Living the American Dream Accessibility and Dynamic Character

Frederick Douglasss speech, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, addresses the very meaning of being a welcome American or an outsider. The notion of an American Dream, for Frederick Douglass, cannot be limited to a fixed moment in history.  Nor can the American Dream ever be an ultimate end that is capable of being finally achieved.  It is fair to infer that, although Douglass clearly characterized the independence secured by the American colonialists as represented by the Fourth of July as a distinctly white achievement, he also envisioned and embraced a more dynamic notion of an American Dream in which people of all colors might eventually share.  Douglass did not reject the American Dream as a set of guiding principles encouraging struggle against unjust laws and unethical institutions, though he certainly rejected a more narrow conception of the American Dream as these principles were applied during his life, and it is reasonable to suggest that he was simply advocating a qualitatively different version of the American Dream than was commonly understood at the time.

Specifically, he viewed the American Dream as a sort of perpetual struggle against tyranny whereas many Americans at the time seem to have viewed the American Dream as a fixed reality previously established through the Revolutionary War against Great Britain, the establishment of the United States Constitution, and the implementation of American governing institutions and laws.  Douglass rejected this notion of a static and fixed American Dream, thus his assertion that the Fourth of July was a celebration which belonged to others, and he instead articulated a dynamic version of the American Dream which quite accurately predicted future struggles for freedom and equal rights in the newly established United States of America.

The American Dream would seem to have both philosophical and practical features.  Philosophically, the American Dream is ostensibly rooted in notions of liberty, freedom, and equality.  These notions imply a colorblind nation, in which racial injustices are both unethical and illegal, and that merit alone will determine an individuals successes and level of happiness.  These achievements, a result independence from Britain, were never truly achieved for black people in America.  Worse, as Douglass laments, racial traits alone were enough to ensure ever possible sort of injustice including being owned a piece of property.  The American Dream clearly did not apply to blacks in any substantial manner.  The blacks had their liberties constrained, their freedom at times eliminated through slavery, and there was no equality in any sense of the concept.  Practically, the American Dream was quite elusive given the fact that blacks were considered and treated as outsiders.  Douglass wrote his famous Fourth of July speech as a freed slave and did not consider his new freedom an automatic pass to the American Dream.  Quite the contrary, he stated that the American Dream was basically designed for the benefit of white Americans and that those people of other races would have to fight in order to benefit from the American Dream or simply leave America.  Douglass obviously stayed and sought to inspire the black struggle to contest racial injustices in order to make the American Dream more accessible to blacks.

For Douglass, the American Dream was inextricably linked to history and to the tendency of human beings to organize themselves in a series of master-servant relationships. Although the precise nature of these master-servant relationships might differ over the course of time, whether landowners and serfs in England or plantation owners and slaves or indentured servants in America, the one consistency in the organization of human affairs in Douglass view seems to have been the creation and the implementation of hierarchal relationships in ways that reinforced and perpetuated different types of inequality.  These inequalities, in turn, might be derived from a variety of distinguishing classifications based on race, religious orientation, or gender.  To be sure, given his extraordinary life experiences, Douglass was primarily concerned with inequalities and injustices which derived from master-servant relationships related to racial differences nonetheless, in terms of his approach to the concept of an American Dream, his arguments certainly transcended inequalities based on racial differences and he sought to frame the American Dream in terms of a larger type of human aspiration for equality when master-servant relationships have arisen.  Douglasss version of an American Dream, as a result, might be best characterized as one which envisioned constant struggles against unjust political, social, and economic relationships.

In terms of living the American Dream, as Douglass viewed it, citizens must always be critical of hierarchal relationships, they must to some extant ground their critical thinking in these respects on sound ethical principles in which justice and equality and overarching principles, and they must recognize that because master-servant relationships are natural in governing systems that citizens must always be vigilant against abuses based on insidious classifications of human beings.  Realizing the American Dream remains a challenging problem even today because of the different conceptualizations of the American Dream.  It is fairly clear that, in terms of realizing an American Dream, Douglass correctly anticipated that the American ideals were elusive and that the American Dream was a dynamic rather than a static phenomenon.


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