What Is the American Dream? The History That Made It Possible

How Our Founding Fathers Protected It

A composite illustration with text and the headline “What Is the American Dream Today?” Including an illustration of the Statue of Liberty with buildings in her hand with the text: “Acceptance of government protection of free enterprise.” An illustration of two cities across an ocean with the text: “Belief that other nations should replicate America’s development.” An illustration of storefronts with the text “Faith in a free market economy.” An illustration of a cloud of information with the text: “Promotion of free flow of information and culture.” Illustration of money flowing between two sets of hands with the text: “Support for free trade agreements and foreign direct investment.”

The Balance / Josh Seong

The American Dream is the idea that the government should protect each person's opportunity to pursue their idea of happiness.

This protection extends to private enterprise, allowing a free market economy. That economy depends on the free flow of information to function. It also supports free trade agreements and foreign direct investment. Sociologist Emily Rosenberg states these four components have led to a fifth: many other nations want to replicate America's development.

The government protects the rights of you and every other American citizen to find their path to economic prosperity. Unlike many other countries, you are not required to follow your father’s profession. Your destiny is not legally determined at birth by caste, religion, or gender. There is still discrimination, but the law protects your right to pursue a better life.   

How the American Dream Is Protected by Law

The Declaration of Independence states the principles that underlie this American Dream. It uses the 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."

The Declaration continues, "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

The U.S. Constitution Provides the Framework

The Founding Fathers based the U.S. Constitution—the highest law in the land—on these rights. That document put into law the idea that each person's desire to pursue happiness was not just self-indulgence. That pursuit is a part of what drives ambition and creativity. By legally protecting these values, the Founding Fathers set up an attractive society for those aspiring to a better life.

To the drafters of the Declaration and later the Constitution, the American Dream could only thrive if it were not hindered by taxation without representation. Kings, military rulers, or tyrants shouldn’t decide taxes and other laws. The people should have the right to elect officials to represent them. These leaders must abide by the laws themselves and not create new legislation without oversight. Legal disputes must be settled by a jury rather than by the whim of the leader.

That allows them to contribute their utmost to society. It is the idea that the best way to ensure national economic growth is to protect citizens’ right to improve their lives.

The American Dream in Print

In his book "Democracy in America," written in the 19th century after he had toured the U.S., French historian Alexis de Tocqueville said the American Dream is "the charm of anticipated success."

This charm has drawn millions of immigrants to U.S. shores. It's also been a compelling vision for other nations. 

The American Dream as Material Excess

In the 1920s, the American Dream started morphing from the right to create a better life to the desire to acquire material things. This change was described in the F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, "The Great Gatsby." In it, the character Daisy Buchanan cries when she sees Jay Gatsby’s shirts because she’s “never seen—such beautiful shirts before.” 

This greed-driven version of the Dream was never truly attainable. Someone else always had more. The Dream of "The Great Gatsby" was “an 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..." In the real world, the greed portrayed in the novel led to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.

The American Dream Gets Its Name

In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams, in his book "Epic of America," was first to link the phrase "American Dream" to the set of familiar American aspirations. Adams' 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 the Dream 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.”

Three Geographic Factors That Made the American Dream Possible

The American Dream was made possible by a setting conducive to prosperity, peace, and opportunity. Consider just three geographic, economic, and political factors.

  • The United States has a large landmass under one government, thanks to the outcome of the Civil War.
  • The U.S. has benign neighbors. That's partially due to geography. Canada's climate is too cold, and Mexico's is too hot for them to create powerful economic threats. At least 50% of Canada’s land is unusable since it is locked up in permafrost. High temperatures in Mexico reduce its agricultural output. These temperatures limit the economic growth Mexico could have had with a more temperate climate. 
  • The continent's abundant natural resources feed U.S. commerce. These include oil and minerals, rainfall, and plenty of rivers. Long shorelines and a flat terrain ease transportation. The United States is a prime example of how natural resources boost an economy and gave the nation a head start toward garnering its present global stature. 

