The American Dream

No phrase appears in a greater variety of ideological settings within our US politics than “The American Dream” – a guiding metaphor that hints at a dominant moral order.  But over the past century the everyday meaning of this iconic cultural frame has changed so dramatically that today our sense of an “American Dream” is far from what its inventor – James Truslow Adams (1878-1949) — had in mind.

James Truslow Adams was a wealthy and successful investment banker who, while still a young man, left finance behind to launch a career as a freelance writer.  Successful in this new venture, Adams wrote several well-received volumes of history aimed at a mass audience, and in 1931, as the Great Depression was deepening across the US, he published The Epic of America – a highly popular triumphalist account of the American experience.  Adams had wanted the book to be entitled The American Dream, but his publisher preferred the slightly more descriptive Epic….  Although absent from the title page, the newly coined “Dream” phrase appears dozens of times in the text and is defined and explicated by the author in a 12-page “Epilogue.”  It is here that Adams clearly states his view: that his “has not been a dream of merely material plenty…It has been much more than that.  It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman…”  For Adams, the goal is a high quality of life for all, not inflated bank accounts for a few.  In truth, any political leader who today conflates “The American Dream” with “wealth accumulation” is dishonoring James Adams vision and, more importantly, completely missing his point.

Today, as a still-raging pandemic and covid-19 disease reshape the American economy – very likely forever – it is worth revisiting Adams’s original argument, in part to absorb his inspiring insight into the potential of an American society that truly enables every citizen to flourish, in part to advance our national longing for some guidepost that leads away from the feverish, wealth-addled society that has empowered the rich while grinding down everybody else.

A few years back, while working on a project for Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, I returned to The Epic of America, paying special attention to the volume’s concluding “Epilogue.”  As part of that (unpublished) report, I produced this version of Epic’s final chapter, editing the author’s 12 pages down to about 1,200 words.  Read them.  This is what James Truslow Adams really had in mind when he gave life to his phrase, “The American Dream.”


The Epic of America
James Truslow Adams

Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. New York: Triangle Books, 1931, 1941. Excerpts from pages 403-415


The huge and empty land has been filled with homes, roads, railways, schools, colleges, hospitals and all the comforts of the most advanced material civilization.  The mere physical tasks have been stupendous and unparalleled.  Supplied at each important stage of advance with new implements of science which hastened our pace; lured by such rewards for haste and industry as were never offered to man before; keyed to activity by a climate that makes expenditure of nervous energy almost a bodily necessity, we threw ourselves into the task of physical domination of our environment with an abandonment that perforce led us to discard much that we had started to build up in our earliest days.

While thus occupied with material conquest and upbuilding, we did not wholly lose the vision of something nobler.  If we hastened after the pot of gold, we also saw the rainbow itself, and felt that it promised, as of old, a hope for mankind.  In the realm of thought we have been practical and adaptive rather than original and theoretical, although it may be noted that we stand preeminent in astronomy….In literature and the drama, today, there is no work being done better anywhere than in the United States.  In the intangible realm of character, there is no other country that can show in the past century or more two men of greater nobility than Washington and Lincoln…

In many respects…there are other lands in which life is easier, more stimulating, more charming than in raw America, for America is still raw, and unnecessarily so.  The barbarian carelessness of the motoring millions, the littered roadsides, the use of our most beautiful scenery for the advertising of products which should be boycotted for that very reason, are but symptoms of our slipping down from civilized standards of life, as are also our lawlessness and corruption with the cynical disregard of them by the public….Some are also European problems as well as American.  Some are urban, without regard to international boundaries.  The mob mentality of the city crowd everywhere is coming to be one of the menaces to modern civilization…

But there has been also the American Dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.  It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it.  It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a 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.

…The American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtless counted heavily.  It has been much more than that.  It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.  And that dream has been realized more fully in actual life here than anywhere else, though very imperfectly even among ourselves.

If we are to regard man merely as a producer and consumer, then the more ruthlessly efficient big business is, the better.  Many of the goods consumed doubtless make man healthier, happier, and better even on the basis of a high scale of human values.  But if we think of him as a human being primarily, and only incidentally as a consumer, then we have to consider what values are best or most satisfying for him as a human being.  We can attempt to regulate business for him not as a consumer but as a man, with many needs and desires with which he has nothing to do as a consumer.  Our point of view will form efficiency and statistics to human nature.  We shall not create a high-wage scale in order that the receiver will consume more, but that he may, in one way or another, live more abundantly, whether by enjoying those things which are factory produced or those which are not.  The points of view are entirely different, socially and economically.

The theory of mass production breaks down…when applied to the things of the spirit.  Merging of companies in huge corporations, and the production of low-priced products for markets of tens of millions of consumers for one standard brand of beans or cars, may be possible in the sphere of our material needs.  It cannot be possible, however, in the realm of the mind, yet the whole tendency at present is in that direction.  Newspapers are merging as if they were factories, and daily, weekly, and monthly journals are all becoming as dependent on mass sales as a toothpaste.  The result is to lower the quality of thought as represented in them to that of the least common denominator of the minds of the millions of consumers.

I take…little interest in the great gifts and Foundations of men who have incomes they cannot possible spend, and investments that roll like avalanches.  They merely return, not seldom unwisely, a part of their wealth to that society without which they could not have made it, and which too often they have plundered in the making.  That is chiefly evidence of maladjustment in our economic system.  A system that steadily increases the gulf between the ordinary man and the super-rich, that permits the resources of society to be gathered into personal fortunes that afford their owners millions of income a year, with only the chance that here and there a few may be moved to confer some of their surplus upon the public in ways chosen wholly by themselves, is assuredly a wasteful and unjust system.  It is, perhaps, as inimical as anything could be to the American dream.  I do not belittle the generosity or public spirit of certain men.  It is the system that as yet is at fault.  Nor is it likely to be voluntarily altered by those who benefit most by it.  No ruling class has ever willingly abdicated.  Democracy can never be saved, and would not be worth saving, unless it can save itself.

I have little trust in the wise paternalism of politicians or the infinite wisdom of business leaders.  We can look neither to government nor to the heads of the great corporations to guide us into the paths of a satisfying and humane existence as a great nation unless we, as multitudinous individuals, develop some greatness in our own individual souls.  Until countless men and women have decided in their own hearts, through experience and perhaps disillusion, what is a genuinely satisfying life, a “good life,” in the old Greek sense, we need look to neither political nor business leaders.  Under our political system it is useless, save by the rarest of happy accidents, to expect a politician to rise higher than the source of his power.  So long also as we are ourselves content with a mere extension of the material basis of existence, with the multiplying of our material possessions, it is absurd to think that the men who can utilize that public attitude for the gaining of infinite wealth and power will abandon both to become spiritual leaders of a democracy that despises spiritual things.  Just so long as wealth and power are our sole badges of success, so long will ambitious men strive to attain them.

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