The Promise of American Lives:

Heroic Individualism in the Writings of Herbert Croly

Kevin C. Murphy, Columbia University
(Copyright 2003-2013, All Rights Reserved)

I. Introduction
II. Crolian Ends: Corrosive Individualism and Creative Individuality
III. Crolian Means: Artisanal Fulfillment and Heroic Exemplars
IV. Crolian Virtues: Independence
V. Crolian Virtues: Sociability
VI. Crolian Virtues: Vitality
VII. "Something of a Saint and Something of a Hero": Lincoln and Roosevelt
VIII. The Overlooked Promise of Croly's Promise


Few public intellectuals have enjoyed as meteoric a rise as that of obscure architecture critic Herbert David Croly in 1909. With the publication of his first book, The Promise of American Life, Croly vaulted to national prominence to become, in the later words of Walter Lippman, "the first important political philosopher" of the 20th century.1 Indeed, although his 1914 follow-up, Progressive Democracy, and his founding of The New Republic that same year further cemented his reputation as a preeminent progressive, it is nevertheless by the Promise of 1909 that Croly is best remembered by contemporaries and historians alike. "No book written in the twentieth century has exerted so direct an influence on American politics," wrote historian Byron Dexter in 1955. "It helped supply Theodore Roosevelt with the theory of his New Nationalism, and Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt with much of the intellectual content of the New Freedom and New Deal."2 Similarly, Felix Frankfurter declared in 1930 that Croly's book "became a reservoir for all political writing after its publication...'Promise' may fairly be called seminal for American political thinking."3 And historian Charles Forcey concluded in 1961 that "the essential philosophy of Herbert Croly's The Promise of American Life of 1909 has become the prevailing faith of most Americans."4

The argument for which Promise was most hailed and is best remembered, the thesis that so enthralled his progressive contemporaries and liberal heirs, is Croly's ardent embrace of Hamiltonian nationalism. According to Croly, the hyper-individualistic America of the nineteenth century was ill-equipped to handle the many social problems either caused or exacerbated by the economic centralization and specialization that defined the start of the twentieth. As such, Croly advocated the centralizing of power in the Federal Government and the rekindling of a more democratic "New Nationalism" in order to combat economic trusts and preserve the "promise of American life." As Croly put it, "American government demands more rather than less centralization merely and precisely because of the growing centralization of American activity...The conception of democracy [as antithetical to nationalism] is the great enemy of the American national advance, and is for this reason the great enemy of the real interests of democracy."5

Croly's reputation as a "prophet of American nationalism" is certainly well earned throughout both Promise and his later writings. Nevertheless, the critical attention paid to Croly's collectivist impulses by his peers, his disciples, and his detractors have served to eclipse some other important nuances of his public philosophy.6 For, contrary to what we might expect from a political theorist who declared that "the traditional American confidence in individual freedom has resulted in a morally and socially undesirable distribution of wealth" and who advocated "the subordination of the individual to the demand of a dominant and constructive national purpose," Herbert Croly's writing reflects a deep concern for the independence and autonomy of persons just as much as the welfare of "the people."7 In fact, Croly spent a considerable amount of time delving into the issues of individual liberty and individual advancement in both his major works, even going so far as to conclude Promise with chapters on "individual emancipation" and "constructive individualism." 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.

Moreover, the proposed solutions to this vexing problem of preserving American individuality -- and the varying rhetorical strategies employed in Promise and Progressive Democracy -- are made all the more interesting by the fact that Herbert Croly was a man ever so slightly out of synch with his time. Although he came to public prominence at much the same time as his New Republic colleagues Walter Lippmann, Walter Weyl, and Randolph Bourne, Croly had spent much more time laboring in obscurity before his breakthrough, and thus is in many ways the product of an earlier generation of progressive thought, the generation of Jane Addams, William James, and Theodore Roosevelt. As such, Croly's extensive delineations of individual virtues in Promise -- along with his somewhat belated embrace of pragmatism in Progressive Democracy -- set him apart from his contemporaries in a number of historically interesting ways.

For one, in Croly's choices of admirable virtues to cultivate in the citizenry, it is possible to discern a number of long-standing progressive trends at work, trends that would very quickly fall out of vogue in the political writings of the early teens. Indeed, it can be argued that much of the reason for Promise's astounding popularity is because the book succeeded in articulating a number of long-held and deeply felt progressive principles at the very moment they were becoming culturally obsolete, superseded by the growing influence of Freud, Nietzsche, and other apostles of the irrational man of Modernism. For another, Croly's aesthetic critique of American democracy -- arising from his early experience as an architecture critic and centered upon the problem of the artist-intellectual in a democracy -- would foreshadow many of the cultural criticisms of pragmatism made by the "Young Americans" during the embittering experience of World War I.

Although Croly's theory of individuality in Promise has been often overlooked by Croly's readers, it would be a gross hyperbole to argue that it has been completely disregarded by scholars. Croly's most noted biographer, David Levy, has argued that the book "was essentially the application of the thought of August Comte to the industrial society of the United States," and as such Levy does an able job of explaining Croly's virtues as the moral blueprint of a Comtean positivist.8 Similarly, as we shall see, historian Wilfred McClay has portrayed Croly as the foremost champion of "disinterestedness," a virtue designed mostly to justify the rule of progressive experts. While taking these theories into account, I also want to locate Croly's argument in two other American intellectual traditions that I think resonate clearly throughout his book -- the political philosophy of civic republicanism and the moral perfectionism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. There is always a danger when comparing canons across time that one is reading ahistorical assumptions into the writing of a given text. Nevertheless, I believe that locating The Promise of American Life in these twin traditions help to explain better both the rhetorical strategies Croly employs in his work and the changes in his thought between Promise and Progressive Democracy.

Continue to Part II: "Crolian Ends: Corrosive Individualism and Creative Individuality."

1. David Levy. Herbert Croly of the New Republic: The Life and Thought of an American Progressive (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), xi.
2. Byron Dexter. "Herbert Croly and the Promise of American Life" (Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 2 (Jun. 1955), 197. 3. Levy, 135.
4. Charles Forcey. The Crossroads of Liberalism: Croly, Weyl, Lippman, and the Progressive Era, 1900-1925 (Oxford University Press: New York, 1961), xxv.
5. Herbert Croly. The Promise of American Life. (New York: Capricorn Books, 1964). (1909), 275-276.
6. To take just one example. Virginia Postrel of Reason magazine recently concluded (in an essay unsympathetic to Croly) that "as a governing doctrine [Crolyism] is inherently intolerant, demanding conformity to a central purpose." In fact, one could argue (as this paper will) that intolerance of diversity and a forced conformity were exactly the problems in American life that Croly was reacting against. Virginia Postrel. "The Croly Ghost" (Reason Magazine, December 1997).
7. Croly, 22-23.
8. Levy, 131.

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