Searching for the American Dream

It is very likely that generations coming of age today will abandon -- out of choice or necessity -- the Dream of consumption and replace it with their own definition. The Dream is evolving, not dying.
12/17/2014 05:32 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2015

This week the New York Times reported that only 64 percent of the public still believe in the American Dream, which they defined as a faith that "hard work could result in riches." But the reports of the death of the American Dream are premature. The Dream has evolved and changed over time just as the nation has changed. At each critical juncture as we have evolved from an agrarian, to an industrial, to a knowledge economy, how we define the American Dream has changed with us.

The phrase itself is fairly new. In 1931, an historian named James Adams, who was in many ways the David McCullough of his time, wrote a book about the story of America. He had been impressed by the uniqueness of the American experience and optimism of the American people. Even in the midst of the Great Depression that was gripping the nation, he was struck by the resiliency of the American people. He coined the phrase to capture this spirit, and he decided to title is book, "The American Dream." The publisher forced him to change the title, saying that it was too vague and readers will not know what it meant. So instead Adams chose the title "The Epic of America." But he used the phrase the American Dream throughout the book and it stuck.

While the phrase is relatively new, the constellation of ideas that it represents, have a long history. I believe that the American Dream was born on a warm June day in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson, sitting in his rented room on Market Street in Philadelphia, penned the immortal words in the Declaration of Independence which stated that "All men are created equal" and that they were endowed with the inalienable rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

The Declaration captured our noblest ideals and highest aspirations. The essence of the American Dream has been the individual right - regardless of social class or circumstances of birth - to pursue a life of liberty and happiness.

Thomas Jefferson had a very clear idea of what constituted the American Dream. His vision guided the first phase of the Dream that dominated American thinking from the Revolution thru the Civil War. Independence, political and personal, was the hallmark of his philosophy. Jefferson believed in a nation of small farmers, owning enough land to guarantee economic self-sufficiency and personal independence.

The Jeffersonian vision of the American Dream was perfectly suited for the America for the end of the 18th century and for much of the 19th century. There was no aristocracy, and no embedded class system. As late as 1860, over 80 percent of workers were self employed, most of them as farmers. Approximately three quarters of the country's population lived in rural areas.

By the end of the 19th century this world was changing and there emerged the second incarnation of the American Dream -- what I call the Horiato Alger phase. Jefferson's vision of the American Dream was based on the idea of limitless land, but the 1890 census revealed there was no frontier -- no unsettled areas left. America went from a nation of farmers and independent craftsman to a nation of employees working for a salary or an hourly wage.

As America transformed from an agrarian to an industrial nation the American Dream changed with it. As America became more stratified, as people worked in large hierarchical organizations, the American Dream became a tied to visions of social mobility. The key to realize the dream was not to be independent and self-sufficient but to possess the skills that would allow you to navigate the new industrial order and to rise up through the ranks.

If Jefferson defined the agrarian phase of the Dream then Horatio Alger defined the industrial phase. Alger turned out hundreds of books, all of them with the same premise: A young man who was down on his luck, but filed with optimism, would through hard work rise from the streets and gain middle class respectability. His characters rarely became rich, but they escaped poverty and became respected members of the new American middle class. It was a message that resonated with the millions of immigrants who came to America looking for opportunity and a better life: Work hard, live by the rules, and you will achieve the new American Dream.

By the early 20th century, as Americans struggled with the consequences of industrialism and urbanization, there emerged the third phase of the Dream: The Roosevelt phase. The new urban and industrial America presented new challenges that could not be overcome by individual initiative. Cities were filthy and congested. Poor working conditions, long hours, and low wages often defined the urban workplace. Beginning at the turn of the century, progressive reforms on the local, state, and, eventually, the federal level, pushed for new regulations to provide for safe water and food, limit child labor, regulate hours, and improve work conditions.

Teddy Roosevelt first articulated this new view of the American Dream during his unsuccessful 1912 campaign for the presidency. He claimed that the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of big business required the federal government to assume the responsibility to guarantee the promise of "life, liberty and happiness."

While T.R. offered rhetorical support to the new view of the Dream, it was his cousin Franklin who institutionalized it as a part of American life. His New Deal programs, created in the midst of the Great Depression, established a precedent that if you played by the rules, and worked hard, or wanted to work hard, but suffered temporary setbacks, the government, and particularly the federal government, would provide both a handout and a hand up.

After World War II, the FDR vision of the Dream gave way to what I refer as the "King and Consumption" phase. There were two key components to the modern version. First, there was a dramatic expansion of the Dream to include groups that had previously been excluded from American life. There has always been a contradiction at the heart of the American dream. Jefferson's vision meant farming land that had once been occupied by native peoples. The greatest contradiction at the heart of the dream was the exclusion of African-Americans. After writing the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson went home to a farm that was sustained by slave labor.

In the long struggle to right this wrong there were few that possessed the rhetorical power of Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech delivered in shadow of the Lincoln memorial in August 1963. The dream that he was referencing is the American Dream, and the power of his speech was in his ability to link the African-American freedom struggle to the larger aspirations of the American Dream.

But the expansion of individual rights is only half the story. Just as more groups were able to lay claim to the American dream, the dream itself was evolving. America in the years since 1945 experienced unprecedented prosperity. Not surprisingly, the American Dream became about consuming. In 1931 when Adams first coined the phrase "The American Dream" he specifically said that it was not about getting rich or acquiring goods. But by the 1950s that is what the dream had become, and what it has remained for much of our lifetimes.

It is ironic that those forecasting the death of the American Dream rely on a vast array of charts, graphs and statistics. The fatal-flaw in the logic is that the American Dream is not a statistic or a trend, but a spirit. At every step in the evolution of the Dream there have been naysayers: The nation could not possibly achieve independence and defeat the world's greatest military power? We could not conquer the injustices of industrialism or tame unruly cities? Or extend the dream to those who have been left out. Somehow, the dream has survived every great crisis. And it will survive our current challenges.

Inevitably the pollsters who tell us that Americans no longer embrace the Dream are asking the wrong question. They usually ask young people whether they will be able to live in a house as large as their parents or have the same income. That is a different question. It is very likely that generations coming of age today will abandon -- out of choice or necessity -- the Dream of consumption and replace it with their own definition. The Dream is evolving, not dying.