The Promise of American Lives:

Heroic Individualism in the Writings of Herbert Croly

[Page 8]

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

VIII. The Overlooked Promise of Croly's Promise.

If Theodore Roosevelt minded being castigated by Herbert Croly for his superfluity of will, he did not mention it in 1909. Rather, the outgoing President said of Croly's Promise that "I do not know when I have read a book which I felt profited me as much as your book on American life...I shall use your ideas freely in speeches I intend to make."88 And Croly's book inspired more people than just the Bull Moose -- in fact, even though only 7500 copies had been sold by the time of Croly's death in 1930, The Promise of American Life caused something of a sensation upon its publication. It was deemed by reviewers "a remarkable book," "a contribution of marked value," "one of the best examples in recent years of a long-sustained flight in the region of realistic philosophical politics," and "a very clever and candid book, which we [London's Saturday Review] advise all who think about politics to read."89

Yet, while the book was almost universally applauded by critics of the day, Croly's message of enhancing democratic individuality was lost on most readers of Promise. "American reviewers without exception took up the political and economic aspects of Croly's nationalism," observes Charles Forcey, but "they were blind to the cultural emphasis that gave Croly's theory coherence, that distinguished his nationalism from oppressive and militant varieties."90 As Forcey notes, only one paper -- London's Saturday Review -- remarked on Croly's important point that "if the one object aimed at by every male in the nation is the making of money, individuality disappears."91 And if Croly's concerns about individuality were mostly ignored by critics, his mechanism of achieving democratic virtue through heroic emulation went almost completely unnoticed. Only Croly's good friend, Learned Hand, seemed to get the point, when he joked to Croly amid the excitement that, "I have no doubt that in a few years, myths will be established about you. Perhaps you will take on the form of the Sun-God. That is the common retroactive metamorphosis of heroes."92

Of the many reviews of Croly's Promise at the time and thereafter, perhaps the one that best encapsulated the fate of his work was made by Croly's colleague Walter Lippmann. Thinking back on the importance of Croly's work in 1930, Lippmann argued that The Promise of American Life "was the political classic which announced the end of the Age of Innocence with its romantic faith in American destiny and inaugurated the process of self-examination. That is, of course, the opinion of a very grateful friend; yet I believe it will be justified when our history is sufficiently distant and neutral to be interpreted."93 While Lippmann seems to be arguing that Croly's book was the first work in a new era of American political thought, in fact a case could be made that it was the last of the old. For with its early progressive emphasis on the virtues of disinterested independence, sociable solidarity, and non-martial vitality, its civic republican stress on the formative nature of political economy and concern for republican soul-crafting, and its Emersonian perfectionist model of self-realization through heroic emulation, The Promise of American Life articulated a compelling, resonant assessment of both the American nation and the American self at the very moment when these concepts began to erode, wrought by the new economic and intellectual challenges of Modernism.

Perhaps the best way to view the contours of this cultural shift is by comparing Croly's Promise to the virtually contemporaneous works of his New Republic colleagues, Walter Weyl and Walter Lippmann. Although published only three and four years after Promise respectively, Weyl's The New Democracy and Lippmann's A Preface to Politics seem a product of a completely different political generation, which indeed they are. On one hand, the Crolian emphasis on heroes -- so critical to the early progressive milieu, the republican formative project, and the perfectionist method -- has fallen by the wayside in Weyl's work. As Christopher Lasch notes of The New Democracy, "[Weyl] reminded those who were 'obsessed by the doctrine of the strenuous life' that a more equitable distribution of wealth was more important than feats of moral heroism. Democracy had 'put down the mighty "great man" who once obsessed history' and exalted the 'unnamed multitude.'"94 On the other, Croly's early progressive concern with the dangerous excesses of militarism now seems quaint in the writings of Walter Lippmann. As Charles Forcey observes, the most important characteristic required of modern statesmen in Lippmann's Preface is "'creative will and insight,'...not hampered by a mere fetish for logical consistency...The will of the statesman would dominate his intelligence." Thus, unlike the balanced anti-imperialist hero-statesman of Croly's Promise, "Lippmann's desire tended more toward the virile, voluntaristic superman of Friedrich Nietzsche."95

