American Dream Franklin/Thoreau

The ideas of the American Dream are the cornerstones of many of America's literary works. As far back as the Revolutionary War and as recently as today these ideas are still prevalent in everyday life. The American Dream is something different to everyone. It represents a broad spectrum of interpretation with the freedom to live a good life as the common factor. Obvious differences in the interpretation of The American Dream can be seen based on different philosophies. Benjamin Franklin was an enlightenment thinker whose values were radically different from those of Henry David Thoreau, a Romantic thinker, and of these different values, the ones that seem most prominent in their writings are work, prosperity, and conformity.

The first of these values, and perhaps the most written about, is work. Franklin believes that work should be done in order to improve one's wealth and to benefit society. He believed in the concept of the self-made man, the idea that anyone could be successful by taking advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves and through hard work. Franklin began work at an early age as a printer's apprentice and worked regularly until his death. Franklin focuses on how his work furthers him in polite society; on how it effects his status as a citizen. He writes that wealth and status are to be coveted and worked for. He believes that the American Dream can be achieved through work by benefiting society.

Thoreau, like Franklin, believes in a strong work ethic. However, the goals one reaches through work are much different in the eyes of Thoreau. He believed like other Romantics that the best kind of work was agrarian work and that the American Dream revolved around a reconnection with one's self and with nature. Thoreau longed for a return to a pastoral America that was free from the everyday rat race, the upward mobility that Franklin wanted. Thoreau saw no value in the progression of society if it did not help the individual to connect with himself or with nature. In this respect Thoreau did only enough work while at Walden to survive and to make a small profit. He did this by managing a large plot of beans. Not only did this work provide him with sustenance, but it also afforded him time to commune with nature. To him, this subsistence living was as good as it got.

For Franklin, subsistence living simply would not do. Franklin would have seen this as settling. He believed that prosperity depended on the amassing of wealth and material goods as well as public standing. The last of these probably most important. He even went so far as to include in his autobiography tips on how to appear more successful in order to further his reputation and status. This is the most profound promise in the American Dream for Franklin. The promise of conditional prosperity; the condition being a keen wit and hard work. Franklin focuses on the fact that prosperity does not necessarily mean the inclusion of happiness or even spiritual growth, but is rather a measure of wealth and popularity.

Here again Thoreau would strongly disagree with Franklin's interpretation of the American Dream. Thoreau would say that prosperity is not dependent on reputation or net worth but on one's grasp of himself and the world around him. "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived"(1816). Thoreau believed that true prosperity came from spiritual growth and a connection to nature. If one could achieve this then one would be prosperous. It was never dependent on the amount of wealth attained by the individual. Thoreau would probably say here that not only was the amassing of wealth not the measure of prosperity, but that because of it, people had tainted the job of farming. Thoreau believed that the once proud occupation had been degraded to a means of profit rather than the bond with nature and life that it once represented. Not only would Thoreau have disagreed with Franklin's appraisal of prosperity but he would have been outraged.

Just as outraged at this as Thoreau may have been, Franklin would have been up in arms over Thoreau's views on conformity. Franklin believed strongly in conformity. It allowed for progress and civilization to be reality. Without some degree of conformity, Franklin believed that there would be lawlessness and anarchy. He would ask, "How could a government exist if no one was willing to cooperate, to coalesce?"

To this, Thoreau would probably have said that it is the freedom to not conform, to not coalesce that is the very soul of the American Dream. The freedom of speech need not be written down if everyone said the same thing. The freedom of religion need not be enforced if everyone worshipped the same deity. Other than how it applies to the basic freedoms afforded by the American Dream, it offends Thoreau further by insulting a main idea of the Romantic philosophy, the importance of self. Thoreau said, "imitation is death". He obviously felt strongly about individuality. So strongly in fact that he was willing to go to jail after his arrest for failure to pay taxes to fight conformity. "…I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the state which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house"(1858). The inner focus and the attempt to learn more about one's self was the heart of Thoreau's experiment at Walden. He would tell Franklin that to grow as a person, to actually improve one's self required the intimate knowledge of the self not the alteration of the self so as to be someone or something different.

These two thinkers would undoubtedly continue their argument indefinitely. Thoreau would perpetually defend his nonconformist, free thinking, subsistence living romantic, while Franklin defended the gathering of gold and the assimilated personality. Although each would be the winner in his own mind, Franklin's idea of the American dream has stood the test of time. Today we live in a society based on rampant capitalism and the hope of amassing great wealth. Had we been a country based on the American dream offered by Thoreau, we might still be a country of subsistence farmers that spent their lives trying to figure themselves out. Franklin's ideals stuck with us and we are richer people for it. I cannot say that there is a clear winner to this argument. My perception of the American Dream is a mixture of both of the ideals presented by these men. The freedom to be your own person and still be upwardly mobile should not be separated. Why can one not have a job that serves to fill the wallet as well as the soul? Although their attempts to describe it fit the time and society they lived in, each writer has only half of the formula for the American Dream.

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