Foundations of the American Dream
The term, The American Dream, was coined by James Truslow Adams in 1931 in his work, The Epic of America (Adams, 1959; Gupte, 2011; Rank, Hirschl, & Foster, 2014). Adams’ coinage was, perhaps, an attempt to buck up a nation ravaged by the Great Depression. It roots, however, reach deep into the psyche of the ideology of American culture. To fully understand the American Dream and its components, one must start at the beginning of the American experience with the Declaration of Independence. This document, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, sought to encapsulate more than the grievances of the subjects of King George III, it also expressed a new world order of how a people should be governed. It established the concept of the inalienable rights of individuals to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The latter part of the promise, the “pursuit of happiness” created the spark that gives fire to the document and the Dream. These three words provide the energy of the dream. Happiness as an inalienable human right created within the new nation a promise of the possible (Gupte, 2011) and while some readings argue that the pursuit acts as a direction for government (Schlesinger, 1964), the nature of happiness, from the early days of the republic, operates as the rubric by which we measure the success of the American experiment. This argument echoes the sentiment Adam Smith’s 1759 essay Theory of Moral Sentiments “All constitutions of government, however, are valued only in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of those who live under them. This is their sole use and end.” (cited in Ganter, 1936). The promise of happiness, on an equal footing with life and liberty, marked a departure in how governments engaged the governed. It marks the beginning of Jefferson’s concept of Americanism: limited government, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and a new form of government that favored the laborer, the pioneer and the yeoman farmer while ending the aristocratic privilege of Europe (Chinard, 1929). Americanism would be the antithesis to the aristocracy of Europe or an “economic, social and political alternative to the aristocracy (Hart, 2002). In 1800, Americanism offered an alternative to the Old World. While many contemporary peoples living in the Western Hemisphere of the Americas bristle at the habit of US residents self-reference as “Americans”, it needs to be seen in this context. When Jefferson adopted the idea of Americanism, the other countries of North America were, politically, England, France, and Spain. Likewise, the lands of the South America were politically European*. There are two obvious contradictions to this concept, of course. Jefferson and other founders of the new republic did not recognize the nations of the indigenous peoples as governments or their inhabitants as people. Likewise, the slave trade and Jefferson’s own status as an owner of slaves made mockery of the language of the Declaration of Independence; however, the culture created by the declaration would lead later generations to justify the further expansion of the definition of “human” to include non-Europeans, expand suffrage to women, and to further the concept of human rights with civil rights. The concept of Americanism ushered in a new promise to people that the method of government should be to enable the governed to reach their full potential as human beings (Adams, 1959 p 405). The Declaration underscores two core principle of the Dream: aspiration and opportunity and that “every poor man may have a home” (Lowry, 2013) and that “all” are “created equal”. The latter being that the only barrier to one’s pursuit of happiness should be the individual’s drive to succeed. The concept of property ownership extended beyond Jefferson. Although Jefferson focused on land, other founding members of the nation including John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, George Cabot and James Madison saw property ownership, profit sharing and preventing concentration of capital as essential to maintaining a democratic nation. (Blasi, Freeman, & Kruse, 2013)
While the pursuit of happiness suggests non-material aspects of life, a key part of the American Dream focuses on ownership. Jefferson, as a member for the Virginia Legislature pushed to provide each man a plot of fifty acres. With this land, a family could sustain themselves and have a stake in the nation to engage in governance. (Hart, 2002) Likewise, Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States, ushered in the Homestead Act which provided 160 acres to those willing to move west and colonize the nation’s frontier. By 1880, the Act had provided homestead consisting of 270 million acres (Lowry, 2013, p. p. 185). Under the Jefferson-Lincoln concept, ownership of property was the key to building a strong democracy as it allowed “individual economic stability and independence which in turn enable the independent and self-sufficient landowner to participate in the governance of local affairs and to achieve the common good.” (Hart, 2002, p. 109) Tied to this concept was also the belief of public education within the Jefferson dogma. All children would have the benefit of a basic education in order that they might have the common skills in reading, writing, math, and language required to engage in government and self-governance. This unheard of proposition (Chinard, 1929) provided an engine towards the ideal of Americanism and the promise of the American Dream. The essential aspect of American democracy rests on ownership, education, participation, and self-responsibility, which are key values and principles of the co-operative identity (“Statement on the Co-operative Identity,” 1995).
The American Dream from the beginnings of the American Revolution through the Civil War focused on the ideal of property ownership and through property ownership the ability to secure a family’s liberty and provide a voice in the governance of their lives and provide the means to achieve happiness. This foundation continues today as home ownership remains a vital aspect of American life with the goals of home ownership providing a key measure of success (Rank et al., 2014). However, the relative simple aspect of this hope and aspiration to freedom found different expressions with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in both its incarnations in which the nature of work in the United States switched from producer to employee (Jacques, 1996). The physical expression of the American Dream adjusted to meet the needs of new immigrants and a new class of citizen, the employee.
*Obviously, Jefferson’s entire concept ignored the existing nations present in North and South America prior to the arrival of Europeans. The presence of indigenous peoples and their expulsion from their territory further undercuts the values and ideals of Jefferson and others seeking democratic rule of law. I don’t want to just dismiss this because it undermines the concept of the “American Dream”. The actions of the US government especially in the treatment of non-Europeans and even non-protestant Europeans has undermined the propaganda of the “dream”.
Adams, J. T. (1959). The Epic of America. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Blasi, J. R., Freeman, R. B., & Kruse, D. L. (2013). The Citizen’s Share: Putting Ownership Back Into Democracy. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
Chinard, G. (1929). Thomas Jefferson: The Apostle of Americanism. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.
Ganter, H. L. (1936). Jefferson’s “Pursuit of Happiness” and Some Forgotten Men. The Willam and Mary Quarterly, 16(4), 27.
Gupte, S. S. (2011). The Reciprocal Reshaping of the American Dream and American Religion. (Masters), Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.
Hart, G. (2002). Restoration of the Republic: The Jeffersonian Ideal in 21st Century America (Vol. New York): Oxford University Press.
Jacques, R. (1996). Manufacturing the Employee. London: Sage Publications.
Lowry, R. (2013). Lincoln Unbound. New York: Haper Collins.
Rank, M. R., Hirschl, T. A., & Foster, K. A. (2014). Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schlesinger, A. M. (1964). The Lost Meaning of “The Pursuit of Happiness”. The William and Mary Quarterly, 21(3), 3.
Statement on the Co-operative Identity. (1995). Retrieved from http://ica.coop/en/whats-co-op/co-operative-identity-values-principles
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