What is the American Dream?



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What is the American Dream?

Background Essay




What is the American Dream?


The term was first used by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America which was written in 1931. He states: "The American Dream is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream 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."

In the United States’ Declaration of Independence, our founding fathers: "…held certain truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." Might this sentiment be considered the foundation of the American Dream?

Were homesteaders who left the big cities of the east to find happiness and their piece of land in the unknown wilderness pursuing these inalienable Rights? Were the immigrants who came to the United States looking for their bit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their Dream? And what did the desire of the veteran of World War II - to settle down, to have a home, a car and a family - tell us about this evolving Dream? Is the American Dream attainable by all Americans? Would Martin Luther King feel his Dream was attained? Did Malcolm X realize his Dream?

Some say, that the American Dream has become the pursuit of material prosperity - that people work more hours to get bigger cars, fancier homes, the fruits of prosperity for their families - but have less time to enjoy their prosperity. Others say that the American Dream is beyond the grasp of the working poor who must work two jobs to insure their family’s survival. Yet others look toward a new American Dream with less focus on financial gain and more emphasis on living a simple, fulfilling life.

Thomas Wolfe said, "…to every man, regardless of his birth, his shining, golden opportunity ….the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him."

Most of today's Americans would say that home ownership is the American Dream. Others would say that it is being your own boss, having your own business or becoming rich and famous. While the American Dream certainly could include some or all of these things, none of them by themselves constitute the American Dream. Rather, they are a result of it.  The American Dream is far greater!

In his essay "The American Dream", which was published back in the October 1973 issue of The Freeman, John E. Nestler reflects:

"Whereas the American Dream was once equated with certain principles of freedom, it is now equated with things. The American Dream has undergone a metamorphosis from principles to materialism. ... When people are concerned more with the attainment of things than with the maintenance of principles, it is a sign of moral decay. And it is through such decay that loss of freedom occurs."

Thirty years later, in the June 2003 issue of The Freeman, Lawrence W. Reed published an excellent and timely article entitled "The True Meaning of Patriotism". In it Reed writes:

"I subscribe to a patriotism rooted in ideas that in turn gave birth to a country, but it's the ideas that I think of when I'm feeling patriotic. I'm a patriotic American because I revere the ideas that motivated the Founders and compelled them, in many instances, to put their lives, fortunes and sacred honor on the line."

More recently, Chuck Baldwin emphatically stated in his article Can You Imagine This Country?, that material gain is not the American Dream. Baldwin writes:

"We hear much today about the American dream. By "the American dream," most people mean buying a big house, driving an expensive automobile, and making a lot of money. However, this was not the dream envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Remember that, for the most part, America's founders gave up their material wealth and substance for something they considered of far greater worth. Unfortunately, this hedonistic generation knows little of the kind of sacrificial spirit personified in the lives of America's patriarchs.



In the minds of the founders, liberty--with all of its intrinsic risks--was more desirable than material prosperity, if that prosperity was accompanied with despotism or collectivism. So strong was their desire that they were willing to give up the latter in order to procure the former for themselves and their posterity.

How dare Americans today refer to material gain as "the American dream." It is not! It is the freedom to honestly pursue one's goals that should be celebrated. Material gain is only a fruit of freedom, not its root."

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