more than 500 years, people from all over the world have made their way to America. We have become, in the words of Israel Zangwill, “God’s Crucible,” the great melting pot where all the races are converging and reforming.
“This is the only country in the world which experiences this constant and repeated rebirth,” Woodrow Wilson said. “Other countries depend upon the multiplication of their own native people. This country is constantly drinking strength out of new sources by the voluntary association with it of great bodies of strong men and forward-looking women out of other lands. And so by the gift of the free will of independent people it is being constantly renewed from generation to generation by the same process by which it was originally created. It is as if humanity had determined to see to it that this great nation, founded for the benefit of humanity, should not lack for the allegiance of the people of the world.”
America is not a matter of birthplace, color or creed, or line of descent. America is a question of principle, of purpose, of character, and hope.
“To every man his chance, to every man, regardless of his birth,” Thomas Wolfe wrote, summing up the promise of America, “his shining golden opportunity. To every man the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can contribute to make him.”