Today the phrase “the American Dream” is a staple of US political campaigns, book titles and economic discussions. Everybody’s heard it, but nobody knows quite how to define it. It’s a phrase that feels as old as the US itself. But the American Dream wasn’t invented in 1776. The term was coined in 1931.
James Truslow Adams came up with “the American Dream” for his 1931 book, The American Epic. Adams had been born into a wealthy New York family and went into finance, where he did quite well for himself. He made enough money in the stock market by the age of 35 that he considered himself independently wealthy and decided to take on a new career in writing. Perhaps somewhat ironically, he would write The American Epic while he was in Great Britain.
So how did Adams himself define the American Dream? Fundamentally it was about equal opportunity for upward mobility. Quite a dream indeed.
From the book:
[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 a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. 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 recognised by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
I was recently reminded of this little fun fact while listening to the fantastic history radio show/podcast, Backstory from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. I really can’t recommend it highly enough. And not just because they had me on to talk about The Jetsons.
Image: Jack Baumann looks out through American Flag glasses during the Conservative Political Action Conference via Associated Press