The Aging of the American Dream


By Eugene Leach SUMMER 2009


“The American dream.”  The phrase is everywhere today.  Open a magazine or newspaper, turn on television, surf the ‘Net, and before long you run across references to Americans chasing an image of the good life they call “the American dream.”  Politicians hold the American dream sacred, advertisers promise a piece of it, communicators find magic in the words.  Barack Obama titled his second book The Audacity of Hope:  Thoughts on Reclaiming The American Dream.

“More than any other country,” an uncredited reporter wrote in The Economist in 2006, “America defines itself by a collective dream … of economic opportunity and upward mobility.  Its proudest boast is that it offers a chance of the good life to everybody who is willing to work hard and play by the rules.”  Two-thirds of Americans “think they will achieve the American Dream,” the magazine reported, in the form of “a McMansion, a Lexus SUV and high-speed internet access” in the suburbs.

What is the American dream and has it changed as our country has aged? A few patterns stand out.  Contemporary American dreaming is strikingly modest.  Americans crave no Rockefeller riches, no heady fame or power.  More than anything else they seek a demure contentment for their families. If there is one thing that nearly all Americans report they want, it’s a well provided home, symbol and center of comfort and security.  They assume their vision of domestic bliss is what Americans have always dreamed of.  They assume, too, that this vision is very American, but exactly what America as a society has to do with it they seldom say.

To be sure, the privatist, home-centered style of American dreaming was not invented in modern times.   It goes back to the first colonial settlements.  Whatever else Europeans sought in America—freedom, God, adventure—they came here for opportunities to improve their standard of living.  Here was the richest expanse of real estate on the planet, and here the hand of government was light. Here a person’s hard work could earn him plentiful rewards that nobody would steal or confiscate.

Cotton Mather recounted the story of an early Massachusetts preacher who told his congregation “the main end of Planting this Wilderness” was to honor God, only to have someone call out, “Sir you are mistaken,… our main End was to catch Fish.”

Europeans who settled other regions were just as avid for earthly pelf.  “… If there be any terrestrial happiness to be had by people of all ranks . . . it must certainly be here,” a colonist wrote of New York in 1670.  “Here any one may furnish himself with land, & live rent-free, yea, with such a quantity of Land, that he may weary himself with walking over his fields of Corn, and all sorts of Grain.”  Once a newcomer worked off the cost of his transportation, a writer said of North Carolina, it would take him only a few years “to purchase a Plantation by which means many are become as wealthy and substantial Planters, as any in the Government.”

Yet the first official statement of what America promised its people did not feature private prospects for material comfort.  The original “American dream” was the very public and daring dream of America we call the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming Americans’ intent to build a whole new kind of society, an enlightened republic, on principles of human equality and human rights. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”; “The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”; “the Right of the People”:  With such majestic phrases the Declaration radiated a heroic idealism. It expressed the founders’ conviction, in the words of Revolutionary pamphleteer Tom Paine, that

We have it in our power to begin the world over again.  A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now.  The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months.

The Continental Congress intended the Declaration to be, as its author Thomas Jefferson later said, “an expression of the American mind.”  About this mind they had no illusions.  They knew their countrymen were more interested in catching fish, clearing land, and accumulating property than in creating a model society.  They knew the collective American “mind” was as acquisitive, selfish, and vain as men’s minds were everywhere else.  Even Jefferson, a great admirer of Americans’ virtue, predicted that eventually they would betray their citizenly responsibilities.  “In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover….”

The founders knew, then, that their country fell lamentably short of the pledges set forth in the Declaration.  But they had never thought of America as perfect.  Rather it was a project—an experiment—in improving human society.  The Revolution would only begin to make the world over again.  America would have to grow into the ideals of the Declaration, and the growing would demand many generations of patient and humble effort.

Why did the founders think their countrymen were up to this immense and far-sighted task?  Because the project was underway.  Americans had already created a society that conferred liberty, a rough equality, and opportunities for happiness on the great majority of white males.  Here the common folk were not ignorant peasants or downtrodden laborers; they were independent proprietors of their own farms or shops, literate, worldly-wise and well-informed.  Benjamin Franklin boasted that American libraries helped make “the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries….”  In short, the American dream inscribed in the Declaration was no mere theory or reverie, it recorded Americans’ history, it resonated with their experience.

