When Columbus landed in the West Indies and thought he had reached Asia, it seemed to be the fulfillment of man's dream of boundlessness. The next four centuries the American Dream developed. The riches of the East were at hand in the West, and the hope of fulfillment lay in the gardenlike newness of the land. Out of the dreams of empire and out of the Puritan hope of a future time of great happiness and prosperity for everyone (millenium) developed the American Dream. One source of the great vision was the dream of empire. By the middle of the seventeenth century this dream was the dream of an independent American empire and it formed the common man's own dream of empire: personal advancement and escape from Europe. At first the economic motive was dominant. But mixed with it was the hope of a better and freer life. By about 1750 the colonists who found themselves disadvantaged along the seaboard settlements drove westward, seeking prosperity, social esteem, and self-realization.
In this first real frontier in America, the ideal of equality seemed natural enough to settlers whose poverty leveled them. Class distinctions were minimized, if not entirely non-existent. Individualism became the dominant factor and found its expression in the acquisition of personal property. The settlers also had a vision of freedom, in the sense of relief from exploitation by superiors.
In such a setting of plenty, novelty, and limitless possibilities it was natural to compare the American to the first Adam and the setting to the Garden of Eden. [.......]
Americans place a very high valuation upon success. Success does not necessarily mean material rewards, but recognition of some sort - preferably measurable.
A good many things contributed to this accent on success. There was the Puritan belief in the virtue of work, both for its own sake and because the rewards it brought were regarded as signs of God's love. There was the richness of opportunity in a land waiting to be settled. There was the lack of a settled society with fixed ranks and classes, so that a man was certain to rise through achievement. Such a system is fine for those who have it in them to succeed.
Those who fail, who cannot make America's "from rags-to-riches"-dream come true, become outcasts. Darwin's theory that only the fittest will/may survive is thus an essential idea in the concept of the American Dream.
(Major parts of this text stem from W.R. Brown's "The American Dream" and Bradford Smith's "The American Character".)