The American Dream. Background and development

Pre-University Paper, 2015

23 Pages, Grade: 1

Carolina Bricks (Author)




1. The term “American Dream“
1.1. Definition: What is the American Dream?
1.2. When and by whom was the term used first?

2. Some famous representatives of the American Dream
2.1. Martin Luther King:
2.2. Chris Gardner:

3. How could the American Dream have developed?
3.1. Foundation myths :
3.2. The Declaration of Independence:

4. Immigration to the US in past and the tidal waves of immigration

5. The American Dream today
5.1. Is the American Dream still alive?
5.2. Imigration today:
5.3. Illegal immigration
5.4. Legal regulation of immigration

6. Conclusion and my own statement towards the question whether the American Dream is a myth or reality

7. Sources:


“American Dreams are strongest in the hearts of those who have seen America only in their dreams.”[1] (4.)

This is a quotation made by Pico Iyer, a British-born travel writer, novelist and essayist. (5.) In his opinion, those people, who live outside America and who do not know much about this country and the American Dream, are the people who believe most in it. He has got the view that the American Dream is nothing you can rely on and that reality is completely different from the cliché. That it is not as easy as people might think, to build up a good life from nothing except hard work, only because you are in America. But is he right? (47, 1, 2 ,3)

Imagine the following situation: One of those people, who do not know much about America and see the American Dream through rose tinted lenses goes to America. He hopes for a better life, wanting to become rich and happy. Will he be disappointed by reality? Or is Pico Iyer right and will he be able to build up a good life?

The American Dream is a term that is very known. Many people believe, that you can become rich and happy, if you work hard and if you have got a strong will. (47, 1, 2 ,3) I am very interested in the country of the US and also in society. So in my skilled work, I would like to occupy myself with the topic “American Dream“. First of all, I want to know what the American Dream exacly is, because this is an important basic information. I am also interested in the question, how the dream has developed. I know, that the American Dream leads and led to massive immigration to the US, so I want to find out more about immigration in the past and the big waves of it and also about immigration today. Are there many people, who have or had made their American Dreams come true? Or is Pico Iyer right with his opinion, that reality looks completely different from peoples´ hopes? Does the American Dream still exist? Are there problems through (illegal) immigration? And how does legal regulation look like? The answers to all these questions should help me to find out whether the American Dream is a myth or reality. I think, I will be able to find a lot of information according to my topic on the internet and in books. The first point of my skilled work deals with the term “American Dream“. The information I get should help me to establish a clear definition for the American Dream and to find out when and by whom the term was used first. My second point is “Some famous representatives of the American Dream“. I would like to introduce Martin Luther King and Chris Gardner to the readers, wanting to give some information about their lives and how they lived the American Dream. My third point deals with the question, how that thinking could have developed. I would like to find out something about the first myths and imaginations according to America as well. My fourth point are the big waves of immigration in the past, while point five deals with the question of how the American Dream looks like today and with today´s immigration. And another interesting question is: How does legal regulation look like? My final point is a conclusion and an own statement towards the main question I want to answer: Is the American Dream a myth or reality?

1. The term “American Dream“

1.1. Definition: What is the American Dream?

It is difficult to define the term “American Dream“, because everyone understands something else under it. But at the core, the American Dream consists of the notion that a person can achieve his or her goals and improve his or her position in life, if he or she works hard. Everybody has the chance to have success, independently from sex, skin colour, religion and origin. There are many different ideas in American peoples´ minds when they have to talk about the American Dream. For some of them, the American Dream is the dream of fame and wealth. They believe that anyone can become rich, successful and respected if he or she works hard and if he or she is able to deal with his or her savings. There is also the idea to work one´s way up, starting without any money. For others it is the dream of a fulfilling, happy and simple life. The American Dream does not always refer to material or financial goods. For some people it is the dream of feedom and equal rights. An example for that thinking is Martin Luther King ( see point 2.1.). The dream is seen as a quality, every person is born with- whether born in America or not. The dream leads and led to massive emigration to America. (B1, 1,2,3)

1.2. When and by whom was the term used first?

The first one who used the term “American Dream“ was the historian James Truslow Adams. He used it in his book “The Epic of America“, which was published in 1931. In his book, he writes about how America´s national story was created and about what was represented by it “in the first half of the twentieth century“(8). He writes about the historical origins of different characteristics, people consider “typically American“, for example the American concept of “bigger and better“, the Americans´ attitudes towards business and also about the American Dream. In the book the term “American Dream“ is used to “describe complex beliefs, religious promises and political and social expectations“ (8). The dream wasn´t Adam´s idea. That thinking had already existed, but the term “American Dream“ became an expression for it. (B2, 3, 6, 7, 8)

