Within the context of American Studies, 'American Creed' can be
defined as a deeply-held implicit belief in equality of opportunity in
American life; specifically in 'equal opportunity before the law'.
In turn, the 'American Dream' is an extension of the Creed,
essentially that individuals who have 'equality of opportunity' have not
only an ability, but almost a responsibility to determine their own
fortune; that each person has the freedom and opportunity to make of his
(or her) own life whatever he wants it to be. Your destiny is in your own
hands; there is nothing else to hold you back from realizing your
Note that the 'American creed' as a fundamental American belief is not
the same as The
American's Creed, written in 1917 by William Tyler Page as an entry in
a 'patriotic writing' contest. While Page's creed, which combined phrases
from the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S.
Constitution and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address among other sources, was
approved by the U.S. Congress in 1918, it has no official status or
general public usage.
Background on the American Creed
The essence of the American Creed was embodied in the 1776 U.S.
of Independence, in particular the first sentence of its second
paragraph: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of
Happiness. In this phrase is the equation of 'equality' and both the
'right' and 'liberty' to pursue one's own definition of 'happiness.'
Despite the fact that the United States would have institutionalized
slavery until the middle of the 19th century, and it would be longer yet
before women gained the right to vote, the concept that American society
should strive toward a fundamental equality of opportunity of all quickly
Establishment of the Term 'American Creed' in 1944 by Gunnar Myrdal
The American Creed gained greater definition in the Swedish sociologist
Gunnar Myrdal's 1944 An American
Dilemma, commissioned to address the complex issue of black-white
relationships in mid-20th century America. Myrdal said that political and
social interaction in the United States was shaped by an 'American Creed'
which emphasized the ideals of liberty, equality, justice, and fair
treatment of all people. According to Myrdal, it was the creed that kept
the diverse U.S. melting pot together; it was the common belief in this
creed that gave all people white, black, rich, poor, male, female,
and foreign immigrants alike a common cause which allowed them to
co-exist as one nation.
Myrdal explained that the creed was based on the ideals of liberty,
equality, justice and the rule of law and not persons, which in turn had
their origins in the enlightenment philosophy of the mid-18th century
that had provided inspiration for the colonial revolution against the
English crown and the founding of the American nation. It also had deep
roots in Christianity.
Myrdal did not claim to have 'invented' the American creed. He felt
the ideals were a reality commonly accepted and highly valued by all
Americans oppressors as well as the oppressed. Inasmuch as these
ideals were also written into the constitution, America had equipped
itself with an outspoken and clear moral code for human relations, more
than any other nation [Myrdal] knew.
Seymour Martin Lipset Expands on the 'American Creed'
The sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset's
Equality and the American Creed: Understanding the Affirmative Action
Debate [PDF] further expanded the definition of the creed.
From its inception, said Lipset, the United States has been composed of
people whose values and outlook stem from radically different experiences.
The dominant or majority view, as explicated in the American Creed, has
been characterized by an emphasis on social egalitarianism, respect across
class lines, equality of opportunity, and meritocracy. The minority view,
identified with the situation of black Americans, has clearly been for
most of American history a system of explicit hierarchy, of caste, of
inequality related to hereditary origins.
Lipset said that the American Creed is comprised of liberty,
egalitarianism, individualism, populism (the rule of the people) and
laissez-faire. Egalitarianism, in its
American meaning, has emphasized equality of opportunity and of respect,
not of result or condition. These values reflect the absence of feudal
structures and monarchies and aristocracies.
As a new society, America lacked the emphasis on social hierarchy and
deference characteristic of post-feudal cultures. These aspects, as Alexis de
Tocqueville and Max
Weber also stressed, were reinforced by the country's religious
commitment to the "nonconformist", largely congregationally organized,
Protestant sects which emphasize voluntarism with respect to the state,
and a personal or individual relationship to God, one not mediated by
hierarchically organized churches, which predominated in Europe, Canada
and Latin America. In much of Europe, on the other hand, the historic
national values are derivative from strong monarchical and mercantilist
states, feudal class and hierarchial religious structures and traditions,
which favored an emphasis on hereditary status and family origins.
Lipset claimed that the United States was the nation least affected by
European feudal heritages. In the U.S. a stress on achievement, on moving
up in the class system, linked with the widespread belief in individualism
and equality of opportunity, has been greater than in Europe.
In America a culture of achievement, of getting ahead, prevails.
Americans have always believed that everyone should try to be a success,
regardless of background. This achievement norm is related to
universalism, or the belief that everyone should be treated similarly
without reference to traits stemming from birth, class, religion,
ethnicity, gender and color.
Establishment of the Term 'American Dream' in 1931 by James Truslow
The term 'American Dream' was first used by James Truslow
Adams in his 1931 book The Epic of America (see Library of
Congress 'background essay' on
What Is the American Dream?).
According to Adams,
The American Dream is 'that dream of a land in which life
should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for
each according to ability or achievement' . . . It is not a dream of motor
cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man
and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which
they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are,
regardless of the . . . circumstances of one's birth or
The historian David Hackett Fischer, in
Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America's Founding
Ideas (Oxford UP, 2005) also examined the American Dream. Fischer
distinguished between "liberty" and "freedom." Derived from an
Indo-European root that means beloved, freedom denotes the "rights
of belonging within a community of free people." Liberty, on the other
hand, originated in the ancient Mediterranean and refers to "ideas of
independence, separations, and autonomy for an individual or a group."
According to Fischer, the "dynamic tension" between
"liberty-asseparation and freedom-as-belonging to a community of free
people is unique to the English-speaking world." Nowhere is this tension
better expressed than in the various traditions of "order, power, freedom,
and liberty" that developed in the New World.