Excepts from Chapter 9:
The American Dream in the 21st Century

"Pursuing the American Dream book jacketThe American Dream has always involved a clear sense of the goals to be pursued and means by which they might be achieved. The American Dream has clear expectations both for the individual and the nation. At the individual level, as Penn, Franklin, Alger and so many others knew, the Dream demanded “character;” preparation in school and shop, honesty, hard work, frugality, and persistence. At the national level, the Dream demanded that society provide an open, fair, competitive, entrepreneurial environment in which individual merit could find its place....

The Founders well understood that a free, stable, and prosperous society required constitutional rules of the game that were carefully crafted. Individuals were responsible for their own character and preparation. They were expected to foster good habits and avoid bad habits; to be honest, fair, and truthful, and to avoid lying, drinking, and swearing. They were also to prepare themselves, through education and preparation for a job or career, to be useful members of their society. Then they were expected to work hard, save, invest, persevere, and with a little luck, to succeed and perhaps to prosper. But no matter how well they prepared, how hard they were willing to work, society and the economy had to be well organized and vibrant enough to provide the opportunities over which they might compete.

Through most of the 19th century, the American Dream of land in the woods or independent craftsmanship remained open to each new generation and to a constantly increasing flow of immigrants. Yet, over the course of the 19th century the balance of the Founders’ dream eroded, the limits slipped away, and the American heart hardened. The push west, with its steady annihilation of the Indians, the frantic scramble for wealth in the California gold fields, the seemingly endless horror of the Civil War, and breakneck industrialization, stripped the American character of much of its sense of propriety, balance, and scale. Individualism and competition displaced community and cooperation as men fought to tame the continent, seize its wealth, and control the course of its development.

As the 19th century neared its close, thoughtful men were well aware that the dynamics of the old century would not be those of the new. The rough equality and competition allowed by a seemingly limitless western frontier, had given way to a harsh competition in which the Robber Barons of the age threatened to deny hope and opportunity to everyone else.... The nation’s top political leaders also knew that the new century required a new vision. Citizens were worried, even frightened, so they listened intently for an explanation of how the country was changing and what the implications would be for them. Every leading president of the 20th century used his first Inaugural Address to answer two questions – How did we get to this place in our history and how do we insure that the fundamental dynamics of the nation’s early history live into the future? Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, all asked how to secure the American Dream in their time.

Three images – the city on a hill and its golden doors, the balance between the dollar and the man, and the fairly run footrace – have been used throughout the nation’s history to sharpen and clarify the fundamental meaning of the American Dream. First, from Winthrop to Reagan, America has been described as a city on a hill. But this city was not a fortress, powerful, austere, and unapproachable; there were doors, golden doors, which gave access to the security and prosperity within. The shining city on a hill was both an example to the world and a destination for all who would be free. The city belonged not just to her defenders within, but to kindred spirits without who would stand with them against the darkness of tyranny, poverty, and injustice in the world.

Second, within the city, care was taken, through culture, constitutions, law, and policy, to insure that openness and opportunity continued to characterize the society through time. As Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and many others well knew and clearly said, freedom and opportunity demand that a balance be maintained between the dollar and the man, between property rights and human rights. If property and the dollar become too powerful, too concentrated, they foreclose opportunity to the man on the make, the little man just starting out, and to the next generation.

Third, the image of the fairly run race was used by Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, and many others to humanize and soften thinking about the American Dream. It provided particular insight into the competition between the traditionally advantaged and the historically disadvantaged. A fairly run race does not demand that each runner be equally likely to win, some may be stronger, some may be better trained and prepared, but putting the demonstrably ill-prepared, the injured, sick, and crippled, in a race against the strong and swift offends the common sense of justice. To be fair, the strong must forebear while the society nourishes and strengthens the weak before the results of any race in which they are to compete can be given credence.

These images remain powerfully resonant today because each generation of Americans must relate the nation’s Founding ideals to the developments and dangers of a new age. The American Creed, based in the Declaration of Independence and all of the documents and demands that have flowed from it, promised a nation committed to liberty, equality, individualism, populism, laissez-faire, and the rule of law under a constitution. But a healthy balance must continually be sought between freedom and equality, between individualism and the rule of law, and between populism and constitutionalism. The American Dream is a constant reminder that America’s true nature and distinctive grandeur is in promising the common man, the man on the make, a better chance to succeed here than common men enjoy anywhere else on earth...

