The story of Ulster is the story of small enterprise, of a cultural atmosphere not greatly different from the most vigorous parts of New England at its height. When English law threatened the very existence of these families, they did not fail to make effective use of their habits of enterprise, their training and education. This is the social class explanation of their successes in this country.Next Page
Tenants become owners. Many twists can be given to the story of the westward movement, to make it appear different from what it really was. One is to reiterate the notion that conditions of equality existed on the frontier. Another is to fail to take full notice of the westward journeys of the southern poor whites and their continued plight. Still another is to infer that squatters received either title or adequate compensation, as a regular practice. A more pernicious one is to infer or state that all the people who settled the West rose in social status. There is still another. It lends credence to the theory that at one stage the West was open to young men who were willing to start as farm-laborers, become farm tenants, and then farm owners. The statistics on this question allowed for varied interpretation. Sorokin states: 52
W. S. Spillman's study of 2,112 Midwestern farm owners shows that 20 per cent of them started their career as farm boys and passed successively the stages of hired laborer and tenant before becoming farm owners; 13 per cent started as farm boys, became hired men and, finally, farm owners; 32 per cent passed the stages of farm boys and tenants before becoming farm owners. And only 24 per cent passed directly from the stage of farm boy on the home farm to the level of farm owner. Somewhat similar results are given by other investigations.
In interpreting these figures several points must be made: (1) it is remarkable that 34 per cent of the farm owners did not ever have to work away from home for wages or become temporary tenants, a very common practice aomong farm boys; (2) probably most of the sixty-odd per cent of future farm owners who did work away from home for wages were the sons of farm owners; (3) no social class mobility is necessarily demonstrated, even in the cases of boys who also were tenants for a time; (4) no proof is given here that there were good chances of becoming owners for all persons who began as farm laborers or even for those who later became tenants. Every boy who works for wages is not necessarily a part of the "agricultural proletariat." Nor is every tenant necessarily a part of the share-cropping or migrating tenant class. The fact that land was available for the younger generation did not make it free from the possibility of being snatched up, even by the device of temporary tenantry, by the aggressive and energetic sons of farmers who could equip and subsidize their offspring in their efforts to attain solid, dependable, and respectable middle class lives.
It is nowadays evident that fewer tenants become owners. From this it must be concluded among other things: (1) that agriculture is a non-profitable enterprise, (2) that sons of prosperous farmers are taking up other careers, and (3) that the word tenant now has more social class meaning than it formerly had when some tenants were evidently sons of prosperous farm owners.
The Polish Peasant. The story of later immigrants who were lured to the land of opportunity by advertising and agents is documented in the famous work of Thomas and Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant. There is no occasion to cover that ground here. Few people seriously believe that the later immigrants of low backgrounds have had unlimited opportunities in America. However, the following excerpt from the life of one of those immigrants is reproduced here for the sake of the record: 53
Int he stockyards we were working less and less . . . . Fifty men were dismissed, among them myself. I received $9.00 for the last week. Now I search for work in the morning . . . . It would really be better if I had died long ago, for I have no hope of getting work . . . . It is awfully difficult to get work without protection, because of the terrible crisis brought by European war . . . . I cannot even now take a walk with my wife, for she has not even shoes to put on her feet, but wears my old shoes. And she must bear all this through me, for I brought her to this. And only sometimes tears flowing from her eyes show what is going on in her heart . . . . She suffers for me, like a slave, and nobody cares for poor people . . . . Thus I have improved my lot in this America which our immigrants adore!
Conclusion. A survey of the westward movement shows that there were considerable and significant social class stability and continuity. Workers who moved westward found work, but there was and now is no significant difference between the working classes of the West and those of the east. Middle class farmers in the West prospered for two generations because of the cheapness of the land and the richness of the soil, but they were, for the most part, what their forefathers had been: middle class farmers. The educated, well-to-do, and upper classes which transferred their sphere of activity from east to West found in that region abundant opportunity at cheap rates. They took advantage of it.
Certainly, few sections of the West were socially or economically egalitarian; neither did the West beat all down to one level nor draw all up to one level. The town of Winfield, Kansas, for instance, was settled by representatives of rich and fashionable eastern families, as well as by marginal families and those in between.
The American Dream is a figment of the imagination -- a masterpiece in distorted fact. It is truly a schoolbook fiction.
52. Pitirim Sorokin, Social Mobility (New York, 1927) p. 443.
53. William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant, In Europe and America, vol. III (Boston, 1919) pp. 399 - 400.