The American Dream originated in the early colonial days among poor immigrants who searched for opportunities in America, and those who believed in certain intangible rights, that were not granted in their home countries. The creators of the of the United States’ Declaration of Independence believed that “all men are created equal” and that each man is “endowed by their Creator with certain intangible rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It was these truths and beliefs stated in the Declaration of Independence that allowed the original American settlers to win the American Revolution and create the most powerful, and influential country in the world.
In 1931, in the midst of the American Great Depression, the American author and historian James Truslow introduced the term “American dream” in his book “The Epic of America” as “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement regardless of fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
” But as personal and national views changed over the years, so did the American dream.
Although many think of James Truslow Adams and his book “The Epic of America” when discussing the origination of the American dream, the idea has actually been around much before he was even alive. As early as 1630, John Winthrop, a puritan preacher, gave his sermon “City Upon a Hill” in which he detailed his vision of a society in which everyone would have a chance to prosper. His sermon would eventually lead to the ideas that created the American revolution, Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the American Dream.
In the 1830s, the citizens of the new nation, America, believed it was a land of unparalleled opportunity, where anything could be achieved if a person dared to dream big enough.
Authors and other visitors to the country noted this and discussed it in books, and amongst others. Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who visited America in 1830, called the idea “the charm of anticipated success.” (Cullen) Henry David Thoreau articulated the dream, although not yet officially called the American Dream, as “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will be met with a success unexpected in common hours.” There were other ways that the dream was defined as well, for example, in the book “Windy McPherson’s Son” by Sherwood Anderson, the main character was described as “an American multi-millionaire, a man in the midst of his money-making, one who had realised the American Dream.”
Soon after the new independence of America, immigrants began to flock to the new nation in search of opportunities, freedoms, and rights not granted in their home countries. Eventually the term “American Dream” began to appear in newspapers and magazines, often referring to the people who migrated to America. These people who came to America poor, broken, and without freedom, in search of fortune, success, and freedom, created the legend of “rags to riches.” The idea of “rags to riches,” which would become an essential part of the American Dream, was that any person could succeed and achieve the ultimate goal of wealth if they were willing to work hard enough. This leads to the original definition of the American dream: To be given freedom, individualism, opportunity, and the ability to always better oneself, and financial situation through dedication, hard work, and self sacrifice.
As time passed and the nation developed, the nation changed, and so did the Dream. Traditionally Americans sought success through hard work, self sacrifice and dedication. The dream had meant freedom, opportunity, and a life without the restriction of an invasive government, however, it was not about luxuries, or material goods. It wasn’t even about equality, because immigrants had never been treated the same as whites, although the dream was still there for them, and America offered much better opportunities than their home countries. Immigrants were often singled out, payed less, and had harder times finding jobs. Immigrants usually flocked together, creating towns and cities, such as little Italy, and Chinatown. However, within these secluded towns and cities, immigrants opened successful businesses such as stores, and restaurants.
The dream began to change with the introduction of the Ford assembly line, and industry. Assembly lines and factory machinery began to replace skilled workmen, as now people only had to perform one repetitive task all day, or operate a piece of machinery that did most of the work anyway. Because of this, the ideal work ethic of extreme dedication began to change, and people got lazier. Then credit was introduced, and for the first time the working class was able to afford luxury items and consumerism began to take over. Those who were successful and those who were less successful were separated by the amount of material goods each owned. The person with the nicest house, car, clothing and the most expensive material goods was considered the most successful.
New technology was created also, such as washing machines, and other good that made home lives easier. Initially with machinery replacing human jobs, gave people got more free time, and people began to have more social lives. During this time period, the radio was created also, which being able to be heard across the country, began to change the individual aspect of America into a more collective accepting aspect. Wars, and other crises also caused change in the American dream. Then the evolution from the sixties to modern day America was drastic, as new forms of technology were introduced, such as new forms of communication, travel, globalism, instant news, knowledge, and entertainment. Before, when it would take weeks to months for one to cross the country, now it only takes hours. One can only imagine the changes that would take place from such drastic changes in technology and lifestyle.
After World War 1, the American Dream changed. Many of the men who returned from the war had endured horrible things, and had lived the lowest of lives, and their families had been affected as well. Because of this, the men from the war wanted to live the lives they wished they had had instead of being at war. They dreamed of being with their families, being happy, living easy lifestyles and taking vacations. They used their GI bills to get low interest loans on homes, and many of these men built homes for their families, thus creating a building boom. Many new homes were built in suburbs, and many people moved to the suburbs during this time period. The American Dream of the 1950s focused on home ownership and home lifestyle. Many companies began focusing on producing home products, such as blenders, stoves, and refrigerators.
