The Promise of American Life Summary


The Promise of American Life, published in 1909, is the most comprehensive statement of the Progressive political movement that occurred at the start of the twentieth century. It came at a time when the United States was in great flux due to the Industrial Revolution. At this time, the wealth of the country was becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals, most often corporate and political bosses. In the text, Croly lays out a plan to regain a political and economic balance through strong federal regulations and social programs. He argues that only programs administered by the federal government can truly help pave the way for America to fulfill the promise of a positive and fair democracy for the greatest number of citizens. Croly’s theories were influenced by his parents, who were both political journalists, and by the philosophers with whom he studied at Harvard. Promise was read by President Theodore Roosevelt, who was a proponent of its theories. The term ‘‘New Nationalism,’’ which Roosevelt used as the label for his political reforms, was taken directly from Croly’s book. Although Promise did not reach a wide readership, it was read by some very wealthy and influential people, including Willard and Dorothy Straight. They were so impressed by Croly’s political theories, they contacted him and provided the backing to launch a new periodical of progressive thinking which became The New Republic, a periodical still in circulation today. It is said that some of Croly’s proposals were an influence on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

The Promise of American Life Summary

Chapter 1: What Is the Promise of American Life?
In the first chapter of The Promise of American Life Croly argues that America has no tradition of strong nationalism as is often present in older countries. He notes that the nation will have to become an active participant in the fulfillment of its democratic promise, and that it is dangerous to assume that the promise of a better future will fulfill itself. He lists the many achievements of America thus far, but cautions that an unequal distribution of economic and political power threatens to derail the nation.

Chapter 2: The Federalists and the Republicans
Here Croly begins a review of American political ideas and practices. He provides an account of the political theories of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Croly compares and contrasts Hamilton’s call for strong federal regulation with Jefferson’s push for extreme individualism. While Croly discloses that his preferences are ‘‘on the side of Hamilton,’’ he posits that the ideal for political reform is actually an amalgam of the two positions.

Chapter 3: The Democrats and the Whigs
In this chapter, Croly continues to lay out American political history, discussing Henry Clay and the Whig Party. Croly claims that the Whigs ‘‘renewed a Hamiltonian spirit and interest in national cohesion.’’ He laments, however, that they were ineffective in putting their political theories into practice. Croly also discusses Andrew Jackson’s political career. He sees Jackson’s policies as dangerous because they were based on conciliation and compromise. He notes that while Jackson’s pioneer spirit was very appealing to the general public, his policies harmed the nation because they promoted selfish individualism.

Chapter 4: Slavery and American Nationality
This chapter gives an in-depth look at how the problem of slavery divided the nation. Croly lists five major factions that came about as a result of the controversy: The Abolitionists, the Southern Democrats, the Northern Democrats, the Constitutional Unionists and the Republicans. After briefly outlining the platform of each of the above parties, Croly launches into a discussion of Abraham Lincoln. Croly holds Lincoln up as the quintessential statesman. He provides a brief summary of Lincoln’s political background and praises him for his selfdiscipline and his ability to subordinate his own interests to those of the nation. He praises Lincoln for confronting the nation’s contradictory practice of allowing slavery to flourish while claiming to be a democracy.

Chapter 5: The Contemporary Situation
Croly begins this chapter by discussing the period of activity and prosperity that occurred after the restoration of peace following the Civil War. He notes that with peace came the the Industrial Revolution, which created many problems as well as increased opportunities. Croly claims that a lack of powerful federal control has allowed special interests to flourish and that these interests are gradually weakening the national promise. There is also a discussion of how lawyers,...

(The entire section is 1292 words.)