How the American Dream got started

by James Evans, Weidenfeld, £20

America, more than any other nation, has been filled with myths of aspiration since its founding. President Ronald Reagan eulogised the “city on a hill” to popularise American hopes in the 1980s, invoking these aspirational words from a sermon by John Winthrop delivered at sea in 1630 on the way to soil he had yet to set foot upon. Alexis de Tocqueville called America “the great experiment”, and of course we are all aware of the notion of the American Dream.

Aspiration is at the heart of Emigrants. Historian James Evans examines why nearly 400,000 people left these shores for a new world. They brought Enlightenment ideals and Protestantism, Locke and Calvin, with hopes of improving upon the Old World and creating the New World.

Just as important is what they had left behind or escaped: feudalism and religious control. The Pilgrims and Puritans were later followed by Catholics. However, as Evans writes, religion was not the only reason, and he categorises the pioneers’ various motives into chapters on “fish”, “equality before God”, “fur”, “liberty” and “despair”.

The majority left as economic migrants, either escaping the poverty and competition of England or seeking new opportunities for wealth. Existing conditions, whether it was inhospitable geography or the native Indians, were elements to be overcome. Evans emphasises the Englishness of the American project, which may jar with the Scots and Irish given that they later brought their own aspirations, as did generations of other Europeans right up to today’s global immigrants and dreamers.

The historian Richard Hofstadter quipped: “it has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one”. America became an idea that all humanity was invited to look up to as an historically contingent society, rather than one that evolved out of tyranny and land ownership. Evans captures the pioneering state of human endeavour, offering some of the stories and reasons for their journeys, and we are the richer for the insight he provides.