The American Dream lies at the heart of America's civic religion. It is a concept that unites a people who have been divided in any number of ways and who continue to have fundamental differences on basic questions of national governance. For all the consensus that it seems to foster, however, the American Dream is perpetually considered under threat; is conceived in multiple, and often conflicting, ways; and can oppress as well as liberate.
Widespread use of the term is remarkably recent. Though there may have been scattered references to the idea in the nineteenth century—suggested by Alexis de Tocqueville's evocative phrase “the charm of anticipated success” in his classic work Democracy in America (  1990, 71 )—it is generally agreed that the phrase “American Dream” entered the national vernacular in the 1930s with the publication of James Truslow Adams's book The Epic of America. (Adams wanted to title it The American Dream, but his publisher considered the phrase too obscure.) Yet Adams treated the American Dream, which he defined as “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,” as something that went back to the origins of the nation in the seventeenth century ( 1931, 214 ).
It certainly makes sense to view the activities of the first European colonists of North America in such terms. Whether it was Virginia adventurers panning for gold or Massachusetts Puritans seeking salvation, voyagers to the so-called New World believed they could find imagined destinies on the American shores. Sometimes those destinies were material; other times they were more abstract, such as religious or political autonomy. Either way, the avenue by which such goals would be attained was understood as freedom: the ability to pursue material, religious, and material objectives without restraint. Such pursuits often involved the conquest, exploitation, or enslavement of others. But for most, though not all, English and other European peoples, there was no contradiction in the idea of freedom resting on slavery. Indeed, for some slavery was a prerequisite for freedom, and laws codifying ownership of human property were widespread by the end of the seventeenth century.
Freedom was not viewed as an ideal, but a living reality for many colonists in the eighteenth century, when British control over her North American colonies was conducted in terms of “benign neglect,” and navigation acts controlling trade were often more marked in the breach than by observance. Defeat of competing French aspirations for the continent and an imperial desire to recoup the costs of this massive effort led the colonists to believe their freedom, and the hopes it underwrote, were under threat. Such perceived encroachments sparked a revolutionary independence movement, codified in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, whose ringing affirmation of “the pursuit of happiness” effectively sanctioned the American Dream as a basis of national policy.
In the late nineteenth century, the American Dream and conflicts over it were often understood in economic terms. The rise of corporate titans like Andrew Carnegie ( 1835–1919 ) and John D. Rockefeller ( 1839–1937 ) gave fresh legitimacy to the mythology of the self-made man first articulated by figures such as Benjamin Franklin ( 1706–1790 ) and Henry Clay ( 1777–1852 ), widely associated with the term. Carnegie in particular was careful to couch his success in terms of hard work and thrift, even if his many critics pointed out that the fabulous wealth he and other “robber barons” accrued rested on the exploitation of industrial workers paid subsistence wages and actively prevented from forming unions to pursue an American Dream of material comfort on a more collective basis. Though the terrain on which this economic battle was fought has shifted, it has continued in modified forms ever since.
The early twenty-first century has been marked by a sense of increasing decentralization in the United States, whether in terms of a language of racial diversity or one of economic deregulation. For some, this development is celebrated; for others, it is a sign of fragmentation, even coming collapse. In such an environment, the collective celebration of individual aspiration has, paradoxically, become the single most important source of social glue in national life.
How long the American Dream can serve this unifying role, and what costs it imposes, is impossible to calculate. It does seem, however, that whatever the fate of the United States as a political entity, the American Dream will survive as a concept that beguiles or rankles the Americans—and non-Americans—of the future.
SEE ALSO American Exceptionalism ; Geographic Mobility and Sorting ; Self-Governance ; Self-Improvement .
Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1931.
Cullen, Jim. The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Brooks, David. On Paradise Drive. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Delbanco, Andrew. The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Jillson, Calvin C. Pursuing the American Dream: Opportunity and Exclusion over Four Centuries. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.
Samuel, Lawrence. The American, Dream: A Cultural History. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2012.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. 2 vols. (1835/1840.) New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Ethical Culture Fieldston School