The Myth of the American Dream. Dream or Nightmare?

Academic Paper, 2019

14 Pages, Grade: 1,9


Table of Content

1. The American Dream - An Introduction

2. The American Dream - A History of Origins
2.1. The Brave New World - A Mythical Dream
2.2 The Holy Commonwealth - A Religious Dream
2.3 Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness - A Political Dream

3. The Fundamental Elements of the American Dream
3.1. Freedom and Equality
3.2. Melting pot

4. Dream or Nightmare? Conclusion and Outlook Works Cited

1. The American Dream — An Introduction

Even though the term ‘The American Dream’ became a well-known saying describing an assumed very specific phenomenon, its meaning is as vague as it is ambivalent. It is, nevertheless, a crucial part of the American national identity and a symbol of a nation’s self-conception. One could argue that Thomas Jefferson already lay the foundation of the most famous myth of all time by declaring “these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent,” and are thus entitled to “preservation of life, & liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Jefferson 243).

More than a century later, James Truslow Adams rewrote Jefferson’s words in his novel The Epic of America by saying, “The American dream, the dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement." (Adams 404). While Adams focused on the hope for a better and happier future for everyone, regardless of their social, ethnical or religious decent, Richard Nixon stressed the material aspect in his First Inaugural Address in 1969, by defining "full employment, better housing, excellence in education; in rebuilding our cities and improving our rural areas; in protecting our environment and enhancing the quality of life" (Lawler and Schaefer 84) as key elements of the American Dream. Martin Luther King dreamed of freedom and equality for all American citizens and that they ”will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” (King qtd. in Kirck 82) and two decades later, during his First Inaugural Address in 1981, Ronald Reagan reminded his people of their uniqueness as "too great a nation to limit (them)selves to small dreams." (Reagan qtd. in Grafton 109)

Although often merely political calculation during election campaigns, those previously mentioned variations of the most famous dreams of all times illustrate two things; On the one hand that each generation interprets the American Dream in its very own way, and on the other hand, it’s fundamental value for the American society. This essay will therefor focus on the origin of the American Dream and its key elements on the one hand, and try to prove its veracity on the other hand.

2. The American Dream — A History of Origins

As mentioned before, it can be rather difficult to define the American Dream; it is, nevertheless, possible to take a closer look into certain components of its history of origins. Therefore, this chapter will deal with three different aspects of the American Dream as we know it today and will analyze their impact on the most famous dream of all times; the mythical, the religious, and the political vision.

2.1. The Brave New World — A Mythical Dream

The mythical conception of the American Dream focusses on America being the country of recommencement, endless opportunities and an El Dorado of abundance and riches. This conception is fundamentally coined by an European body of thought and replicated in visions such as the island Atlantis or Utopia.

America’s glorification as the ‘brave new world’ and as a second paradise on earth has always been promoted in promising messages from the New World. Christoph Columbus compared the country in his accounts of his journey as “earthly paradise” and Captain John Smith, in American folklore romanticized as Pocahontas’s lover, portrayed Virginia not only as a “fruitful and delightful land”, but also as a place where “heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation." Sir William Penn, founder of the English North American colony the Province of Pennsylvania advertised, “The air is sweet and clear, the heavens serene, like the south parts of France.” (Penn 73) When the founder of the British colony of Merrymount, Thomas Morton, first arrived in America, he wrote, “ I did not think that in all the knowne world it could be paralleled . . . . in my eye t'was nature's Masterpiece; her chiefest magazine of all where lives her store: if this land be not rich, then is the whole world poor.” (Morton 54)

However, there were critical descriptions on diseases, misery and death as well, those negative reports were extensively ignored due to mainly two reasons; On the one hand, the discovery of a new, in most parts unsettled and, from a European view, uncivilized continent, sparked a thitherto unique possessive mentality. Of course America hadn’t been the first country, which confronted the Europeans with cultural differences, but, according to Greene, this time they didn’t only take the role of a bystander or a visitor, but rather the status of a discoverer and, therefore, of a conqueror. (11)

On the other hand, most of the first settlers hadn’t left Europe voluntarily, but to flee poverty, hunger, war or religious and political persecution. The ‘New World’ became a safe haven and due to the settlers’ gratitude for a new beginning, it became apotheosized.

