THE AMERICAN DREAM
Opposite the title page of a well-known volume of history, published in 1927, there is printed the following statement: 1Next Page
Ours is a country where men start from a humble origin . . . and where they can attain the most elevated positions, or acquire a large amount of wealth, according to the pursuits they elect for themselves. No exclusive privileges of birth, no entailment of estates, no civil or political disqualification, stand in their path; but one has as good a chance as another, according to his talents, prudence, and personal exertions. This is a country of self-made men . . . .
This is a concise and clear statement of the American Dream. If it is true that this society offers unlimited opportunity according to the talents and energies of individuals, this will prove to be a very mobile social class system, if, indeed one could call such a fluid condition a system of social classes. There are those, including some of the moulders of public opinion, who insist that there are no social classes in this country.
What have been the origins of American middle class families? Of the higher classes of colonial society? Of the people who populated the West? Of the poor whites? What have been the kinds of opportunities offered by this rich continent. To whom have these opportunities been available? -- These are some of the questions of this introductory chapter, the one to follow concerning the colonial era, and Chapter XII dealing with the Westward Movement, will attempt to answer.
Before exploring the facts of history themselves, it is proper that the general statement of the American Dream be elaborated and that some criticism and some important qualifications of it be made, within the limits of time and space available here. That is the purpose and function of this chapter.
Versions of the American Dream. There are many different versions of the American Dream. Usually no attempt is made to give concrete illustrations or proof. The Dream is, almost altogether, a generalization. Sometimes it is expressed as a hope, sometimes as opportunity actually being taken advantage of, in a general way. Either way, it is what is known today as a "sociological myth," which is to say something so well publicized or so widely believed in that it has acquired somewhat of an axiomatic character. Even many of those who do no believe in the American Dream as of today attribute validity to it as of the thirties and forties of the last century.
In the paragraphs to follow a number of the generalizations that normally fall under the caption, "The American Dream," are presented to form the backdrop for the main presentation of historical realities to which the next two chapters will be devoted.
Wertenbaker states one of his versions of the American Dream in these words: "When an alien newcomer to the United States sees from the deck of his steamer the Statue of Liberty and the ragged sky line of lower Manhattan, he feels that the goal of his ambition has been reached, that the land of opportunity lies before him." 2
Turner phrases one of his generalizations about the opportunities to be found on the frontier thus: 3
The lands, practically free, in this vast area not only attracted the settler, but furnished opportunity for all men to hew out their own careers. The wilderness ever opened a gate of escape to the poor, the discontented, and the oppressed.
The American Banker is quoted as admitting that the average citizen is poor and must be satisfied "with the great hope that he will have the same opportunities which our fathers had to better his position." 4 The belief here is that there is still much truth in the American Dream, that young men should not stop thriving, that chances today are as good as they were earlier. How good they were then is not stated.
1. Calvin Colton, Junius Tracts, no. vii (New York, 1844) p. 15, quoted in Carl Russell Fish, The Rise of the Common Man (New York, 1927) opposite copyright page.
2. Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, The Planters of Colonial Virginia (Princeton, 1922) p. 39.
3. Fredrick Jackson Turner, Rise of the New West (New York, 1906) p. 68.
4. Quoted in Lewis Corey, The Crisis of the Middle Class (New York, 1935) p. 10.