The American Dream may be traced back to James Truslow Adams who envisioned a situation “where everyone can live a rich life, where opportunities abound, and barriers of the past aren’t hampering progress” (Bryant 1). While this definition is greatly inclined to the socio-economic benefits of the American Dream, Robert Shiller defines the American Dream from a different standpoint. From a political and religious perspective, the American Dream entailed the protection of the freedoms of Americans —including the right to worship God according to one’s conscience— the existence of mutual respect and equal opportunities (Shiller 1). In the article “The Transformation of the ‘American Dream’”, the author argues that the American Dream “had more to do with morality than material success” (Shiller 1). Several authors delve into the historical context of the original American Dream as they attempt to define what it should really be about (Gillon 1; Kamp 1). As our country undergoes social, political and economic alterations, the definition of the American Dream has also come to change from how James Truslow Adams first conceptualized it through his book, The Epic of America. In this article, I review the changed perceptions of Americans on this concept as I answer the research question of what is the definition of the American Dream?
In 1931, James Adams published The Epic of America in which he outlines the integral values that had made the American people persevere economic and political hardships. In his definition of the American Dream, Adams goes back in history to when Columbus discovered America and the major historical milestones that America underwent, including the enactment of the Declaration of Independence and how Americans had persevered through the Great Depression (Kamp 1). As such, the American Dream was akin to the resilience and optimism of the American people as well as the liberties that allowed them equal opportunities to lead fuller lives (Gillon 1). Therefore, the American Dream represented the hopes and aspirations of the people. The concept of the American Dream would later be adopted across the political, social and commercial spectrums of the lives of the American people. The American Dream represented equal opportunities for which Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech would be derived (Shiller 1). The American Dream also encouraged people to lead fuller lives for which many businesses and politicians adopted as a slogan to appeal to the pathos of their audiences. Moreover many businesses would advertise their products using the slogan in the 1940s (Schiller 1). However, the definition of the American Dream began to change as America was going through an industrial revolution in the 1950s (Gillon 1). During the progressive era, people shifted from farming and craftsmanship to white-collar employment (Gillon 1). The concept of the American Dream would later change throughout history as people tried to associate it with their conditions of living.
When Adams first conceptualized the American Dream, it defined the resilience, optimism, equal opportunities and the liberties of the American people (Kamp 1). This definition banked on the ideologies of the Declaration of Independence, that is, “the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”” (Gillon 1). This definition greatly influenced people during the progressive era of the 1950s, as they believed that they could achieve their aspirations of the American Dream by living up to its doctrines. Thus, the definition of the American Dream in the 1950s involved owning a home, having a small family, holding mutual respect for other people and generally leading comfortable lives— the concept of living a fuller life (Bryant 1). Hence, the initial definition of the American Dream greatly leaned towards the notion that it was the embodiment of the values of the American people which afforded them the opportunity “to scale the walls and achieve” success (Kamp 1).
However, the American Dream began to be commercialized as an embodiment that living a fuller life meant being richer and owning a home (Shiller 1). Although several authors are critical of this definition, David Kamp notes that the American Dream still represented the concept of materialism. He cites that The Epic of America did not solely adopt the clause of equal opportunities and liberties from the Declaration of Independence. Instead, he quotes Adams, noting, “life should be richer and fuller” (Kamp 1). Yet, Kamp warns that this definition has misled us into having a misguided notion of the American Dream.
During the George W. Bush administration, for instance, the American Dream was defined through homeownership and economic prosperity (Gillon 1). During this administration, the government enacted the American Dream Down Payment Act to allow more people to get affordable mortgages and own homes (Shiller 1). Later, President Donald Trump and Ben Carson would give varying definitions of the same concept during their presidential campaigns (Shiller 1). Trump defined the American Dream as owning a home and starting a business, while Carson mentioned that owning a home was an integral part of the American Dream (Shiller 1). Although their definitions vary slightly, they both point to the aspect of economic prosperity.
Conventionally, the American Dream represented the values of the American people, which invoked resilience during challenges, optimism, mutual respect and upholding equal liberties for all people. Yet, this definition has gradually been changed through history to conform to the ideologies of homeownership, hard work and economic prosperity. This definition has resulted in misguided notions among the younger demographic of what constitutes the American Dream (Gillon 1). In 2006, CNN conducted a study that revealed that about 64 per cent of Americans felt that the American Dream was unachievable (Kamp 1). Subsequently, David Kamp asserts that the high disparities between the rich and other people could have created this notion among the participants of this study (Kamp 1). This assertion proves that the definition of the American Dream is still unfamiliar to many people. Conversely, Steve Gillon argues that the American Dream is still existent, dubbing those who oppose his claims as ‘naysayers’ (Gillon 1). In other instances, the American Dream is defined as a statistic that is measured through the economic prosperity of American citizens. Forbes, for instance, developed the American Dream Index as a measure of the wealth of Americans, including the number of people who own homes, employment rates, monthly incomes, among other variables (Shiller 1).
The economic, political and social changes that America has undergone have resulted in varying definitions of the concept of the American Dream. For instance, the original definition of the spirit was based on the values that helped us get through economic turmoil, such as the Great Depression. However, this definition was changed to include homeownership and economic prosperity through political agents who wanted to improve the standards of living for the American people. This, we see through the political stance of George Bush, Donald Trump and Ben Carson. The definition of this concept changes once again to represent an economic statistic as portrayed by Forbes’ index. However, in all these scenarios, we too adopt the varied definitions of the concept of the American Dream, shifting the term from its initial meaning.
The current overarching definition of homeownership and economic prosperity may be dismissed for two reasons. Firstly, both aspects are outcomes of the American dream rather than the actual definition of the term. One can only manage to be rich or own a home through hard work, which was one of the values promoted by Adams in his book. The American Dream was a promise to the hard-working citizens of the United States (Kamp 1). Secondly, the liberties and freedoms accorded to the American people allow them to achieve arguably anything that they wish (Kamp 1). Therefore, basing my second argument on this assertion, it is unmistakable that the liberties enshrined as one of the doctrines of the American Dream present the American people with an equal opportunity to prosper based on the means available to them. Therefore, to get the actual definition of the American dream, we must overlook the outcomes of keeping to its doctrines. The aspects of owning a home, becoming richer, having a job and receiving a substantial salary merely represent the outcomes of the American Dream. Thus, based on my arguments, we can define the American Dream as the spirit of the American people coupled with their freedoms and liberties, which allow them to work hard towards their goals whether they involve owning a home or getting richer.
In conclusion, the changes that continue to take place in our society have resulted in misconstrued definitions of the American Dream. However, to get the perfect definition of the American Dream, we must overlook the outcomes of upholding the doctrines outlined in James Adam’s book. Being richer or owning a home are merely the outcomes of the American Dream.
Bryant, Sean. “What is the American Dream in 2016?” Investopedia, 25 Jun 2019,
Gillon, Steve. “Searching for the American Dream.” Huffington Post, 14 Dec. 2014,
Kamp, David. “Rethinking the American Dream.” Vanity Fair, 5 Mar 2009,
Shiller, Robert J. “The Transformation of the ‘American Dream’.” The New York Times, 4 Aug.