Heroic Individualism in the Writings of Herbert Croly
Kevin C. Murphy, Columbia University
(Copyright 2003-2013, All Rights Reserved)
Independence, solidarity, vitality -- Croly had by now set a high bar for his historical exemplars, one which few can measure up to. Thus, it is not surprising that the role model upon whom Croly lavishes the most praise is the one man who managed to successfully embody all these virtues, and then some -- Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, Croly considers Lincoln so important an example of the heroic -- or even saintly -- democrat that he brings his dissertation on American history to a full stop in order to laud him appropriately. As Croly puts it, "the life of no other American has revealed with anything like the same completeness the peculiar moral promise of genuine democracy. [Lincoln] shows us by the full but unconscious integrity of his example the kind of human excellence which a political and social democracy may and should fashion."73 As such, it behooves us to take a closer look at Croly's ultimate exemplar to appreciate his ideal of American individuality.
For one, Lincoln was avowedly independent in his thought. Although surrounded by men whose "almost exclusive preoccupation with practical tasks" and "failure to grant their intelligence any room for independent exercise" had "bent them into exceedingly warped and one-sided human beings," Lincoln nevertheless used "every chance which the material of Western life afforded to discipline and inform his mind," mastering Euclid, Shakespeare, and the Bible on his own cognizance. As a result, "Lincoln's vision placed every aspect of the situation in its proper relations; and he was as fully competent to detect the logical weakness of his opponent's position as he was to explain his own lucidly, candidly, and persuasively."74
For another, Lincoln embraced the democratic sociability of the Jeffersonian Democrat. His "native instinct for the wholesome and illuminating aspect of the life around him brought more frequently than any other cause to the club of loafers in the general store," whereby he would exchange "promiscuous conversation" and "racy yarns." As a result, Lincoln's "hours of social vagrancy relieved his culture from the taint of bookishness. It gave substance to his humor. It humanized his wisdom and enabled him to express it in a familiar and dramatic form."75 Most importantly, this democratic companionship taught Lincoln to regard his fellow countrymen "not merely as the embodiment of an erroneous or harmful idea, but as human beings, capable of better things." In so doing, Lincoln "made for a himself a second nature, compact of insight and loving-kindness," and by his every action illustrated that "democracy meant to him more than anything else the spirit and principle of brotherhood."76
And, if this were not enough, the time spent engaging in democratic camaraderie also helped to fortify Lincoln's tremendous vitality. For "his unconsciousness of his own distinction [from other people, due to sociability] kept his will as firm and vigorous as if he were really no more than a man of action." And once fully formed, Lincoln's will was considerable. "[W]hen he had made up his mind, he was not to be confused or turned aside...Lincoln never for an instant allowed his course to be diverted...Back of all his opinions there was an ultimate stability of purpose which was the result both of sound mental discipline and a firm will."77
Indeed, so completely did Lincoln embody the Crolian trifecta of independence, sociability, and vitality that the three virtues became fused into one animating democratic spirit. Lincoln's "intelligence served to enlighten his will," argued Croly, "and his will, to establish the mature decisions of his intelligence. Late in life the two faculties became in their exercise almost indistinguishable. His judgments, in so far as they were decisive, were charged with momentum, and actions were instinct with sympathy and understanding."78
Thus, in Croly's casting, when these three virtues are forged into a unified democratic spirit, as in Lincoln's case, two saintly virtues then become attainable -- magnanimity and humility.79 Croly deems the first "perhaps [Lincoln's] greatest distinction, [for] the quality of being magnanimous is both the consummate virtue and the one which is least natural." Similarly, Croly declares that Lincoln's humility is borne not only of "moral vitality and insight" but also of "the fruit of reflection on his own personal experience." Coupled with empathy, Lincoln "is not only humble himself, but he feels and declares that men have no right to be anything but humble; and he thereby enters into possession of the most fruitful and most universal of all religious ideas."80
Independent, compassionate, willful, magnanimous, humble -- at this point Lincoln comes across as more saint than man, which is exactly Croly's point. Not only is Lincoln "the kind of national hero the adoring imitation of whom can do nothing but good," he embodies virtues that were "either wholly ignored or consciously under-valued" by the democrats of his day.
Yet, these very qualities of high intelligence, humanity, magnanimity, and humility are precisely the qualities which Americans, in order to become better democrats, should add to their strength, their homogeneity, and their innocence; while at the same time they are just the qualities which Americans are prevented by their individualistic practice and tradition from attaining or properly valuing. Their deepest convictions make the average unintelligent man the representative democrat, and the aggressive successful individual, the admirable national type; and in conformity with these convictions their uppermost ideas in respect to Lincoln are that he was a "Man of the People" and an example of strong will. He was both of these things, but his great distinction is that he was also something vastly more and better. He cannot be fully understood and properly valued as a national hero without an implicit criticism of these traditional convictions.81
In sum, Abraham Lincoln is the historical exemplar of democratic individuality par excellence. No other figure in Croly's work comes close.
