The American dream is the concept widely held in the United States of America, that through hard work, courage and determination one can achieve prosperity. These were the values of the original pioneers who crossed the American plains when Europeans first came to America. What the American dream has become is a question under constant discussion.
History of the American dream
The origin of the American dream stems from the departure in government and economics from the models of the Old World. This allowed unprecedented freedom, especially the possibility of dramatic upward social mobility. Additionally, from the Revolutionary War well into the later half of the nineteenth century, many of America's physical resources were unclaimed and often undiscovered, allowing the possibility of coming across a fortune through relatively little, but lucky investment in land or industry. The development of the Industrial Revolution defined the mineral and land wealth which was there in abundance, contrary to the environmental riches such as huge herds of bison and diversity of forests, for the original American Indians.
Many early Americans prospectors headed west of the Rocky Mountains to buy acres of cheap land in hopes of finding deposits of gold. The American dream was a driving factor not only in the Gold Rush of the mid to late 1800s, but also in the waves of immigration throughout that century and the following.
Impoverished western Europeans escaping the Irish potato famines in Ireland, the Highland clearances in Scotland and the aftermath of Napoleon in the rest of Europe came to America to escape a poor quality of life at home. They wanted to embrace the promise of financial security and constitutional freedom they had heard existed so widely in the United States.
A time of plenty
Nearing the twentieth century, major industrialist personalities became the new model of the American dream, many beginning life in the humblest of conditions but later controlling enormous corporations and fortunes. Perhaps most notable here were the great American capitalists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
This acquisition of great wealth demonstrated that if you had talent, intelligence, and a willingness to work extremely hard you were guaranteed at least moderate success as a result.
The key difference here from the Old World societal structure is that the antiquated monarchies of Western Europe and their post-feudal economies actively oppressed the peasant class. They also required high levels of taxation which crippled development. America, however, was built by people who were consciously free of these constraints.
There was a hope for egalitarianism. Martin Luther King invoked the American Dream in what is perhaps his most famous speech:
"Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream." (I have a dream)
The American dream today
In the 20th century, the American dream had its challenges. The Depression caused widespread hardship during the Twenties and Thirties, and was almost a reverse of the dream for those directly affected. Racial instability did not disappear, and in some parts of the country racial violence was almost commonplace. There was concern about the undemocratic campaign carried on against suspected Communists.
Since the end of World War II, young American families have sought to live in relative bourgeois comfort in the suburbs that they built up. The possibility of great wealth has remained more of a distant dream in the recent century, while the widely held goal of home ownership, financial security, and civil and international stability have come to take the place of the common American dream in modern times. This was aided as a vision by the apparent winning of the Cold War.
The basic capitalistic virtues of hard work, intelligence and independence had been seen as the means to achieving this 'final' incarnation of the American dream.
The 9/11 attacks in America have put all of these achievements in a new light, and international and domestic stability is undergoing an upheaval at the present time. The sleeper is restless, but the American dream has not yet become a nightmare.
Criticism of the American dream
A skeptical view would say that the American dream was built on aggressive colonialism. The Civil War to promote Liberty could be seen to be undermined by the earlier displacement, dispossession and slaughter of the original inhabitants of the land: this amounts to genocide on a par with that which many immigrants came to these shores to escape. Some see parallels here with aspects of the Middle East situation today.
Other critics point out the falsity of the implied view that everyone can succeed and become rich if they only try hard enough. This view, it is said, penalises people who are poor and already penalised, and does not take into account individual levels of ability and potential.
There is widespread criticism of America's aggressive military, economic and foreign policies, failure to ratify ecological and human rights treaties, and apparent breaches of human rights, internally, see McCarthyism and externally, in response to attacks on her territories. (See Camp X-Ray and allegations of Allied use of torture (http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/05/02/1083436475631.html) in Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons).
Some would link these alleged shortcomings to original problematic features of the expansion that produced and formed the country in the first place: possibly this could be extended to the problematic situations which the original pioneers were escaping in their home countries. Could we be seeing today the echoes of ancient conflicts and struggles which the American dream has failed to resolve?