American Dream

The first use of the phrase "the American dream" is usually attributed to James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book The American Epic. Adams described the American dream as "a dream of land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement."

The idea of the American dream is rooted in the U.S. Declaration of Independence from 1776, which states that "all men are created equal," and have certain rights including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." This has seen the American dream become the national ethos of the United States, as a land of opportunity for all, regardless of their social class or circumstances of their birth. This notion resonated particularly with the millions of migrants from Europe who arrived in America during the 19th and early part of the 20th century.

There is no universal definition. For John Winthrop, the dream was to achieve a "religious utopia," a place he called the City on the Hill where all citizens could live and share the same beliefs peacefully. The dream for Martin Luther King Jr. was in achieving racial equality among all American citizens. Scholars have recognized widely varying conceptions of these quests for American excellence. One component of the American dream that seems to be consistent is the quest for money.

Americans' efforts have traditionally centered on thrift and hard work. During the Colonial Period, Benjamin Franklin (1706 to 1790) counseled that the key to wealth was through hard work and industry. Franklin's notion was then expanded into a labor ideology. Many wanted economic independence and the opportunity for social advancement through financial gain. According to Abraham Lincoln (1809 to 1865), the 16th President of the United States, the greatness of the American North was that industry allowed all men to prosper. During the industrialization that followed the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), many experienced profound economic hardship as the U.S. economy changed. They found solace in the tales of Horatio Alger (1832 to 1899), where his characters overcame adversity through industry, perseverance, self-reliance and self-discipline. The "rags to riches" legend became a cornerstone of American society, which believed that anyone could succeed and achieve wealth through hard work.

According to scholars, a shift away from the traditional work ethic was related directly to the rise of industry and the development of assembly line production. There was little opportunity to work, or live the American dream, during the Great Depression of the 1930s which followed the collapse of the stock market in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The disillusionment with the American dream at that time was captured to some extent in the 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath by Nobel laureate John Steinbeck. After the end of World War II in 1945, the ethical shift was exacerbated as a consumer culture blossomed and Americans became preoccupied with material goods. People's desire to achieve the American dream was spurred by this shift in work ethic.

In addition to a high-paying, secure and fulfilling job, through the 1950s and 1960s, the American dream also came to mean living in a big house. Education has also become a big part of the dream, seeing Americans aspire to good high school and then university careers which lead to the ideal job, home and family. Through the 1970s and latter part of the 20th century, women, too, could aspire to their part in the American dream, not in a role reduced to that of mother and home-maker dependent on their husband, but through independent careers of their own.

Attempts to define the American dream are often difficult because the concept of the American dream has altered so much, especially in the latter half of the 20th century. Individual perceptions of the dream also vary.

American Dream: Selected full-text books and articles

Higher Education and the American Dream: Success and Its Discontents By Marvin Lazerson Central European University Press, 2010
The Prospect of Presidential Rhetoric By James Arnt Aune; Martin J. Medhurst Texas A&M University Press, 2008
Librarian's tip: Chap. 6 "The Rhetorical Presidency and the Myth of the American Dream"
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