Olaf Rove’s American Dream

July 04, 2024

I see it every day that I’m home. The frame and text are lighter than when it hung on the walls of the simple houses in which I grew up. 

I keep it in part because it reminds me of my taciturn Midwestern father who had us read it aloud on Independence Day. But I also keep it because I cherish the document itself, old and majestic, headlined, “In Congress, July 4, 1776,” followed by, “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” 

The declaration’s words still inspire: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The authors then expressed their belief that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” It was a unique credo in an age of kings and despots.

The next 27 paragraphs are a bill of particulars our colonial forefathers presented to a global jury and to history itself, condemning our treatment by a distant tyranny.

The three closing paragraphs explain that because we’ve endured too much, suffered too many indignities and been ignored too long, we are now “Free and Independent States.” After affirming their “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence,” the 56 Continental Congress delegates pledged to each other “our lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Given the sorry state of contemporary politics—shallow, divided and petty—I find myself particularly moved this year by these words that gave birth to our Republic. They were aspirational and always will be. We’re challenged to live up to their promise, for to be an American remains the greatest of blessings.

I’m so fortunate to have been born here, which is why I think on this day about the first person in my family line to come to America—Olaf Julius Rove. He reached Brooklyn in September 1884, aboard the “Hekla,” out of Oslo. He was 20. His father had died. Being the second son, he had poor prospects back home. His older brother got the farm, which today is the site of a multipurpose sports field in Halden, Norway.

Olaf lingered in New York briefly before heading west to a cousin’s farm near Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin. Family lore says he arrived in the winter and spent it living in his cousin’s barn. He kept himself occupied making a simple lift-top desk.

The next fall, he talked his way into the University of Wisconsin, and later its law school. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen on Nov. 11, 1889, at age 25. The following year, he married a Swedish girl, Emma Norberg. They had two sons and a daughter. Olaf practiced law in Milwaukee, then worked for what is now Northwestern Mutual for three decades. He died in 1940, his ashes spread at Pike Lake, Wis., now joined by those of my father and mother.

He never forgot his immigrant experience, serving as vice consul of Norway for Wisconsin, and he was awarded the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav for his work on behalf of Norwegian migrants. He declined an invitation to become Norway’s ambassador to the U.S. That would have cost his U.S. citizenship, a price too dear. 

Olaf Rove was a young pauper when he stepped onto these shores. Like countless others, he was part of the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Yet he took the chance he was given and built a life of dignity, honest work and compassionate service. That peasant’s great-grandson worked in the White House. Only in America.

Read More at the WSJ

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