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

Five Ways Our Founding Fathers Protect It

Illustration by Josh Seong. © The Balance, 2018


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

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

The Founding Fathers put into law the revolutionary idea that each person's desire to pursue happiness was not just self-indulgence. It was a part of what drives ambition and creativity. By legally protecting these values, the Founding Fathers set up a society that was very attractive for those aspiring to a better life.

To the drafters of the Declaration, 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, willy-nilly. Legal disputes must be settled by a jury rather than by the whim of the leader. The Declaration also specifically states that a country must be allowed free trade.

The American Dream theoretically protects every American's right to achieve their potential.

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

In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams first publicly defined the American Dream. He used the phrase in his book Epic of America. 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 it 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.”

The American Dream is "the charm of anticipated success."

So said French historian Alexis de Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America. He studied American society in the 19th century.

This charm has drawn millions of immigrants to U.S. shores. It's also been a compelling vision for other nations. Historian Emily Rosenberg identified five components of the American Dream that have shown up in countries around the world.

  1. Belief that other nations should replicate America's development.
  2. Faith in a free market economy.
  3. Support for free trade agreements and foreign direct investment.
  4. Promotion of free flow of information and culture.
  5. Acceptance of government protection of private enterprise. (Source: Emily S. Rosenberg, "Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion 1890–1945.")

Three Factors That Made the American Dream Possible

The American Dream was made possible by a setting that was conducive to prosperity, peace, and opportunity. Here are the three main geographic, economic, and political factors.

First, the United States has a large land mass under one government, thanks to the outcome of the Civil War.

Second, America 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.

Third, abundant natural resources feed U.S. commerce. These include oil, rainfall, and plenty of rivers. Long shorelines and a flat terrain ease transportation. The United States is a prime example of how natural resources boosted the 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 allows them to test niche products. This American “melting pot” generates more innovative ideas than a small, homogenous population would. America’s success may also be attributed in part to having the benefits of cultural diversity.

The History of the American Dream

At first, the Declaration 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.

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 novel, The Great Gatsby. In it, the character Daisy Buchanan cries when she sees Jay Gatsby’s shirts, because she’s “never seen such—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..." This greed led to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.

Throughout the year's, the nation's leaders have verbalized the evolution of 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  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.

 President Barack Obama supported the legal benefits of the marriage contract regardless of sexual orientation.

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

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 job that was sufficient to support one's family and oneself, to educational opportunities for all and to universal health care."

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 Nazism, socialism or communism. 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 to not have to worry all the time that you might lose your house to bankruptcy."

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 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 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 are what makes the American Dream so powerful.