Being over-pleased with their Profits, and finding all Things there entirely new, and surprising; they gave a very advantageous Account of Matters; by representing the Country so delightful, and desirable; so pleasant, and plentiful; the Climate, and Air, so temperate, sweet, and wholsome; the Woods, and Soil, so charming, and fruitful; and all other Things so agreeable, that Paradice itself seem'd to be there, in its first Native Lustre. (Beverly 262)

Over the following decades, those depictions of an innocent and pastoral country, which was the precise opposite of urbanized and decadent Europe, caused millions of refugees to dare the step into the unknown and to take fortune into their own hands. With the immigrant came the wish for religious, political and economic freedom to America, which later on should become the religious and sociopolitical conceptualizations of the American Dream.

2.2 The Holy Commonwealth - A Religious Dream

While the mystic idea of the brave new world mainly attracted voluntary adventurer during the 16th century, the 17th century was mainly affected by the arrival of persecuted Puritans, who fled from oppression and hoped for a country in which they could freely live in peace.

Puritanism was a theological movement of reform and protest within the English Protestantism. Ascending during the second half of the 16th century, the movement called for a liturgical and moral reformation to “purify” the church according to their Calvinistic maxims. Based on the conviction that the Holy Scripture held a binding social order for the living together of all humans, they disapproved of all forms of religious acts that couldn’t be justified by the bible and demanded a return to “pure belief”.

Since the English queens and kings were not only the head of state, but also the head of church, all criticism of the church was equated with an attack against the crown itself; in 1593 the ‘Act Against Puritans’ was decreed and the persecution of Puritans, and all alleged Puritans, began. The act declared that “any person or persons above the age of sixteen years, which shall obstinately refuse to repair to some church, chapel, or usual place of common prayer, to hear divine service” and that anyone who “advisedly and maliciously move or persuade any other person whatsoever to forbear or abstain from coming to church to hear divine service, or to receive the communion according to her majesty's laws” (Bettenson and Maunder 89) was to be punished.

Due to the rise of such persecution Puritans fled to New England in 1620, where they first founded the ‘Plymouth Colony’, followed by ‘Massachusetts Bay’ in 1630 and further settlements in the Connecticut Valley, as well as ‘New Haven’ and ‘Providence’. Those who were among the ‘Great Puritan Migration’ had given up on reforming the Church of England and hoped for an opportunity to install a “Model of Christian Charity”, as an archetype for humanity. “We must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, (and that) the eyes of all people are upon us." (Winthrop 41), wrote John Winthrop on board the Mayflower in 1630.

Following the prophecies of Jesaja and the Revelation to John the Puritans understood themselves to be the chosen people, which god had sent across the Atlantic Ocean to found a new Holy Country and ,according to Rodgers, thereby lay the foundation of the idea of the American people as such being the chosen people. (77)

In this respect, one can argue that the Puritans did not only influence the religious aspects of everyday life in America, but rather shaped the American self­conception; even in modern times, this puritan idea of being chosen can be found in concepts such as the ‘Manifest Destiny’, which focuses on “the virtue of the American people and their institutions” and “the mission to spread these institutions, thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the United States” and last but not least “the destiny under God to do this work.” (Weeks 61)

2.3 Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness - A Political Dream

The sociopolitical version of the American Dream believed in the possibility to leave the tyrannical and despotic conditions of the old world behind, and to create a free and democratic country based on the ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity. On the basis of the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition and the body of thought of the 16th century’s Enlightenment, this ideal of freedom reached its apex in the Declaration of Independence of the United States in 1776.

In the preamble inspired by John Locke, the inalienable rights for “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were first proclaimed; Furthermore, the Declaration declares that “these (...) self-evident” truths, “that all men are created equal”, and, “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. (US 1776)

In combination with the Constitution of 1787 and its Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence further guarantees certain enforceable fundamental rights and a free and democratic free government under the law. Hence, the United States of America was the first country to grant the rights of self-determination and autonomy to its entire people, irrespective of their status. Therefore the Declaration of Independence does not only symbolize the birth of a nation, but also the revaluation of the individual.

This revaluation of the individual is especially portrayed in the pursuit of the individual of material and immaterial self-realization. Till this day, the pursuit of happiness and the associated promise of living life free from governmental, religious, and social interference is a principal hold dear in the American identity.

The combination of a strong belief in the universal right of freedom and equality on the one hand, and a just as strong belief in democracy on the other hand, the idea of unhindered self-fulfillment is a crucial constituent of the American Dream and therefor adds a sociopolitical dimension to the previously mentioned mystical and religious components.


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The Myth of the American Dream. Dream or Nightmare?
Technical University of Braunschweig
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myth, american, dream, nightmare
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Kristina von Kölln (Author), 2019, The Myth of the American Dream. Dream or Nightmare?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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