I have never been a fan of the phrase “American dream.” Not because I don’t believe in it, but because it is reflexively defined in material terms – becoming a millionaire, buying a house, owning a magnificent car. Politicians do this because they are shallow, and imagine our dreams depend on them. Others, who condemn our economic failings, place the dream on the same footing with the tooth fairy: an illusion for children and fools.
Many Americans aren’t wealthy, or own a house, or drive BMWs. For them, the nay-sayers argue, the American dream is dead. With every economic slide, that judgment is generalized. The very myth of the dream is dead. Given the present moment of economic difficulty, the American dream – a simple search of Google proves – appears dead beyond the hope of resurrection. Only bankers and bailed-out automakers stand excepted.
The American dream isn’t a childish fantasy like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy – and it isn’t primarily about materialistic ambitions.
The man who coined the phrase, according to the Library of Congress and wikipedia, was James Truslow Adams, who did so in his 1931 book The Epic of America. The concept of the American dream was born in the Great Depression, and Adams explicitly downplayed the BMW angle:
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 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 ideal, however, was far older than the name, and preceded the founding of our country. In 1630, John Winthrop, sailing to Massachusetts, wrote that he expected the colony to become a “city on a hill,” proudly exposed to the scrutiny of the human race. He added: “the end is to improve our lives to do more service to the Lord.”
Winthrop’s dream was about an exceptional people, which would bear witness to the possibility of advancement and self-improvement. While he retained a Calvinist respect for hard work, and held that a man was “worse than an infidel” who failed to support his family, his ideal aimed at community life rather than material gain. “We must delight in each other,” he insisted, “make others’ conditions our own.”
Two centuries later, Emerson took up the theme of self-improvement and expanded it toward an infinite frontier. “Hitch your wagon to a star,” he urged, and because of his faith in the unrealized powers of everyman, he added: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
Emerson, a Stoic, famously despised the chase after material goods, when “things are in the saddle” – his dream aimed at overturning the tables of the money-changers, and awakening us to who we really are. It was a call for a society of moral adults: “And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny.”
About 350 years after Winthrop penned his vision of America as a city on a hill, Ronald Reagan, who often used the phrase, reflected on its meaning. Like Emerson, he thought it had to do with the full realization of the individual. “Never in any society has the preeminence of the individual been so firmly established and given such a priority,” he said.
Unlike Emerson, Reagan took pride in the material bounty generated by free citizens interacting in free markets – he cited statistics which demonstrate the astonishing wealth produced in this country. He then posed the question:
But isn’t this just proof of our materialism — the very thing that we are charged with? Well, we also have more churches, more libraries, we support voluntarily more symphony orchestras, and opera companies, non-profit theaters, and publish more books than all the other nations of the world put together.
The American dream, for all three men – Winthrop, Emerson, Reagan – consisted of unleashing the individual’s power of achievement, which had been weighed down in chains across history and in all other countries. For this reason, millions migrated to the US. It happened that the individual, released from his chains, generated great material bounty – but beyond self-reliance, this was a side effect, never central to the dream.
At the heart of the dream were family, community, religion, education, voluntary service, self-realization in constant engagement with others rather than romantic isolation: millions of blank pages on which the individual inscribed his gifts, bound together in the great adventure book that is America. This story is what makes us exceptional, and this exceptionalism, all three men held, is our “transcendent destiny.” It’s inescapable.
Thus the dream can’t be killed by a recession or a financial crisis, because it isn’t dependent on becoming rich or owning a BMW. So long as we remain who we are, and behave like moral adults, free but responsible, hitched to our star – in material success and economic hardship, we live the American dream and represent, even now, humanity’s last best hope of freedom on earth.