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The Point of Decision

The Point of Decision

by William H. Benson

July 12, 2018

     In the harsh winter of 1836-1837, the New York City editor Horace Greeley wondered about how the city might rescue the homeless, and the destitute. In his newspaper, Greeley encouraged them to flee the city, to migrate west, and perhaps they might find freedom and opportunity there.

     Greeley said, ”Fly, scatter through the country, go to the Great West, anything rather than remain here. The west is the true destiny. Go to the West; there your capabilities are sure to be appreciated, and your energy and industry rewarded.”

     On July 13, 1865, in the days after the Civil War’s bloodbath had concluded, Greeley said the same thing in a phrase he popularized, “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country!” 

     Was Greeley’s advice wise? One wonders how many young American men and women’s lives were altered, for good or for bad, because they chose to heed his advice? How far west did they go? To the next county west of their parent’s county in Pennsylvania? Or as far west as Ohio, Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, or Oregon? Or possibly to Hawaii or Alaska?

     In 1981, the English rock band, Clash, wrote and first performed a now classic rock and roll song, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” The catchy tune includes lyrics about a man or a woman, who confronts a decision, whether to stay at home, or to move away. To say, “no,” or to say “yes.”

     The Clash’s question is one that most young people face, more so than Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.” Young people wonder whether to stay at home, or to try their luck and talent at a college in another town or city; or whether to stay on the farm, or move to the city to find a job and buy a home. 

     The decision is not always easy. It includes a young person’s hope to seek opportunity, Jefferson’s so-called “the pursuit of happiness.” It also includes a separation from the family’s comfort and security. Some choose to move west, or even east, but then return home.

     In 1947, then eighteen-year-old Warren Buffet left his home in Omaha to attend college in the east, in Philadelphia, at the Wharton School, at the University of Pennsylvania, but after two years he came back home to the University of Nebraska. For graduate school, he attended Columbia in New York City, but then after all that education, he returned to his native Omaha, where he felt more comfortable.

    A favorite Warren Buffet quote is, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say ‘No!’ to almost everything.” To the question, “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” he would answer 99 times out of 100, “Stay. Do not try anything foolish. When presented with a decision, say ‘No!’ almost all the time.” Not what Horace Greeley recommended. 

     The move from rural to urban continues to unfold in our lives. Young people in eastern Colorado migrate west to Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, or Greeley. Young people in western Nebraska move east to Kearney, Grand Island, Hastings, Lincoln, or Omaha. A long-time Nebraska resident explained that Deuel County exports two things, wheat and kids. Most leave and do not return. 

     Life is never easy, though, wherever a person lives. The city includes daily doses of heavy traffic, pollution, crime, and a feeling of alienation. Rural life means the farm, the fickleness of commodity markets, and less-than-adequate-paying jobs. There is both good and bad on the farm and in the city.

     When fifteen, Alexander Hamilton left his home in the British West Indies, and sailed north, in order to attend King’s College, now Columbia, in New York City. He stayed in the city.

     Years later, Hamilton’s political rival, Aaron Burr, challenged him to a dual, and he chose to go. He and his assistant rowed west across the Hudson River, to Weehawken, New Jersey, and there on the morning of July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr shot Hamilton in the abdomen. He died the next day. 

     Looking back at Hamilton’s decision, historians have concluded that he should have forgotten about pride and honor, and stayed in the city that day, or he should rowed his boat east, across the East River.

     As for Horace Greeley, he failed to follow his own advice. He stayed in New York City all of his life, except for a single trip west in 1859, on a stagecoach. He saw Kansas, Denver, and then on the Overland Trail he traveled to Salt Lake City, and to California, but then he returned to New York City. He had no interest in staying in the west.

     Should I stay, or should I go? That is the question.