Lippmann's enthusiastic and unmitigated evocation of the Nietzschean will to power suggests another facet of the progressive cultural divide between Croly and his colleagues. Unlike Croly's Promise, Lippmann's Preface borrows heavily not only from Nietzsche but also from perhaps the most influential prophet of twentieth-century Modernism, Sigmund Freud. In the words of Forcey, "Lippmann's application of Freud to politics...carried the young publicist into some rather dark and troubled waters...[for Freud, among others] helped convince Lippmann that man's irrational impulses were stronger than reason."96 This Freudian conclusion that man is at heart an irrational creature -- so central not only to Preface but also to Lippmann's later writings, such as Public Opinion and The Phantom Public -- is a far cry from the rational, independent, and progressive protagonist of Croly's Promise. As a victim of his own irrational Nietzschean and Freudian impulses, the Lippmann democrat can hardly partake in either the civic republican or the perfectionist project advocated by Croly, since both of these projects require not only the ability to reason but also a self that is not reducible to base and uncontrollable urges.

And yet, both Weyl and Lippmann suggest that these urges are more fundamental to human nature than the capacity to reason when they place consumerism as the center of their new democratic philosophies. As Weyl put it in 1912, "the consumers of most articles are overwhelmingly superior in numbers to the producers...Men who voted as producers are now voting as consumers." Or, as Lippmann wrote in his 1914 follow-up to Preface, Drift and Mastery, "the real power emerging today is just the mass of people who are crying out against the 'high cost of living.' That is a consumer's cry...destined to be stronger than the interest either of labor or of capital." And although "consumers are a fickle and superstitious mob, incapable of any real judgment...[the consumer is] the real master of the political situation."97

Democratic theorist Michael Sandel cites both these examples of consumerist philosophy as a hinge moment in the transition from civic republicanism to procedural liberalism. "The shift from producer-based reform to consumer-based reform was more than a new way of organizing interests," Sandel argues:
It reflected a shift in the aim of reform and in the vision of democracy underlying it. In the republican tradition of political economy that informed nineteenth-century American debate, producer identities mattered because the world of work was seen as the arena in which, for better or worse, the character of citizens was formed...A politics based on consumer identities, by contrast, changes the question. Instead of asking how to elevate or improve or restrain people's preferences, it asks how to best -- most fully, or fairly, or efficiently to satisfy them. The shift to consumer-based reform in the twentieth century was thus a shift away from the formative ambition of the republican tradition, away from the political economy of citizenship...Where Brandeis and Croly spoke of democracy's formative purpose, of its role in perfecting or uplifting the character of citizen, Weyl's 'new democracy' undertook no formative mission. It aim was not virtue but economic abundance and the fair distribution of that abundance."98
In sum, although Croly, Weyl, and Lippman were all writing their first books almost contemporaneously, and though the three would later be linked in the public mind by the editorship of the New Republic, the two progressives of a younger generation were up to quite a different venture than the man who would later hire them. For Weyl and Lippmann abandoned the notion of the heroic exemplar, emphasized irrational impulses over rational thought as the basis of man's character, and embraced the politics of consumer abundance over the formative producerist project of republicanism, all of which worked to undermine the theory of individual improvement that Croly had argued to be the true Promise of American Life.

