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The American Dream

July 2024
6min read

America has always been not only a country but a dream.—

Walter Lippmann


We don’t ordinarily think of clichés as having an origin, but of course they do. Someone once said for the first time (and may the gods forgive him), “He can’t see the forest for the trees”; someone else first advised us to “leave no stone unturned. ” So it is with the “American Dream.” This overworked phrase, constantly on the tongues or slipping from the peris of politicians, novelists and dramatists, polemicists of every persuasion, historians, journalists, economists, and sociologists, to name just a few, didn’t arise spontaneously out of the primordial ooze of the American language. Someone thought it up—and this time we know whom to blame. He was the historian James Truslow Adams and he invented “the American Dream” in 1931. He was so proud of his new phrase, in fact, that he made it the theme of his book The Epic of America, published that same year, and would have called the book The American Dream if his publishers had let him.

The phrase paid off nicely for Adams. In one of the worst years of the Depression, when few people could afford the luxury of buying a book, The Epic of America was a spectacular best seller; and not the least of the credit goes to the reaffirmation of traditional American hopes and aspirations Adams subsumed in his new phrase. Adams defined it as “that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank,” and again as “the hope of a better and freer life, a life in which a man might think as he would and develop as he willed,” and yet again as “a new dynamic hope of rising and growing, of hewing out for themselves a life in which they would not only succeed as men but be recognized as men, a life not only of economic prosperity but of social and self-esteem.” The Dream was the ordinary American’s “Star in the West which led him on over the stormy seas and into the endless forests in search of a home where toil would reap a sure reward, and no dead hands of custom or exaction would push him back into ‘his place.’ ” This message of hope, coming in the midst of social disaster, not only sold the book, it sold the phrase as well. “The American Dream” quickly became a catch phrase; indeed, if phrases yielded royalties, Adams might have retired within the year.

Instead, “the American Dream” entered the public domain, as phrases must, and took on a life of its own. In 1932 the governor of Massachusetts invoked it in a speech before the monument on Bunker Hill and modified its meaning somewhat to suit his own rhetorical purposes. So did George O’Neil, whose play American Dream was produced by the Theatre Guild in 1933. O’Neil was a pessimist who saw the original Dream—represented in his panorama of American history by a young free spirit who breaks away from his Puritan father to strike out on his own—vitiated and then destroyed, first by the forces of nineteenth-century industrialism, then by a modern materialism empty of all ideals. At the end of his play the contemporary representative of the Dream, another young man descended from the first, commits suicide, leaving the Dream, and his wife, to a Marxist. A few years later Michael Foster, in a novel called American Dream, also explored the corruption of original American ideals; but Foster ended his work on an upbeat note. The Dream would “live forever, for it was “not merely the American dream” but the “old, old human faith that somehow, somewhere, a time might come when man would stand on the ruins of an old world and an old self, with the starlight on his shoulders. Were still in the Depression at this point; O’Neil’s pessimism was roundly condemned, Foster’s optimism roundly applauded. By 1942, the worst year of World War II, the optimism had literally—even desperately —become an article of faith. A patriotic pamphlet issued that year by the Woman s Press includes a vesper service entitled The American Dream, complete with a call to worship, a hymn, a litany, and quotations from The Epic of America.

It’s clear even from these few examples that the boundaries of the phrase were becoming increasingly vague, a development to be expected from the vagueness implicit in the very notion of a “dream, of a dimly perceived vision of possible futures. Even Adams, who invented the phrase, was unable to talk about “the American Dream in precise terms. A better, richer, happier life, a life in which Americans “would not only succeed as men but be recognized as men’: these are not so much definitions as invocations. The vesper service, in other words, was prefigured in Adams rhetoric; we are close to the religion of patriotism. Politicians still invoke the phrase without making any pretense toward using it with precision. Richard Nixon kept reminding us that he believed in the American Dream, but what he meant by it wasn’t at all clear. Nor were we any more enlightened when Jimmy Carter. in his Inaugural Address, told us that the American Dream endures.

