The “American Dream” is a sort of ethos or set of beliefs that drive many U.S. citizens as they work toward creating a life for themselves. This set of ideals – which includes notions of individual rights, freedom, democracy, and equality – is arguably centered around the belief that each individual has the right and freedom to seek prosperity and happiness, regardless of where or under what circumstances they were born.
A key element of the American dream is the belief that through hard work and perseverance, anyone can rise “from rags to riches,” becoming financially successful and socially upwardly mobile.
American writer and historian James Truslow Adams best captured the definition of the American Dream: “Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement,” with neither social class nor the circumstances surrounding their birth being a barrier to success.
The Origin of the American Dream
The American Dream is rooted in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. That document, created by America’s founding fathers, says two key things that are largely responsible for shaping what the classic American Dream is. The declaration says that “all men are created equal” and that each man/woman has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
It’s important to note that the U.S. Constitution – the legal foundation that delineates how the government shall operate on a daily basis – reiterates this idea in its Preamble, noting that its purpose is to help “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
The Many Versions of the American Dream
Throughout the history of the U.S. – both before and after it became an independent nation – the American Dream has changed, going through a variety of forms and meanings while maintaining as its essence the core beliefs of freedom and happiness in place.
In its earliest years, the dream was centered around the lure of westward expansion and frontier life within the U.S. In 1774, Virginia’s Governor, John Murray, said that most Americans were constantly imagining that “the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled.” He also noted the constant dissatisfaction and desire for even more and even better when he said, “If they attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west.”
19th Century America
In the 19th century, the beginnings of mass emigration were affected by and affected the American Dream. A perfect example of this is the emigration of many highly-educated Germans who ran to the U.S. after the failure of the 1848 German revolution and the attempt to break down hierarchical standards. They were drawn by the political and economic freedoms embraced in the New World, and the fact that America did not operate on the same class system, nor did it subscribe to the notion that a person could only achieve as much as their class dictated.
The American Dream was also significantly shaped and perpetuated by the discovery of gold in the 19th century. The 1849 discovery in California drew in hundreds of thousands of men believing that they, too, could pan a fortune overnight. While most did not, and in fact, many men spent their families’ entire savings to find nothing, several men did become rich in a matter of days. While it has changed through many years and different political and economic circumstances within the country, the belief that personal success is possible for anyone to attain is a dream that still motivates Americans today.
The 20th Century American Dream
The term “American Dream” became even more popular in the 20th century, partly on the back of James Truslow Adams’ 1931 book, “Epic of America.” Adams noted how the American Dream had changed over time and how it was difficult for European aristocracy to understand its value or why it drew so many immigrants to the states.
Adams went on to say that the American Dream is, “not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of their birth or position.”
The American historian also stressed that, despite the growth of the country, the explosion of the rich and successful, and how such families established a sort of social order where those coming from a position of wealth tended to succeed and have greater opportunities, that the belief was that, regardless of this, anyone could find success and happiness. He noted that the American Dream is and has been “… much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”
Without getting into a lengthy discussion of politics, several political movements – such as the movement for the right of women to vote, as well as the civil rights movement that flourished in the 1960s – were all parts of what was shaped by and then further shaped, the American Dream.
Ultimately, the American Dream maintains a core set of beliefs: the right to certain freedoms that enable every individual to pursue a life of success and happiness. What success and happiness mean to one person is not necessarily what they mean to another. In the end, it is up to each American to decide what the Dream looks like to them, with the knowledge that America affords them the opportunity to pursue it freely.
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