The Promise of American Life

by Herbert Croly

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Historical Context

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The Industrial Revolution
The early twentieth century was a time of great change for America. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and great numbers of people were moving from rural areas into cities to take advantages of the job opportunities created by new technologies and industry. Many inventions had come about during the previous half-century and many were still being developed. This time period saw the introduction of the sewing machine (1846), the telephone (1877), the phonograph (1877), the cash register (1879), and the adding machine (1885), to name a few. These inventions would work their way into the life of American industry, causing an explosion of production and manufacturing. Unfortunately, it also caused a dramatic and rapid population growth in many American cities, which resulted in poor living conditions, including terrible overcrowding and pollution. A vast increase in the immigrant population also added to the problem. Although conditions were often harsh, many people still saw America as a land of opportunity and wanted to take advantage of the work that was available. Factory owners also took advantage of the situation, making employees labor in terrible conditions for long hours with little pay and no benefits. It is important to remember that at this time there was no minimum wage law, no child labor laws, and no regulation of the length of a working day. Sometimes children as young as six years old labored six days a week for fourteen hours a day in deplorable conditions. Because of this mistreatment of workers, unions sprang up and many reformers called for legislation to protect workers’ rights.

Civil Rights
The Civil War ended in 1865. While African Americans were granted citizenship, prejudice and bigotry against them still existed. In 1896 the U. S. Supreme Court upheld segregation in Plessy vs. Ferguson, maintaining that separate-but-equal treatment of African Americans was still allowable under the law. There was much hostility between the races and the lynching of blacks was not an uncommon occurrence. Black activists began to call for better conditions, and in 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was created. Women were also fighting for their rights at this time. In most states, they had not yet earned the right to vote. Consequently, many women’s organizations sprang up to address this problem. Women suffragists organized and created a strong movement advocating voting rights for women. They sometimes delivered their message through civil disobedience and demonstrations and were often arrested as a result. However, their work finally paid off. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, was finally passed in 1919.

Politics and Reform
In 1908 William Howard Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan for the presidency of the United States. During his campaign, Taft promised to revise the tariff law, and upon election he immediately set out to do this. He called for a special session of Congress and eventually signed a tariff bill that turned out to be an abysmal failure. While Taft himself was extremely pleased with the bill, many in his party were not. He alienated a large faction of Republicans and seriously damaged his efficacy as president. The progressives in the party were particularly angered and began vehemently opposing Taft’s policies. This secured his overwhelming defeat in the following presidential elec- tion of 1912. Overall in America, things were moving and changing so fast during this time period that it was difficult for politicians or the general citizenry to get a handle on them. The influx of immigration, the explosion of production, and quick changes in the demographics of American society spawned numerous problems. These conditions, however, also created a generation of reformers who tried to propel the United States into a more enlightened and reasonable attitude. They longed for a strong and fair democracy that would afford great opportunities for all of its citizens.

Literary Style

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In The Promise of American Life, Croly presents his political ideas in the form of a narrative. He relates the political history of the United States and of several European nations as a story. He also tells the stories of a large number of statesman who have been influential throughout the course of American politics. In putting forth his ideas in the form of a story, one might think it would make Croly’s book more accessible to the average reader. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Complex Sentence Structure
Croly’s dense sentence structure serves to muddy the story line, making it a difficult text to work through. Even political analysts find the stories and arguments presented in Croly’s work complicated. In his article for Society, Sidney A. Pearson notes, ‘‘[I]t is a difficult work to read.’’ This may have been one of the contributing factors that kept it from a larger readership when it was originally published. In fact, during Croly’s lifetime, only about 7,500 copies of the book were sold. In his writing, Croly rarely uses simple, declarative sentences. Instead, his prose is filled with interjections, clauses, and sub-clauses, a fact that several critics have commented upon. In his article on Croly’s book for The Public Interest, Wilfred M. McClay notes, ‘‘[I]ts 454 pages contain more than their fair share of ponderous, murky passages.’’

