How has the "American Dream" of James Truslow Adams been denied to some groups in American history?
The myth of the American Dream is an ethos that still permeates in American culture to this day. The idea that anybody can be successful in this country through hard work is a romantic and powerful one. Bernie Sanders, who is attempting to secure the Democratic nomination for president as this paper is being written, is on record in stating that the American Dream has become a nightmare. But has the dream ever really existed since the founding of this republic? Was it always a nightmare for many? It can be demonstrated that the American Dream is simply a mantra that has developed out of the belief in American Exceptionalism.
When James Truslow Adams wrote The American Dream in 1931, even his words are filled with contradictions. On one hand he speaks "of a land in which life should be better and richer....for everyone" but then states that opportunity is granted "for each according to ability or achievement." Since every American can not be expected to have equal ability and levels of achievement, how can everybody be richer and better. Additionally, who gets to define what abilities are important and what can be considered "achievement." When equality is only assigned based on the merits of ability, is there truly opportunity for all?
When those defining "ability" are those that are powerful, what impact does this have on the weaker elements of society?
Adams seems to perpetrate this contradiction throughout the essay. He states that the American Dream should not be defined by wealth, but in reality, the entire social system in the United States is revolved around the acquisition of capital and wealth. He states that all people should achieve status based on their natural abilities. This seems to contradict much of what has happened in the history of the United States. When the Constitution was written in 1789, only white males were included in the American Dream. Women and African-Americans were denied essential liberties like the ability to participate in government, be formally educated, own property, or the ability to use their "innate capabilities" to achieve success. These rights were not even considered for women and African-Americans during the first century of the history of the United States.
The reality of the American Dream in the early history of the United States was the Anglo-Saxon males would have access to the fruits of liberty that were harvested by the American Revolution. Any attempts by poor colonists to created an equal economic system were ignored. In the South, a minority of powerful landowners exploited slaves and Irish immigrants in an effort to acquire vast sums of wealth. Any efforts by poor whites and slaves to unite to uproot this feudal system were met with violence and legislation that outlawed fraternization between the races. Racism emerged as a tool to separate poor whites and enslaved blacks in the South. In the northern United States, an industrial elite class emerged that exploited poor Americans and new immigrants to the United States. While the North came to see the slavery in the South as immoral and un-American, the industrial system prevented most Americans from realizing the American Dream.
The situation for poor people in the United States did not improve with the Union victory in the Civil War. In the South, African-Americans were free but did not have access to the American Dream. Blacks realized a short period of political power in the South during Union occupation during Reconstruction. When the troops left the former Confederate states, these gains were quickly stripped. The freedmen were not educated, did not have capital, and were still stuck in a system in which racism was deeply ingrained. Most of the freedmen remained on the farm and could not make a profit off of their own efforts. Others were targets of violence. All were subject to Jim Crow Laws and black codes that restricted their Constitutional Rights.
Can it be stated that all African-Americans were devoid of talent and intellect during this period? Statistically and biologically speaking, this is completely unlikely, if not impossible. So where was their access to the American Dream? Why could they not "attain the fullest stature of which they were innately capable?" What about women from the same time period? They were not even able to vote or maintain their own property after marriage. By law, women were servants to their husbands. It can be stated that the American Dream is only meant for a small percentage of white Americans that already have vast sums of capital. To lose this wealth would mean to lose power and prestige. Throughout American history, this elite group would do everything in its power to protect this status.
The Reconstruction era in the North was one of tremendous economic growth because of the factory systems of Industrialism. One would have thought with all of the 'rags to riches' stories being touted, the American Dream was coming to fruition. This was clearly not the cases. When you consider that eleven of twelve families during this period lived below the poverty line, it is easy to see that this was not the case. As the notion of the American Dream permeated to the poor in Europe, millions migrated to the United States for a piece of the American pie. Roughly half would return to Europe unsatisfied. Factories exploited poor whites and immigrants with dangerous working conditions, low wages, and long hours. Women were hired at even lower wages. This grossly unequal system could not endure forever could it?
When workers organized with demands for better conditions and demanded opportunity, they were met with violence. It seemed like the dream was not meant for them. During the period between the turn of the Twentieth Century and World War I, a strong wave of socialist and communist activity alarmed those in the American government. Some of these labor movements advocated violence and revolution. Congress did not want to see the economic system that benefited the elite toppled by the far left. As a result, Congress made concessions to the workers in the form of labor and business reforms. The progressive legislation did very little to impact the social class system that was in place in the United States, however.
This technique of giving the oppressed small gains that truly did not affect the system of inequality in the United States has been a theme throughout the history of the Republic. During the New Deal, the federal government granted reforms in an effort to protect the system of capitalism. Many of the reforms were made to protect banks and large industries deemed too important to fail. Some reforms were even eliminated by the judicial branch. This method was again demonstrated by the Great Society programs of the 1950's. Many of these efforts have had the effect of making certain groups dependent on the federal government for survival. This is certainly not the system that Adams was speaking of in The American Dream.
In examining who benefits from the American Dream, it is easy to recognize that wealthy white men with large sums of capital are the beneficiary. This would suggest that America is not exceptional, but rather the same as many societies that have existed on earth since the dawn of civilization. This is not a system that is evolving either, as income inequality is as steep in America today as it ever has been. When taking all of these facts into consideration, it becomes obvious that the American Dream is a myth.