Americans have always thought of their country as other and better than anyplace else. The most obvious measure of comparative superiority was with Europe, the place where, through most of the nation’s history, most people came from and against which they assessed their achievements. The protean notion of the American Dream celebrated the myriad ways in which America offered unprecedented opportunities for the heroic triumph of the individual.
From the earliest days of the nation, Americans argued that what set their society apart, what made it distinct from and superior to its European counterparts, was the opportunity it provided for the individual, regardless of origin, to achieve success, to realize his full potential. In Europe, so the argument went, people’s economic, social, and political destinies were largely determined by and at birth. A rigid class structure made it extremely unlikely that individual effort and virtue could overcome the liability of lower-class origins. In America, by contrast, people were what they made of themselves. The national self-image portrayed an open society whose gradations were determined by ability alone. From immigrant slum to millionaire palace, from log cabin to White House: this was the American Dream in practice.
This idealistic dream always had a substantial material base. Concepts of equality, freedom, and individual dignity were significant in themselves, but they took on palpable meaning for most people in specific, often material, ways. If the promise of American life was the opportunity for the average person to strive for success, the ordinary best measure of success was tangible improvement in economic condition. Immigrants came to America for many reasons, but central to most of them was the hope of movement, if not from rags to riches, at least from rags to respectability. And liberal social critics regularly insisted that democracy had real meaning only when accompanied by opportunity for widespread participation in economic abundance.
Yet the emphasis on material achievement, essential to the idealistic fulfillment of the American Dream, has also always been the serpent in the garden of American civilization. Always there has been the fear that the material drive would overwhelm the idealistic vision, that prosperity was becoming not one proximate goal but the ultimate end of American life. Americans have, in their self-critical moments, regularly invoked the biblical judgment on those who gain the whole world but lose their own souls. Those radically disenchanted with the American Dream have maintained that in their thralldom to the bitch goddess Success, Americans have made their dream a nightmare. All in all, the subtle and complex interplay between idealism and materialism, a relationship at once contradictory and complementary, has been central to the meaning of the American experience.
Among American thinkers, Benjamin Franklin is the most emblematic on this point, and he is the more to be attended to because he is widely regarded as the most characteristically American of all the major figures in our history. He has been called the perfect bourgeois, the patron saint of material success, the greatest man of his age, and the outstanding figure of the Enlightenment in America. Critics, on the other hand, have dubbed him the first Yankee, the father of all the Kiwanians, and the possessor of a cheap and shabby soul.
Franklin, as his country’s first and archetypical public philosopher, was the most important figure in the eighteenth-century secularization of the American Dream. The Puritans of seventeenth-century New England saw their settlement as a City on a Hill, destined by God to serve as example to the nations of the pure and correct worship of God both in church and in society. A number of thinkers in the next century took this dream of moral regeneration in a virgin land and brought it down to earth: they substituted for the vision of the heavenly inheritance that of the secular celestial city.
As a public philosopher, Franklin was primarily concerned with the search for human happiness, and he supposed that, both for individual citizens and for society as a whole, this included in no small part the achievement of material success. So Franklin in his widely circulated writings, including his Autobiography, told Americans how to achieve prosperity and he blessed them in their endeavor. Tolerant of human frailty, inclined to take people as they were, he offered a utilitarian guide to the achievement of the bourgeois good life.
His idealism, such as it was, avoided flights of utopian fancy. Religion interested him mainly for its social benefits. Deciding early in life that Christianity probably was not true, he nonetheless supported its continuance as useful both in producing desired behavior and in providing spiritual solace. He did, it is true, once embark on an endeavor to achieve moral perfection, but a mere listing of the virtues whose mastery he considered necessary to his project suggests his essentially practical purposes: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity. (He later added humility when friends suggested that, for him, this might be appropriate.) Much is revealed by a marginal note in the Autobiography: “Nothing so likely to make a man’s fortune as virtue.”
Franklin never forgot that people act through self-interest. In his multifarious—and quite invaluable—schemes for public improvement he always attempted to gear public progress to private interest. For him, a stable, free, and progressive society required contented, hard-working, and optimistic citizens, and necessary to both goals was widespread prosperity.
Critics have long charged that the Franklinian virtues came at a terrible cost. Charles Angoff called Franklin the first Babbitt and insisted that he was “incapable of dreaming, of doubting, of being mystified.” Similarly, D. H. Lawrence, attacking Franklin in particular and American civilization in general, argued that the bourgeois success ethic blinded Franklin and his fellow countrymen to any sense of tragedy or mystery, or to any true freedom and individuality. Anyone who has heard too many of Poor Richard’s maxims or encountered some of the more self-satisfied sections of the Autobiography can sympathize with such criticism.
The argument between Franklin and his critics has persisted, in various forms, throughout American history. Material wealth in the form of widespread prosperity has continued to act as a central ingredient in national solidarity and collective self-justification for the middle American majority, as well as providing a highly useful solvent to national conflicts and tensions. In the form of materialism, that same wealth has been seen as engendering the philistinism and whoring after false gods that is so central—even obsessive—a theme among critics of American society.
Social critics have a way of losing sight of the unremarkable fact that ordinary people lead ordinary lives. Charles Angoff complained that Franklin’s philosophy was spiritually inadequate compared to that of Jesus or Socrates. His observation was accurate enough, but not really apposite. Ben Franklin proposed something quite modest: a prudential and productive ethic for a mass middle-class society, which is essentially what America has always been. He was concerned not with the final ends of man but with proximate social goals. Nations are not spiritual entities, and the state is more properly involved in the things of Caesar than of Jesus or Socrates.
The workings of the American Dream have effected relative democratic equality and relative economic prosperity for a majority of citizens in the past—and will, we may reasonably hope, continue to do so in the new century. The nation’s failures in these areas have been many and obvious, but those failures, like the successes, are most usefully addressed in political and economic terms, not moral or spiritual ones. As Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously remarked some forty years ago, for the higher things people should consult their archbishops.
James Nuechterlein is an editor at large of First Things and a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?