2. Some famous representatives of the American Dream

2.1. Martin Luther King:

“I have a dream.“ (48)

Martin Luther King was born on January 15th in 1929 in Atlanta, the capital of the state of Georgia. His mother worked as a teacher and his father was a Baptist parson. Martin Luther King was black and was already confronted with racial segregation when he was a child. Until the 60s, black people and white people had no equal rights in the US. There was racial segregation in public transport and public buildings, for example, there were separated schools, hotels and restaurants. There were separated signs for wite and coloured people in toilets, on benches and in waiting rooms. White people also had a better income and better living conditions. (B3, 10)

When Martin was young, he saw Ku Klux Clan members appearing at night frightening the black people. He saw how brutal the police treated the blacks and how unfair they were treated by court. He knew towns and villages, where they were even killed. When he was a little child, he played with two white children every day. One day he was said, they could not play with him any more. Even as a child, he already had the following opinion: racial segregation was not fair. (B3)

Martin Luther King was a good student and in 1944, he started to study sociology at Morehouse college. There, he read Thoreau´s essay “Resistance to Civil Government“. He was fascinated by the thinking of not to support a bad social system. When he entered the Crozer Theological seminary after competing his undergraduated work at morehouse in 1948, he started very intensive research. He wanted to know, how to fight social evils. He studied Aristoteles, Plato, Rosseau, Hobbes, Mill, Locke, and Rauschenbusch. He also read Karl Marx, but he did not like the idea of communism. In November 1949, he listened a lecture by J.A. Muste, that introduced him to pacifism. His doubts of the effecs of a resistance without violence were taken away, when he was explained the thesis of Mahatma Gandhi. He bought books about Gandhi´s life and his work. He also studied Niebuhr, who criticized pacifism, but Martin Luther King still believed in the efficience of peaceful resistance.(B3)

In September 1951, King finished his studies in theology. He went to Boston University, where he started to work on his dissertation, where he was encouraged in his pacifistic thinking by his teachers. In June 1953, Martin Luther King married his wife Coretta Scott. They had four children. Even before Martin Luther King received his Ph. D., he had started to work as parson in Montgomery. (B3, 10)

One of King´s first successes according to the fight against racial segregation was the Montgomery Bus Boycott. On December 5th Rosa Parks, an African American woman refused to give her bus seat to a white person. She was arrested. This led to a bus boycott. Some black people decided to boycott all the buses of Montgomery and they requested all black people to do that. The MIA, an organisation to improve racist relations was founded. Martin Luther King became its president and the leader of the boycott. After one year of resistane, arrests and even an attempt on setting fire on Martin Luther´s house, the black people won. The highest court of Alabama decided, that the bus-segregation was unconstitutional. (12)

In January 1957, King was elected president of Southern Christian Leadership Confernce, an organisation, that stands up for the black American rights. On January 27th, there was a second attempt on King´s parsonage. In the next years, he travelled around the south of the US, where he tried to convince people to stand up for civil rights peacefully but in an intransigent way. In 1957, he also wrote his first book: “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story“. A civil peaceful rights movement had come into being. In 1960, Martin Luther King quit his pastor´s post in Montgomery and moved to Atlanta, where he shared a parsonage with his father- now he had more time for the civil rights movement. After a sit-in he was arrested the 19th October 1960. He did not pay the bail, so he had to stay in prison. On October 25, King was ordered to four months of forced labour. He was brought to the Prison Reidsville, which belonged to the Ku Klux Clan. There were bad conditions. Three days later, John F. Kennedy, the Democrats´ presidential candidate, communicated with the judge, who had ordered King. A caution of 200 $ was paid and King was allowed to go home. (10, 14)

In August 1960, Kennedy was elected president. In December 1960, racial segregation in buses and on bus stopps was declared unlawful. In December 1961, Martin Luther King started to fight against racial segregation in Georgia. He was arrested more than once and he failed, so he left Atlanta in August 1962. In April and May 1963, King and the SCLC joined the Birmingham Campaign in Alabama. There were mass demonstrations for civil rights, led by the organisation. King was arrested. During his arrest, he wrote his famous letter “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“. During that time, there were bomb attacks which destroyed the SCLC headquarter and the house of Martin Luther King´s brother. On the 20th May , public segregation laws were declared unconstitutional. At Kennedy´s pressure, two black students were allowed to attend the College of Alabama in June 1963. (13)

