The Promise of American Life

by Herbert Croly

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Leaders and Leadership
In The Promise of American Life, Croly discusses many styles of leadership and comments upon the efficacy of various styles. He exalts Abraham Lincoln as a great leader because he had the intelligence and foresight to see issues objectively, and was able to subvert his personal interests to those of the nation. Croly also laments the fact that while some statesmen have had sound and useful political theories, their lack of leadership skills has prevented their message from being well received by the public. He also discusses how a strong public persona can overshadow the message, and claims that this can result in the acceptance of bad policies. Croly believes that this was the case for Thomas Jefferson. He notes that Jefferson was so well liked by the public that they were blinded to some of the harmful policies and political practices he supported. Croly also discusses Alexander Hamilton at length, and is particularly disappointed in Hamilton’s leadership style. He feels that Hamilton’s unpopular personality led to many of his ideas being discounted. He claims that Hamilton was unwilling to alter his delivery or ideas to court public opinion. As Croly notes, ‘‘He was not afraid to incur unpopularity for pursuing what he believed to be a wise public policy, and the general disapprobation under which he suffered during the last years of his life, while it was chiefly due to his distrust of the American democracy, was also partly due to his high conception of the duties of leadership.’’

Industrial Revolution
At the beginning of the twentieth century there was a huge increase in industry in the United States. Citizens moved in large numbers from rural areas into the cities to take advantage of the increase in job opportunities. America’s agrarian-based society rapidly changed to one of industrial production. Croly sees this rapid explosion of industry as one of the primary causes of society’s problems because it served to create an imbalance of economic and political power. He writes, ‘‘The net result of the industrial expansion of the United States since the Civil War has been the establishment in the heart of the American economic and social system of certain glaring inequalities of condition and power.’’

Croly names slavery as one of the primary issues affecting the history of American political thought. He claims that it was the seminal, make-orbreak issue around which many political parties rallied. Croly feels that political theorists who were unwilling to acknowledge the contradiction of allowing slavery to flourish in a democracy were destined to fail. In fact, he believes that Abraham Lincoln’s clear-sightedness on this issue was the main contributing factor in making him such a great statesman.

Croly sees the unequal distribution of wealth as one of the main problems facing the nation in the early 1900s. He notes that a great deal of wealth was amassed by corrupt individuals who exploited the inefficiency of government for their own gains:

The rich men and the big corporations have become too wealthy and powerful for their official standing in American life. They have not obeyed the laws. They have attempted to control the official makers, administrators, and expounders of the law.

Croly believes that this economic imbalance has increasingly led to discontent and class strife. Croly sums up the problem in the following way:

The prevailing abuses and sins, which have made reform necessary, are all of them associated with the prodigious concentration of wealth, and of the power exercised by wealth in the hands of a few men.

Croly sees nationalism as the key to...

(This entire section contains 1078 words.)

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fulfilling the promise of American life. He says that the truly great citizen must be willing to subvert his own special interests to those that are best for the nation. In order for this to be achieved, he states, people must have complete confidence in their federal government: ‘‘Only by faith in an efficient national organization and by an exclusive aggressive devotion to the national welfare, can the American democratic ideal be made good.’’ The point Croly fails to explain, however, is how this confidence is to be inspired. He places great faith in human nature and seems to believe that, if government does the ‘‘right thing,’’ an appropriate nationalistic spirit will follow.

Croly believes that American society must strike a balance between individualism and nationalism in order to fulfill its potential. Moreover, he believes that, in order to achieve nationalism, the talent and intellect of special individuals must not be repressed. Thus, he argues for individualism to be encouraged: ‘‘An individual can, then, best serve the cause of American individuality by effectually accomplishing his own individual emancipation— that is, by doing his own special work with ability, energy, disinterestedness, and excellence.’’ In other words, Croly feels that democracy can only be strengthened by encouraging the best and the brightest individuals. He does note, however, that no individual or class interest should be awarded permanent special economic or political privileges, as this has the potential to throw the system out of balance.

Class Conflict
In his discussion of the class struggles of his time, Croly claims that a laissez-faire government promotes class conflict in a society through its nonintervention. He notes that equal rights must be promoted through governmental controls; if these controls are not put in place, bickering and strife will ensue. He believes that if equality is not legislated, people will become suspicious of the privileges and opportunities of others:

The principle of equal rights encourages mutual suspicion and disloyalty. It tends to attribute individual and social ills for which general moral, economic and social causes are usually in large measure responsible, to individual wrong-doing; and in this way it arouses and intensifies that personal and class hatred, which never in any society lies far below the surface.

Croly points out that democracy is often equated with the concept of popular government, but that this translates into a weak central government. He calls for a rethinking of this concept so that democracy benefits all of the people through the careful control of a strong central government. He favors a ‘‘Hamiltonian’’ concept of democracy rather than a ‘‘Jeffersonian’’ one. That is, one which is run by careful and efficient federal control. However, Croly actually believes that the ideal state of democracy comes from an amalgamation of the two. He ultiT mately encourages the use of ‘‘Hamiltonian means’’ to achieve ‘‘Jeffersonian ends.’’