The Long, Entwined History of America First and the American Dream

The Long, Entwined History of America First and the American Dream

Loaded Phrases

The long, entwined history of America First and the American dream.


In June 2015, Donald Trump glided down a gilded escalator in Trump Tower to announce that he was running for president. Rattling off a litany of dire crises confronting the country, from the Mexican immigrants he characterized as rapists and drug smugglers to the Islamic terrorists he portrayed as an existential threat, Trump ended on a surprisingly sanguine note. “The American dream is dead,” he intoned. “But if I get elected president, I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.”

After his election, Trump’s speeches followed a similar pattern. In his inaugural address, he portrayed the country as a dystopian nightmare of “American carnage” but promised to “bring back our dreams” with a dramatic new approach. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land,” he declared. “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.”

These two phrases—“the American dream” and “America First”—have served as touchstones for Trump. Like all slogans, they provide a convenient shorthand for his practical agenda and his larger aims. The “American dream,” as Trump and his audiences understand it, means nothing less than a chance at financial success for all Americans—or at least all those who count as “American” in his narrow understanding of the term. “America First,” meanwhile, signals a similar kind of selfishness, but this time on a national scale: abandoning long-standing military alliances and economic partnerships; stemming immigration with literal walls and free trade with figurative ones; and sounding a general retreat from the global stage.

Trump has invoked the “American dream” and “America First” repeatedly in his addresses, often citing both in the same speech. From the floor of a tool factory in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to the stage of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Trump has deployed these phrases and, more important, linked them together for his audiences. Pushing the country inward, he has suggested, would pull its citizens upward.

In Behold, America: The Entangled History of “America First” and “the American Dream, Sarah Churchwell traces the origins and evolution of both of these expressions. “There is great power in loaded phrases, as anyone willing to pull the trigger knows,” she observes in her introduction. For Trump and his allies, these two phrases combine in a simple and simplistic formula for success: The American dream is dead, but Trump will make America great again by putting America first. This mantra not only echoes the patriotic chorus of an arena chanting “USA! USA! USA!,” but it also carries the same underlying appeal. Audiences seem to understand these phrases instinctively and reward their use with an almost reflexive response. Yet as Churchwell makes clear, neither expression is as straightforward as it seems, and both come with a long and complex past:

The evolution of these two sayings—both their myths and their truths—has shaped reality in ways not fully understood. We cannot understand the subtexts of our own slogans if we do not understand their contexts; we risk misreading our own moment if we don’t know the historical meanings of expressions we resuscitate, or perpetuate.

Behold, America is the author’s effort to offer this context and to map out both phrases’ multifarious meanings. Moving back in time from the early 21st century to the early 20th, Churchwell shows that these expressions were originally used in ways that are significantly different from our current understanding of them.

Churchwell has cast a wide net in her research, drawing into account not only politicians and pundits, but also journalists, novelists, ministers, and ordinary Americans. The result, appropriately enough, is a bit messy. Readers hoping for a tidy etymology will doubtless find themselves frustrated at times. But that messiness illustrates the ways in which these phrases have always been, as the historian Daniel Rodgers memorably put it, “contested truths.” They stand at the heart of the American experience, and as a result, the struggle over their meaning has, in many ways, represented a struggle over the meaning of the United States itself.

Consider the “American dream.” First and foremost, Churchwell points out, the phrase is largely an invention of the 20th century. Founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton never mentioned an “American dream” in their extensive writings on the new nation, while outside observers who articulated the particulars of the curious American identity, such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, never invoked it either. The same holds true for famous 19th-century American novelists like Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain, Churchwell reports. Most surprising, not even Horatio Alger—whose rags-to-riches tales have routinely been used to illustrate the American dream—ever put the words together.

The phrase began to appear in the American lexicon by the end of the 19th century, but only in fits and starts. The idea that there could be a single American dream—one collective, generalized national ideal—was an innovation in and of itself. Much as historians have long noted that Americans’ sense of national identity can be traced in the gradual shift from speaking about “these United States” to “the United States,” Churchwell explains that, originally, there was no such thing as the “American dream,” but rather an array of dreams: of westward expansion, of naval supremacy, of “beautiful womanhood.” By the 20th century, Americans began to winnow their worldview down to the point where it was possible to talk about a single—and singular—American dream.

