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What is the American Dream Today & Why It Matters

What is the American Dream Today & How it’s Changed

Summary: In this article, learn what is the American Dream today and how it’s changed. Topics also include a history of the American Dream, how to live it today and famous quotes about its meaning.


“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.” This is the first public American Dream definition from historian James Truslow Adams’ best-selling book “Epic of America,” published in 1931.

In his book, Adams went on to clarify that the American Dream 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 to 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.” 

While the term “American Dream” was officially coined in 1931, its vision was laid out by our Founding Fathers as described in the Declaration of Independence. However, the general idea can be traced as far back as the first colonists to settle the New World.


The Declaration of Independence protects the idea and pursuit of the American Dream. It states, “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 wrote into law the revolutionary idea that the “pursuit of Happiness” is not just self-indulgence. Rather, it drives ambition and the desire to contribute to the well-being and success of society as a whole. The American Dream provides the opportunity to pursue one’s own happiness under an equal, fair and just democracy.


With the legal protection of these values, an attractive society was laid out for those aspiring for a better life. A society based on these principles offers everyone the right to live life to its fullest however he or she sees fit. 

For the American Dream to thrive, the Declaration of Independence introduced, “no taxation without representation.” Meaning that the government of the United States would operate as a Democracy, rather than a Monarchy. Under a democracy, leaders are elected by the people and for the people, as opposed to Kings, military rulers or tyrants. 

Elected officials must adhere to all laws and may not create new legislation or impose taxes “without representation” or reason to. Legal disputes are settled by a jury of people and not the opinion of a leader. Finally, the Declaration of Independence states that a nation must be allowed free trade.

The Founding Fathers believed that the best way to ensure national progress is to protect citizens’ right to improve their lives. This is the essence of the American Dream.


The American Dream during the Colonial Era was fueled by religious beliefs of the Puritans who left England to escape persecution. The Puritans believed that life was a continual battle between good and evil. And the only way for good to win out over evil was through ambition and hard work. The religion taught that success on Earth would lead to rewards in heaven.

The main theme in literature throughout the 17th and 18th centuries is largely based on religious and Puritanical beliefs. However, the topics of slavery, the American Revolution, and political and cultural change are also prevelant during this time.


According to colonial literature, the Pilgrim’s believed that they were the “new Israelites” or God’s chosen people who would be protected on their journey to the “promised land.” They believed that coming to North America was part of God’s grand plan and success was contingent on the faithfulness of the Puritans.


During the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin led the charge in encouraging American colonists to create wealth through hard work and frugality. His annual magazine, Poor Richard’s Almanack, used common sense – not religion – along with wit and humor to motivate readers to accomplish the American Dream through industry. 

Franklin believed that the overall betterment of society in America could be achieved by educating the masses.


The first record of slavery in America was around 1619 when a Dutch ship carrying enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown. In 1865, nearly 250 years later, the Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. 

The majority of popular literature during this time period conveniently left out the issue of slavery and described America as a place free of oppression and full of opportunity to become independent, self-interested landowners.


Thousands of letters between John and Abigail Adams from 1762 to 1801 document enormous social, cultural and political change in America. During this time, Adams served in the Continental Congress, as vice president to George Washington, and eventually as the second President of the United States. These letters chronicle important moments before, during, and after the American Revolution, including the Declaration of Independence signifying the beginning of democracy in America.


The 19th Century American Dream included ideals of individualism and self-interest, mostly driven by America’s somewhat new freedom from British reign. With the new found freedom established by the birth of the United States of America in 1776, the nineteenth century saw an influx of immigrants from around the globe. Many desperate to escape poverty in war-torn Europe with hopes of starting a new life in America.


The Civil War, a period of industrialization that seemed to almost instantly change American economy and culture. Rather than a mindset of cooperation, competitiveness set in as Americans fought over their share of development and wealth in their hard-won country. These hundred years experienced rapid expansion and the notion of the “self-made man” took on a new, powerful meaning.

While the Civil War obliterated many American’s dreams, the survivors became advocates against racial and gender discrimination.


The 1800s began with a desire to explore the vast, rugged wilderness west of the colonies. This “frontier” mindset triggered the removal and displacement of Native Americans and eventually the race for California gold.


With the exploration of the frontier out west, the wilderness became less “wild” and therefore, less feared. Ralph Waldo Emerson replaced the often feared term wilderness, with the word “nature.” Emerson rejected traditional religion and materialism and proclaimed that nature was the root of endless human possibility and fulfillment. 

The Transcendental movement supported the individualistic mindset of this century. Many participants of the movement became well-known social reformists, particularly anti-slavery and promoters of women’s rights. 


In the 1900s, the diverse backgrounds of people in America had never been greater. The economy experienced record highs and extreme lows, with the devastation of WWI, followed by the Great Depression hitting America’s interests hard in the late 1920s and 1930s. 

Just as America’s economy was recovering from the downturn, Hitler and the Nazi regime ignited WWII in Europe, forcing the Allies to step in. America was once again thrust into another war turning the once idealistic mindset of a nation into cynicism and dread. 


Following the first World War, American’s were haunted by the terror of modern warfare resulting in disillusionment and doubt toward traditional beliefs and the ideals of the American Dream. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), describes the “new” American Dream as a quest to find one’s own identity. “It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being,” writes Fitzgerald. 


The arrival of the Great Depression magnified the increasing gap between wealthy and poor American’s. Criticism toward the government’s failure to look after the poor were abundant as dreams of prosperity were overpowered by the need to simply survive. For many dreamers, the Great Depression signaled the end of the American Dream.


American’s in the twentieth century carried the burden of massive loss due to multiple wars. The 1960s brought the Vietnam War where many people finally verbalized the notion that “war has no winners.” 