The original American dream long outlived the Revolutionary generation.  Until deep into the 19th century Americans revered the Declaration of Independence as an almost sacred touchstone of the nation’s promise.  They combined their private dreams of material improvement with public visions of liberty, justice, even brotherhood.  And their thinking about the promise of their country was resolutely extroverted.  They imagined America to be acting a leading part in a movement of human liberation going on around the world.

The most faithful heirs of the founders’ vision were, ironically, people the founders had largely ignored.  Poor white men and many women, too, insisted that “all men are created equal” applied as much to them as it did to propertied white men.  But the purest 19th-century dreamers of the original American dream were the free blacks of the Northern states.

Black Americans fell in love with the Declaration from the moment they first heard it. Over the following century scarcely a sermon, speech, or pamphlet by a northern black leader failed to invoke it.  Speaking for “Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disfranchisement” in 1838, the Philadelphian Robert Purvis argued that his people’s loyalty proved their worthiness of inclusion in the original American dream.

… We plead your cause as well as our own….  We love our native country, much as it has wronged us; and in the peaceable exercise of our inalienable rights, we cling to it….  Will you starve our patriotism?  Will you cast our hearts out of the treasury of the commonwealth?

Even the mocking fact of slavery, the source of all their woes, did not foul black Americans’ faith.  Whites averted their eyes from slavery, fearing that knowing the whole truth about their country would shake their patriotism. Blacks saw the whole truth and remained patriots, trusting the country to become better than it was.  In fact their realism gave their American dreaming a fortitude few whites’ dreams could match.

In the majestic speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass the struggle against slavery brought the original American dream to its fullest expression. During the Civil War the two men formed a budding collaboration, but long before they met their thoughts converged on a common vision for their country.

The Declaration of Independence was the lodestone of their American dreaming.  What was the promise of America?  To build a just society that conformed as nearly as human nature allowed to the truth that “all men are created equal.”  Over and over Lincoln and Douglass called equality the axial principle of the Declaration, the “central idea … in our political public opinion,” At Springfield in 1857 Lincoln said, “I had thought the Declaration contemplated the progressive improvement in the condition of all men …, constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”  Speaking at Independence Hall in Philadelphia a month before taking the presidential oath, Lincoln said the founding fathers aimed to give “liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time….”   Douglass too read the Declaration as a manifesto of universal human rights.  Its principles “would release every slave in the world,” Douglass said at Himrod’s, New York, for the founders meant it to be a “comprehensive declaration of the equal and sacred rights of mankind.”

But if Lincoln and Douglass were the greatest dreamers of a just America, so too were they icons of another picture of the national promise.  As “self-made men” they personified the opportunity America offered even the humblest of individuals to gain personal success.

Ever since the Revolution this other, more personal manner of American dreaming had been on the rise.  The country’s breathtaking geographic and economic growth invited native-born Americans and millions of immigrants to think of the American promise as a chance to improve their standard of living and even, perhaps, to get rich.  The westward movement, the industrial revolution, the cult of Manifest Destiny, the Mexican War, the expansion of plantation slavery—all these reflected a booming appetite for worldly wealth.  As memories of 1776 dimmed, Americans increasingly thought less about the collective goals of liberty and equality, more about their individual pursuit of happiness. The Gold Rush of the 1850s symbolized this shifting emphasis.

The Civil War sealed the shift.  Many Americans viewed the War as a fight to vindicate the original American dream laid out in the Declaration.  Its purpose, Lincoln said at Gettysburg, was to rededicate the country to “the proposition that all men are created equal.” But the majority of Northerners saw the War as a fight not to free the slaves but to free themselves from obstacles to their economic advancement.  In any event, this awful War that killed 620,000 men also killed much of the crusading, reforming spirit of the early republic.

During the Gilded Age that followed the Civil War, American dreaming shrank into the visions of domestic bliss that have persisted ever since.  Some of this tendency was defensive.  As America industrialized and urbanized, and men increasingly found themselves working in big, impersonal environments they felt they couldn’t control, they retreated to their homes in search of comfort, autonomy, and dignity.  But in some respects home-style American dreaming was quite progressive, for it was a style that for the first time reflected the aspirations of women as well as men.  While men idealized the home as a place of refuge from “the world,” women prized it as a secure base of operations for widening forays into the world.