As originally understood, the American dream was in many ways defined as the opposite of its popular meaning today. “In the first twenty years of the existence of the phrase ‘American dream,’” Churchwell writes, “it was usually employed to describe a political ideal, not an economic one; and when it was used to describe an economic aspiration, it was with the pejorative meaning of ‘dream’ as illusion, not ideal. Never in its earliest years was the ‘American dream’ cited to celebrate the freedom of markets.” Indeed, populist and progressive voices denounced the concentration of wealth as a violation of the nation’s democratic values and claimed that those who aspired to such avarice were guilty of an “un-American dream.” In the early decades of the 20th century, these voices on the left articulated the first coherent vision of the “American dream”—a vision that insisted that self-interest and material ambition had to be checked by the collective desire for equality and equal opportunity. “The American dream was about how to stop bad multimillionaires,” Churchwell observes, “not how to become one.”

The shift to the phrase’s more familiar meaning began in the 1920s, when business was placed atop the highest pedestal and the American dream was increasingly understood as one of material success and self-sufficiency. In a national poll, college students named Henry Ford as the third-greatest man in world history; he was edged out only by Napoleon and Jesus, and many, in fact, saw little difference between Jesus and Ford. These college students were not alone: Calvin Coolidge, then president, also made the case for viewing the titans of industry as gods. “The man who builds a factory builds a temple,” Coolidge insisted. “The man who works there, worships there. And to each is due, not scorn and blame, but reverence and praise.”

While Coolidge and many other Americans described business as a religion, the 1920s were also a period when many came to view religion as a business. Advertising legend Bruce Barton, in his best-selling book The Man Nobody Knows, portrayed Jesus as the most successful executive of all time, someone who “picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world!”

As market mania swept the nation, the American dream became closely linked to it. In 1925, at the peak of the Florida real-estate bubble, one article described the boom in Miami as “the minting of America, in one fine, shining piece, of the substantial compound of that very American dream of freedom—opportunity and achievement.” The materialism of the decade was not without its critics, of course. As Churchwell writes, both Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby mocked the suggestion that the American dream revolved around making and maintaining concentrated wealth. But such warnings were largely ignored at the time, and as long as promises that one could get rich quick still seemed plausible, Americans were more than ready to dream that they, too, would find their fortune.

When the 1920s-boom years went bust, this new vision of the American dream nearly collapsed as well. In 1931, as the Great Depression deepened, historian James Truslow Adams set a new tone with his best-selling The Epic of America. “He had fought to use ‘The American Dream’ as his title,” Churchwell writes, “but his publishers were adamant that readers ‘would never pay $3 for a dream,’ and insisted he change it.”

Despite that change, the book remained focused on trying to give new meaning to the idea of the American dream. The country, Adams argued, had to reject its worship of cutthroat capitalism and return to the older Progressive movement’s vision of “the American Dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.” Throughout the nation’s history, he added, “each generation has seen an uprising of the ordinary Americans to save that dream from the forces which appeared to be overwhelming and dispelling it.” Wealthy elites were not the embodiment of the American dream, Adams insisted; they were its enemies.

This vision of an American dream rooted in collective security, not rugged individualism, became manifest in the New Deal. Taking stock of the first few weeks of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency in early 1933, a columnist with The Boston Globe marveled at the administration’s quick success in “reawakening our faith in ourselves and our institutions, renewing our American dream.” Even the president himself embraced that framing: The federal government, Roosevelt promised in 1937, would work to provide security for farmers and thereby restore “the American dream of the family-sized farm,” which had been jeopardized by the Depression.

In the 1930s, the American dream was taken up as well by figures with more authoritarian tendencies. Huey Long, the Louisiana governor and then senator, avowed a materialist vision of the American dream that in many ways was similar to that of the New Deal. “His promise of a house, a car, a radio, as well as $5,000 a year for all families, with education for deserving young people thrown in, sounded in the ears of many like a new version of the American Dream,” an observer wrote. Yet Long proposed achieving that dream through drastic measures, including the forced confiscation of concentrated wealth and its broad redistribution among the people. His goals attracted many, but Long’s methods—stifling democracy and firing state officials who opposed him, silencing critics through threats and even violence, stirring up the passions of the mob to get his way—alienated many more. For this reason, many Americans feared that Long would use the allure of the American dream to bring about a nightmare: fascism.

While Long shrewdly used the American dream to drum up support for his brand of reactionary populism, the rising threat of fascism at home was more commonly associated with the second expression at the center of Churchwell’s book: “America First.”