Already Croly's republican-perfectionist emphasis on individuality through heroic emulation had been neglected by most reviewers and readers of the period, and this critical portion of his argument was further obscured by the writings of his theoretical progressive compatriots, Walters Weyl and Lippmann. But the unkindest cut of all to the individuality thesis of Croly's Promise would come from Croly himself, with the publication of his 1914 follow-up, Progressive Democracy. Although at first glance the two works seem to deal with very similar themes, so much so that even Croly would declare in a letter to Roosevelt that he "wish[ed] that the two books had been combined into one," the rhetorical strategies animating The Promise of American Life and Progressive Democracy actually differ quite substantially, with the latter tome undermining the progressive, republican, and perfectionist premises of his earlier work.99

Perhaps most importantly, Croly throws out the window the formative project of achieving individuality through heroic emulation that characterized his first book. In the words of historian James Kloppenberg, Croly's books "differ principally in the disappearance of the earlier quasi-mystical reliance on heroes, which lent a peculiar tone to the otherwise quite straightforwardly democratic analysis of the Promise." Instead, the Croly of Progressive Democracy exhibited "a more clearly manifested faith in the democratic will, a faith inspired by pragmatism."100 And, indeed, other than a brief mention of Theodore Roosevelt as the "flexible and open-minded" architect of a national progressive majority, Croly never makes reference to the heroes and saints that populated his first work in Progressive Democracy.101 Instead, echoing the work of his progressive contemporary Charles Beard, Croly forsakes the Hamiltonian-Jefferson bifurcation of Promise and concentrates instead on a different historical schism in the polity: faith in the law (as enshrined in the Constitution) versus faith in the people. On this question, Croly comes down solidly in favor of the latter, arguing that the "Law in the shape of the Federal Constitution really came to be a monarchy of the Word" unduly "imposed upon the popular will." As such, the task that befell the progressive majority in 1914 was to overthrow that monarchy and to reinvest power in the people.102

But, having read his first book, one might ask Croly whether this confident faith in the people could possibly be misplaced. What if American citizens have not followed the heroic examples set down in Promise and thus do not yet adequately exhibit the independence, sociability, vitality, and individuality necessary for Crolian democracy to flourish? To this reasonable question, the Croly of Progressive Democracy defers to pragmatism. "The wisest of modern educators has declared that 'the only way to prepare for social life is to engage in social life,'" Croly now argues. "Men and women will become better citizens [not by heroic emulation but] by participating in those political and social activities which liberate and intensify the human will...A democratic moralist must trust that a substantial majority will respond to the challenge." Thus, Croly has replaced democratic education by heroic example with the pragmatic idea of education by process. Indeed, Croly not only explicitly rejects the heroic emulative model he laid down in Promise, but also the very idea of articulating emulative virtues in the first place, since the "democratic moralist has no way of proving that he is right...History and psychology can pronounce no final verdict on the matter."103 In sum, the only quality a good democrat should exhibit is a "progressive democratic faith" in the popular will, a faith that, "like the faith of St. Paul, finds its consummation in a love which is partly expressed in sympathetic feeling, but which is at bottom a spiritual expression of the mystical unity of human nature."104

Obviously, Croly is now sounding a very different note than he had only five years earlier -- in effect, he has abandoned perfectionism for pragmatism. What can account for such a remarkable change in his public philosophy? As David Levy notes, Croly begins his second book by declaring that the nation has "apparently been witnessing during the past year or two the end of one epoch and the beginning of another. A movement of public opinion, which believes itself to be and calls itself essentially progressive, has become the dominant formative influence in American political life."105 And, as Levy suggests, whether it be due to the enthusiastic public reception for progressive ideas between 1909 and 1914, or perhaps due to Croly's own transformation from an unknown architecture critic to an intellectual catalyst of presidents during that time, the shifts in tone and rhetorical strategy between Promise and Progressive Democracy seem a striking reflection of what historian Robert Wiebe has described as the progressive "illusion of fulfillment." At some point between the publications of his two books, Croly seems to have decided that the American people had progressed far enough down the road to embracing individuality that heroes and saints were no longer necessary.106

