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How America Went Haywire

By Kurt Andersen
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  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

Fantasyland (2017) takes readers on a journey through the past 500 years of American history to show just how often this land has been home to people with a bewildering take on reality. Through a wealth of examples, Andersen tells us how Americans have indulged in some far-fetched fantasies in their excuses for gun ownership, slavery and new religions.

Key idea 1 of 7

Envious of Spain’s new wealth, early English colonists fantasized about finding gold in North America.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus set out on an expedition to find a better shipping route between Europe and Asia and failed spectacularly. But he didn’t come home empty-handed. Instead, he found the Americas, a “New World” that promised great wealth and splendor for the big European powers.

Shortly after Columbus’s discovery, more explorers were sent across the Atlantic by the king of Spain, and as they traveled down into Mexico and South America, they finally found what everyone craved: gold.

Specifically, the Spanish explorers stumbled upon the Aztec and Inca empires and their impressive gold supplies, which they promptly began pilfering and mining on a massive scale. These ill-gotten gains quickly turned Spain into a powerful transatlantic empire, much to the seething jealousy of England.

Soon, the English court was dreaming up its own American discoveries, with visions of giant boats filled with gold arriving in the Thames.

In the late 1500s, the English aristocrat Sir Walter Raleigh commissioned a report designed to persuade Queen Elizabeth I that the soil in North America was surely filled with untold quantities of gold. Although the report was nothing more than a collection of baseless hearsay and secondhand information, it was all Elizabeth needed to launch several English gold-seeking expeditions.

Ship after ship of English colonists were sent with orders to find gold and send it back. But they found nothing but death. On the first expedition, large numbers died in their fruitless search for gold, and during the second, every last colonist died.

Undeterred by this string of disasters, England’s next ruler, King James, wasn’t about to let England’s fantasies of gold go unrealized. So more colonists were dispatched to set up a base on the east coast of North America and send back whatever riches they could produce.

These were the colonists who founded Jamestown in Virginia, and after half of them died miserable deaths they eventually found one successful product to ship home: tobacco.

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