American Literature - The American Dream

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What is the American Dream?

For more than 300 years, immigrants from all over the world have settled in the U.S. What dreams, hopes and expectations have led them to choose this land?

The American Dream is the idea (often associated with the Protestant work ethic) held by many in the United States of America, that through hard work, courage and determination one can achieve prosperity. These were values held by many early European settlers, and have been passed on to subsequent generations. 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 Native Americans.

Many early American 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.

During the mid-to-late ninteenth century prolific dime novel writer Horatio Alger, Jr. became famous for his novels that idealized the American dream. His novels about down-and-out bootblacks who were able to achieve wealth and success helped entrench the dream within popular culture.

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 appeared to demonstrate that if you had talent, intelligence, and a willingness to work extremely hard, you were likely to be a success in life as a result.

Throughout the 19th century, immigrants fled the monarchies of Western Europe and their post-feudal economies, which actively oppressed the peasant class. These economic systems required high levels of taxation, which stymied development. The American economy, however, was built up by people who were consciously free of these constraints.

Settlement in the New World provided 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. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness".

By the turn of the 20th century, the promise of the American dream had begun to lure substantial numbers of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Huge numbers of Italians, Poles, Greeks, Jews, Russians and others came to find work in industrial cities such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit. This wave of immigration continued until the outbreak of World War I. Following the war, nativist sentiment led to new restrictions on immigration, which would continue until 1965.

Few nations in history have been granted such a singular opportunity to shape the future. Even after World War II the United States had to reckon with a divided world and terrible dangers. Now America could help mould international ideals and institutions for decades to come. Handed the torch by generations that won great battles, the new generation of Americans with its allies and friends had the possibility to build a different and better world, promoting U.S. interests and principles, avoiding the economic convulsions and perilous conflicts that so scarred the century just past.

"Only the educated are free," wrote the Roman philosopher Epictetus. It is not enough to be born into a land of liberty and opportunity. True freedom means the presence of real options, the ability to decide one's own path in life, and the personal power to put that choice into execution. Education is what gives an individual options, the knowledge to act and choose independently, and the power to turn dreams and aspirations into reality. I believe that from freedom comes opportunity; from opportunity comes growth; and from growth comes progress and prosperity.

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