The American Dream as a subject in speeches

Jimmy Carter's Inaugural Address and Ronald Reagan's Acceptance Speech: A comparison

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

26 Pages, Grade: 1,7



I. The American Dream

II. President Carter's Inaugural Address
2.1. The person Carter
2.2. The speech
2.3. Illustration of what Carter says about the American Dream
2.4. The creation of an image to the public
2.5. Rhetorical devices employed by Carter to give an impression of himself

III. Ronald Reagan's Acceptance Speech
3.1. The person Reagan
3.2. The speech
3.3. The historical references in context of the intended message
3.4. Illustration of the values and virtues hinted at or talked about
3.5. Rhetorical devices employed by Reagan to convince the audience of his message

IV. Comparison: Mutuality and differences
4.1. Comparison: values and virtues
4.2. Comparison: the audience

V. Bibliography
5.1. Internet sources

I. The American Dream

The American Dream has always been a central subject in political speeches. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were not the only presidents who referred to it in their speeches. Quite possibly every presidential candidate and president related to it when they accepted their nominations and when they outlined their political programmes at their inaugurations. Ever since it has become part of the tradition of political rhetoric in the United States, one can say how centrally important the American Dream (still) is and what great influence it has on the American people.

So what exactly is the American Dream? Peter Freese calls the attempt of defining it “subjective and imcomplete”,[1] especially because he is of the opinion that the vision and beliefs transferred in the American Dream change with the times. However, he quotes Hartmut Keil by using his definition of the American Dream with a lot of its beliefs and convictions that are substantial parts of it: “Individual success, advancement, materialism, personal success, neighborliness, naturalness, individuality, freedom, equality, equal opportunity, search for identity, national purpose, American consciousness, democratic dream, dream of paradise (…), moving force, liberation of humanity, world’s salvation”;[2] but he comes to the conclusion that there is not the possibility of a precise definition in case one does not want to list nearly every aspect of “American society”. Still, the fundamental values and virtues that build the basis and are the core function of the American Dream, are the main part of American political rhetoric. The metaphor of the American Dream has always been used by being glorified by politians in their speeches, and mostly with the promise of fulfilment soon after the elections in case it was a nomination speech. Therefore the American Dream seems to have a realistic side, it is not only a vision or a utopia when presidential candidates and presidents talk about its fulfilment. Since the promise of fulfilment is made ever since this subject has played a major role in political speeches, it is a dream which can and – referring to the politicians’ promises – will come true.

One can discover something concrete and important: even though the American Dream may sound “vague and grandiose”[3] in all its values and beliefs, it - and the promise of it - actually means something to the Americans. In “Reviving the American Dream”, Alice M. Rivlin tries a definition by considering it from the political perspective: from this view the American Dream means an “economy in which people who work hard can get ahead and each new generation lives better than the last one”, it means a “democratic political system in which most people feel they can affect public decisions and elect officials who speak for them”.[3] The Dream gets another dimension through Rivlin’s definition: it is used as a central theme in political speeches because the dream itself has a political content. The incredible importance to the American people results from the connection of both personal and political aspects the American Dream comprises.

Although there might be a “history of dreams about America, and of dreams in America”,[4] it seems as if there is not such a thing as the one American Dream which everyone in the United States seems to share. Every American must have a personal relationship to this special dream, otherwise it would not have been chosen for most acceptance and inaugural speeches.

In this essay two speeches referring to the American Dream will be analyzed: Jimmy Carter’s inaugural address and Carter’s successor Ronald Reagan’s acceptance speech. Both speeches will be elucidated under the aspects of the specific historical contexts and their meaning, i.e. their audiences; and under the aspect of the use of rhetorical devices to either create an image of oneself to the public or to convince the audience.

At last there will be a short comparison of both speeches: how does each speaker refer to the American Dream and how do they present it? In which way do they affirm its fulfilment? Which influence has the fact they spoke to two different audiences?

II. President Carter’s Inaugural Address

2.1. The person Carter

Jimmy Carter, born 1924 as James Earl Carter, Jr, entered state politics in 1962 after seven years’ service as a naval officer. He announced his candidacy for President in 1974. After a two-year campaign he was nominated at the Democratic Convention. Back then, the Watergate scandal was still in everyone’s minds, and it is often said that the fact he was an outsider against nationally better-known politicians, was having the advantage of him.

In the following excerpt of his inaugural speech the values and virtues of the American Dream will be highly regarded. Then a closer look at the creation of an image to the public will follow because this speech did not have the function to convince voters ever since he was already elected. This is an important factor in comparison to Ronald Reagan’s speech. Both speeches will be analyzed in a linked comparison in IV.