Mainstream American culture is thrown to the wayside by many and the redefining of the American Dream continued. The nature of the American Dream was no longer mainstream ideals, but what lies on the edges of society.


Another decade brings yet another shift in the picture of the American Dream. During the1980s, the dream of success shifted away from having a family, home, and job and toward money, fame and power.


The final two decades of the twentieth century American Dream follows a similar theme: change. The effects of the 1991 Rodney King assault, trial and riots in Los Angeles dug up long-buried cracks in the foundation of the American Dream. 

These events broke open a conversation about the ongoing issues of race, social class, and justice in America. These issues were previously ignored as to not disrupt the comfortable ideals of the mainstream American Dream. 


The American Dream has been a long-time model of prosperity for both American’s and people around the world.  “The charm of anticipated success” has brought millions of immigrants to America, looking for equal opportunity and a better life.

Historian Emily Rosenberg came up with five components of the American Dream that began showing up in nations around the world. These five components include: 

  1. Belief that other nations should replicate America’s development.
  2. Faith in a free market economy.
  3. Support for free trade agreements and culture. 
  4. Promotion of free flow information and culture. 
  5. Acceptance of government protection of private enterprise.


The notion of the American Dream continues to be a theme across the nation and around the globe. Whether these dreams brought triumph or despair, American’s keep on dreaming his or her own version of the Dream.

Has the American Dream today moved away from the vision set forth by our Founding Fathers? Many argue that it has, while others remain optimistic in the evolving definition of what the American Dream is today. 

A number of U.S. presidents around the turn of the century, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush supported homeownership as an integral part of the Dream. 

In fact, during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008, she laid out her American Dream Plan. This plan included homeownership, college, retirement, and health insurance for children. Obama went on to pass the Affordable Care Act, which expanded the right to healthcare for all American’s. 


The Great Recession of 2008 resulted in even greater income inequality across the U.S., seemingly putting an end to the American Dream for many. In reality, the recession only injured the materialistic Dream. 

The New American Dream is returning to the basic values of our Founding Fathers. The Center for a New American Dream imagines, “…a focus on more of what really matters, such as creating a meaningful life, contributing to community and society, valuing nature, and spending time with family and friends.” 


Three factors are said to have made the American Dream possible: 

  1. A large land mass under one government
  2. Benign neighbors
  3. Abundant natural resources

A new crisis has emerged as the impact of climate change is becoming more prevalent. Science has proved a rising rate of global warming resulting in a call for lower levels of consumption and a greater reliance on natural resources. 

Extreme weather, rising sea levels, increasing health risks, and food inflation is already costing the U.S. government billions of dollars, thus slowing economic growth. Therefore, a vision for a new American Dream is needed in order to endure this new crisis.

The Founding Fathers of this nation could not have foreseen an American Dream that didn’t offer the right to clean air, water, and plenty of natural resources. But the vision of our Forefathers included rights to be “self-evident.”


With an entire population united by language, political system, and values, America’s strength only seems to grow with the differences of its citizens. A diverse population gives companies in the U.S. a competitive advantage, with more innovation and accessible markets to test new products.

Additionally, America’s “melting pot” offers diverse demographics, further giving commerce the edge to test niche products, generating more innovative ideas compared to a small, homogenous population. The U.S. continues to enjoy the benefits of cultural diversity.

Thanks to the vision of our Founding Fathers, everyone has an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of one’s own happiness. The Declaration of Independence makes no attempt to define happiness or lifestyle.

Rather, it protects the right for everyone to have the same opportunity to pursue their personal vision of the American Dream. It fosters a belief in free enterprise where people can create and own businesses that operate without government control. It promotes a free market economy where products, prices and services are decided by the market and not the government. Giving everyone an equal opportunity to create wealth however they see fit.


"Hope will be found by understanding that diversity is the essence of the American Dream and why we need each other to fulfill it."

"When we make college more affordable, we make the American Dream more achievable.

"Our workforce and our entire economy are strongest when we embrace diversity to its fullest, and that means opening doors of opportunity to everyone and recognizing that the American Dream excludes no one."

"A basic element of the American Dream is equal access to education as a lubricant of social and economic mobility."

"I am the epitome of what the American Dream basically said. It said you could come from anywhere and be anything you want in this country."

"The promise of the American Dream requires that we are all provided an equal opportunity to participate in and contribute to our nation."

"To me, the American Dream is being able to follow your own personal calling. To be able to do what you want to do is incredible freedom."

"For many, the American Dream has become a nightmare."

"I have spent my life judging the distance between American reality and the American Dream."

"The promise of the American Dream requires that we are all provided an equal opportunity to participate in and contribute to our nation."

“My father worked in the Post Office. A lot of double shifts. All his friends were in the same situation – truck drivers, taxi cab drivers, grocery clerks. Blue collar guys punching the clock and working long, hard hours. The thought that sustained them was the one at the center of the American Dream.”

“To realize the American Dream, the most important thing to understand is that it belongs to everybody. It’s a human dream. If you understand this and work very hard, it is possible.”

“There are those who will say that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind is nothing but a dream. They are right. It is the American Dream.”

“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

“The faith that anyone could move from rags to riches – with enough guts and gumption, hard work and nose to the grindstone – was once at the core of the American Dream.”

“The American Dream is a phrase we’ll have to wrestle with all our lives. It means a lot of things to different people. I think we’re redefining it now.”


What is the American Dream today? This Thanksgiving, may we reflect on what the American Dream means to all of us, both individually and collectively. May we celebrate our diversity, show gratitude and respect to our Forefathers who paved the way for every American to have the freedom to define, pursue and achieve the Dream.


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