Whenever Trump and his allies rally around that phrase, pundits have been quick to point out that it originated in the isolationist movement before the Second World War. To be sure, the America First Committee popularized the saying in its campaign to keep the United States out of another “European war,” with celebrity pilot Charles Lindbergh serving as its spokesman and conservative publisher William Randolph Hearst throwing his weight behind it: The slogan “America First Should Be Every American’s Motto” soon ran across the masthead of every newspaper he owned. But as Churchwell writes, the isolationists’ campaign represented not the birth of “America First,” as many have claimed, but its death. (Or, at least, its death until Trump resurrected it.)

The phrase had appeared more than half a century before World War II to assert American independence and isolationism. By the mid-1890s, the Republican Party had adopted it as a campaign slogan: “America first; the rest of the world afterward.” The term appeared sporadically over the next few decades before emerging as a national catchphrase during the First World War, beginning with President Woodrow Wilson’s 1915 declaration that “our whole duty, for the present, at any rate, is summed up in the motto: ‘America First.’” Indeed, the phrase proved so popular that both parties’ candidates claimed it in 1916. Republican nominee Charles Evans Hughes ran on a slogan of “America First and America Efficient,” while Wilson stuck with the more efficient “America First.”

While the slogan called for isolationism in foreign affairs (a policy that Wilson would soon abandon in 1917), it also signaled a similar retreat from cosmopolitan politics at home. As the United States drifted into the First World War, nativists increasingly became concerned over the “hyphenates” in their midst: those who called themselves German-American, Irish-American, Italian-American, and the like. It was time, Wilson insisted in 1915, for every immigrant “to declare himself, where he stands. Is it America first or is it not?” Less than a decade later, the United States embraced drastic restrictions on immigration through the National Origins Act of 1924. As a Republican supporter in Congress explained, the policy simply reflected “the doctrine of America first for Americans.”

Not surprisingly, the Ku Klux Klan employed “America First” in much the same way, using it to demand nothing less than “100% Americanism”—which for the group meant 100 percent white Americanism. In 1921, a circular listed the “ABCs” of the KKK: “America first, benevolence, clannishness.” While the Klan was often called the “American Fascisti” during this era, the same arguments were advanced by more openly fascist organizations like William Pelley’s Silver Shirts, an American counterpart to Mussolini’s blackshirts and Hitler’s brownshirts. “The various colored shirt orders—the whole haberdashery brigade who play upon sectional prejudice—are sowing the seeds of fascism,” the writer James Waterman Wise warned. “It may come wrapped in a flag or a Hearst newspaper,” he added, with “America First” on the masthead.

The use of the two phrases came to a head with the advent of World War II. As Churchwell writes, the America First Committee used the exceptionalism of the American dream to argue for isolation from the rest of the world. “Americans! Wake Up!” one of the group’s ads implored. “In 1776, three million Americans dared to sign a Declaration of Independence, unsupported by any foreign navy, unafraid of any foreign economy. And the ‘American Dream’ was born.”

But even as the two phrases came together, they were soon riven apart. Weeks after Pearl Harbor, the America First Committee folded, with Lindbergh and its other leaders promising support for the coming conflict. While some Americans, a newspaper noted, were “still America Firsting” during the war, the phrase and the isolationist policies it represented quickly fell out of favor. By the end of the war, both had been largely discredited. Meanwhile, the concept of the American dream—now popularly understand as one of material gain and upward mobility—became stronger than ever, especially in the midcentury years, when the United States experienced a period of pronounced economic growth.

Throughout America’s postwar era of relative peace and prosperity, this balance remained. “America First” was the relic of a discredited cause, while the “American dream” appeared to soar higher and higher. When economic security and prosperity began to falter, first in the stagnant economy of the late 1970s, and again after the housing bubble burst and the stock market crashed in the late 2000s, this dream appeared to be more and more of a mirage. By the end of the 20th century, things seemed to have gone back to where they were at its start.

The end of the Cold War also prompted a reconsideration of America’s place in the world, bringing the impulses of “America First” back into vogue just as the decades of economic decline forced many Americans to rethink their views of the American dream at home.

New thoughts are still formed with old words, of course. Once again, “America First” and the “American dream” have been revived and put to use in the current moment. But as Churchwell reminds us, these are loaded phrases. Even if the man pulling the trigger today doesn’t fully understand them, the rest of us surely should.

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