The first time the American public heard the phrase “American Dream” was in 1914, when Walter Lippmann referred to it once in his book Drift and Mastery to describe the importance of the “enterprising individual” in America.
The public barely noticed. It wasn’t until 1931 when John Truslow Adams used the term more than 30 times in The Epic of America that the phrase took on the iconic symbolism it retains today. It has since become part of the American vernacular, a phrase that defines the essence of what America is all about.
But the Dream is looking a little frayed of late. With globalization, polarized politics and the anemic economy, Americans are beginning to doubt the promise of hope that the American Dream has always represented.
Just ask Roger Fortin. After 47 years at Xavier as a professor, an administrator and, most recently, as academic vice president and provost, Fortin is taking on a new role, making the American Dream his specialty. Beginning this fall, he is becoming the executive director and administrator of Xavier’s Center for the Study of the American Dream. And he is teaching a senior seminar on the American Dream to the 16 seniors in the Philosophy, Politics and the Public honors program.
“In the course, I will discuss that even though the term was not coined until 1931, it has had ongoing relevance since the immigrants came for opportunity and a fuller life,” Fortin says. “The term is a promise and is closely connected with and embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.”
The history of the American Dream is a relevant topic to study today because a lot can be learned about this nation when viewed through the lens of the Dream. In his book, Adams notes that early presidents embraced the ideal that all Americans should have the same opportunities for advancement. Others, like Roosevelt, agitated for social reform to ensure all citizens had access to those opportunities. Later presidents rallied around its concepts, Fortin says, such as Nixon, who was the first to refer directly to it, and more recently Reagan, Clinton and Obama.
From the first settlers who crossed the ocean seeking religious freedom to the swarms of immigrants who followed to find a better life, to the veterans who sought refuge in home and family, the American Dream has meant different things to different generations, Fortin says. It has such far-reaching implications for the future of America that it has become an issue of discussion again, something to be studied formally.
The course covers the history of the Dream from the arrival of the Puritans in the 1600s to the present day. Students will study what lured the first immigrants to America, the shaping of the new nation, and what the Founding Fathers were seeking when they wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. \
“We’ll be asking how have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness changed and evolved since then, how they are at the heart of the American Dream,” Fortin says. “We will evaluate the success of the American Dream, and we’ll look at those who have been omitted from the Dream, the paradox of the declaration of freedom for all versus slavery, women subordinate to men, and Native Americans. Not all immigrants were included.”
They will study how presidents of both parties have invoked the Dream, in particular Reagan and Clinton, and see how each envisioned different paths to the same goal. They will learn that the Dream “doesn’t belong to any political party, because it’s an American Dream.” And they’ll look at how the Dream is affected today by factors that seem beyond the reach of most Americans.
“Today people doubt whether the American Dream will be realized by their children,” he says. “So many are concerned about the future of the Dream because they’re not sure there will be enough jobs, education, opportunity. It’s fundamentally about hope, and we will ask, how is it faring today? We will study, at its root, how does the American Dream allow people to fulfill themselves.
“My take is that people are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a contract with the people. It’s an attempt to make society as feasible for as many people as possible. Walter Lippmann believed the American Dream was fulfilled when we make sure that no one is forced to live in poverty.”