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The American Dream: Then And Now

— The family farm. The single-family home. The urban rabble. The yeoman farmer. They’re all expressions we’ve used over American history to describe our built environment, our values, our economic and political relationships.

The family farm was seen by Thomas Jefferson as the building block of American citizenship and democracy.
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Above: The family farm was seen by Thomas Jefferson as the building block of American citizenship and democracy.

I want to share with you an essay that explains, as well as anything else I’ve read, why home ownership has become the gold standard for urban/suburban life in the U.S.

Take a look at an article called The Death of the American Dream II, by Walter Russell Mead. It was first published in his blog, which appears in The American Interest. It’s a complex and fascinating look at the way we live and how agrarian values have been, in some ways, contorted but in other ways preserved by today’s suburban tract home.

Mead argues that American democracy is rooted in the notion of the yeoman farmer, so greatly admired by Thomas Jefferson. The yeoman farmer was not just a citizen. He was a property owner who managed a small business. The valuable lessons of hard work, thrift and enterprise were learned on the farm and they were applied to the act of self-governance.

People of Jefferson’s day compared that ideal to what they contemptuously called the “urban rabble,” whom they saw as dependent and unproductive. So what are we Americans today? Are we urban rabble or yeoman farmers?

We are no longer farmers. Most of us are employees who work for corporations whose work lives are clearly separated from our home lives. In the days of rural life, work and home were the same place and children were part of the production unit. But modern Americans have not lost the belief that ownership of property is fundamental to citizenship. That’s why the “American dream” is owning a home.

I can’t do Mead’s essay justice, so read it for yourself. You’ll be interested to consider his conclusions as to where we’re headed in post housing-bust America.

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