Might We Renew the Promise of American Life?

Herbert Croly, 1869-1930

I was struck while rereading Herbert Croly’s 1909 political manifesto, The Promise of American Life, about its continually important message. Croly was a leading figure in the Progressive Movement of the first two decades of the twentieth century, a political philosopher, and co-founder of The New Republic, a magazine still being published. His political philosophy influenced many leading progressives including Theodore Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.

For all that he achieved during his long life, there is no question but that Croly’s 1909 book, The Promise of American Life, offered a powerful, seminal, and motivating statement for the Progressive Movement then dominating the United States. It presented a manifesto for change in a time when Americans felt keenly that the nation had “run off the rails” and set on course a tradition that reached fruition in the “New Deal” of the 1930s and the “Great Society” of the 1960s.

In The Promise of American Life Croly compared the political philosophies of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the chief protagonists of defining the nature of American government during the 1790s. Hamilton espoused a broad national government based on collective power, while Jefferson was more individualistic and libertarian in position. In melding these two philosophies, Croly believed that the power of the national government must ensure “a share of the responsibility and the benefits, derived from political economic association, upon the whole community” (The Promise of American life, Macmillan, p. 194). He confessed in this book, “I shall not disguise the fact that on the whole my own preferences are on the side of Hamilton rather than of Jefferson” (pp. 42-43).

This mural, painted by Charles in 1952, was commissioned by the Future Outlook League and was displayed on the wall of a barbershop in the Cedar Central neighborhood of Cleveland, appeared in this exhibition. The mural depicts the movement of African Americans moving to cities and taking up industrial work.

This mural, painted in 1952, was commissioned by the Future Outlook League and was displayed on the wall of a barbershop in the Cedar Central neighborhood of Cleveland. The mural depicts the transformation of African Americans moving to cities and taking up industrial work.

The balancing of the yin and yang of Hamilton/Jefferson political philosophy was held in creative balance through the Civil War era, but the individualistic, libertarian America of Jefferson’s agrarian ideal was destroyed by the forces of industrialization, urbanization, centralization, and modernity afterward. Accordingly, Croly advocated a new political consensus that included as its core a form of Hamiltonian nationalism, but with a sense of social responsibility and care for the less fortunate.

Since the power of big business, trusts, interest groups, and economic specialization had transformed the nation in the latter part of the nineteenth century, only the embracing of a counterbalance to this power would serve the society of the future. Croly pressed for the centralization of power in the Federal Government to ensure democracy, a “New Nationalism.” As Croly wrote, “the traditional American confidence in individual freedom has resulted in a morally and socially undesirable distribution of wealth” (p. 22). He argued for a national government that was more rather than less powerful than it had been, as a bulwark against overbearing self-interest, greed, corruption, and unchecked power.

At the same time, Croly valued the individual motivated by civic virtue and “constructive individualism” and urged all to pursue this objective. In sum, despite his reputation, Croly’s public philosophy is as much a plea for preserving and cultivating individuality in a time of consolidation as it is a call for a renewed American nationalism.

Croly’s ideas seem even more appropriate for the early twenty-first century than they were for when first written more than 100 years ago. Corporatism, greed, and self-interest offer no less a threat than in Croly’s time. It seems to me that his prescriptions still hold, collective action through a strong, democratic institutions.

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