The concept of the American Dream is known globally as the idea of an ideal life for a person who has everything they need: material wealth, family, democratic rights, and respect in society. As the primary sources demonstrate, this idea was formed during the early days of the United States; however, elements of this concept developed and evolved depending on the era’s characteristics. This paper will explore the similar and distinctive features of the American Dream, drawing on primary sources created by Lincoln, Franklin, and de Crevecoeur to highlight the differences between the eras and the development of society.
Benjamin Franklin’s essay “The Way to Wealth”, written in 1758, is considered one of the earliest formulated ideas for the American Dream. Although the author does not speak of wealth as the American dream, all the ideas described in the essay represent this concept. The author’s main idea is that any American who works honestly, does not spend money irrationally, and does not have debts can achieve wealth and respect in society (Franklin).
These principles, underlying the American Dream, primarily characterize the American identity before independence, during the period of the rapid development of the American national idea. For example, the essay begins with Franklin talking to ordinary Americans who are worried about high taxes depriving them of a significant portion of their income (Franklin). High taxes were one of the main reasons for the protests and uprisings that triggered the War of Independence; therefore, this passage characterizes the peculiarity of the era.
Moreover, Franklin says that people should only buy necessities because unnecessary spending leads them to poverty. At the same time, waste in this context is an extra change of underwear or dress, which is considered a necessity currently. The author also talks about the power of creditors over people who have the right to deprive them of all things and even freedom, which shows the prevalence of such a practice (Franklin).
Such legislation and the need for measures described by Franklin demonstrate that most of the inhabitants of the New World were constrained by the rules of the metropolis and lived in poverty. However, they were also aspired to the freedoms and prosperity that would guarantee their rights. Hence, in general, Franklin’s American dream is similar to the modern concept by such goals as wealth, freedom, and security. However, the ideas of wealth and freedom had a different meaning, since the goal of most people was to satisfy their basic needs.
Another primary source that describes the American Dream and society is “What is America?” by Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur. This essay was published after the proclamation of US independence and demonstrated some changes in the American dream’s ideals. The essay’s central idea is the social equality of a newly formed country, which differs from the obsolete order of Europe (De Crevecoeur). De Crevecoeur repeatedly emphasizes that the new democratic USA is better than the outdated Europe, where power and money belong to aristocrats, and ordinary people die in poverty. In the United States, according to De Crevecoeur, everyone is equal, has lands and the ability to use them freely, as well as a democracy to choose their rulers and laws.
The author also describes another feature of the era, namely the gradual development of industry, which later will allow the United States to increase its wealth. In addition, De Crevecoeur says that the United States is a multinational country in which settlers from different European countries have found their place. Consequently, these ideas demonstrate that while material wealth is still central to the American Dream, it is a consequence of the equality, freedoms, and democracy required to realize it. This fact demonstrates the peculiarity of American society after the declaration of independence, which was inspired by the idea of creating a prosperous country of democracy.
However, an interesting feature of De Crevecoeur’s work is that the author speaks only part of the truth when talking about economic and social equality. During that period, Native Americans and the people of color suffered abuse, discrimination, and violence as they were driven from their lands and used as slaves.
Even when talking about the emergence of people in the United States, De Crevecoeur talks about Europeans such as the British, Scots, Irish, French, Germans, and Dutch. At the same time, the author does not mention the indigenous inhabitants of the lands or black people, since they were slaves or practically powerless people on their grounds. Thus, this fragment characterizes the peculiarity of the era, which manifests itself by the construction of a democratic country in parallel with the flourishing of violence and the disregard for the rights of people of color.
Abraham Lincoln was the first person who included the equality of all people in the concept of the American Dream in his speech on slavery and the American Dream in 1858. In his speech, Lincoln spoke about the rights of people to freedom, stating: «The most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged” (par. 1). For this reason, Lincoln argued that an essential step towards the success of the United States and the American Dream is recognizing the equal rights of all men, which is critical for development and change.
This vision characterizes the features of the era and the beginning of the struggle against slavery as the next step in forming American democracy. This fact also demonstrates that although the idea of the American Dream has not changed in its basis, it has included new details. Just like in Franklin’s time, Lincoln’s American Dream meant material wealth and respect for the rights and freedoms of people. However, in this context, the rights of all people, regardless of their race, were recognized, which was a key shift in the history of the United States.
In conclusion, an analysis of the three primary sources demonstrates that all authors had a similar view of the American Dream as a state of wealth and respect for human freedoms. However, depending on the era and the development of society, the concept of wealth, human rights, and the categories of people to whom they belong were significantly different. During Franklin’s time, the main goal of the population was to limit the power of the metropolis, which would allow the American people to develop and overcome poverty.
In De Crevecoeur’s understanding, the independent USA was a society of common prosperity and equality, in which everyone could find a comfortable and happy life, and the nation could achieve prosperity. However, this society did not take into account the rights of slaves and indigenous people. For this reason, Lincoln’s American Dream concept added equality of all people and the freedom to exercise their own human and political rights regardless of race. These details show the gradual development of American democracy and the American Dream, which is shaping into a version familiar to the modern world.