The Promise of American Life

by Herbert Croly

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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, political bosses, and industrialists have exploited the system for their own gains and that the inefficiency of central government has contributed largely to this state of affairs.

Chapter 6: Reform and the Reformers
Here Croly discusses the careers of four reformers who have thus far been unable to effect much positive change: William Jennings Bryan, Williams Travers Jerome, William Randolph Hearst, and Theodore Roosevelt. Of the four, Croly puts most of his hopes in Theodore Roosevelt, whom he says has ‘‘revived the Hamiltonian idea.’’ He praises Roosevelt for giving men with special abilities an opportunity to serve the public. Croly says that reformers must combine intellect and morality in order to be effective, and that most have failed because they are not ‘‘team players.’’ Their...

(This entire section contains 1292 words.)

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desire to be ‘‘stars’’ weakens their political efficacy.

Chapter 7: Reconstruction; Its Conditions and Purposes
Croly provides an analysis of the meaning of democracy. He notes that democracy is often thought of as a system that dispenses with restrictions. He claims that this is a problem, however, because the ‘‘ultimate responsibility for the government of a community must reside somewhere.’’ If equal rights are afforded to all individuals, some will naturally take advantage of this and class strife will occur. The answer lies in ‘‘constructive discrimination.’’ Individuals must be encouraged to earn distinction, but no individual should be given a permanent privilege. Selected individuals must be ‘‘obliged constantly to justify their selection.’’

Chapter 8: Nationality and Democracy; National Origins
In this chapter Croly presents a summary of the way in which modern European national states originated. He focuses on England, France, and Germany. He presents them as examples of different kinds of democratic experiments, and shows how the national idea of each country has influenced its formation. Croly proposes that in all cases citizens must be willing to subordinate their own special interests for the good of the country. He also warns that nations must not seek to destroy others for, ‘‘[A] nation seeking to destroy other nations is analogous to a man who seeks to destroy the society in which he was born.’’

Chapter 9: The American Democracy and Its National Principle
Here Croly proposes that, in order for a nation to remain strong, a national principle must emerge. He urges that American democracy must become loyally nationalistic. Croly sees a danger in leaving too much power in the hands of state and local governments because they are inefficient and prone to supporting special interests. He calls for an increase in centralized power and responsibility.

Chapter 10: A National Foreign Policy
In this chapter Croly discusses America’s increasing emergence as an international player. Croly notes that America can no longer remain isolationist. He urges that America adopt a strong, clear national policy in relation to the other nations of the world. He cautions against the aggressive tendency put forth by the Monroe Doctrine, but also warns against too rigid a policy of isolationism. He notes that the United States must work to secure a peaceful and stable American continent, being particularly wary of Canada and Latin America. Moreover, he calls for better relations with Canada so that the threat of European intervention can be minimized. In addition, Croly discusses the possibility of American intervention in foreign wars.

Chapter 11: Problems of Reconstruction
Croly states that public opinion must be converted to a better understanding of its national responsibilities. Here, once again, Croly discusses the inefficiency of state governments and calls for a reorganization. He says that the people should have the power to initiate legislation, and moreover, that no important laws should be passed without their direct consent. He notes that institutions have failed the people and that legislatures have become increasingly corrupt, working primarily on behalf of special interests. To remedy this situation, Croly states, stronger federal controls must be put into place. Finally, he notes that the rights of recall and referendum must be available to the people in order to remove corrupt government officials and policies.

Chapter 12: Problems of Reconstruction—(continued)
In this chapter, Croly explains how allowing each state government to control its own commerce makes it very difficult for the railroads and corporations. He calls, instead, for controls by the federal government. However, he does not support the Sherman Anti-Trust Law because he believes it is ineffective. He does not believe that corporations should be prevented from making large profits. Rather, Croly calls for systems that would disperse huge corporate profits for the widest public benefit. Ultimately, the answer is taxation.

Chapter 13: Conclusion—The Individual and the National Purpose
Here, Croly sums up his arguments. He notes that education is the key to all of his foregoing proposals. Croly believes that education will provide the means for the American people to better themselves and their communities. He feels that individual improvement and achievement will strengthen nationalism and lead to a better society, as well as to a better democracy.