The American Dream is commonly known as the national character of the United States -- a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work.
What is the foundation of the dream that Americans have the ability, through participation in the society and the economy, to achieve a richer and fuller life? Rooted in the New World mystique regarding frontier life, the American Dream owes much to the Founding Fathers.
The authors of the United States’ Declaration of Independence held "certain 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." Of course, the builders of the nation knew this liberty depended upon gaining freedom from England and establishing commerce with the European States.
The Empire of Liberty, a theme developed first by Thomas Jefferson, identified America's world responsibility to spread freedom across the globe. Jefferson saw America's mission in terms of setting an example of human rights to all nations and pursuing expansion into the west (which he accomplished during his presidency with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from the French). He believed that America must stop the growth of the British empire and even include Canada in the American confederacy.
With independence, expansion, and freedom, colonial Americans could pursue the boundless possibilities for success and happiness afforded by the bounties of the New World. It seems the American Dream was fated to include a hunger for wealth and a mission based on the beliefs of Manifest Destiny, the idea that God had a direct influence in the foundation and further actions of the United States.
As history will attest, the pursuit of Manifest Destiny by pioneers and politicians had negative consequences for native populations during the time of Western expansion. Racism was used to promote Manifest Destiny and give reason to expel prior inhabitants. It led to the occupation and annexation of Native American Indian land, sometimes to expand slavery. It propelled America into the Oregon boundary dispute with Britain. And, Manifest Destiny played an important role in the expansion of Texas and the American relationship with Mexico. The Mexican Cession eventually added the territories of Alta California and Nuevo México to the United States.
Since early American history, the meaning of the American dream has retained its reference to the ideal of affording a good life to each inhabitant of the United States. In the 20th century, James Truslow Adams, in his book The Epic of America (1931), stated that the American dream is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement."
Adams continues, "It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." (James T. Adams, The Epic of America, 1931)
The Status of the American Dream Today
Today, most people equate the American dream exclusively with material gain. -- things such as buying a big house, driving an expensive automobile, and making a lot of money. It is a hedonistic view having little or nothing to do with liberty or equality. These days many more people are concerned with the attainment of things than with the maintenance of principles.
Many believe this materialistic hedonism is a sign of moral decay that is causing a loss of freedom. They say that material gain is only a fruit of freedom, not its root. Solid spiritual and political principles, once vital aspects of the American Dream, are crumbling due to a general loss of trust and interest.
According to a survey by the National League of Cities (NLC) the following is true of today's vision of the American Dream:
Two-thirds of the American people say the American Dream is becoming harder to achieve, especially for young families, and they point to financial insecurity and poor quality public education as the most significant barriers. (Robert Longley, "Two Thirds Feel American Dream Harder to Achieve," National League of Cities, October 1 2001)
* Financial stability (24%) is the most frequently cited characteristic of living the American Dream.
* Caucasian (27%) and Hispanic (29%) adults cite poor quality of education as the main barrier.
* African-Americans are more likely to report racial or ethnic discrimination as the main obstacle (28%).
* Among older respondents, enjoying good health was a critical factor, with 24 percent of those over 65 believing this defines the American Dream for them.
Although Americans remain optimistic, significant numbers of older Americans, women, single parents, minorities and blue-collar workers believe the American Dream is out of their reach.
* Almost twice as many single parents (52%) as married parents (27%) report they are not living the American Dream.
Many believe their living conditions affect their ability to live the American Dream.
* Adults living in urban cities (39%) are more likely to believe than suburbanites (19%) that where they live has affected their ability to achieve the American Dream.
* More than half of renters (52%) and 28% of home owners find they are not living the American Dream.
Large percentages of minorities believe they are not living the American Dream.
* 53% of African-Americans said they are not living the American Dream;
* 36% of Hispanics and 32% of Caucasians have the same view.
Large numbers of people believe the government should help them achieve the American Dream.
* Since 2001, there has been an 11 percent increase in the number of Americans who say the government is more of a hindrance than a help.
* A solid majority of all Americans (72%) believe that the government should actively work to help people achieve the American Dream. This is particularly true of young people (90% of 18 to 22-year-olds agree).
* Almost half (45%) believe the government has done more to hinder their pursuit of the American Dream than help, up from 34% in 2001.
* Eighty-five percent say that local, state and federal government must work together to give people a fair shot at achieving the American Dream.
From the statistics by the NLC, most people believe being financially stable would give them the American Dream. Specifically, Caucasians and Hispanics say the poor quality of education hinders them most while Afro-Americans say most of them can't achieve due to racial or ethnic discrimination.
All of these people overwhelmingly believe the local, state, and federal government should work much harder to help them achieve this stability.
Variable detriments to achieving the dream include being single and renting in an urban environment.
To me, no one is confessing to their own lack of initiative. Neither are people claiming responsibility for their financial problems or for their own limited educations. Instead, they are waiting on the government to intervene and provide them with the means to achieve their American Dreams.
I do believe the idealistic vision of the American dream often disregards discrimination based on a person's race, religion, gender and national origin, which might inhibit his or her ability to achieve specific goals. However, does prosperity equate with happiness? To some people, the American Dream might be more about personal fulfillment than about economic success or owning property.
Yet, absolutely, people won't achieve the American Dream by dreaming. They will achieve it by doing. Successful people don't get to where they want to go by walking around with their heads in the clouds. They get there by putting one foot in front of the other and getting stuff done.
Steve Tobak of CBS Money Watch ("You Won't Achieve the American Dream by Dreaming," November 22 2011) says they achieved for one of these four reasons:
* Because it was their job and they had a strong work ethic,
* Out of necessity to put food on the table,
* To bring a product to market they thought customers would want, or
* They had a passion for what they were doing and thought it was cool.
Too many feel a sense of entitlement just because they were born in America. Early years in a little dead-end work is not a waste of time. And, of course, neither is investing in higher education. Getting actual work experience or going to college is better than spending time sitting on the couch, jobless, finding out who the welfare moms’ babies’ daddies are on “Maury.”
Tobak says, "You get there by delivering the goods, getting the job done, and satisfying the needs of your customer." Here are some notable examples he offers:
"When Mark Zuckerberg was developing Facebook, he was building something he thought would be cool. He wasn't thinking about running a big company and becoming a billionaire.
Bill Gates did not have stars in his eyes when he licensed an operating system to IBM for the first personal computer. He was just trying to satisfy a big new customer.
Fred Smith was not driven by the idea that FedEx would someday become an everyday verb for express mail. He was driven by the idea of a fully integrated air-to-ground shipping business that could operate efficiently using hubs.
In 1927, not only were Dick and Mac McDonald not trying to create the world's first and ultimately its biggest fast food empire, McDonald's, it took 21 years for them to realize they should be focusing on burgers instead of hot dogs.
Kraft Foods started with James L. Kraft selling cheese door-to-door. Toyota founder Sakichi Toyoda made looms. Sony started out as a radio repair shop in Tokyo. Nokia was a paper."
The bottom line is that the American Dream is about opportunity, not about entitlement. Even in these dismal economic times no one is going to pull you out of poverty or pull you out of misery but yourself. If you believe the American Dream is only about money and possessions, I believe you contribute to the loss of American liberty because you care more for class than for human worth. Nothing is more important to all Americans than to have the freedom and liberty to choose their own station in life and to pursue their own vision of happiness, no matter the contents of their dream.
And, the obligation for all is to keep this opportunity secure for every human, no matter his or her wealth.