Much like the Spaniards further south many of the first English colonists in North America were looking for gold and they were not very successful. Yet that enterprise established an important principle. As Kurt Andersen described it in his book FantasyLand, “It also established a theme we’ll encounter again and again: around some plausible bit of reality, Americans leap to concoct wishful (or terrified) fictions they ardently believe to be true.” And they believed fervently without evidence. That was the key and that was the problem. This after all was the land of faith—robust belief without evidence.
Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the dreamers looking for gold, but also failed to find it. He eventually sailed to South America where his chances were better but again he failed. But he did not fail at selling fantasy. It is much harder to fail at that in England where many had dreams of getting rich in the New World or people already in the New World who wanted to believe. And evidence or the lack of it was no obstacle to belief.
Raleigh published a book filled with anecdotes that worked to amplify the dreams and make them real. As Andersen said,
“Raleigh helped invent the kind of elaborate pseudo-empiricism that in the centuries to come would become a permanent feature of Fantasyland testimonials—about religion, about quack science, about conspiracy, about whatever was being urgently sold.”
As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his magisterial Democracy in America in 1835,
“The entire man is …to be seen in the cradle of the child. The growth of nations presents something analogous to this; they all bear some marks of their origin. If we were able to go back…we should discover…the primal cause of the prejudices, the habits, the ruling passions, and in short, all that constitutes what is called the national character.”
Tocqueville was an astute observer of America. He also pointed out “It was…gold-seekers who were sent to Virginia. No noble thought or conception above gain presided over the foundation of the new settlements.” Of course most of those gold seekers died, but that did not stop those who brought them to the New World lying about it in the Old World. After all there was money to be made off those suckers. Even though no gold had been found and even though 2/3 of the first hundred gold seekers promptly died, the captain who brought them returned to England claiming to have found “gold showing mountains.” Andersen described those early visitors from England as people who “tended to be the more wide-eyed and desperately wishful.” These were the American ancestors.
These were the people who shaped the new world of America. Professor Walter McDougall in his book America, Freedom Just Around the Corner described the newcomers this way: “Most of the 120,000 indentured servants and adventurers who sailed to the [South] in the seventeenth century, did not know what lay ahead but were taken in by the propaganda of the sponsors.” In other words, they were duped.
Historian Daniel Boorstin described it somewhat more charitably than I do. He said, “American civilization [has] been shaped by the fact that there was a kind of natural selection here of those people who were willing to believe in advertising.” Andersen concluded, “Western civilization’s first great advertising campaign was created in order to inspire enough dreamers and suckers to create America.”
The new world was built on fraud and it has continued that ignoble tradition ever since. And the gullible believed, because they wanted to believe. Evidence was irrelevant.
That was what the New World was like, and in many ways the New World has never varied much from its origins. It continues to shape and even haunt that new world.