August 28th 1963, there was the date of a famous event: the “March on Washington“. 250000 people assembled in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where they claimed the end of racial discrimmination. The climax was King´s famous speech “I have a dream“. In fact, the march on Washington is seen as one of the climaxes of the civil rights movement in the US. In May 1964, King was arrested when he attended civil rights protests in Augustine, Florida. On 2nd July 1964, President Lyndon B. (Kennedy had been shot) signed the Civil Rights act of 1964 in the presence of King, which forbid racial segregation in all areas of public life. On 10th december 1964, King got the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. There he delivered a speech: “We shall overcome“. The 2nd February 1965, was the day of the beginning of the protests to assert the blacks´ voting rights led by the SCLC and Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. There were mass arrests. King was set free for a bail. On 9th February, King met president Johnson to talk about the blacks´ voting rights. On 15th March 1965, Johnson had a speech in front of Congress, where he approved a new voting rights law to protect black voters. The 21st March 1965 was the day of the beginning of a 5 day protest march from Selma to Montgomery. The participants are protected by federal troops. On March 25, there was a big declaration. On 30th March, a congress to examine the Ku Klux Clan´s crimes started after a severe conviction of the Ku Klux Clan through Johnson. On 6th August 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act forbids the discrimination against black voters (or against other minorities). Federal agents were applied to protect black voting rights. Nevertheless, there were many race riots in bigger cities like Chicago or Detroit in 1965/66. In January, King began his “Open Housing Campaign“. He moved to a rundown apartment in a black ghetto to show his solidarity. On 12th March 1966, King asked president Johnson to improve the blacks´ situation in cities through government measures. On 6th June 1966, the March Against Fear took place. In August 1966, an ascendment for the black peoples´ right for a better housing situation was signed. On 7th November 1967, the first black mayor of an American city was elected. King had reached many of his goals.(13)

But it came to a tragical end: on 4th April 1968, King was shot. In June, James Earl Ray was arrested. He confessed to the crime. Without any lawsuit, he was convicted to 99 years of imprisonment. About 100.000 people attended King´s funeral. More than 120 million people tracked it on television. On 11th April 1968, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was adopted. It strictly forbids racial discrimination in letting of flats and in real estate business. -King had asked for it since 1966. In October 1983, King´s birthday was designated as a national holiday. (13)

For King, the American Dream wasn´t a dream of his individual success or money. For him, it was a dream of freedom and equal rights for black people, who were once badly discriminated in his own motherland. Martin Luther King had a goal: equal rights for black people. Through peaceful demonstrations and through speeches he risked imprisonment, even his own life. But: he worked hard and fought for his goal. At least he managed to reach many equal rights for black people. He made his American Dream come true.

2.2. Chris Gardner:

Christopher Paul Gardner was born on 9th February 1954 in Milwaukee, the biggest city of Wisconsin in the US. He grew up with his poor mother, his sister and his alcoholic, abusive stepfather, Freddie Triplett, who often beat him and also his mother. When the mother was incarcerated (it happened twice), Chris and his sister were brought to foster homes or to relatives. But his mother also inspired her son. She made him believe in himself and be aware of his unlimited potential.(15, 16, 17, B4)

Christopher was a good student. After school, he joined the Navy where he was trained to be a paramedic. In 1974 he moved to San Francisco and started to work as a laboratory assistant to a heart sugeon. In 1977, he married his wife Sherry Dyson. After an affair with Jackie Medina a dentristy student, she became pregnant. Gardner left Sherry and moved in with Medina. Their son Christopher Jr. was born in 1981.

