Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

It might seem as if the concept of the American dream is relatively constant throughout history. At its base, the American dream is simple enough: no matter where you come from, apply yourself, and success will follow. America was a land of opportunity long before the United States officially formed, and that vision has shaped our history, our politics, and our identities.


However, that does not mean that the American dream has been stagnant. Although the core belief has remained the same, the practicalities are ever shifting.

The First American Dream

The first real evidence of this idea is likely John Winthrop’s “The City Upon a Hill” sermon in 1630. Some of the first English to settle in America, Winthrop’s followers followed Puritan ideals, and that informed their version of the American dream. Their version necessitated not only hard work but emphasized their religious teaching.


The way towards success was through self-improvement by following the word of God; success was not an end itself. Instead, it was all part of a plan, God’s vision, and a path of some sort. Although it relied heavily on individual will, this vision of the American dream ultimately glorified God.

A Founding Principle

By far the most popular evidence for the foundation of the American dream is the Declaration of Independence. The entitlement of every man to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” shows how dearly colonists held the dream of opportunity. The United States was founded on many Christian principles, but these words of Jefferson reflect a different version of the American dream than Winthrop’s.


First, it reflects an entitlement. The chance of happiness was something owed to Americans. It was not something that they did to glorify God or any other higher power. Instead, it was something that Americans were entitled to for themselves. Jefferson was a religious man, but he rejected many orthodox beliefs. He believed that subscribing to the morality of Christianity was more important than belief in some of the more controversial doctrines, such as a virgin birth. Furthermore, he was a proponent for religious freedom. It’s likely that these beliefs influenced his writing, which greatly colored the American dream.


Jefferson also emphasizes “the pursuit” of happiness; it is not a given. Winthrop’s American dream relied on an omniscient God, so their success was a given. God had brought them to the New World to succeed. By 1776, the American dream was less radicalized. Instead, Americans are entitled to pursue success, but they may never get there. This more closely resembles the version that we know today.

The Pursuit of the American Dream

The ideology behind the American dream may have changed over those 150 years, but many of the methods of pursuing that dream were mostly the same. Generally, in order to make something of yourself, a man followed a certain career path that he chose around 15. Most people had a trade, with only the wealthy being able to afford college. Notably, that wasn’t because of the price of college itself, but because only the wealthy could afford the living expenses of daily life without having to work. Jefferson himself advocated for public education and state-funded universities so that there would be more access to education.


Today, the costs of college tuition have risen almost 300 percent over just 2 decades; although the government does provide some money to help pay for school, it’s not exactly the vision that Jefferson put forth. However, education was not nearly as necessary to achieve the American dream during Jefferson’s time. While it was a means for mostly wealthy people to advance in politics, medicine, and law, it was not necessary for the average American. They could achieve the American dream with hard work and a skilled profession; access to education did not necessarily preclude them from the opportunity of living a good life.


Comparing this to today’s situation is probably some of the most compelling evidence that the American dream is ever evolving. While it’s tempting to think of it as some stagnant doctrine to forever guide our nation, we are left with a vague ideal of opportunity instead, and opportunity will mean something different for every generation. For early settlers and Winthrop, it meant the ability to worship and glorify God by enacting his plan. Jefferson was more concerned with asserting basic liberties so that man could carve his own path into an uncertain future. In either case, the ideal of opportunity shaped our nation to its very core, and that will remain constant throughout our lifetime.


About the Author Avery Taylor Phillips – Avery is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.