.: American Dream Reference Page :.

Trying to define the American Dream


The concept of THE AMERICAN DREAM is as central to an understanding of the history and culture of the U.S. as it is difficult to define. Books on the Dream are legion, but nobody has yet managed to provide a generally accepted definition. Therefore, any attempt at approaching THE AMERICAN DREAM must resort to generalizations and simplifications.


Historically speaking, the ever-changing mixture of hopes and beliefs, values and convictions for which, as late as 1931, James T. Adams coined the term THE AMERICAN DREAM gradually evolved out of the interplay between the manifold cultural ideas which Europeans projected upon the New World and the conditions of life which they encountered there. These projections resulted in different images of America which developed consecutively and intermixed in various ways. The three major image clusters are:


  • the MYTHIC IMAGES of America as a land of milk and honey and a new “earthly paradise” at the farthest edge of the known world, as a “brave new world” which European writers from Erasmus of Rotterdam to William Shakespeare envisioned as a combination of the Biblical Garden of Eden, the Golden Age of classical antiquity, and the pastoral Arcadia of Renaissance literature;
  • the RELIGIOUS IMAGES of America where the Puritans as God’s chosen people were called upon to found “a new Heaven and a new Earth in new Churches, and a new Commonwealth together” (Edward Johnson), to erect their New Jerusalem on the virgin soil of the American continent, and to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ, which they knew would “begin in America” (Jonathan Edwards);
  • the POLITICAL IMAGES of America as the country in which the Enlightenment philosophers saw the place where natural rights and natural laws would become reality, and where a DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE that granted life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to every citizen resulted in a political system that filled European serfs with admiration and envy.



These concepts and ideas laid the ground for what would come to be called THE AMERICAN DREAM but originally was a European dream of an enticing New World, often defined as “an asylum for mankind” which attracted millions of exploited Europeans who set out for an imaginary “America” in the hope of finding a place where they would be given a chance to improve their living conditions and to achieve their desired self-fulfillment.


The complex pattern of convictions and aspirations that came to be known as THE AMERICAN DREAM or, for those who searched for it in vain, as THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE of broken promises and frustrated hopes, can thus be subdivided into the following elements:


  • the future-oriented belief in a steady improvement of individual, communal, and societal conditions of existence, that is, the belief in progress;
  • the conviction that everybody can realize his highest ambitions by means of his or her own endeavors, that is, the belief in the general attainability of success;
  • the certainty that God has singled out America as his chosen country and has appointed the Americans to convert the rest of the world to true American-style democracy, that is, the belief in American exceptionalism and in the newly formed nation’s MANIFEST DESTINY:
  • the assurance that, in the context of civilizations westward movement, ever new boundaries are to be crossed and ever new obstacles are to be surmounted, that is, the idea of the continual challenge of respective frontiers;
  • the belief in the American form of government of the people, by the people and for the people as the sole guarantor of liberty and equality, and
  • the idea that immigrants of different nationalities, different ethnic stock and different religions can be fused into a new nation, that is, the conviction expressed in the notion of the MELTING POT and its historical mutations from cultural pluralism through multi-ethnicity to multiculturalism.


Source (adapted): http://www.boisestate.edu/socwork/dhuff/us/chapters/Chapter%201.htm