Chris Gardner started to work as a medical supply salesman. In that time, he had a pivotal event of his life: he saw a red Ferrari, driven by a well-dressed man, who looked for a parking space. Gardner offered him his own parking space, in exchange for being answered the following questions: “ What do you do and how do you do it?“ The man was a stockbroker. He earned 80.000 $ per month and since that moment, Chris Gardner knew, he wanted a job in the financial field and the well dressed man also arranged contacts with different brokerage firms for Gardner, who quit his sales job, when he was offered a position in a stockbroker firm. Sadly, the man who had hired Gardner, had lost his own job just before Gardner could start to work there.(15, 16, 17, B4)

When Jackie Medina and Chris Gardner had a fight, Medina called the police. Chris was arrested because of debts in parking fine and he had to stay in a country jail for ten days. When he came back to his apartment, it was empty. Medina had taken his son. The next morning, Gardner had an appointment for an interview at the Dean Writer Reynolds house, where he got a six-months traineeship. After four months, Jackie Medina appeared and handed their son over. (15, 16, 17, B4)

The boarding house, where Gardner lived did not allow children and he had not enough income for an apartment, so he and his son were homeless. They slept in cheap hotels, in the park, under Gardners own desk and in public toilets. His colleagues did not know anything about Christopher Gardners situation. He seemed to be a normal colleque every day, but at night he had to fight for him and his son to simply survive. Finally he asked the pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church to let him stay in the church´s shelter for homeless women. This was the first step to a better life, but father and son were still dependent from other people and their rules.

At least, Gardner passed his licensing exam and he was the only one in his training program, being offered a permanent position at Dean Writer Reynolds. After some months, he had enough money for an apartment for himself and Christopher Jr., who was two and a half years old at that time. (15, 16, 17, B4)

In 1983, Chris Gardner left Dean Writer for a job with Bear, Stearns & Company, where he became one of the firm´s top earners. During that time, Medina visited Chris Gardner and their son. She and Christoper Gardner Sr. had conceived their second child, Jancintha Gardner, who was born in 1985. Chris Jr. spent some time in Los Angeles, where he lived with his mother and his sister, while his father had a job at Bear Steans Wall Street Office in New York. After two years, Chris Sr. took custody of his children and they moved to Chicago. In Chicago, Gardner opened his own brokerage firm, named “Gardner Rich and Company“. He had become a millionaire. (15, 16, 17, B4)

Now he supports many charitable organisations and also the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, where he and his son once found shelter when they were homeless. He got some honors, for example the Humanitarian Award. He was also father of the year in 2002. He had become an acknowledged public speaker. His experiences send messages “about breaking destructive cycles, commitment to parenting, and achieving goals through perseverance.“ ( Contemporary Black Biography/ January 2008/ Gardner, Chris) The stockbroker has written a book about his life: “The Pursuit of Happiness“. The story of his life, which has been put into a movie, has reached millions of people. (15, 16, 17, B4)

Chris Gardner has made his American Dream come true. He grew up in bad living conditions and poverty. He lost his wife and was homeless. But he had a dream. A dream of a better job and a better life with wealth success and safety. He fought, he worked hard and at least he reached his goal.

3. How could the American Dream have developed?

3.1. Foundation myths :

Even before its discovery, America was already invented. People believed , that there would be a new and better world in the west. This belief was often a justification for the European conquerors´ and explorers´ ventures as well. In their opinion, the civilisation progress would follow the sun´s way from east to west. The discovery of America should open a new chapter in human history of civilisation. When the Europeans finally discovered and settled America it was formed like their imagination. The Native American were the “wild ones“, who should be missionated. The forests were “the wilderness“. And the wide untouched landscape was the Garden of Eden. The Europeans´ imaginations were often forced on the continent violently. Some of these ideas became national myths that influence the Americans´ self-image even today. The American foundation myths all tried to explain the developement of the specific American identity and its characteristics. The Puritans for example believed in an analogy of crossing the Atlantic Ocean to go to America and the move-out of the peoples of Israel from Egypt imprisionment to the Holy Land. The result of that belief was the thinking, that the settlement of America would be part of a God´s plan and that the settlers would be the “chosen people“. The agrarian -pastoral myth contained the imagination of a new Garden of Eden without dependence, European decadence and moral corruption. All men should exist as independent, autonomous individuals. There was also a myth of success, that contained, that everyone could manage a social ascend, independent from frontiers between social clases. There was a myth of the chance of an individual rebirth in America. In people´s minds, there could be a free system without civilizing force. Different people from different countries and different ethnic backgrounds could live together and next together in a so-called “ melting pot“. In people´s imaginations, America was a refuge for all people, who were persecuted in their home countries. All these immaginations added to the American Dream as a promise of individual self realization, irrespective of ethnic background, birth and position in life. (18)



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The American Dream. Background and development
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American Dream, Declaration of Independence, Legal and illegal immigration to the US in the past and now, MLK, Chris Gardner, Myth and reality, Foundation myths
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Carolina Bricks (Author), 2015, The American Dream. Background and development, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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