Excerpt from The Age of Gold by H.W. Brands, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Age of Gold

The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream

By H.W. Brands

The Age of Gold

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Senor Bandini made a fine show. "He had a slight and elegant figure, moved gracefully, danced and waltzed beautifully, spoke good Castilian, with a pleasant and refined voice and accent, and had, throughout, the bearing of a man of birth and figure. Yet here he was, with his passage given him (as I afterward learned), for he had not the means of paying for it, and living upon the charity of our agent." He was polite to one and all, from the captain to the lowliest sailor. He tipped the steward four reals--"I dare-say the last he had in his pocket." The sight was rather touching. "I could not but feel a pity for him, especially when I saw him by the side of his fellow-passenger and townsman, a fat, coarse, vulgar, pretentious fellow of a Yankee trader, who had made money in San Diego, and was eating out the vitals of the Bandinis, fattening upon their extravagance, grinding them in their poverty; having mortgages on their lands, forestalling their cattle, and already making an inroad upon their jewels, which were their last hope."

The decadent pride of the Bandinis, as Dana interpreted it, appeared more broadly in the Californians at large. "The men are thriftless, proud, extravagant, and very much given to gaming; and the women have but little education, and a good deal of beauty, and their morality, of course, is none of the best." The Californians would hazard everything on small points of honor and were given to murderous feuds. Meanwhile they were careless of the natural wealth around them, and were apparently impervious to any notion of progress. The contrast Dana perceived between the character of the Californians and the character of California struck him with a kind of moral force. "Such are the people who inhabit a country embracing four or five hundred miles of sea-coast, with several good harbors; with fine forests in the north; the waters filled with fish, and the plains covered with thousands of herds of cattle; blessed with a climate than which there can be no better in the world; free from all manner of diseases, whether epidemic or endemic; and with a soil in which corn yields from seventy to eighty fold. In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!"

Dana's account appeared in the year America's sixth census showed the population of the United States to be just under 17 million people. To a later generation this number would seem minuscule, but to many of Dana's contemporaries it occasioned claustrophobia. America in 1840 was a land of farmers, and farmers--and their children and grandchildren--always needed more land. Since 1803, when Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory from France, the only appreciable addition to the American patrimony had been Florida--swampy, disease-ridden Florida. The country was filling up; where would all the people live? What fields would they farm?

Adding to the worries was the dismal condition of the American economy. The previous decade had begun with the "bank war" between Nicholas Biddle, the powerful, prideful director of the Bank of the United States, and Andrew Jackson, the determined, prideful president. Jackson won the war by killing the Bank, but in doing so gravely wounded the economy. The Panic of 1837 bankrupted farmers, who saw the price of their crops fall 50 percent or more, and cast tens of thousands of laborers out on the streets and highways of America. Many headed west, as Americans had always done in times of trouble, hoping to make a new life where land was cheaper and opportunity more abundant. Yet land in 1840 wasn't as cheap as it had been when there weren't so many people trying to buy it, and opportunity was accordingly less abundant. As the economic depression continued into the new decade, it intensified demands for more land.

The demands acquired evangelical overtones. During the first half of the nineteenth century, American Protestantism--which was to say, the religion of nearly all Americans--bubbled and boiled with one reform movement after another. The "second Great Awakening" (the first having occurred during the previous century) saw people speaking in tongues and thrashing about wildly. One man jerked so violently--resisting grace, the pious said--that he broke his own neck. Camp meetings lasted weeks or months and spun off temperance crusades, abolitionist rallies, and missionary voyages. The religious ferment fostered an outlook that had no difficulty interpreting the pressure for territorial expansion in providential terms. If God had smiled on the United States of America--and almost none doubted that He had--wouldn't He want America to grow? Wouldn't He want Americans to spread their blessings into neighboring lands? And wouldn't He want this all the more, considering that the inhabitants of those neighboring lands were heathen Indians and papist Mexicans?

Excerpted from The Age of Gold by H. W. Brands. Copyright 2002 by H. W. Brands. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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