2.2. Inaugural Address of President Jimmy Carter: January 20, 1977


1 Here before me is the Bible used in the inauguration of our first
2 President, in 1789, and I have just taken the oath of office on the
3 Bible my mother gave me a few years ago, opened to a timeless
4 admonition from the ancient prophet Micah:
5 "He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the
6 Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to
7 walk humbly with thy God." (Micah 6:8)
8 This inauguration ceremony marks a new beginning, a new
9 dedication within our Government, and a new spirit among us all.
10 A President may sense and proclaim that new spirit, but only a
11 people can provide it. Two centuries ago our Nation's birth was a
12 milestone in the long quest for freedom, but the bold and brilliant
13 dream which excited the founders of this Nation still awaits its
14 consummation. I have no new dream to set forth today, but rather
15 urge a fresh faith in the old dream.
16 Ours was the first society openly to define itself in terms of both
17 spirituality and of human liberty. It is that unique self-definition
18 which has given us an exceptional appeal, but it also imposes on
19 us a special obligation, to take on those moral duties which, when
20 assumed, seem invariably to be in our own best interests.
21 You have given me a great responsibility—to stay close to you, to
22 be worthy of you, and to exemplify what you are. Let us create
23 together a new national spirit of unity and trust. Your strength can
24 compensate for my weakness, and your wisdom can help to
25 minimize my mistakes.
26 Let us learn together and laugh together and work together and
27 pray together, confident that in the end we will triumph together in
28 the right.
29 The American dream endures. We must once again have full faith
30 in our country — and in one another. I believe America can be
31 better. We can be even stronger than before. (…)
32 We have already found a high degree of personal liberty, and we
33 are now struggling to enhance equality of opportunity. Our
34 commitment to human rights must be absolute, our laws fair, our
35 natural beauty preserved; the powerful must not persecute the
36 weak, and human dignity must be enhanced.
37 We have learned that "more" is not necessarily "better," that even
38 our great Nation has its recognized limits, and that we can neither
39 answer all questions nor solve all problems. We cannot afford to
40 do everything, nor can we afford to lack boldness as we meet the
41 future. So, together, in a spirit of individual sacrifice for the
42 common good, we must simply do our best.
43 Our Nation can be strong abroad only if it is strong at home. And
44 we know that the best way to enhance freedom in other lands is to
45 demonstrate here that our democratic system is worthy of
46 emulation.
47 To be true to ourselves, we must be true to others. We will not
48 behave in foreign places so as to violate our rules and standards
49 here at home, for we know that the trust which our Nation earns is
50 essential to our strength. (…)
51 Because we are free we can never be indifferent to the fate of
52 freedom elsewhere. Our moral sense dictates a clear cut
53 preference for these societies which share with us an abiding
54 respect for individual human rights. We do not seek to intimidate,
55 but it is clear that a world which others can dominate with impunity
56 would be inhospitable to decency and a threat to the well-being of
57 all people. (….)
58 Within us, the people of the United States, there is evident a
59 serious and purposeful rekindling of confidence. And I join in the
60 hope that when my time as your President has ended, people
61 might say this about our Nation:
62 — that we had remembered the words of Micah and renewed our
63 search for humility, mercy, and justice;
64 — that we had torn down the barriers that separated those of
65 different race and region and religion, and where there had been
66 mistrust, built unity, with a respect for diversity;
67 — that we had found productive work for those able to perform it;
68 — that we had strengthened the American family, which is the
69 basis of our society;
70 — that we had ensured respect for the law, and equal treatment
71 under the law, for the weak and the powerful, for the rich and the
72 poor;
73 — and that we had enabled our people to be proud of their own
74 Government once again.
75 I would hope that the nations of the world might say that we had
76 built a lasting peace, built not on weapons of war but on
77 international policies which reflect our own most precious values.
78 These are not just my goals, and they will not be my accomplish-
79 ments, but the affirmation of our Nation's continuing moral
80 strength and our belief in an undiminished, ever-expanding
81 American dream.

2.3. Illustration of what Carter says about the American Dream

In his Inaugural Address, held on January 20th, 1977, President Carter calls for a renewal of the American Dream. He believes that it has become “old”,[5] but since it is “bold and brilliant”[6] and not fulfilled yet,[7] he tries to convince his audience to give new strength and energy to it.

Carter starts off reminding the listeners of the dream’s roots which lie in the first settlers’ beliefs and aspirations. He says that the nation’s founders defined themselves as a society in “terms of both spirituality and human liberty”;[8] and that they have “already found a high degree of personal liberty”,[9] but other basic values like equality of opportunity and human rights, have to be enhanced.


[1] Freese, Peter: America. Dream or Nightmare? Reflections on a Composite Image, Essen 1990, page 68.

[2] As said in : Keil, Hartmut : Die Funktion des „American Dream“ in der amerikanischen Gesellschaft, München 1998, page 4f.

[3] Rivlin, Alice M.: Reviving the American Dream. The Economy, the States and the Federal Government, Washington, D.C. 1992, page 1.

[4] Madden, David (edit.): American Dreams, American Nightmares, London & Amsterdam 1970, page 16.

[5] Line 15.

[6] Line 12.

[7] Lines 13/14: “…still awaits its consummation…”

[8] Lines 16/17.

[9] Line 32.

Excerpt out of 26 pages


The American Dream as a subject in speeches
Jimmy Carter's Inaugural Address and Ronald Reagan's Acceptance Speech: A comparison
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Politische Theorie)
Politische Rhetorik
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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American, Dream, Politische, Rhetorik
Quote paper
M.A. Christine So-Young Um (Author), 2005, The American Dream as a subject in speeches, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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