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July 4th and the American Dream in a season of uncertainty

By Jim Cullen


There’s not much history in our holidays these days. For most Americans, they’re vehicles of leisure more than remembrance. Labor Day means barbecues; Washington’s Birthday (lumped together with Lincoln’s) is observed as a presidential Day of Shopping. The origins of Memorial Day in Confederate grave decoration or Veterans Day in the First World War are far less relevant than the prospect of a day off from work or school.

Independence Day fares a little better. Most Americans understand it marks the birth of their national identity, and it’s significant enough not to be moved around to the first weekend of July (though we’re happy enough, as is the case this year, when it conveniently forms the basis of a three-day weekend). There are flags and fireworks abundantly in evidence. That said, the American Revolution is relatively remote to 21st century citizens, few of whom share ancestral ties, much less sympathy, for the views of the partisans of 1776, some of whom were avowedly pro-slavery and all of them what we would regard as woefully patriarchal.

The Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The main reason why Independence Day matters to us is that it commemorates the debut of the Declaration of Independence in American life (the document was actually approved by Congress on July 2nd; it was announced to the public two days later). Far more than any other document in American history, including the Constitution, the Declaration resonates in everyday American life. We can all cite its famous affirmation of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” because in it we sense our true birthright, the DNA to which we all relate. The Declaration gave birth to the American Dream — or perhaps I should say an American Dream. Dreams have never been the exclusive property of any individual or group of people. But never had a place been explicitly constituted to legitimate human aspiration in a new and living way. Dreams did not necessarily come true in the United States, and there were all kinds of politically imposed barriers to their realization alongside those that defied human prediction or understanding. But such has been the force of the idea that US history has been widely understood — in my experience as a high school teacher working with adolescents, instinctively so — as a progressive evolution in which barriers are removed for ever-widening concentric circles that bring new classes of citizens — slaves, women, immigrants, gays — into the fold.

This is, in 2014, our mythic history. (I use the word “myth” in the anthropological sense, as a widely held belief whose empirical reality cannot be definitively proved or denied.) But myths are not static things; they wax and wane and morph over the course of their finite lives. As with religious faith, the paradox of myths is that they’re only fully alive in the face of doubt: there’s no need to honor the prosaic fact or challenge the evident falsity. Ambiguity is the source of a myth’s power.

Here in the early 21st century, the American Dream is in a season of uncertainty. The myth does not assert that all dreams do come true, only that all dreams can come true, and for most of us the essence of can resides in a notion of equality of opportunity. We’ve never insisted on equality of condition (indeed, relatively few Americans ever had much desire for it, in stark contrast to other peoples in the age of Marx). Differential outcomes are more than fine as long as we believe it’s possible anyone can end up on top. But the conventional wisdom of our moment, from the columns of Paul Krugman to the pages of Thomas Piketty, suggests that the game is hopelessly rigged. In particular, race and class privilege seem to give insuperable advantage over those seeking to achieve upward mobility. The history of the world is full of Ciceros and Genghis Khans and Joans of Arc who improbably overcame great odds. But in the United States, such people aren’t supposed to be exceptional. They’re supposed to be almost typical.

One of the more curious aspects of our current crisis in equality of opportunity is that it isn’t unique in American history. As those pressing the point frequently observe, inequality is greater now than any time since the 1920s, and before that the late nineteenth century. Or, before that, the antebellum era: for slaves, the difference between freedom and any form of equality — now so seemingly cavernous, even antithetical — were understandably hard to discern. And yet the doubts about the legitimacy of the American Dream, always present, did not seem quite as prominent in those earlier periods as they do now. Frederick Douglass, Horatio Alger, Emma Lazarus: these were soaring voices of hope during earlier eras of inequality. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby was a cautionary tale, for sure, but the greatness of his finite accomplishments was not denied even by normally skeptical Nick Carraway. What’s different now may not be our conditions so much as our expectations. Like everything else, they have a price.

I don’t want to brush away serious concerns: it may well be that on 4 July 2014 an American Dream is dying, that we’re on a downward arc different than that of a rising power. But it is perhaps symptomatic of our condition — a condition in which economic realities are considered the only ones that matter — whereby the Dream is so closely associated with notions of wealth. We all know about the Dreams of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. But the American Dream was never solely, or even primarily, about money — even for Benjamin Franklin, whose cheeky subversive spirit lurks beneath his adoption as the patron saint of American capitalism. Anne Bradstreet, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King: some of these people were richer than others, and all had their flaws. But none of them thought of their aspirations primarily in terms of how wealthy they became, or measured success in terms of personal gain. Their American Dreams were about their hopes for their country as a better place. If we can reconnect our aspirations to their faith, perhaps our holidays can become more active vessels of thanksgiving.

Jim Cullen is chair of the History Department of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. He is the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation and Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, among other books. He is currently writing a cultural history of the United States since 1945.

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