That being said, there is one person in The Promise of American Life who embodies enough Crolian virtue to play hero to Lincoln's saint -- Theodore Roosevelt. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, Croly explicitly paints Roosevelt as such, declaring that he "may be figured as a Thor wielding with power and effect a sledge-hammer in the cause of national righteousness."82 "More than any other political leader, except Lincoln," says Croly of Roosevelt, "his devotion to both the national and to the democratic ideas is thorough-going and absolute."83 In fact, Croly goes on to label Roosevelt "Hamiltonian with a difference." For, unlike the former Secretary of the Treasury, Roosevelt not only "has thereby shown a faith in human nature far more edifying and far more genuinely democratic than that of Jefferson or Jackson," but "has given a fellow-countrymen a useful example of the way in which a college-bred and a well-to-do man can become by somewhat forcible means a good practical democrat."84
Yet, if Roosevelt's intellectual independence and fraternal sociability are formidable enough for the democratic pantheon of heroes, the hammer-wielding Roosevelt's overabundance of vitality nevertheless keeps him out of the Crolian canon of saints. Indeed, to Croly, this is Roosevelt's critical fault -- "his intelligence has been the handmaiden of his will; and the balance of those faculties, so finely exemplified in Abraham Lincoln, has been destroyed by sheer exuberance of moral energy."85 In castigating Roosevelt thus, Croly displays an intellectual ambivalence about vitality that he shared with William James, Jane Addams, and many other early progressives of his time. For, while vitality was a virtue to be cultivated in the face of overcivilization, too much vitality seemed to result in the national vices of imperialism and militarism.
This progressive ambivalence about vitality is perhaps best reflected in William James's famous 1910 essay "The Moral Equivalent of War," which, according to George Cotkin, represents James's attempt to "retain the emphases of his discourse of heroism and to undermine the instinctual foundations of the imperial attitude." As Cotkin notes, "James found himself between two worlds" -- While the vitalistic impulse motivating imperialism "struck a resonant chord for James...he always realized that stirring militarism endangered the very structure of his entire discourse of heroism, threatening to make it appear little more than a philosophically sophisticated version of Rooseveltian jingoism." As such, James emphasized the need for "civic passion," a "Moral Equivalent of War," to replace the imperial instinct, thus separating militarism "from the instincts of heroism, endurance, and discipline."86 To my mind, Croly's differentiation between saintly Lincoln and overenthusiastic Roosevelt a year earlier, as well as his evocation of a "balance" of virtue, reflects this same impulse to preserve the rhetoric of vitality and heroism from the threat of excessive militarism.87 In sum, Crolian heroes may desire to impress their will upon the less fortunate, but democratic saints, being magnanimous and humble, know better.
Return to Part VI: "Crolian Virtues: Vitality."
74. Croly, 91, 87.
75. Croly, 92.
76. Croly, 94. In his discussion of Waldo Frank's Our America, Casey Blake notes that "Frank seemed to go out of his way to refute Herbert Croly's attempt to enlist Lincoln in the Progressive cause in The Promise of American Life. Croly worshiped Lincoln as a man who stood above his people and disdained their petty localism; he was a prototype for Croly's disinterested politics of expertise." I would argue that, although clearly Croly himself stands above the people, he is in fact applauding Lincoln for not disdaining them -- indeed, this "unconsciousness of his own distinction" becomes the source of Lincoln's enviable will. Just as Jane Addams argued that "it is so easy for the good and powerful to think that they can rise by following the dictates of conscience [and] by pursuing their own ideals, leaving those ideals unconnected with the consent of their fellow-men," Croly is suggesting that Lincoln deserves emulation because he stands among the people, not above them. Blake, 172-173.
77. Croly, 93, 88-89.
78. Croly, 93.
79. To rephrase Croly's argument in perfectionist terms, once the citizen embodies enough independence, sociability, and vitality to attain the heroic self, another self -- the saintly self -- then becomes possible via a path of magnanimity and humility.
80. Croly, 95, 97.
81. Croly, 99. In The Masterless, Wilfred McClay argues that Croly's sainting of Lincoln is even more explicit. As he puts it, "Small wonder that Croly compared Lincoln's selflessness to the selflessness of St. Francis of Assisi, who was supposed (as Croly must surely have known) to have experienced the miracle of the stigmata at his death. The great national martyr had found the highest fulfillment by making himself 'the individual instrument whereby an essential and salutary national purpose was fulfilled.'" McClay, 162.
82. Croly, 174. To continue the hero and saint metaphor, Croly also notes that "Mr. Roosevelt and his hammer must be accepted gratefully, as the best available type of national reformer; but the day may and should come when a national reformer will appear who can be figured more in the guise of St. Michael, armed with a flaming sword and winged for flight." Croly, 175.
83. Croly, 170.
84. Croly, 169, 170.
85. Croly, 174.
86. Cotkin, 146, 148-150.
87. In the words of Forcey, "Croly's deep and abiding admiration of Theodore Roosevelt was clouded by a horror of the former Rough Rider's lusty militancy." Forcey, 40.