Hence, like every previous generation of Americans, we ask what the nation can do to insure that the American Dream thrives for this and future generations. Public opinion, parties, and politics will ultimately determine the path that we take, but there is a direction that will lead to a strong and vibrant American Dream for the 21st century. Americans have long held the view that individual initiative and markets are the most efficient distributors of opportunities and benefits in a free society. They have also recognized that, while markets produce fantastic wealth, they sometimes distribute that wealth so unevenly that democracy is threatened. For the past quarter century, we have been involved in a national debate in which the Republican party has advocated smaller government, lower taxes, deregulation, and self-reliance, while the Democratic party has stood for larger, more energetic, government designed both to assure and promote equality. In an historical moment like this nearly a century ago, Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life (1909) counseled the pursuit of Jeffersonian ends of democratic individualism and opportunity by Hamiltonian means of authoritative government.

The challenges of 9/11 shifted this debate somewhat, privileging a larger and more powerful national government, but setting off a fierce battle over civil liberties and domestic policy priorities. All Americans recognize that the shining city on the hill has to be secure if it was to cast the light of freedom into the dark corners of the world. Yet, some worry that we might forget what made the city shine, what made it an example to the world, and what precisely it was about this homeland that made it worth defending. The answer, of course, is the social order within; the freedom, opportunity, and security to pursue one’s dreams. As always, we must keep our eye on the goal; the American Dream envisions certain kinds of people in certain kinds of settings. It envisions secure, well-rounded, responsible individuals competing on an even playing field for the good things, material and intellectual, the fruits of the outer plantation of the world and of the inner plantation of the human mind, heart, and soul, that makes life rich and full...

Looking Forward

Few nations have a dream, “the promise of American life” in Herbert Croly’s wonderful phrase, as well worth protecting and nurturing as do we Americans. It may be that we were simply fortunate that our Founding occurred in a time and place where men could afford to be generous. With a continent stretching westward beyond the imagination, and too few men and women to take advantage of it, the poor could command good wages and a better future and the newly arrived were valued if not always welcomed. But in our haste to control and benefit from nature’s bounty, breathtaking injustices were committed in the names of civilization and progress.

Today, America is the wealthiest and most powerful nation that the world has ever known. Americans exceed every other people in work and productivity, and, hence, in the creation of wealth. We spend more on national security than all of the other nations in the world combined. Yet other great nations, spectacularly wealthy and powerful in their day too, fell from their high places. Perhaps this is precisely the right time, while at the height of our power, to ask how America can maintain and build upon its unprecedented wealth and strength.

The answer, almost certainly, is by being ever truer to our initial values and aspirations – to make “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – the right and real possession of every American. In the 21st century, this means educating all children to their natural capacities and encouraging all adults to tend the inner plantation of the heart, mind, and soul as well as the outer plantation of creativity, productivity, and work. If all of our children are well cared for and well educated, and every American adult – irrespective of gender or color – has the opportunity to compete for and enjoy the riches of this society, we will secure and extend our primacy among the nations of the world. No nation has ever harvested the full potential and creativity of all of its citizens. If we were to do so, we would truly be “a shining city on a hill” and a light unto the nations.

Still, we know that our society as it is currently ordered does not meet this high standard. Even today, both black men and white women make only 75 percent of what white men make. Black women and Hispanic men and women make even less. Glass ceilings keep all but a very few men of color and women of all colors out of the executive suite. Breaking these barriers, releasing these talents, is the great social and moral task of the 21st century. The special responsibility of social and political leaders is to work toward a future in which all can find an honorable place. This is asking a very great deal; but really it is simply asking that we continue to work toward Mr. Jefferson’s self-evident truths; “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” We will have redeemed Jefferson’s promise when the American Dream of liberty, equality, and opportunity are the patrimony – the living inheritance – of every American.


(Pursuing the American Dream is available through major bookstores and on the Web via Amazon.com and similar sites. The publisher’s Web site is www.kansaspress.ku.edu, phone 785-864-4155.)