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.

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.   

However, some wonder if the American Dream is dead or threatened. Let's examine the evidence by looking at its history.

The American Dream's Origins

The Declaration of Independence states the principles that underlie the American Dream: "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 Founding Fathers based the U.S. Constitution—the highest law in the land—on these rights. Each person's desire to pursue happiness was not just self-indulgence, but also drove ambition and creativity. By legally protecting these values, the Founding Fathers created an attractive society for those aspiring to a better life.

The Declaration continues: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." For the drafters of the Declaration and later the Constitution, the American Dream could only thrive if it were not hindered by taxation without representation.

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.

French historian Alexis de Tocqueville toured the U.S. in the 19th century, and in his book "Democracy in America," de Tocqueville said the American Dream is "the charm of anticipated success." This charm has drawn millions of immigrants to U.S. shores.

How U.S. Presidents Shaped the American Dream

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 formerly enslaved people, women, and non-property owners. In this way, the American Dream changed the course of America itself.

For example, President Abraham Lincoln extended the American dream to formerly enslaved people with the Emancipation Proclamation, and President Woodrow Wilson supported women's voting rights, which led to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in June 1919.

More presidential changes:

  • President Franklin D. Roosevelt: Roosevelt outlined an Economic Bill of Rights in his 1944 State of the Union address, defining the pursuit of happiness as decent housing, a good job, education, and health care.
  • President Harry S. Truman: Truman's "post-war social contract" included the GI Bill, providing government-funded college degrees for returning veterans. Truman's Fair Deal expanded the dream to include entitlement: If you worked hard and played by the rules, the government should guarantee financial security, education, health care, and a home.
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson: Johnson promoted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending segregation in the schools and protecting workers from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton supported the Dream of homeownership. 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 recession's blow for many by extending unemployment benefits and increasing government assistance for student loans.

In his 1931 book, "Epic of America," historian James Truslow Adams first linked the phrase "American Dream" with our contemporary understanding of the term. He said: "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."

The American Dream and Success

As we can see, throughout U.S. history, the definition of "happiness" has changed. In the Roaring 20s, the Founders' dream of protecting opportunities receded in favor of acquiring material things. In the novel "The Great Gatsby," author F. Scott Fitzgerald both defined the aspirations of the age and warned of its consequences.

Happiness based upon greed was not attainable because someone else always had more, he pointed out. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression proved him right.

After the 1920s, many presidents supported the Gatsby Dream.

The American Dream's prosperity has also been a compelling vision for other nations, along with the idea that protecting citizens’ rights to improve their lives is the best way to ensure national economic growth.

But the U.S has long had a setting conducive to prosperity, peace, and opportunity. For example, the United States has a large landmass under one government, benign neighbors, and abundant natural resources. These include oil and minerals, rainfall, and plenty of rivers. Long shorelines and a flat terrain ease transportation.

These conditions fostered a populace united by language, political system, and values, which allowed a diverse population to possess a competitive advantage. U.S. companies use that advantage to become more innovative, with a large, diverse, and easily accessible test market for new and niche products.

The American cultural mosaic generates more ideas than a small, homogeneous population would. America’s success may also be attributed in part to having the benefits of cultural diversity.

Today, this approach extends to private enterprise and a free-market economy in the U.S., which depends on the free flow of information. It also supports free trade agreements and foreign direct investment.

The American Dream: Is it Dead?

Several factors are challenging the American Dream's continued viability. Including:

  • Low mobility: The United States has lower rates of income mobility than other developed countries. America scores lower than France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark.
  • Government debt: The U.S. has $27 trillion in federal debt and $4 trillion in consumer debt. Combined, that's much more than the U.S. gross domestic product of $21 trillion.
  • Climate change: Some people feel their vision of the American dream is threatened by solutions like the Green New Deal. But if nothing is done, global warming will slow growth. Between 2007 and 2017, extreme weather, health risks, sea-level rise, and food inflation, have cost the U.S. government $350 billion.

Some point to social trends as proof that the American Dream has died, including epidemics of obesity, child abuse, and drug addiction.

A "New" American Dream?

Global economic conditions have indeed changed. But the Founding Fathers never intended the American Dream to provide world dominance and the guarantee of a good life. The Declaration of Independence says nothing about a particular lifestyle and doesn't define how happiness should look.

Our Founding Fathers' vision sought to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to pursue their vision of happiness. It also promotes faith in private free enterprise as a way to pursue that happiness. All people have an equal and inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of their happiness. Federal law protects this right.

Many are turning to a new definition of the American dream that better reflects the country's values for which it was named. In her book The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, Courtney E. Martin writes that Americans should "return to some of the most basic ... questions: What is enough money? How do we want to spend our finite energy and attention? What makes us feel accountable and witnessed?" She suggests you should aspire to create "a life you can be genuinely proud of, an 'examined life' (in the words of dead Greek guys), a life that you are challenged by, a life that makes you giddy, that sometimes surprises you, a life that you love."

The Bottom Line

Our Founding Fathers introduced the revolutionary idea that each person's desire to pursue their idea of happiness was not self-indulgence, but a necessary driver of a prosperous society. They created a government to defend that right for everyone. The American Dream will continue to evolve in anticipation of and in response to our world. The right to pursue happiness and the right to disagree about what "happiness" means makes the American Dream powerful. This drives the economic engine leading to a thriving U.S. free market.