40 pages 1 hour read

Jim Cullen

The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2003

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Summary and Study Guide


The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation, originally published in 2003 by Oxford University Press, is a popular history book by American cultural historian Jim Cullen. As an overview and critical analysis of the American Dream, this book adds some meat to the bones of a traditionally ambiguous concept. Cullen maintains an optimistic outlook about the usefulness of the various American Dreams and about the promise of America, despite his criticisms.

This guide refers to the original 2003 edition.


In his introduction, Cullen briefly discusses the popularization of the term “American Dream” and its lasting influence as a concept in the US and abroad. Chapter 1 opens with a review of the Puritans, whose gumption to start a new life in the “New World” and belief in the possibility of change formed part of the bedrock of the American personality. Puritan theology—particularly the belief in predestination and the ability to sense God’s grace through the fruits of one’s labor—was crucial to the development of the famous Puritan work ethic, which is a core ingredient of the American Dream’s recipe: Hard work leads to success for any American who strives for it.

In Chapter 2, the author discusses the famous events and founding documents surrounding the American Revolution—particularly the importance of the Declaration of Independence to the American Dream. Any invocation of the Dream, whether conscious or not, refers to the Declaration’s assertion of the right to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”—even when this right must be modified or expanded for the Dream to make sense to contemporary dreamers (for example, the expansion of rights to Black Americans, which was inconceivable during America’s founding). Cullen explains Americans’ changing understanding of freedom after the Declaration and the somewhat regressive views of equality held by the Founding Fathers.

Chapter 3 reviews what Cullen calls the Dream of Upward Mobility by highlighting the lives and achievements of Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln, all of whom had relatively modest beginnings yet became legendary Americans. The author explores the cultural shift in America that allowed people to view poverty not as a shameful fact of one’s background but as something to be proud of after achieving success as an adult. Abraham Lincoln’s American Dream was strong enough to fight a civil war over, but this section of the book reminds us that freeing slaves was never the war’s point for Lincoln; rather, the primary goals of the North winning the Civil War were maintaining opportunities for working whites and keeping the American Dream intact.

Equality is the focus of Chapter 4. Cullen describes the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as a fight for equality and emphasizes that the American Dream is incompatible with inequality. He highlights the often-underemphasized role of women activists during the civil rights movement and discusses the legacy of well-known figures like Rosa Parks in addition to Martin Luther King Jr. Cullen explains the importance of the judicial system in creating the case law (such as Plessy v. Ferguson) that supported racist policies under the “separate but equal” legal analysis and discusses the difference between freedom and equality—including how achieving freedom for Black slaves after the Civil War didn’t automatically create a condition of equality between Blacks and whites in America.

Chapter 5 traces the American Dream of Home Ownership back to its roots, from America’s status as a frontier state in the 18th century, to the rise and spread of suburbia in the 20th century. Cullen discusses the federal government’s desire to influence how frontier land ownership would unfold through legislation like the Homestead Act of 1862. Transit infrastructure improvements in cities like San Francisco and Chicago enabled residents to live further outside the urban core. Owning a home in the suburbs became the most popular form of home ownership in the US, although suburbs were often sites of racial exclusivity.

Cullen ends the book with a discussion of the Dream of the Good Life. He illustrates this dream by exploring the California Gold Rush, the rise of Las Vegas and its gambling economy, and the role of Hollywood celebrity culture. These dreams rest on the desire for fame and riches without any emphasis on the importance of hard work and character, and the author compares early Hollywood celebrities like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford to legendary Americans like Benjamin Franklin and his Dream of Upward Mobility. Cullen expresses optimistic hopes for how the American Dream can remain relevant now and in the future.