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America! The making of the American character

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America! The making of the American character

The American dream: The American dream took form with the landing of the first Puritan settlers in New Plymouth in 1620. To the eyes of the Pilgrim Fathers - and their followers - the new continent appeared as a newly found earthly Paradise, thanks to its luxuriant nature and immense spaces. Here was the possibility to create a new world which would become an human race after the first one had been so disastrous in the Old World.

- Such a dream : the hope of an ideal society formed of equal men living in harmony ands freedom, has always been one of the motivating forces of American civilization: Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Lincoln's struggle against slavery and J. F. Kennedy's New Frontier (above all in political discourses).

The Puritan Spirit: The influence of Puritan doctrine is essential to understand many aspects of the American character. The central idea of Calvinism was the precept of pious labour: every man should have calling and work in it. He should also improve the talent God had given him. Thus the Puritan theology pushed man into the world according to God's words: "Thou wilst earn your living by the sweat of your brow".

Puritan theology divided men into two groups: "the elects" and " the damned". If  a men was among the elect he had to demonstrate it with his work and his deeds. In other words success in a man's life constituted evidence that he was among the elect. If a man's efforts were successful, that meant that God had chosen him and that his grace was him. But God would choose only those who helped themselves. Many of the traits traditionally associated with the image of the businessman (industriousness, energy self consciousness and obsession with success) derive from the Puritan doctrine of "justification by works".

The Frontier: from the earliest English settlements in 1607 to the end of the XIX century the westward movement provided successive generations of Americans with a common frontier experience. The natives were few and scattered over such a huge country that they didn't seem to occupy it. It seemed there was room for everyone. With the passing of each new frontier men had  in fact the possibility to start the American dream again and again to try a new life and leave their past behind them. Independence, ambition and self-confidence were characteristics of the "spirit of the Frontier" and led to the making up of the image of the self-made man.

The democratic ideal and the other side of the picture: at the time of the frontier experience almost all of America was a land that could be occupied by anyone who was industrious, labouring and enterprising. It was a land rich of opportunities so that a man, free from any law but God's (and his own interpretation of it could procure with a rifle and a spade his own livelihood). Here man had the occasion to make himself what he wanted. He was not condemned by his birth in a determined social position as he had been in Europe. He was free. Each man had to contend only against forces of nature (including the Indians), not against his fellow men at least not in the new states. But as soon as the first generation had settled and prospered in the new place, they took care of not allowing the new comers the same opportunities.

The American Eleventh Commandment: Success. The Puritan doctrine just field man's pursuit of wealth and earthly happiness. The democratic creed encouraged the belief in potential greatness of the common man. Life in American became a race open to all, in which everyone could compete on equal basis. In a society more and more dominated by the success myth there is no place for those who do not enter the competition. Not to succeed is considered a proof of weakness, almost a sign of immorality.


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