American Dream


noun

the ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity traditionally held to be available to every American.
a life of personal happiness and material comfort as traditionally sought by individuals in the U.S.

VIDEO FOR AMERICAN DREAM

WATCH NOW: Is The American Dream Still Attainable?

Today, the phrase American Dream is often uttered with equal parts longing and eye-rolling. The eye-rollers think the American Dream’s dead. The opposing party begs to differ. Why is there so much debate?

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Origin of American Dream

First recorded in 1930–35
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

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What is the American Dream?

The American Dream is the aspirational belief in the U.S. that all individuals are entitled to the opportunity for success and upward social mobility through hard work.

Where did the term American Dream come from?

We can anchor the underlying philosophy of the American Dream in the founding documents of the United States, such as the 1776 Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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 can also locate the spirit of the American Dream in seminal studies of the American experience, like Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 Democracy in America, where he describes “the charm of anticipated success.”

The specific phrase, however, emerges in the early 20th century. One of the earliest instances, in David Graham Phillips’s 1910s novel Susan Lenox, characterizes fashion and home magazines as promising a “rise of fortune” that is “the universal American dream and hope.” A 1916 article in The Chicago Tribune also speaks of fighting for “the American idea, the American hope, the American dream…”.

It was historian James Truslow Adams, however, who cemented the concept and phrase: The American Dream. In the preface to his book The Epic of America, Adams wrote of “the American dream, 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.” The instant popularity of the term The American Dream may well be attributed in no small way to the timing of its coinage—in the midst of the Great Depression, his phrase that encapsulated the vision that anyone could rise above adverse circumstances through dedication was a hopeful note.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech alludes to the American Dream with respect to racial inequality in the U.S., joining the literature of the American dream that helped define the nation.

How to use the term American Dream

The phrase The American Dream is so commonplace today as to have become clichéd. It is often used in book titles, news articles, politics, and popular culture to loosely refer to the core American ideals.

In contemporary usage, the phrase is often used ironically in reference to systemic economic inequality that makes the American Dream unattainable for some Americans, especially immigrant families. This ironic usage is often found in politics, especially in discussions of economic policy and immigration that ask who deserves to live the American Dream.

Disillusionment with the American Dream is often dubbed “the American Nightmare” or “the American Dream is dead.” In the instances where that’s not the case, one is said “to achieve” the American Dream.

More examples of American Dream:

“The ‘American dream’ is increasingly out of reach, as social mobility declines and fewer children face a better future than their parents.”
—Steven H Woolf & Laudan Aron, Failing health of the United States, February 2018

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

British Dictionary definitions for American Dream

American Dream

noun

the American Dream the notion that the American social, economic, and political system makes success possible for every individual
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for American Dream

American Dream

A phrase connoting hope for prosperity and happiness, symbolized particularly by having a house of one's own. Possibly applied at first to the hopes of immigrants, the phrase now applies to all except the very rich and suggests a confident hope that one's children's economic and social condition will be better than one's own.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.