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What Is the American Dream?

Definition, Quotes and History



The Founding Fathers presenting their draft of the Declaration of Independence to Congress, June 28, 1776, by John Trumbull 1819.

Photo: DEA Picture Library/Getty Images
FDR New Deal Poster

FDR advocated a Second Bill of Rights with his New Deal.

FDR Presidential Library and Museum

The American Dream was first publicly defined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams in Epic of America. Adam's often-repeated quote is, "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 went on to say that 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.”

The American Dream is protected by the Declaration of Independence, in this familiar quote: "We hold these 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.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

The Founding Fathers put into law the revolutionary idea that each person's desire to pursue happiness was not just self-indulgence, but a part of what drives ambition and creativity. By not only stating, but also legally protecting, these values, the Founding Fathers set up a very attractive society for those who aspire to a better life for themselves. (Source: Time Magazine, The American Dream: A Biography, June 21, 2012)

To the drafters of the Declaration, the American Dream could only thrive if it was not hindered by taxation without representation. This later meant any kind of excessive taxation that would reduce the entrepreneurial drive. It also meant the society must be governed by elected officials, not kings, military rulers or tyrants. These leaders must also abide by the laws, and not create new ones willy-nilly. Legal disputes must be settled by a jury if requested, instead of the whim of the leader. The Declaration also specifically states that a country must be allowed free trade. (Source: U.S. National Archives, The Declaration of Independence)

The American Dream ensures that no one is legally prevented from achieving their potential, and contribution to society. It is the belief that protecting people's right to improve their own lives is the best way to ensure national progress as well. (Source: American Radio Works, Creating the American Dream)

Alexis de Tocqueville called the American Dream "the charm of anticipated success" in his book Democracy in America. This charm has not only drawn millions of immigrants to U.S. shores, it's also been a compelling vision for other nations. Sociologist Emily Rosenberg identified five components of The American Dream as it has shown up in countries all around the world.

  1. Belief that other nations should replicate America's development.
  2. Faith in a free market economy.
  3. Support free trade agreements and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).
  4. Promotion of free flow of information and culture.
  5. Acceptance of government protection of private enterprise. (Source: Emily S. Rosenberg, Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion 1890–1945)

What Made the American Dream Possible?

The American Dream was made possible by several geographic, economic and political factors that created enough prosperity and peace to create a land of opportunity. First, the U.S. has a large land mass under one government (thanks to the outcome of Civil War).

Second, America is bordered by benign neighbors. Canada's climate is too cold, and Mexico's is too hot, to create powerful economic or military threats. Third, U.S. commerce is fed by abundant natural resources, such as oil, rainfall and plenty of rivers. The nation also has a lot of shoreline, giving access to ports, and a relatively flat terrain, making it easier to traverse. For more, see How Natural Resources Boost the Economy.

These geographical and political realities fostered a populace who are united by a similar language, political system, and overarching values. This helps U.S. companies become more innovative by providing a large, easily accessible test market for new products. America's diverse demographics easily allow the testing of niche products. In fact, this diversity in and of itself contributes to new ideas, one of America's competitive advantages. For more, see Benefits of Cultural Diversity.

The History of the American Dream

At first, the Declaration only extended the Dream to white property-owners. However, the idea of inalienable rights was so powerful that laws were added to extend these rights to slaves, women and non-property owners. In this way, the American Dream changed the course of America itself.

In the 1920s, the American Dream started morphing into something less about equal opportunity to become the best you can be, and more about the acquisition of material things. This change was described in the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby. In it, the protagonist, "...believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther..."

This quote exemplifies how the American Dream had become a pursuit of happiness as defined by materialistic things. Because it was driven by greed, this dream was never attainable. Someone else always had more. The greed that had begun to define the American Dream led to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.

This evolution in the American Dream was verbalized by the nation's leaders. President Lincoln provided the Dream's equal opportunity to Negro slaves. President Wilson supported the voting rights of women, which led to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1918. President Johnson promoted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in the schools, and further protects workers from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), or national origin. In 1967 those rights were extended to those over 40. President Obama supports the legal benefits of the marriage contract regardless of sexual orientation.

After the 1920s, many Presidents also began supporting the idea that the Dream includes a guarantee of material benefits. President Roosevelt was the first to support equal opportunity to homeownership by establishing Fannie Mae to insure mortgages. His Economic Bill of Rights advocated, "...the right to decent housing, to a job that was sufficient to support one's family and oneself, to educational opportunities for all and to universal health care." Roosevelt added, "We have come to a clear realization of the fact...that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ...People who are hungry, people who are out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made." In other words, he built upon the Gatsby definition of the Dream to prevent Americans from being attracted to Nazism, Socialism or Communism. For more, see American Politics, FDR's Unfinished Second Bill of Rights.

This idea was built upon by President Truman after World War II. His "post-war social contract" included the GI Bill for returning veterans, in which the government paid for a college degree. Urban policy expert Matt Lassiter summed up this contract as, "...if you worked hard and played by the rules, you deserved certain things. You deserved security and decent shelter and to not have to worry all the time that you might lose your house to bankruptcy." (Source: American Radio Works, The G.I. Bill and FDR's Economic Bill of Rights)

This post-World War II abundance set the stage for people to expect they should get those things now, or at least in their lifetime. The Bush and Clinton Administrations both supported the notion that everyone should be able to own a home. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton presented the American Dream Plan. This included the opportunity to go to college, save for retirement, own a home, health insurance for children, business growth and prosperity.

Once elected, President Obama furthered FDR's idea that everyone should have access to affordable health care through insurance. He also softened the blow of the recession for many by extending unemployment benefits, and increasing government assistance to student loans.

There continues to be disagreement over the definition of the American Dream, and how much the federal government should be involved. This is nothing more, nor certainly less, than the continuing evolution of the very inspiring idea envisioned by our forefathers. Both the right to pursue happiness, and the right to disagree about what that means, are both part of what makes the American Dream so powerful. Article updated February 10, 2014

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