Vocabulary and Terminology
Within the narrative itself, Croly does an excellent job of defining the vocabulary and political concepts used in The Promise of American Life. For example, the student who may not be familiar with terms such as ‘‘Hamiltonian’’ and ‘‘Jeffersonian’’ is provided with a thorough discussion of each before Croly goes on to use these concepts as a basis for his argument. Croly also includes discussions of terms such as ‘‘Jacksonian,’’ ‘‘Democracy,’’ ‘‘Whigs,’’ and ‘‘Federalism.’’ In addition to the explanation of terms used, Croly includes informative portraits of the major political figures who play a central role in his theories. By including this extensive background information and a thorough discussion of the political terms used, Croly makes the vocabulary in his text accessible to students who may have only a rudimentary knowledge of political history and terminology.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 309

1900s: The Model T is introduced by Henry Ford at a time when very few people in America own a car.

Today: There are many makes and models of automobiles available. Almost everyone in America learns to drive.

1900s: The first daily comic strip ‘‘Mr. Mutt’’ (later ‘‘Mutt and Jeff’’ ) appears in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Today: Daily comic strips are a regular feature of many newspapers. They have become an integral part of popular culture, and many have been made into animated series for television.

1900s: The first coast-to-coast crossing of America by car is achieved. It takes sixty-five days.

Today: People can travel across America in a few hours in jet planes.

1900s: The first regular cinema is established in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Today: Moviegoers can choose from dozens of movies at huge multiplex cinemas. Going to the cinema is now a traditional American pastime. People can also either rent or buy movies on videotape or DVD disc and view these movies in their own homes.

1900s: There are 46 states in the union, and the population of the United States is over 76 million people.

Today: There are 50 states in the union, and the population of the United States is approximately 286.5 million people.

1900s: Women do not gain the right to vote until 1919 and are primarily expected to stay home and take care of the family.

Today: Many women hold political office or pursue careers. Women try to balance work and family.

1900s: In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt takes the first trip outside the United States by a president in office. He visits the Canal Zone in Central America.

Today: The President of the United States makes numerous trips worldwide during the term of office to meet with other national leaders and to act as a goodwill ambassador for the United States. He also welcomes world leaders to the White House.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 246

Croly, Herbert, The Promise of American Life, Capricorn Books, 1964.

Geoghegan, Thomas, The Secret Lives of Citizens: Pursuing the Promise of American Life, Pantheon Books, 1998, pp. 229–33.

Judis, John B., ‘‘Herbert Croly’s Promise,’’ in the New Republic, Vol. 201, No. 19, November 6, 1989, pp. 19–22.

McClay, Wilfred M., ‘‘Croly’s Progressive America,’’ in The Public Interest, Fall 1999, p. 56.

Pearson, Sidney A., Jr., ‘‘Herbert Croly and Liberal Democracy,’’ in Society, Vol. 35, No. 5, July–August 1998, pp. 62–71.

Postrel, Virginia I., ‘‘The Croly Ghost,’’ in Reason, Vol. 29, No. 7, December 1997, pp. 4–6.

Stettner, Edward A., Shaping Modern Liberalism: Herbert Croly and Progressive Thought, University Press of Kansas, 1993, pp. 33, 76.

Further Reading
Conklin, Groff, The New Republic Anthology 1915–1935, Dodge Publishing Co., 1936. The New Republic Anthology is a collection of the best essays from the first two decades of the periodical founded by Herbert Croly. The book includes a wide array of political and social commentary, as well as providing a great snapshot of the time period.

Fink, Leon, Major Problems in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, D.C. Heath & Co., 1993. This book combines primary source documents with commentary about the issues facing America from 1887 to 1920.

Forcey, Charles, The Crossroads of Liberalism, Oxford University Press, 1961. Forcey profiles three political journalists of the progressive era: Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl, and Walter Lippman.

Olson, James S., Encyclopedia of the Industrial Revolution in America, Greenwood Press, 2001. This reference book offers in-depth coverage of the economic, political, and social developments of the Industrial Revolution in the United States from 1750 to 1920.

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