The American Dream is widely considered to be the most important national ethos of the United States of America. The ideology of the American Dream is that the basic rights of freedom and liberty in the US include the opportunity for everyone in the land to achieve prosperity, success and upward social mobility through hard work and determination. It is centred on the right of individuals to determine their own destiny, regardless of their circumstances of birth. However, this is only a broad definition, as the American Dream itself is intangible, and takes on its own unique meaning for each individual throughout various time periods in the history of the United States of America.
Though the historian James Truslow Adams is credited with coining the phrase “the American dream” in his book Epic America (1931), the origin of the Dream itself is ingrained in the earliest days of American settlement. The Puritans, who had been persecuted for their belief system in their native Britain, fled to the New World throughout the seventeenth century, in search of a new beginning. In 1630, John Winthrop delivered his renowned “city upon the hill” sermon to his fellow Puritan colonist as they made their way to the area now known as Massachusetts. While he never specifically used the word “dream” in this iconic address, he did eloquently detail his vision for this new colony, built on the hope that everyone would have the opportunity to prosper, which had been denied to them in their homeland for generations. Gradually, this vision of opportunity evolved in the minds of the settlers to become a God-given right, and exists today as the American Dream.
The importance of the American Dream as a national ethos is highlighted through allusions to it in the Declaration of Independence, which formed the basis for the United States of America as a nation. In it, the Founding Fathers of America, including the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, clearly stated that “all men are created equal”, and are entitled to the rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Another important aspect of life in the US that is clearly raised in the Declaration of Independence is that of democracy, and the opportunity to exercise free will. This freedom of choice highlights the decision that individuals must make in chasing their own American Dream, and how they perceive their own degree of success in the quest of fulfilling the Dream.
Like the Puritans and their hopes for a new life in a far away land, people’s perceptions of the American Dream are often influenced by the era that they live in, and major occurrences that occur during that time period. During the American Civil War, the country almost experienced the subversion of the Dream, as unrest resonated right from the heart of the nation. Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women (1868 – 69) highlights the hardships faced by American society during the war, but also the hope that the American Dream provided. In its aftermath, the members of the Union, specifically the African Americans, saw their American Dream start to become a reality, while for many members of the Confederation, the end of the war saw the death of their Dream. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the American Dream for most became the desire to look after their family, and to try to ensure that the next generation did not have to suffer the same fate.
With this dream in sight, optimism grew in a land of desperation. The westward expansion of the frontier during the 19th century was a fascinating period for the changing nature of the American Dream. It seemed that the Puritan’s desire for a new beginning was reflected in their descendants, with masses of the population taking the chance to start over in a new area of land. The reasons for this migration included the promise of economic prosperity, to obtain complete possession of the continent, and to protect the freedom of America. For many, westward migration meant fulfilling their dreams of land ownership and farming. In 1845, the journalist John O’Sullivan put a name to these ideas that lured pioneers toward the western frontier; “the manifest destiny”. The western frontier offered a new opportunity for Americans to pursue the independence and upward social mobility that are linked so closely to the roots of the American Dream. The MGM picture How the West Was Won (1962) is an example of the success of a family who migrated to the West, across a number of generations.
The discovery of gold in California in 1849 led to a boom in population in the state, with men looking for instant success and wealth. This led to the birth of the California Dream, appropriated from the widespread ideology of the American Dream, with a focus on the idea of almost instantaneous economic success that is promised through migration to the state. Though the gold rush is over, this California Dream still exists, through fields such as film production and “dot-com” entrepreneurship. The achievements of Mark Zuckerberg, recounted through the film The Social Network (2010), support this appropriation, as it highlights how the environment in California, specifically Silicon Valley, has enabled people to achieve their dreams, in a short period of time.
In the aftermath of the World War II, when the US had successfully established itself as a superpower, the American Dream took on a more materialistic identity for the vast majority of society. The 1950’s and 60’s saw a rise in consumerism, and people took on a more individualistic approach to life than their predecessors. Home ownership became the signpost of an individual’s success in the pursuit of the American Dream. After the Cold War, Russian citizens found themselves enchanted with this particular ideology of the American Dream seeking freedom, liberty, material prosperity and private ownership of land in their own nation. Australia has been influenced by the American, with the Great Australian Dream encompassing a similar ethos to its American counterpart, in regards to home ownership.
This trend has carried on throughout modern history, with the American Dream now becoming most commonly associated with material prosperity. Many immigrants, often from developing nations, flock to the United States in pursuit of this materialistic American Dream, with the promise of economic prosperity enticing them away from their native countries of origin. The American Dream is still a prominent aspect of life in the United States.