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The evolution of the American dream

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At some point in our national history, back when the Pilgrims slipped ashore, an energized cohort of fiery Protestant preachers emerged to press the notion that we Americans had been singled out for greatness by God himself, an idea that stuffed us with national pride. Thus patriotism and religion were cojoined from the beginning, and, to a certain degree, the link is still there.

Benjamin Franklin imbued in us the zeal to work and encouraged the inclination for self-improvement. Then a little more than two centuries on, the sociologist Max Weber observed how the Calvanist emphasis on hard work, once driven by Puritan religious aims, had, over the years, stimulated the growth of capitalism. The religious element has since faded, and getting rich has become nearly the sole purpose driving the dream.

The collective dream of which we speak is a unique part of the American experience. I can think of no other country whose people asserted they have been chosen by God, except Israel.

Most others beyond our shores seem baffled by it; some call it presumptuous. There is no English dream, Brazilian dream, no French or Chinese dreams. Are we the exception, alone to enjoy the comfort of our own dream? Very nearly so.

It was James Truslow Adams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian with a foot in each of the past two centuries, who gave the name to the phenomenon he regarded as this country's greatest achievement: the American dream, a democratic standard for the world.

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