It is striking that the phrase “American dream” was coined for the purpose of attacking the narrowed mode of American dreaming that took hold during the Gilded Age.  In 1931, as the United States sank into the Great Depression, Pulitzer-prize winning author and historian James Truslow Adams (1878 -1949) published a book blaming the nation’s troubles on its betrayals of its original promise.  Adams wanted to name his work The American Dream, but his publishers vetoed that idea, reasoning that hard-pressed readers wanted something more solid than a dream for their dwindling dollars.  They renamed the book The Epic of America.

“If America has stood for anything unique in the world,” wrote Adams, “it has been for the American dream…”

a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of [upper]classes rather than for the simple human being of …every class.   Years earlier the great historian Frederick Jackson Turner said much the same thing, but Turner associated America’s best qualities with the settling of the West.  Adams emphasized the coarsening effects of the westward movement.  In “our scramble for the untold wealth which lay at the foot of the rainbow… we let ourselves be too much deflected… from … building … the civilization [for]which our forefathers laid the foundations….”  Conquering the frontier left “ugly scars”: a vulgar materialism, a rampant anti-intellectualism, a tendency to forget the true ends of life “in the struggle to ‘make a living.’”  By the end of the 19th century, wrote Adams, “The really great and noble American dream, the dream of a better and fuller life for every man, had become a good deal like the stampede of hogs to a trough.”   Parts of The Epic of America echoed the bitter views of the “Lost Generation,” the 1920s artists and intellectuals who denounced a philistine America for scorning ideas and prizing only things. Once “man” had seen in “the fresh, green breast of the new world… the last and greatest of all human dreams,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in the rhapsodic finale of The Great Gatsby (1925).  His character Jay Gatz squashed that vision into cravings for wealth and women, and when he died even this diminished dream was “already behind him.”   But Adams kept the faith.  “We did not wholly lose the vision of something nobler,” he asserted.  “If we hastened after the pot of gold, we also saw the rainbow itself, and felt that it promised, as of old, a hope for mankind.” He called for restoring “the really great and noble American dream.”

The Epic of America was a best seller. Readers eagerly adopted Adams’s concept of the American dream.  Almost all of them, however, overlooked his argument that the dream had decayed.  Adams wanted to spur national self-criticism; instead his book stoked national self-satisfaction.  “The American Dream of a better life,” wrote historian and feminist Marjorie Barstow Greenbie (1891-1976) in 1939, meant to “the average person”

. . . better houses, land of his own, money in the bank, a little fun, some leisure, ladies who were easy to look at, children who might grow up to some education and a better chance, safety in his home and possessions, and peace with his neighbors.

But the original, “nobler” American dream never died.  It simply went into hibernation.  The people who did most to keep it breathing were, once again, the disadvantaged classes, led by African Americans.  Throughout the 20th century the most authentic heirs of the founding fathers were black Americans fighting for freedom and equality. In 1935 Langston Hughes wrote an anthem for them:

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)…

In 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. stated the American dream more memorably than anyone had done since Lincoln and Douglass.  Paying tribute to “the architects of our republic” who wrote “the magnificent words” of the Declaration of Independence, King told 100,000 marchers for civil rights, “… I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold this truth to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Today we have a president who, like Lincoln and Douglass, personifies the opportunities for success that individuals find in this country, but who also speaks for the capacious, grown-up dream of America that they and Martin Luther King and the founders all embraced.  At the January 18, 2009 concert presented in his honor at the Lincoln Memorial—the site of King’s “Dream” speech—Barack Obama said, “I believe more strongly than ever that America will prevail, that the dreams of the founders will live on in our day.”  Then in his inaugural address Obama told his countrymen “The time has come to set aside childish things” and to accept “a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world….”  Duties to ourselves conceived as inseparable from duties to “our nation” and to “the world”:  We come back to the original American dream.


Eugene Leach teaches history and American Studies at Trinity College.  This article is extracted from research he has done for a book-in-progress on the history of American dreaming. Leach lives in West Hartford. 


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