In the 1960s, after the failure of the Vietnam war, many young people, and minority groups began to get tired of the old American dream. Hippies began to show up, these were people and groups who believed in free-love, and took part in the drug culture of the 60s. They took part in protests, and campus sit- ins. A psychologist named Timothy Leary urged Americans to “ turn on, turn in, drop out.” Also during this time period there was a strong push toward equality, lead mostly by Dr. Martin Luther King junior who preached about equality among all men, which meant complete equal pay, opportunities, and peacefulness among all men. This changed the American Dream to be more about acceptance, equality and love, than simple individual success.
During the 1970s, the main focus of Americans was self indulgence. People began to use drugs, and partied much more often than before. Clothing styles changed as well, people began wearing wide pants, and taller shoes. Ever since World War one and the great depression, the American dream had focused on having children be more successful and better off than their parents, and in the 1970, it finally seemed as if that were happening. People began using credit to purchase everyday good, and items began to be disposable, such as plastic spoons and disposable razors, also fast food was introduced, and Americans seemed to have all they need almost instantly.
During the 1980s, America evolved as a major world power in politics and economy. This was shown with the destruction of the berlin wall and almost a complete end to communism. The energy crisis of the prior decade was over. There was a new indulgence in material goods. There were more junk bonds, people purchased handmade expensive suits, people liked larger shoulder pads, bigger hair, and new TV shows about extremely successful people were introduced, such as Dallas. The lifestyles of the rich and famous, such as celebrities, famous singers, and musicians, defined how the best, and most successful Americans should, dress, live, act, and what they should own. The new American dream was to have everything they possibly could, being comfort, food, clothing, necessities, and non-necessities.
The nineteen nineties brought about the neo-hippies. These people did not support the drug culture, and did not advocate for free-love, however, they switched to a earth saving movement. These people came together over issues such as air pollution, plastics, styrofoams, deforestation, landfills, global warming, and the protection of living organisms. People began to own personal computers, and the internet took off among normal citizens. Entrepreneurs fought over positions in the dot com world, looking for opportunities to make money online. People were now able to purchase items in other countries from their own living rooms. People became extremely wealthy faster than ever before, and the American budget was finally stable. Banks gave home loans to basically anyone. The dream seemed so perfect, successful, and large, that it seemed there were no way it could possibly fail.
Of course, the prosperous times of the nineties into the two thousands did end up crashing and bringing about hard times, especially with the new technology. Natural disasters, global conflicts, and political revolutions came to light extremely fast, as new opportunities were provided with social media, and as news traveled to everyone extremely quickly. Also, economies became connected through the internet, so when a health problem would sweep an area, or someone did not want to cooperate at the other end of an online deal, personal economies would be affected.
Today, the world is more dangerous, and the American military is less powerful, fewer Americans own homes or have savings accounts than before. For the first time in American history, the next generation will have more debts, and potentially be less successful than their parents. A survey by Payoff.com found that “Among the population that took the survey, 34% felt that they had already achieved the American Dream, while 70% believed that they would, eventually. However, 43% of those who had achieved the dream were afraid they might lose it, certainly a factor of our uncertain times.” Also in that survey, it was found that younger people were more hopeful that they would be able to achieve the American Dream. “Of those members of Generation X (born 1965-1977) surveyed, four in five who hadn’t yet achieved the dream believed they could. Generation Y-ers (born 1978-1994) were even more optimistic; 19 of every 20 surveyed thought they could realize the dream.” Of those surveyed, this is how they defined their personal idea of the American Dream: “Financial security: 65%; Family/children: 58%; Free from want/My basic needs are met: 43%; Comfortable retirement: 36%; Home ownership: 35%; Successful career: 31%; Marriage: 29%; Others: 3%.” (Maier)
The current American Dream seems to be defined by money, and ego. With YouTube, X-factor, and American Idol, as well as lotteries, and game shows advertising instant celebrity status and instant wealth. The American Dream is no longer owning a home, land or even having a good life, but it is about owning the most expensive cars, homes, clothing and obtaining popularity. This is only achievable by a few people, as one must be extremely rich to own these things. However, Americans currently own more than ever before. Some people who fear the dream is unattainable, or dead, only believe this because the concept has changed from everyone being able to improve one’s life through hard work, to everyone being able to become a millionaire with hardly any work at all. However, the original concept of the dream is still very liveable and alive today. Everyone can still improve their current situation through hard work, self sacrifice, and dedication.