What Is the American Dream? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 Ideology and Mythology
  • 0:55 Enlightenment,…
  • 1:40 19th Century American Dream
  • 3:49 20th Century American Dream
  • 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will explore the concept of the American Dream. We'll explore the ideological content of this idea and the criticisms of it which have been articulated throughout the course of American history.

Ideology and Mythology

The American Dream is an ever evolving mythology that asserts the possibility of freedom, prosperity, and class mobility to any American who is brave and industrious. The images and ideas surrounding the American Dream have deep roots in the American Revolution and Westward expansion. It's been asserted since at the earliest days of the European colonization of North American that the new continent was somehow a new Eden, or a model for a new, better world. The American Dream is a profoundly optimistic and idealistic conception of American life that hopes to transcend the class-based hierarchies of old European society. The mythology of the American Dream has frequently come into conflict with the reality of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, and the poverty that many European immigrants experienced upon arrival in America.

Enlightenment, Democracy, Idealism

The American Dream is largely a product of the optimism inherent in the American Revolution. Figures, like Benjamin Franklin, stressed the importance of thrift, hard work, and diligence; if such virtues were followed, then anyone could become prosperous and successful.

The Declaration of Independence, drafted in 1776, states, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . .' This famous phrase serves as the basis for the American Dream: the notion that chances of birth or class status are irrelevant in American life. The paradox is, of course, that African-Americans, Native American, and women, among others, were either implicitly or explicitly excluded from this statement when it was written.

19th Century American Dream

The 19th century saw large numbers of immigrants arrive in the United States from Europe and the British Isles. Cities, like Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia, absorbed huge numbers of European immigrants hoping for a better life. What they often found in their new homes was poverty, tenement housing, and marginalization.

As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the gap between the haves and the have-nots became ever more apparent. In certain respects, the wild, extravagant wealth of the new industrialists served to reinforce the ideology of the American Dream. In other respects, it caused many working class people who did not reap the benefits of industrialization to become disillusioned with the American Dream.

In the post-Civil War period, a popular series of pulp novels written by Horatio Alger, Jr. articulated the 'rags-to-riches' mythology of the American Dream for a whole generation of working class boys. In Alger's stories, scrappy working class lads won their way into wealth and prosperity through adventure, hard work, and virtue. Although very popular during the second half of the 19th century, Alger's stories were far from representative of the working class experience in America.

The California Gold Rush and the move towards westward expansion provided another important dimension of the American Dream. Stories of adventurous gold seekers striking it rich in California and becoming fabulously wealthy overnight fueled the American Dream mythology.

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