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How the American Dream Was Shaped

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Reasons for seeking out the relative comfort of the United States of America are many; some do so in order to utilize its economic advantages, others yearn to flee oppressive governmental regimes, and so on. However, one overarching motivation encompasses any individuals quest to call America home: The American dream. Just as reasons to establish oneself as a citizen of the United States prove various, concepts of the American dream have been equivalently unique to any individual or group. When the Mayflower, featuring a vigorous William Bradford, set sail in 1620 the large group of Puritans on the ship founded what is commonly thought of as the initial American Dream inspired by freedom from religious persecution.

Later, as the colonies shed their British overlord to the tune of musket shots and began to truly materialize as the United States, Benjamin Franklin wrote of an American Dream that propelled the evolution of a sovereign nation and sought to teach its youth in order to ensure that what he had helped to create was left in adept hands. Bradford, throughout his work Of Plymouth Plantation, and Franklin, within his Autobiography, bore critical differences in their respective depictions of the American dream, such as its catalyst and relation to religion.

Yet the two proved undeniably similar in their leadership, as well as encompassing message for the American dream. Given the consideration of differences and similarities both Bradford and Franklin prove to be profound and unrivaled in their contributions to the first conceptions of the American dream, paving the way to the melting pot we now know as the United States of America.

It is pertinent to first examine the historical context of William Bradford and Benjamin Franklin. Without such, their American dreams may make little sense. Bradford, a Puritan in the early 1600s, lived under the ever tightening grip of the British Crown and foresaw a looming Spanish takeover. Obviously, neither boded well for his group of ‘saints’.

Thus, with the blessing of the crown they fled for Holland, and then America aboard the Mayflower, facing a bevy of obstacles as time drew on. Franklin however, lived and worked in a much different situation. In Part 1 of his Autobiography Franklin was living in an America still under British rule, only beginning to sew the field in order to plant the seeds of revolution.

By Parts 2 and 3, the revolution had concluded, and a sovereign nation was in the initial stages of cohesion. While Bradford and Franklin were obviously writing throughout rather differing points of American history, it is clear that they were both facing the development of an infant region and sought to grasp, then move their respective peoples towards the American Dream.

What sparked the American dream for Bradford and his fellow Puritans is no great secret. Rather early in Of Plymouth Plantation (Plymouth) he portrays the Puritan’s value within English society as essentially hopeless, by explaining that they “were hunted and persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them” (123). Thus, religious freedom from the overbearing, Anglican-fueled crown forced the Puritans to seek refuge.

First, Bradford and company would travel to Holland only to eventually set their sights towards the “countries of America, which are fruitful and fit for habitation, being devoid of all civil inhabitants” (125), and so the initial American dream, driven by the desire to practice reformed religion without oppression, was born. After approximately a century passed, Franklin found solace in a different catalyst for his conception of the American dream. Franklin gains the confidence to begin delineating the American Dream – in this case Americas future as a sovereign nation – from pleas such as that of Abel James, writing in his letter of, “The Influence Writings under that Class have on the Minds of Youth…

It almost insensibly leads the Youth into the Resolution of endeavoring to become as good and as eminent as the Journalist” (527). Being that it was this letter, along with another, that Franklin presents within his Autobiography, it is clear that they launched him to alter the text from writing to his son. Rather, Franklin opted to address the American population, and foremost the youth of the nation, in order to deliver his virtue and industry laden American Dream.

Steven Forde further attributes this motivation to Franklin, as he explains “that the Autobiography’s serious mission was nothing less than the education of a new nation, using Franklin’s life and mind as its model” (357). Thus, while Bradford conceives his American dream from religious necessity to establish a place of freedom for the Puritans, Franklin would later expound his version of the concept from the nudging of his counterparts, who convinced him that his work – built from his life and values – would inspire the population, namely the youth, to continually progress the Franklinian American dream.

While what motivated Bradford and Franklin to produce their individual American dreams clearly differed, the substance of said dreams proved akin in their deviation. One major feature stands out unabashedly: religion. As a Puritan, In Bradford’s mind the American dream revolved around religion. Often implicating biblical passages, as well as God specifically throughout Plymouth, Bradford sought to instruct upon, “the lesson that subsequent generations could draw from his account of the Pilgrim’s safe passage to Plymouth.

God has assisted the Plymouth congregation… This statement that God works through history to assure the triumph of His people… implies a sense of special destiny” (Daly 558). Religious statements of this sort are wrought within Plymouth, an example of such being when Bradford includes the union that was drawn up aboard the Mayflower prior to landing, featuring statements such as, “having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith… a voyage to plant the first colony” (138).

Hence, religion is not only the catalyst that drove Bradford towards the American dream, but is the main component of his American dream itself. Franklin however, proved to be the antithesis of Bradford’s religion-minded American dream. As a Deist, Franklin believed in a divine power but did not call upon said power to stimulate his American Dream, spelling out in Part 2 of his Autobiography that although he lived with a few base religious principles, “some of the Dogmas of that Persuasion, such as the Eternal Decrees of God… appear’d to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the Public Assemblies of the Sect” (533).

