The American Dream: A look at the life and times of this enduring yet embattled idea.
The perennial conviction that those who work hard and play by the rules will be rewarded with a more comfortable present and a stronger future for their children faces assault from just about every direction. That great enemy of democratic capitalism, economic inequality, is real and growing. The unemployment rate is dispiritingly high. The nation’s long-term fiscal health is at risk, and the American political system, the engine of what Thomas Jefferson called “the world’s best hope,” shows no sign of reaching solutions commensurate with the problems of the day.
It has not always been this way. On Friday, May 1, 1931, James Truslow Adams, a popular historian, was putting the final touches on the preface to his latest book. It was a curious time in the life of the nation. Though the Crash of 1929 had signaled the beginning of the Great Depression that was to endure for years to come, there was also a spirit of progress, of possibility. On the day Adams was finishing his manuscript, President Herbert Hoover pressed a button in Washington to turn on the lights of the newly opened Empire State Building at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, which, at 1,250 ft., was to be the tallest building in Manhattan until the construction of the World Trade Center four decades later.
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High hopes amid hard times: the moment matched Adams’ thesis in his book, The Epic of America, a history of the nation that was to popularize a term not yet in the general vernacular in those last years of the reigns of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. Adams’ subject, he wrote, was “that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank which is the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world.” It was not a new thing, this abiding belief that tomorrow would be better than today. “That dream or hope,” Adams wrote, “has been present from the start.”