.: American Dream Reference Page :.

The American Dream - A historical overview


The American Dream describes an attitude of hope and faith that looks forward to the fulfilment of human wishes and desires. What these wishes are, were expressed in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence of 1776, where it was stated:

We hold these 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.

This search for freedom and happiness actually goes back to the very beginning of American civilisation, to the time of the first settlers. The Puritan Fathers who first came to New England (one of the first states to be settled), the Quakers who came to Pennsylvania (another American state), and the Huguenots in Virginia were all religious refugees who were driven to the New World by persecution. To these people, America represented a new life of freedom, holding a promise of spiritual and material happiness.

For those settlers who were not so religiously inclined, America was still a fairyland, a land of great possibilities. It was also a rich mine of natural resources. And so the first thirteen colonies came into being, amidst the religious and materialistic hopes of the first settlers. Material prosperity and progress kept pace with religious and spiritual goals because the Puritans and the Quakers alike approved of industry and material advancement. For, whereas physical pleasures were evil, hard work and achievements were regarded as indications of inner goodness.

When the Eastern Seaboard, comprising the thirteen colonies, became overcrowded, this pursuit of happiness and freedom shifted inland with the drive westward beyond the Appalachian Mountains. The opening of the Middle and Western states increased the sense of hope and faith. And this looking forward beyond the immediate present, this belief in the future, has become a national characteristic that may partly explain the speed of American advancement in so many areas of activities. The democratic system, first voiced in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence in 1776, may be traced to this basic attitude of hope and confidence.

The American Dream, however, originally relates to a desire for spiritual and material improvement. What happened was that, from one point of view, the material aspect of the dream was too easily and too quickly achieved, with the result that it soon outpaced and even obliterated the early spiritual ideals. So there emerged a state of material well-being but lacking in spiritual life or purpose. So that when Fitzgerald produced Gatsby, modelled no doubt on the writer's own faith in life, he seemed to have created a character who represented an early American in whom the Dream was still very much alive.

From another point of view, the American Dream has totally failed to bring any kind of fulfilment, whether spiritual or material. For all the progress and prosperity, for all the declaration of democratic principles, there are still poverty, discrimination and exploitation. And as for values and morality, there are also hypocrisy, corruption and suppression a way The Great Gatsby is also a comment on this condition. Other writers have written about these hard truths which have made the American Dream an illusion: John Steinbeck (1902-) in The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and J. D. Salinger (1919-) in The Catcher in the Rye (1951) are two examples.



  1. What are the essential elements that characterize the American Dream?
  2. The Declaration of Independence is probably the most significant document ever published in the USA. What is its main aim? Please look at http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/D/1776-1800/independence/doi.htm for further reading.
  3. Do you know other literary works that depict the American Dream incorporating aspects of success, wealth and happiness?