The contrast between the two early American dreams is palpable. While Bradford sought to establish the freedom for his religion to practice sans persecution – leading to his religiously toned American dream – Franklin worked to establish that while important in the daily lives of many, religion was not, and did not need to be a powerful force within the American dream.

Rather, since swaths of people from a variety of different ethnic and religious backgrounds were establishing themselves within the United States, Franklin opted to merely touch on religion, due to the fact that while virtuous in some respects, religion would prove to be a volatile subject that need not encompass the American dream to the extent Bradford’s did.

While much consideration has been given to the contrast between Bradford and Franklin in terms of the American dream, it is vital to recognize their similarities. For one, Bradford and Franklin were both unparalleled leaders of their time, which allowed their versions of the American dream to be widely circulated via their respective texts. Bradford, “Shortly after their arrival… was elected governor. His duties involved more than that title might imply today: he was chief judge and jury, oversaw agriculture and trade, and made allotments of land” (121).

Being of such great importance to the first Americans, melded with the fact that he was so deeply committed to the Puritan message Bradford writes from a position of power with a community mindset. Who better, in this era, to delineate the initial American dream than the man who spear headed the Puritan effort for freedom? The simple answer is no one. By being the figure that so greatly aided in establishing the first American colony, Bradford was able to effectively utilize his leadership to advance his American dream.

Besides the fact that Franklin was a historically monumental genius, little differs in the sense of leadership. Inserting Franklin into historical context, he proved to be, “an obvious choice in [the] headlong search for icons” (Mulford 419). In other words, Franklin was revered by the masses, in America and Europe, for both his brain and leadership.

Returning to the letters Franklin features within Part 2 of his Autobiography, Benjamin Vaughn pleads with Franklin that if he were to continue the work it would, “present a table of the internal circumstances of your country… And considering the eagerness with which such information is sought… and the extent of your reputation, I do not know of a more efficacious advertisement than your Biography would give” (527). Consequently, not only was Franklin a leader within the era, but furthermore his thoughts on subjects such as the American dream were passionately desired. Corresponding in their roles as leaders, Bradford and Franklin equivalently utilize their status in in order to capture their audiences, leading to effective presentations of their individual American dream.

No similarity between Bradford and Franklin so readily presents itself as the pair’s encompassing message of adversity. In Bradford’s case, Plymouth shows significant adversity throughout the text. This is simple to gather being that the Puritans were seeking to inhabit a place they had rather minimal knowledge about. However, tracing further back in the text Bradford utilizes the Puritans’ time in Holland to show that any successful American dream begins with significant hardship.

Starting from when the group had been in Holland for a number of years a, “sundry of them were taken away by death, and many others began to be well stricken in years, the grave mistress Experience having taught them many things” (124). Among sick, dying, and overworked people, Bradford’s American dream was born. In his eyes, all of said hardship came by the grace of God in order to show the group that perseverance was the only means for freedom. If the Puritans were not to face and overcome their obstacles, then Bradford’s American dream would not materialize.

In comparison, Franklin’s American dream is realized through the same lens of adversity, but the scope is personal rather than group-oriented. Most prominently in Part 1, which is addressed to his son, Franklin routinely cites his harsh upbringing through statements such as, “Having emerg’d from the Poverty and Obscurity in which I was born and bred, to the State of Affluence and some Degree of Reputation in the world” (481). By this Franklin means to instill the sentiment of inspiration throughout the nation, not merely his son, that the American dream does not come easy.

One typically starts from a low floor – in Franklins case poverty – and works their way up to realize the American dream, just as he had. While the narratives contrast, Bradford’s being one of group hardship and Franklin’s being one of personal perseverance, the underlying message remains constant between the two figures and across one another’s texts. In essence, to Bradford and Franklin the American dream is not merely handed to a person, rather they must work their way out of obscurity and hurdle a bevy of often excruciating obstacles in order to realize the concepts innate beauty.

Clearly, the American dream is unique to the individual. For William Bradford, through his text Of Plymouth Plantation, the American dream embodied freedom from religious persecution in the form of colonization. To Benjamin Franklin, when examining his Autobiography, the American dream means a virtuous and industrious population that takes the United States further in its strength and legitimacy.

Bradford and Franklin differed in regards to what sparked their American dreams, as well as the role and importance of religion in such. Nevertheless, the two were both preeminent figures of their movements, as well as building their American dreams from the idea of adversity. No matter who’s work greater weight should be put upon, without both Bradfords’s Of Plymouth Plantation, and Franklin’s Autobiography the American dream may have never been realized to the extent it was then, and is today.

Works Cited

  1. Bradford, William. “Of Plymouth Plantation.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume A. Ed. Nina Baym, Robert S. Levine. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 121-138. Print.
  2. Daly, Robert. “William Bradford’s Vision of History.” American Literature 44.4 (1973): 558. JSTOR. Web. 18 Oct. 2016 Forde, Steven. “Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and the Education of America.” The American Political Science Review 86.2 (1992): 357. JSTOR. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.
  3. Franklin, Benjamin. “Autobiography” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume A. Ed. Nina Baym, Robert S. Levine. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 481-533. Print.
  4. Mulford, Carla. “Figuring Benjamin Franklin in American Cultural Memory.” The New England Quarterly 72.3 (1999): 419. JSTOR. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.

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