European settlers came to North America in hopes of a new life full of opportunities. Their expectations manifested themselves in the idea of the American Dream, which proclaimed that success could be achieved by anyone through hard work in a society based on democratic principles. First established in the American Declaration of Independence, the concept has undergone significant changes throughout the centuries. During the exploration of the continent and the development of the United States, it became clear that the idea of equal opportunities was only seen as applicable to the white male population. Native Americans, African Americans, and women were seen as inferior groups and suffered oppression and discrimination while the white majority strived to pursue their ambitions. The purpose of this paper is to explore the concept of the American Dream and discuss how Americans of European descent utilized the land and labor of others to realize it.
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The Idea of the American Dream
The American Dream is the national belief of the United States that everyone, regardless of their wealth and background, can attain success in a society where upward mobility is possible. The term was introduced by writer and historian James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book Epic of America. He denoted it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability and achievement.” The roots of the concept are traced back to the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is thought to encompass the ideals of democracy, liberty, equality, and opportunity.
As the continent was explored, and the country developed, the concept was transformed to include the ideas of capitalism. The settlers’ strive for political, economic, and personal freedoms gave way to the lure of the westward expansion of their lands. When gold was discovered, the dream of financial prosperity came to the foreground. In the 19th century, hundreds and thousands of settlers moved to the west, driven by the belief that they could make a fortune overnight. The American Dream of that time was marked by heightened individualism and self-interest. The promises of America included prosperity, democracy, equality, land, abundance, progress, opportunity, freedom, and independence. Economic growth also facilitated the concept, making people believe that each next generation would be wealthier than the previous one.
Native Americans and the American Dream
Native Americans were the first to suffer in the settlers’ pursuit of the American Dream. As they moved further to the west, the native tribes were forced to abandon their lands, while the Europeans struggled to profit from their investments in the supposedly “booming” frontier. They saw themselves as rightful owners of the lands that they conquered and set off genocidal wars to claim what they believed was theirs. The native population was regarded as a hindrance to prosperity and, in a series of wars, was forced to move further westward, eliminated, and confined to reservations.
The Native Americans have never been seen as equals by the European population, and, for centuries, had to either live in reservations or assimilate into society, abandoning their culture and way of life. In 1969, the island of Alcatraz was occupied by American Indians who demanded that is should be returned to the Indians who once inhabited it and converted into a reservation. They offered to pay $24 for the land, for which it was bought from the Indians by the settlers. In their claim, they stressed out the unjustness of the acquisition and claimed that “it would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate, would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation.” This incident provides an illustration of the role of the Native Americans in the exploration of the continent and their current position in American society. In pursuit of the American Dream, settlers forced the Indian tribes out of their lands, claimed their territories by force, and destroyed their culture and way of life.
Slavery and the American Dream
The concept of the American Dream proclaimed equal rights for all. However, the position of the black population has never been close to that of free white settlers, even after slavery was abolished in 1865. Though free, most southern black Americans continued to live in poverty and were forced by economic necessity to rent land from their former white owners. With some rights granted to them, including the right to marry, own property, and sue in court, the brutalities of white race prejudice persisted, and former slaves have never been compensated for their enslavement. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that the black population started to gradually gain the rights, opportunities, and responsibilities of full citizenship.
For decades, black people had to fight to establish their rights as citizens eligible to pursue the American Dream. In 1901, black educator Booker T. Washington wrote, “the wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than an artificial forcing.” For black people, the struggle for civil rights has always been accompanied by attempts to prove their abilities to exercise them. Segregation has never been a separation of equals, with the white population exploiting the black population to pursue their financial and social goals.
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Women and the American Dream
For a long time in history, women have not been active participants of social and political life. While husbands were out in public fighting for their place under the sun, wives had to manage the household. Their role was complementary, and the most valued characteristics of a woman were thought to be piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Women maintained order at home in return for their husbands’ protection, financial security, and social status. The American Dream was a purely masculine concept that women had no means to pursue.
The situation started to change in the second half of the 19th century when the women’s rights movement was organized. In 1868, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a social activist and the leading figure of the early American women’s rights movement, began publishing a weekly periodical, The Revolution, with editorials focused on a wide array of women’s issues. She wrote, “To what a depth of degradation must the women of this nation have fallen to be willing to stand aside while all the lower stratas of manhood are to legislate in their interests, political, religious, educational, social and sanitary, molding to their untutored will the institutions of a mighty continent…” The possession of private property was one of the most important aspects of the American Dream, and even in this regard, the position of women was inferior. For a long time, they retained almost no control over their property and had to rely on their husbands to take care of their assets. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that women gained their rights to have and manage their own property, followed by the right to vote, work and receive higher education on the same terms as men.
The American Dream was initially established on the principles of equality and independence. European settlers came to America in search of new opportunities, wealth, and freedoms, and started their life on the continent with the hopes of building a democratic society. However, as the exploration moved westwards, the initial dreams developed a more capitalistic approach. The native Indian tribes were forced to abandon their lands to give way to the settlers, African Americans were made to serve the European population, and women were deprived of their property rights. For a century, the concept of the American Dream was applicable only to the white male population, and it was only at the beginning of the 20th century when things started to change. The strive for financial success, lands, power, and individual wealth made settlers abandon their democratic ideals and oppress the groups of population that had less power and opportunities to defend their interests.
Adamas, James Truslow. 2012. Epic of America. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.
Cobbs, Elizabeth, and Edward J. Blum, eds. 2017. Major Problems in American History. Volume II: Since 1865. 4th Edition. Boston: Cengage Learning.
Washington, George, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, et al. 2018. Declaration of Independence & U.S. Constitution. Prague: e-artnow.