A Brief History of the American Dream

An Essay by Sarah Churchwell, Professor at the University of London, and Author, Behold, America: The Entangled History of ‘America First’ and ‘the American Dream’

Over time, the phrase “American dream” has come to be associated with upward mobility and enough economic success to lead a comfortable life. Historically, however, the phrase represented the idealism of the great American experiment.

If you ask most people around the world what they mean by the “American dream,” nearly all will respond with some version of upward social mobility, the American success story, or the self-made man (rarely the self-made woman). Perhaps they will invoke the symbolic house with a white picket fence that suggests economic self-sufficiency and security; many will associate the phrase with the land of opportunity for immigrants. No less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary defines the American dream as “the ideal that every citizen of the United States should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.”

If success and prosperity are the American dream, however, it’s hard to understand why it was under assault by a mob of insurrectionists at the Capitol in January — but that is precisely what international commentators concluded. From Iran to Australia to Britain, global observers construed the Capitol riot as an assault on “the American dream,” although it was not a mob driven by economic grievance, but rather an explicitly political assault on the democratic process.

No matter how often we talk about the American dream as a socioeconomic promise of material success, the truth is that most people — even people around the world — understand instinctively that the American dream is also a sociopolitical one, meaning something more profound and aspirational than simple material comfort. And indeed, that’s what the phrase denoted to the Americans who first popularized it.

In 1931 a historian named James Truslow Adams set out to make sense of the crisis of the Great Depression, which in 1931 was both an economic crisis and a looming political crisis. Authoritarianism in Europe was on the rise, and many Americans were concerned that similar “despotic” energies would support the fabled “man on horseback” who might become an American tyrant. Adams concluded that America had lost its way by prizing material success above all other values: Indeed, it had started to treat money as a value, instead of merely as a means to produce or measure value.

Adams concluded that America had lost its way by prizing material success above all other values: Indeed, it had started to treat money as a value, instead of merely as a means to produce or measure value.

For Adams, worshipping material success was not the definition of the American dream: It was, by contrast, the failure of “the American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.” Adams did not mean “richer” materially, but spiritually; he distinguished the American dream from dreams of prosperity. It was, he declared, “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.”

That repudiation is crucial, but almost always overlooked when this famous passage is quoted. Adams specifically gainsays the idea that the American dream is of material success. The American dream, according to Adams, was about collective moral character: It was a vision of “commonweal,” common well-being, well-being that is held in common and therefore mutually supported.

It was, as Adams said, a “dream of social order,” in which every citizen could attain the best of which they were capable. And it was that dream of social order that was so conspicuously under assault on January 6th. It was the same American dream that Martin Luther King Jr. would call to service in the civil rights struggle in 1963, when he told white America that Black Americans shared that dream:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. (Rowland Scherman / National Archives and Records Administration)

I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

The idea of an American creed, now all but forgotten, was once a staple of American political discourse, a broad belief system comprising liberty, democratic equality, social justice, economic opportunity, and individual advancement. Before 1945, when it was replaced by the Pledge of Allegiance, the creed was recited by most American schoolchildren — including, presumably, a young Martin Luther King Jr.:

I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people, whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a republic and a sovereign nation of many sovereign States; a perfect Union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes.

It was in that creed that the phrase the American dream was first used to articulate — not in 1931, when it was popularized, but when it first appeared in American political discourse, at the turn of the 20th century.

The American dream was rarely, if ever, used to describe the familiar idea of Horatio Alger individual upward social mobility until after the Second World War. Quite the opposite, in fact. In 1899, a Vermont doctor made the news when he built a house with 60 rooms on 4,000 acres, which was described as “the largest country place in America” at the time. It came as a shock to readers, and struck many of them as an “utterly un-American dream” in its inequality: “Until a few years ago the thought of such an estate as that would have seemed a wild and utterly un-American dream to any Vermonter,” one article commented. “It was a state of almost ideally democratic equality, where everybody worked and nobody went hungry.” We don’t have to accept that Vermont was ever a utopian ideal to recognize that the comment overturns our received wisdoms about the American dream. Today, such an estate would seem the epitome of the American dream to most Americans.

The American dream was rarely, if ever, used to describe the familiar idea of “Horatio Alger” individual upward social mobility until after the Second World War.

Horatio Algur's "Ragged Dick," the story of a shoeshine boy who rises to the middle class, was serialized in <em>Student and Schoolmate</em> in 1867.

