USFSP Master's Theses (Graduate)

The Rhetoric of the American Dream: Freedom, Democracy and American Exceptionalism

Donna Knudsen

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Liberal Arts, College of Arts and Sciences, University of South Florida St. Petersburg.


What is the American Dream? The American Dream, significant for its connection to American national identity, has eluded concise definition for more than two centuries. In spite of numerous failed attempts to encapsulate varied and diverse individual dreams within a singular definition, the notion of a common American Dream that rests within assumptions of shared experience endures. This study examines the rhetoric of U.S. Presidential inaugural addresses – George Washington through Barack Obama – combining word frequency searches with a contextual analysis that uncovers common principles associated with the American Dream that have been perpetuated by the nation’s leaders. Discussions inspired by the results of the rhetorical analysis include: the role that American exceptionalism has played in the development of national identity; the varied and often-competing nature of individual American Dreams; and, beginning with the inaugurals of the Presidents of the late nineteenth century, the systematic employment of a rhetorical strategy that facilitates a narrative of shared experience but maintains the ambiguity of the American Dream.