The American Dream Webquest at the OS

How has the American Dream evolved?

Historical impacts on the American Dream

The basic principles on which the "American Dream" is founded were developed quite early in the 17th Century.
Based on the ideas and values of justice, liberty, fairness and equality of Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution guaranteed the American people "natural rights" like "life, liberty and property" (later changed to "pursuit of happiness" by Thomas Jefferson) and freedom of speech1.

The reason to secure the rights of the people was to make sure the North Americans would not be oppressed again by their own or a foreign government as they had been before until they refused to be a British colony any more.

When James Truslow Adams coined the term "The American Dream" in his study "The Epic of America" in 19312 the expression had already been commonly known and used all over the United States of America.

jobless men

At that time the American society and economy suffered from the "Great Depression" that had evolved after the stock-market crash of 1929 causing poverty and unemployment until the early 1940s.

After World War II the United States of America emerged as the strongest and wealthiest nation on the planet. Heavy government military spending had revived the economy and while the other countries involved in World War II had to rebuild their bombed and ruined cities the USA were spared from the destruction at home. The wealthy American society and business had exceeded the other nations prosperity by far, making the USA an example for success in general, that all the other societies can take as a blueprint for their own development.

Now we have seen two major conditions under which the "American Dream" is an important feature of people's minds, consisting of different sets of certain ideas, taking advantage of when they deal with current problems and issues of life and social organization.

The first one is in time of oppression and exploitation when the people imagined, demanded and needed another form of social organisation they took the mentioned ideals and values to realize their hopes and dreams of freedom and self-determination.

The other condition is when economic instability leads to poverty and unemployment. In such a state of mind the people need an imagination of better times in the past and more necessary in the future to strengthen their confidence in gaining wealth again and to go beyond survival questions of life. Therefore the "American Dream" helps the people remaining in hopeful expectation of better times instead of giving up on themselves leading a life full of worries and desperation.
With the concept of "The American Dream" that everyone is responsible for his own "fate" people have an important psychological tool to carry on working on improvements of their lives.

Yet another point of view is the outside perspective from the devastated European countries which looked up to the American fortitude and richness after the Second World War. Inspired by the pioneer attitude to create wealth out of nothing and reaching material support from the US (like the Marshall Plan4) the European nations were able to rebuild themselves and gain some of the highest living standards one can find throughout the world.

After the economic problems were managed and profits flourished again the political and social struggle shifted from issues of survival to civil rights, equality and peace. In the civil rights movement Martin Luther King Jr.5 became a popular adversary of inequality, segregation and racism. He was respected for his non violent resistance (in allusion the Gandhi opposing British colonialism) and capacity to agitate the masses because his message and methods were so powerful and effective. Then in the 1960s many Americans participated in the peace movement to end American aggression in Vietnam6. These examples show that American citizens and society in general very well know and live "The American Dream" of a free country administered by a "government of the people, by the people and for the people" that they can influence for the better.

Matthias Bokelmann

  1. The Social Studies Help Center: The American Dream, 6.11.2006
  2. James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America
    (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1931)
  3. About the Great Depression, 6.11.2006
  4. Wikipedia: Marshall Plan
  5. The King Center
  6. The Anti-War Movement in the United States