In 1900, the New York Post warned its readers that the “greatest risk” to “every republic” was not from the so-called rabble, but “discontented multimillionaires.” All previous republics, it noted, had been “overthrown by rich men” and this could happen too in America, where monopoly capitalists were “deriding the Constitution, unrebuked by the executive or by public opinion.” If they had their way “it would be the end of the American dream,” because the American dream was of democracy — of equality of opportunity, of justice for all. Again, today most Americans would clearly say that becoming a multimillionaire defines the American dream, but the fact is that the expression emerged to criticize, not endorse, the amassing of great personal wealth.

Although many now assume that the phrase American dream was first used to describe 19th century immigrants’ archetypal dreams of finding a land where the streets were paved with gold, not until 1918 have I found any instance of the “American dream” being used to describe the immigrant experience — the same year that the language of the “American creed” was first published.

There were only a few passing mentions of the idea of an American dream before Adams popularized it in 1931, most notably in Walter Lippmann’s 1914 Drift and Mastery, which described what Lippmann called America’s “fear economy” of unbridled capitalism. Lippmann argued that the nation’s “dream of endless progress” would need to be restrained, because it was fundamentally illusory: “It opens a chasm between fact and fancy, and the whole fine dream is detached from the living zone of the present.” This dream of endless progress was indistinguishable, Lippmann wrote, “from those who dream of a glorious past.” Both dreams were equally illusory.

For Lippmann, the American dream was the idea that the common man is inherently good and a moral barometer of the nation, the belief that “if only you let men alone, they’ll be good.” For Lippmann, the American dream was a delusion not because upward social mobility was a myth, but because undisciplined goodness is:

The past which men create for themselves is a place where thought is unnecessary and happiness inevitable. The American temperament leans generally to a kind of mystical anarchism, in which the “natural” humanity in each man is adored as the savior of society…  “If only you let men alone, they’ll be good,” a typical American reformer said to me the other day. He believed, as most Americans do, in the unsophisticated man, in his basic kindliness and his instinctive practical sense.  A critical outlook seemed to the reformer an inhuman one; he distrusted … the appearance of the expert; he believed that whatever faults the common man might show were due to some kind of Machiavellian corruption. He had the American dream, which may be summed up … in the statement that the undisciplined man is the salt of the earth.

The American faith in the individual taken to its inevitable extreme creates the monstrosity of a self with no consciousness of other standards or perspectives, let alone a sense of principle.

James Truslow Adams ended The Epic of America with what he said was the perfect symbol of the American dream in action. It was not the example of an immigrant who made good, a self-made man who bootstrapped his way from poverty to power, or the iconic house with a white picket fence. For Adams, the American dream was embodied in the Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress.

The Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress.

It was a room that the nation had gifted to itself, so that every American  “old and young, rich and poor, Black and white, the executive and the laborer, the general and the private, the noted scholar and the schoolboy”  could sit together, “reading at their own library provided by their own democracy. It has always seemed to me,” Adams continued,

to be a perfect working out in a concrete example of the American dream — the means provided by the accumulated resources of the people themselves, a public intelligent enough to use them, and men of high distinction, themselves a part of the great democracy, devoting themselves to the good of the whole, uncloistered.

It is an image of peaceful, collective, enlightened self-improvement. That is the American dream, according to the man who bequeathed us the phrase. It is an image that takes for granted the value of education, of shared knowledge and curiosity, of historical inquiry and a commitment to the good of the whole.

It is an image of peaceful, collective, enlightened self-improvement. That is the American dream, according to the man who bequeathed us the phrase.

That depiction of a group of Americans serenely reading together on Capitol Hill serves as a deeply painful corrective for the nation we have become, filled with people who put political partisanship above country, above democracy, above any principle of civic good or collective well-being.

Writing in the midst of the Great Depression, Adams was neither naïve nor especially sentimental about the America he was viewing in 1931. His reflections on the Library of Congress as the American dream led him to conclude that its fundamental purpose was to keep democracy alive:

No ruling class has ever willingly abdicated. Democracy can never be saved, and would not be worth saving, unless it can save itself. The Library of Congress, however, has come straight from the heart of democracy, as it has been taken to it, and I here use it as a symbol of what democracy can accomplish on its own behalf.

That is the American dream: what democracy can accomplish on its own behalf for its citizens. The first voices to speak of the “American dream” used it not as a promise, or a guarantee, but as an exhortation, urging all Americans to do better, to be fairer, to combat bigotry and inequality, to keep striving for a republic of equals. That is the American dream we need to revive: the dream of a social order defined by the American creed, a belief in the United States of America as a government whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a republic.

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