California Gold Rush
Summary & Analysis
The Gold Rush and the American Dream
The most significant legacy of the California Gold Rush can be found in its utter transformation of the American Dream.
In the early nineteenth century, the United States was an overwhelmingly rural society, and the prevailing republican ideology of the time reflected the country's agrarian orientation. The American Dream, as most then understood it, was not to win fabulous wealth, but rather to achieve "competency"—the independence that came from owning enough land to support a large family, free from debt or ignoble dependency on wage labor for sustenance. Industriousness, prudence, and frugality—not enterprise or speculation—were the traits that would allow a man to achieve his competency, maintain it, and pass it on to his children.
From Seeking Competency to Striking It Rich
Throughout the early nineteenth century, this American Dream of the yeoman farmer became harder and harder to achieve. Rapid population growth, rising land costs, improved transportation networks, the development of the factory system of industrial production, and the expansion of banking and the cash economy combined to draw more and more erstwhile independent farmers into dependence on the market. At the turn of the nineteenth century, only 12% of American workers were wage laborers; by 1840, 60% were. Many Americans, fearful that wage labor would never allow them to escape dependency upon their employers, denounced the emerging economic regime as "wage slavery" and sought to restore the old agrarian order. They supported Andrew Jackson in his quixotic effort to roll back the market economy by destroying the banking system. They organized the first American labor unions. They flocked to the communitarian churches of the Second Great Awakening. Most dramatically, they migrated thousands of miles to the western frontier, where free land allowed them to recreate old-fashioned agricultural communities. Their American Dream was backward-looking, a nostalgic hope for the restoration of an agrarian ideal that had been undermined by the market revolution.
The Gold Rush was fueled by the same hostility towards wage labor, but it offered a new and dramatically different alternative. The Forty-Niners swarmed west dreaming of an escape from wage slavery achieved not through agrarian competency but through instant, dazzling wealth. Their values were not thrift, prudence, and industriousness, but instead swashbuckling enterprise and good fortune. As historian H.W. Brands has argued, "California presented to people a new model for the American dream—one where the emphasis was on the ability to take risks, the willingness to gamble on the future."8 Ever since, the American Dream has been less about taming the market than about exploiting it, less about achieving a competency than about enjoying a fortune won by seizing the main chance.