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So Just What is the American Dream?

Updated on September 21, 2015

The Stars and Stripes

Taken on a North Carolina country road on July 4, 2010. Tattered and torn, but still flying ... just like the dream she represents.
Taken on a North Carolina country road on July 4, 2010. Tattered and torn, but still flying ... just like the dream she represents.

Liberty's Iconic Symbol

America's Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your  poor,  Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,  The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,  I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
America's Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

What does "American Dream" Mean?

I recently found myself in a conversation with a young woman fifteen years my junior (I am 53, born in 1958), and in the course of the conversation, I realized that she had no concept of the belief system in which I was raised, one that once typified the American dream for many of my generation. I grew up knowing I lived in a country that would protect my freedoms. I believed I lived in the greatest country in the world. My parents fostered in me the sure knowledge that my future opportunities would be better and more varied than those they had had, that my standard of living would be higher. It was instilled in me that my success was limited only by my own ingenuity, work ethic, and willingness to persevere.

So lately, I've pondered the American dream, what it means, and how and if it has changed. Ron Paul's presidential campaign slogan, "Restore America Now" assumes the voter understands what America once was, for how else is she to be restored? This tells me I am not alone, that these are not just the odd mental ramblings of a middle-aged woman. Yet I have concerns that, in the midst of this "me, me, me" entitlement generation, that there are those who genuinely do NOT know the meaning of the American dream, what it is to have self respect and hope and freedom and to feel the power inherent in knowing you have both the right and the ability to become anything you wish to be. I wonder if there are those depressed souls who today simply wait passively for meager government allotments, who just might be willing to consider what a restored American dream could mean for them.

So I ask, what is the "American Dream?" Has it changed? Can it change? There are some excellent articles published here on Hub Pages that answer these questions in the affirmative. However, I'm not so sure that its meaning can be changed. Misunderstood, yes. Abandoned? Perhaps by some. But not changed. For ever since a few hundred years ago, when rumors of a great new land of opportunity began to make their way across the ocean, there have been people whose hearts were drawn to the clarion call of opportunity and liberty.

Defining the American Dream

The phrase "American Dream" was first used in 1931 with the publication of freelance author John Truslow Adams' book, The Epic of America. He wrote, “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. ... It 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.”

Over time the words have come to mean many things to many people, but unfailingly germane to their essential message have been such concepts as liberty, freedom, opportunity, rights, and destiny.

I recently queried my Facebook friends, as well as others, as to what they thought of when they heard the words, "American Dream." While not particularly scientific, the results of this informal poll none the less yielded similar and interesting results. I received answers such as:

"The ability to accomplish whatever I set my mind to by taking full responsibility for the actions that it takes to get there."

"Freedom, a chance to accomplish a goal I have set for myself. Being responsible and knowing just because you have it today does not mean you necessarily will tomorrow."

"Owning my own home."

"Freedom to worship where I choose, ability to speak out and express my opinions ...."

"Possibility. Hope. The chance to make a better life through hard work, perseverance, and ingenuity."

"...freedom to worship and rear my family as I see fit ... the personal fulfillment that comes from working hard and sacrificing to achieve ownership of our home & our little peace of earth ... the right to bear arms ..."

"The freedom to pursue success however I define it so long as my doing so doesn't encroach upon the rights of another."

"Individual liberty. Self respect. Knowing that I can provide for my wants and needs and those of my family."

"To be able to work hard and achieve prosperity."

"The right to work, vote, and drive. For women and men, blacks and whites and other races to be governed equally by just laws, to be able to pursue a career, a business, to own a home. ..."

"Knowing that if I work hard and make the necessary sacrifices, that I can accumulate wealth, and have an inheritance to leave my children."

There are some common themes here: freedom, goals, responsibility, ownership, sacrifice, rights, hard work. Notice the lack of an attitude of entitlement. The American dream is not about entitlement. It's about opportunity.

The American dream is having a reasonable opportunity to make something of one's self. It's the right to start a business, free of excess governmental rules and regulations. It's about being able to work hard and then keep what you have earned, and to pass it down to your children.

What the American Dream Is Not

The American dream is not: the American dole. Welfare. Housing projects. WIC. Socialized medicine. SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

It is not subsidized poverty.

The American dream is not the demoralization of knowing your chances of survival are better spitting out illegitimate children on the American dole than to start a small business of your own. It is not a government that so chokes small business with red tape, hypocrisy, rules and regulations, that it cannot thrive. It is not the government as competitor. It is not "Big Brother" watching you at every turn.

It's Up to You

Inherent within the American dream is the potential for both success and failure.
Inherent within the American dream is the potential for both success and failure.

No Guarantees

The Achilles heel of the American dream is that there are no guarantees. Its liability is that the potential exists for the American dream to turn, for any individual, into the American nightmare. Your crops could fail. Your calculations of what the stock market is going to do might be off. There may be no market for your great, new invention. Inherent within the American dream is the potential of failure. It is a risk we take, and accept. The individual defines success and failure by his own terms. American lore is filled with tales of those who failed, only to start again ... and succeed past their wildest dreams. America is a country where we are free to succeed according to our abilities and choices. And to accept the consequences. Without whining.

The Arena

I leave you with this quote by President John F. Kennedy. It was emblazoned across the wall of my high school gymnasium's wall in the early 1970s and it epitomizes the spirit of the American dream.

"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best, if he wins, knows the thrills of high achievement, and, if he fails, at least fails daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

American Dream Poll

What do the words,

See results



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    • Edward J. Palumbo profile image

      Ed Palumbo 2 years ago from Tualatin, OR

      For much of my life, the "American Dream" was home ownership in a quality community where we could raise well-adjusted children and live in peace, without stress, and be free from the worry that it would all evaporate without warning. My children are adults now, and I consider myself blessed.

    • mljdgulley354 profile image

      mljdgulley354 6 years ago

      Great hub one I hope many more will read.

    • profile image

      Reg B. 6 years ago

      Very good, points that only in America that you can express your views... America the land of the FREE and the Home of the BRAVE... We shall have our own special joyous life!

    • profile image

      Roberta 6 years ago

      I have run across people who don't think like I do and go along as if they are doomed to that belief system as well. I am hopeful as you are and brought up to value your same values. Well composed and I fully agree.

    • vrajavala profile image

      vrajavala 6 years ago from Port St. Lucie