What is the American Dream?
The “American Dream” is a sort of ethos or a set of beliefs that guide U.S. citizens as they exist on a daily basis. The set of ideals – individual rights, freedom, democracy, equality – is arguably centered around the belief that each individual has the right and freedom to seek prosperity and happiness, regardless of where or how they were born and the ability – through hard work – to grow out of whatever social or economic surroundings they find themselves in at any given time.
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 social class or the circumstances surrounding their birth not being a barrier.
The Origin of the American Dream
The American Dream is rooted in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The 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 both 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 foundation of the early 13 states and the document that guides much of how the U.S. functions 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 Phases of the American Dream
Throughout the existence of this country – both before and after it became its own independent nation – the American Dream has changed, going through a variety of phases and meanings while holding the core beliefs of freedom and happiness in place.
In its earliest years, the dream was centered around the mystery behinds westward expansion and frontier life within the U.S. In 1774, Virginia’s Governor, John Murray, said that most Americans were constantly imagining “the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled.” He also noted the constant dissatisfaction and desire for ever more and better when he said that, “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 failing of the 1848 German revolution and the attempt to break down hierarchical standards. They were drawn in by the political and economic freedoms embraced in the New World, and the fact that America did not run 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 drastically shaped 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 over many years and different political and economic phases within the country, the belief that overnight financial success is possible is a piece of the American Dream that still stands today.
The 20th Century American Dream
The term “American Dream” genuinely became popular in the 20th century 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.
In the book, Adams notes that while the American Dream is a powerful force, “too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it,” specifically referencing how many began to associate overnight success – or the lack thereof – with the ethos of what Americans ascribed as the American Dream.
Adams went on to say that the American Dream is, “not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a ream of 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 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 rights 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 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 full of success and happiness. What success and happiness mean to one person is not what it means 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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