America still stands as the land of dreams

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America still stands as the land of dreams

January 4, 1996
by Pamela Cressey

"The American Dream." This is the proposed name for the mega entertainment center under consideration in Silver Spring, Maryland. If you read the recent story in the Sunday Washington Post magazine, you know that neither the name nor the concept has been universally accepted by the townspeople. The author left us questioning: What is the American Dream ? Is this pleasure packed center it?

Louis B. Wright's book "Life in Colonial America" starts with a chapter about the earliest American dreams. He chronicles European hope for gold, jewels, land, furs, food, and longevity in North America. In other words, it was a land of opportunity, a "culmination of a dream." This place of prosperity for different classes of people also offered space for religious freedom. Different groups, from the Puritans in Massachusetts to Anglican Virginians, set about building their own concepts of the American Dream. Many subsequent immigrant groups and American born generations have followed suit, while some groups have been used in the pursuit of this dream.

Although the Puritans did not exert moral authority over all the colonies, their beliefs about idleness, frugality, sobriety, and thrift did become major markers of the American character and have been ingredients in the American Dream. Benjamin Franklin became the perfect role model through his life and his writings, particularly in Poor Richard's Almanack. Ben emerged prosperous and popular in Philadelphia, a self made man arising from his Puritan family of 17 children born to a tradesman.

Franklin started publishing Poor Richard's in 1731, a year after he had been named the official printer for Pennsylvania and the same year he began the first public library. Besides the regular features of an almanac, such as weather and agricultural data, Franklin included many proverbs which according to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. "came to shape and define American culture." Although Franklin adapted his sayings from many sources, they became the common sense of our country. Who has not heard: "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise" or "Haste makes waste?"

These proverbs, which usually focused on the work ethic, have become known as Franklin's Maxims. They have been reprinted for years, and used to morally educate children by printing them in books and even on their drinking cups, as I discussed last week. Franklin personally wrote Poor Richard's until 1758, but the publication continued far into the 19th century.

The almanacs were amazingly popular and were distributed through town merchants as well as peddlers in the rural areas. Using humor, Franklin targeted the maxims for the "middling people who were obliged to work and save to prosper and survive." They have served for more than 200 years as fundamental principles of American success. Ben never quite reached Perfection, but he said "yet I was made a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it."

In 1733 Franklin started on a personal project of achieving "moral Perfection." He set forth 13 moral virtues: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility.

Happy New Years and may your 1996 resolutions lead you to your dreams.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.

This caption appeared with an image printed in the Gazette:

Cover of original 1856 Poor Richard's Almanac in the Alexandria Library Collection, Lloyd House still retained Benjamin Franklin's image. Courtesy Alexandria Library, Lloyd House.