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Turning the Dream Into Reality

2 minute read
Richard Stengel

The term American dream was coined in 1931, in the middle of the Great Depression, but the idea is as old as the Republic. John Winthrop saw America as a “city upon a hill” even before he laid eyes on it. From the beginning, America was as much an idea as a place, and that idea was informed by the notion that America was the land of self-betterment where the only sin, Emerson said, was limitation.

This is our 11th annual Making of America issue, and Jon Meacham’s insightful cover story is not only a history of the idea of the American Dream but also an explanation of why that dream may be fading. As we embark on a close presidential campaign, you could argue that the race is about which candidate can best restore the sense that the American Dream is still possible. At a time when the median income of U.S. households has dropped to what it was during the Clinton Administration, it is not easy to say that our tomorrows will be better than our yesterdays.

But the American Dream, as Jon notes, would not have unfolded the way it did without a sometimes uncelebrated and almost always unpopular partner: the federal government. From the Homestead Act, which opened up the frontier, to the Morrill Act, which launched higher education in America, to the GI Bill, which made that education affordable, the government has often fueled America’s prosperity by enabling citizens to use their ingenuity and ambition to make a better life for themselves and their neighbors. In many ways, how to make government work better for all of us is what this presidential election is about. And that’s an American Dream we all hope to achieve.

Richard Stengel, MANAGING EDITOR

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