These conditions fostered a populace united by language, political system, and values. That allowed a diverse population to become a competitive advantage. U.S. companies use it to become more innovative. They have a large, easily accessible test market for new products.

At the same time, the nation's diverse demographics allow innovators to test niche products. This American cultural mosaic generates more innovative ideas than a small, homogeneous population would. America’s success may also be attributed in part to having the benefits of cultural diversity.

At first, the Founding Fathers only extended the Dream to white property owners. But 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.

How U.S. Presidents Have Shaped the American Dream

President Abraham Lincoln granted the Dream's equal opportunity to slaves.

President Woodrow Wilson supported the voting rights of women. It led to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1918.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt extended equal opportunity to homeownership by creating Fannie Mae to insure mortgages. His Economic Bill of Rights advocated the right to decent housing, to a good education, to adequate health care, and the right to earn enough to provide a decent living. 

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 strengthened the Dream to protect America from socialism, communism, and Nazism. FDR's Unfinished Second Bill of Rights sought to address domestic security. 

President Harry Truman built upon this idea after World War II. His "post-war social contract" included the GI Bill. It provided government-funded college degrees for returning veterans. Urban policy expert Matt Lassiter summed up Truman’s “contract” this way: "...if you worked hard and played by the rules, you deserved certain things. You deserved security and decent shelter and not have to worry all the time that you might lose your house to bankruptcy."

President Lyndon B. Johnson promoted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That ended segregation in the schools. It protects workers from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex—which includes pregnancy—or national origin. In 1967, he extended those rights to those over 40.

After the 1920s, many presidents supported the Gatsby Dream. They said it was the government's responsibility to guarantee material benefits.

U.S. prosperity after World War II allowed people to expect those things in their lifetime. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton supported the Dream of homeownership. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton presented the American Dream Plan. This plan included the opportunity to go to college, save for retirement, own a home, provide health insurance for all children, encourage business growth, and afford prosperity.

President Barack Obama supported the legal benefits of the marriage contract regardless of sexual orientation. Obama furthered FDR's idea that everyone should have access to affordable health care. He softened the blow of the recession for many by extending unemployment benefits and increasing government assistance for student loans.

The Bottom Line

There is disagreement over the definition of the American Dream today. Some even think we've seen the end of the American Dream. But this inspiring idea from the Founding Fathers will continue to evolve. Both the right to pursue happiness and the right to disagree about what that means is what make the American Dream so powerful. This drives the economic engine that’s made the U.S. free-market thrive.

Article Sources

  1. Emily Rosenberg. "Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion 1890–1945," Page 7. Hill and Wang, 1982.

  2. National Archives. "Declaration of Independence: A Transcription," Accessed Dec 26, 2019.

  3. GovTrack. "How Laws Are Made," Accessed Dec. 31, 2019.

  4. American Public Media. "A Better Life," Accessed Nov 6, 2019.

  5. Alexis de Tocqueville. "Democracy in America: Volume II, Chapter XVII." Accessed Dec. 31, 2019.

  6. F. Scott Fitzgerald. "The Great Gatsby," Page 92. Scribner, 2004. Accessed Nov. 9, 2019.

  7. F. Scott Fitzgerald. "The Great Gatsby," Page 180. Scribner, 2004. Accessed Nov. 9, 2019.

  8. James Truslow. "The Epic of America," Page xvi. First Transaction Printing, 2012.

  9. The Canadian Encyclopedia. "Permafrost," Accessed Dec. 31, 2019.

  10. Journal of Economic Literature. Melissa Dell, Benjamin F. Jones, and Benjamin A. Olken, "What Do We Learn from the Weather? The New Climate-Economy Literature," Page 757. Accessed Dec. 31, 2019.

  11. Constitutional Rights Foundation. "Who Voted in Early America?" Accessed Dec. 31, 2019.

  12. Franklin D Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. "State of the Union Message to Congress," Accessed Nov 6, 2019.