The more interesting development, however, was not this progressive emptying out of the phrase, its degeneration into a cliché for politicians, but rather the increasing attention and respect the phrase began to receive from historians, sociologists, and other scholars. As early as 1938 the sociologist Robert K. Merton referred to the American Dream in an important essay called “Social Structure and Anomie”; Merton identified the Dream not with Adams’ vague phrases about “a better, richer, happier life” but with success, specifically monetary success, and indicated that this was the principal goal of American culture. Quite a few other scholars subsequently adopted and elaborated on this interpretation, equating the American Dream with the achievement of the sort of success dramatized in the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches” stories and in the enormous body of how-to-succeed literature produced in America during the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth—a literature which, of course, still flourishes.

But some scholars took another tack, not so much disagreeing with Merton’s interpretation as simply ignoring it. To them the Dream was essentially a dream of a better society; it was Utopian in nature and belonged to all those dreamers and reformers, from Sir Thomas More on down, for whom America was the last, best hope of mankind, a place not for the achievement of individual success but for the realization of a perfect society. This is the tack taken by Stewart Holbrook in his book Dreamers of the American Dream, published in 1957, which is largely about American reform movements; by Vernon L. Parrington, Jr., in American Dreams, which is about nineteenth-century Utopian communities; and by men like Archibald MacLeish, with their grand sense of the meaning and purpose of America. Unlike the people of other nations, said MacLeish, “We not only have a national purpose, we have a national purpose of such aspiration, such potentiality, such power of hope that we refer to it—or used to—as the American Dream.”

The contradiction between these two interpretations, and the many variations upon them, has led some scholars to wish that the phrase had never been invented. “Though there is a history of dreams about America, and of dreams of America,” wrote the literary critic Robert B. Heilman in exasperation, “there is no such thing as ‘the American Dream.’ ” Perhaps not. Yet it seems unlikely that the phrase would have gained popularity so rapidly and persisted so strongly if it didn’t refer to something. It is still common coin. Journalists use the phrase constantly; there has even been a newspaper course called “In Search of the American Dream.” In New York there’s a film production company called American Dream Productions. In vending machines around the country one can buy American Dream rolling papers for making marijuana cigarettes.

What the phrase means, to be sure, remains unclear. A look at a few of the scores of recent books and articles referring to it— Restoring the American Dream, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, “Aspects of the American Dream in the French Enlightenment,” “Coping With the American Dream”—reveals no particular consensus about what the Dream is. Yet there’s clearly something there—some special quality to the country, something that makes America unique among nations, a sense of aspiration or possibility or open-endedness—that demands a name.

Perhaps the best way to define the American Dream is as a kind of origin myth. The Romans have Romulus and Remus, the English Brutus and his survivors from the fall of Troy; even new nations sometimes develop extrahistorical explanations for who they are and how they got that way. One thinks of the “Australian Legend,” the “French-Canadian Spirit. We have the American Dream. The name somehow defines us, grants us an identity. But it is not really a myth of origins. That we cannot have; our beginnings are too recent, too factual, too diverse to admit of mythologizing. What we have instead is a myth of the future. Our meaning lies not in who we are but in whom we shall become. Such a myth is necessarily vague and without specific content; to be too specific would entail setting limits to the Dream, reducing the range of possibilities, and the governing idea is that we are—America is—all possibility.

It follows that the form in which the possibilities will be realized must always remain to be seen. Wrote Robert K. Merton, “ the American Dream there is no final stopping point,” for to stop would be to accept limitations, to wake up from the Dream. The Dream stretches endlessly and forever toward the horizon, then, the lure of “more” and “better” pulling us on; no matter what we accomplish, individually or collectively, it lies just out of reach, and we remain, however self-consciously at times, however ironically, a nation of Dreamers.

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