Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Which American Dream?
Vail, CO, Colorado
How was the American Dream formed? How does our national history shape the dream as it moves our country into the future?
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson believed in different components within the dream. Adams showed gratitude for opportunities to aid the helpless and bolster the dispirited. He felt divine favor came to Americans when their compassion reflected the Psalmist’s joy: “Blessed is the person who considers the poor and the weak” (Psalm 41:1).
In contrast, Jefferson gave thanks to nature’s god for our republic’s ability to liberate an individual’s energies. Hard-working citizens progressed to higher levels of economic comfort when institutional barriers, such as government, were limited.
Throughout American history, this tug of war continues between the dream’s interpretations. Jefferson’s version has more often prevailed than Adam’s perspective. Today, tensions arising from these different interpretations of the dream rock our nation’s
With gratitude, Adams surveyed our emerging country. He saw much strength amid struggle within our exceptional nation.
“If ever there existed upon the Globe a Nation of People who had so many causes and motives for Thanksgiving as our American Nation,” he exclaimed, “it has never fallen under my observation or within my reading.”
Adams believed immense opportunity brought great responsibility to care for the weak, the impoverished and the marginalized.
He harbored deep suspicion towards Jefferson’s dream that focused on can-do Americans whose economic hustle created a biblical Eden. Didn’t greed afflict these citizens?
“Where can we look but into the heart of man and the history of his heart?” Adams asked John Taylor in an April 1814 letter. “In the heart were found those appetites, passions, prejudices and selfish interests, which ought always to be controlled by reason, conscience and social affections; but which are never so perfectly controlled, even by any individual, still less by nations and large bodies of men. And less and less, as communities grow larger and larger, more populous, more commercial, more wealthy and more luxurious.”
If government didn’t harness greed in Adams’s American dream, then the rich few might act thanklessly toward the many who need help.
Stephen Colbert sounds Jeffersonian but uses wicked parody to question T.J.’s American dream. In September, the comedian appeared before the House committee on immigration. Sounding like a rabid conservative, Colbert declared, “My great-grandfather did not travel across 4,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants.”
Later, he broke character. It was as if John Adams had written Colbert’s script. “I like talking about people who don’t have any power,” he emphasized. “You know, ‘Whatever you did for the least of my brothers.’ And these seemed like the least of these my brothers right now.”
Jefferson’s dream has won over Adam’s version in American history because of our country’s western advance in the 19th century. Rugged individualism ruled. The self-made cowboy exercised personal freedom on the range unencumbered by government regulations. Risk-takers ventured into the Great West and discovered golden nuggets this side of the rainbow. That’s how Jefferson’s American dream got magnified.
Who sounds Jeffersonian today, wanting government to get out of the way so that the best and brightest can succeed in an unregulated market place? Who wants America to return to her mythic roots in the Old West where individualism ruled? House Speaker-to-be John Boehner’s voice cracked with emotion on the 2010 mid-term elections night. At the start, he offered a composed victory speech for those who believe in Jefferson’s American dream. Then a dam of pent-up emotions broke. He choked up because he adored “economic freedom, individual liberty and personal responsibility.”
“I hold these values dear because I’ve lived them,” Boehner professed. “I’ve spent my whole life chasing the American Dream.”
Jefferson’s, that is. Not Adams’s. Where’s any mention of a community helping the needy? Boehner sees our nation as a collection of individuals who compete to secure the good life.
Adam’s refuted this version of the American Dream. We must escape the tiny circumferences of our lives to assist the weak and helpless. Jefferson sketched a dream in which citizens enlarged their economic circumferences. They pursued happiness by securing larger slices of the national financial pie.
Which version of the American Dream makes you thankful? Which dream reflects Christ’s vision to help those who can’t help themselves?
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.theliving
history.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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