In Search of the American Dream

Articles by Eleanor Roosevelt and others take up the question of what constitutes the American ideal

In 1931, when writer James Truslow Adams coined the term “the American Dream,” it had more to do with idealism than material prosperity. The American Dream, he wrote in The American Epic (a book glowingly reviewed in the Atlantic’s December 1931 issue), was “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.” Despite Truslow’s tidy summation, the ideals that America is supposed to represent have always been contested. Over the years, a number of Atlantic writers have tackled the subject, offering a wide array of perspectives, and sometimes raising more questions than answers.

In 1881, the prominent Boston philanthropist Kate Gannet Wells characterized Americanism as, “the fixed conviction that one man is the equivalent of another in capacity, and that his failure to prove it by results is the consequence of circumstances beyond his control.” This was an outlook, according to Wells, that cut both ways: “It is this fixed belief which constitutes the essence of American impudence, boasting, aggressiveness, want of grace, and knock-you-down manner. It is also the source of our sturdy independence, our valuation of character as the final estimate.”

Other Atlantic writers have pointed out another unique feature of American Nationalism. Unlike the deep-seated tribal loyalties found across Europe, American patriotism is an artificial construct. On the eve of America’s entrance into World War I, a time of mass immigration and demographic upheaval, essayist Agnes Repplier emphasized the importance of cultivating a shared national vision. In “Americanism” (1916), she drew a sharp contrast between the United States and the nations of the old world:

Of all the countries in the world, we and we only have any need to create artificially the patriotism which is the birthright of other nations. Into the hearts of six millions of foreign-born men—less than half of them naturalized—we must infuse that quality of devotion which will make them place the good of the state above their personal good.

Yet not all writers were so convinced of the fragility and tenuousness of the bonds that unify Americans. When French journalist Raoul De Roussy De Sales turned his eye to America, he discovered a nation with a well-defined, almost brash identity. In his 1939 essay “What Makes an American,” he brought an outsider’s view reminiscent of de Tocqueville:

America is a permanent protest against the rest of the world, and particularly against Europe.… This faith, like all faiths, does not engender a passive attitude toward the rest of the world. Americans are tolerant of all creeds and to all convictions, but few people express their distrust and indignation with more vigor whenever some of their beliefs are offended. Few people are more conscious that ideas may be more destructive than guns.

De Sales was fascinated by America’s conception of itself as a framework of ideas—one that remained as vivid and meaningful to its present-day inhabitants as it had to its founders.

Curiously enough, in a country where material changes are extraordinarily rapid, this moral and political frame has the stability of dogma. For instance, America is the only country in the world which pretends to listen to the teaching of its founders as if they were still alive. Political battles of today are fought with arguments based on the speeches of writings of men dead over a century ago. Most Americans behave, in fact, as if men like Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and many others could be called up on the phone for advice. Their wisdom is considered as eternal as that of the Biblical prophets.

Atlantic contributors addressed, too, the inevitable conflicts that emerge when American realities fall short of American ideals. In his 1988 article “The Return of Inequality,” Thomas Byrne Edsall warned that the country’s growing gulf between the affluent and middle classes was anathema to the American Dream. “Its manifestations are subtle: marginally frustrated hopes, a mocking disparity between the good life available to the few and the life that many settle for—resignation, guilt, social helplessness.” This inequality, he argued, also undermined the conviction that “Egalitarianism has been the Democratic answer to Marxism.”

Ultimately, Eleanor Roosevelt may have summarized America’s uniqueness in the most compelling words. In her Cold War-era essay “What Has Happened to the American Dream?” (1961), Roosevelt expressed deep concern about America’s image abroad, and lamented the creeping influence of Soviet Russia. “The future will be determined by the young,” she asserted, “and there is no more essential task today, it seems to me, than to bring before them once more, in all its brightness, in all its splendor and beauty, the American Dream.” But what exactly was this dream? Perhaps, she suggested, its appeal lies in its very mutability—in the fact that it is expansive enough to allow each of us to draw inspiration from it in our own way:

No single individual … and no single group has an exclusive claim to the American dream. But we have all, I think, a single vision of what it is, not merely as a hope and an aspiration, but as a way of life, which we can come ever closer to attaining it its ideal form if we keep shining and unsullied our purpose and our belief in its essential value.