The Se­cret Jewish His­tory Of The Amer­i­can Dream

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Seth Ro­govoy

“The Amer­i­can Dream” refers to the no­tion that em­bed­ded in the found­ing doc­u­ments of our na­tion is a frame­work that guar­an­tees equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity for so­cio-eco­nomic suc­cess to all. Never mind that the re­al­ity of Amer­i­can his­tory, law and so­cio-eco­nomic prac­tice has been one that has at best been se­lec­tive in who is al­lowed onto the play­ing field, and at worst has banned en­tire races and classes of peo­ple from the ball­park. Martin Luther King Jr. had some­thing to say about this:

“We will win our free­dom be­cause the sa­cred her­itage of our na­tion and the eter­nal will of God are em­bod­ied in our echo­ing de­mands ... when these dis­in­her­ited chil­dren of God sat down at lunch coun­ters they were in re­al­ity stand­ing up for what is best in the Amer­i­can dream and for the most sa­cred val­ues in our Judeo-Chris­tian her­itage, thereby bring­ing our na­tion back to those great wells of democ­racy which were dug deep by the found­ing fa­thers in their for­mu­la­tion of the Con­sti­tu­tion and the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence.”

The Pulitzer Prize-win­ning pop­u­lar his­to­rian James Trus­low Adams, who was born into wealth in the late 19th cen­tury, is of­ten cred­ited with coin­ing the term “the Amer­i­can Dream” in his 1931 book, “The Epic of Amer­ica.” Writ­ing from his po­si­tion as one who par­layed an in­her­i­tance into in­vest­ment bank­ing and a seat on the New York Stock Ex­change, Adams sug­gested that the Amer­i­can Dream could best be un­der­stood in con­trast to the val­ues that pre­vailed in Old Europe. His rather quaint def­i­ni­tion — ig­nor­ing the so­cial re­al­i­ties that de­nied op­por­tu­nity to en­tire groups of Amer­i­cans — was “that dream of a land in which life should be bet­ter and richer and fuller for ev­ery­one, with op­por­tu­nity for each ac­cord­ing to abil­ity or achieve­ment. It is a dif­fi­cult dream for the Euro­pean up­per classes to in­ter­pret ad­e­quately, and too many of us our­selves have grown weary and mis­trust­ful of it. It is not a dream of mo­tor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of so­cial or­der in which each man and each woman shall be able to at­tain to the fullest stature of which they are in­nately ca­pa­ble, and be rec­og­nized by oth­ers for what they are, re­gard­less of the for­tu­itous cir­cum­stances of birth or po­si­tion.” Easy for him to say.

Adams wrote this op­ti­mistic paean at a time when the dream was turn­ing into a night­mare, dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, mak­ing it more of an apolo­gia than a prom­ise. But the truth is that Adams did not coin the term. He sim­ply got credit for it. It was Wal­ter Lipp­mann — the son of Ger­man-Jewish im­mi­grants, also cred­ited with coin­ing the terms “stereo­type” and “Cold War” – who first used the term “Amer­i­can Dream” in a 1914 book en­ti­tled “Drift and Mas­tery: An At­tempt to Di­ag­nose the Cur­rent Un­rest,” in which he “urged read­ers to find a new dream for the twen­ti­eth cen­tury that would end the malaise of gov­ern­ment in­ac­tion that had al­lowed Amer­i­can pol­i­tics to aim­lessly drift,” ac­cord­ing

DOROTHEA LANGE/GETTY IM­AGES

NOT EX­ACTLY THE JOAD FAM­ILY: Dorothea Lange took this photo of a bill­board along Cal­i­for­nia’s High­way 99 in 1937 dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion.

GETTY IM­AGES

THE FLIP­SIDE OF THE AMER­I­CAN DREAM: In 1938, a man drinks at a ‘col­ored’ wa­ter cooler in a street­car ter­mi­nal in Ok­la­homa City, Ok­la­homa.

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