In a way, it seems wrongheaded to criticize Herbert Croly for the faith he displays in the average democratic citizen in Progressive Democracy, particularly given the often-dissonant notes of intellectual elitism that echo throughout The Promise of American Life. But, in many ways, Progressive Democracy is a much less-fulfilling and less-interesting work than its predecessor. Returning to the tenets of Emersonian perfectionism that seem pertinent to Croly's first book, Emerson suggests that a citizen expresses consent to democracy by expressing his or her dissent with democracy. In the words of Stanley Cavell, the growth of the individual occurs in a "state of self-dissatisfaction, the state of perceiving oneself as failing to follow oneself in one's higher and happier aspirations, failing perhaps to have found the right to one's own aspirations...It is a crucial moment of the attained self, a crossroads; it may be creative or crushing."107 And just as this moment of dissatisfaction illuminates the path to the next, higher self, so too does a dissatisfaction with the polity, or aversion to it, point the way toward national improvement. As Cavell argues, "if Emerson is right, his aversion provides for the democratic aspiration the only internal measure of its truth to itself...[and] since his aversion is a continual turning away from society, it is thereby a continual turning toward it."108

To my mind, by forsaking the aesthetic dissatisfaction with the American polity that animates Promise and grounding Progressive Democracy instead on a basis of optimism and satisfaction, Croly's second work loses much of its argumentative resonance. Rather than embracing the democratic potential for self-improvement and self-cultivation in every citizen, Croly instead seems to argue that America's citizens are already perfect, and that we need only remove the fetters of constitutional law to let the people grow into their full capacity. In effect, by discarding the republican and perfectionist individual projects of his first work for the pragmatic and procedural social means of his second, Croly seems to concede defeat in his early goal of preserving and enhancing individuality amid the stresses of industrial and bureaucratic organization. Indeed, by abandoning the aesthetic concerns that had first motivated him and embracing this "illusion of fulfillment" where the people need only be set free from the constraint of the law, Croly seems to become the very indiscriminate apostle of nationalism that so many of his readers confused him for in the first place.

As the forefront of the "Young Americans", the group of intellectuals who would rebel against pragmatism on aesthetic grounds and come to advocate "a communitarian vision of self-realization through participation in a democratic culture," Randolph Bourne would in 1917 explicitly take his friend Herbert Croly to task for this indiscriminate faith in nationalism, particularly as it pertained to the World War I effort.109 Invoking the title of Croly's most-famous work, Bourne declared:
"The war -- or American promise: one must choose. One cannot be interested in both. Americans who desire to cultivate the promises of American life need not lift a finger to obstruct the war, but they cannot conscientiously accept it. However intimately a part of their country they may feel in its creative enterprises toward a better life, they cannot feel themselves a part of it in its futile and self-mutilating enterprise of war."110
In another article published the same month Bourne would query, "Where are the seeds of American promise? Man cannot live by politics alone."111 The final irony of Croly's intellectual journey during this period is that the writer of Promise would not seem to disagree with any of Bourne's assertions. He would concur that certain democratic virtues are better and more worthwhile than others, that militarism posed a threat to the Promise of American Life, and that certain heroic exemplars in American history illustrated a path towards a more vibrant and diverse democracy, one that embraced aesthetic and intellectual cultivation as well as political engagement in its citizens. His own aesthetic, republican, and perfectionist critique of American democracy overshadowed by his later embrace of pragmatism, Herbert Croly would come to be seen by his some of his closest intellectual heirs as an exemplar of everything they were railing against.

Return to Introduction.

Return to Part VII: "'Something of a Saint and Something of a Hero': Lincoln and Roosevelt."

88. Levy, 138-139.
89. Levy, 132-133.
90. Forcey, 121.
91. Forcey, 122.
92. Levy, 134. While Forcey argues that the "heroes and saints" conclusion of Promise did in fact resonate with "a whole group of young, upper-middle-class, eastern progressives," including Judge Hand, I believe these would-be elitists saw themselves as the persons worth emulating rather than the emulators. As a result, much of the republican and perfectionist force of Croly's argument was lost.
93. Levy, 135.
94. Lasch, 344.
95. Forcey, 113-114.
96. Forcey, 112.
97. Sandel, 222, 224.
98. Sandel, 224-225.
99. Kloppenberg, 315.
100. Kloppenberg.
101. Herbert Croly. Progressive Democracy (New York: Macmillan Press, 1915), 11.
102. Croly, Progressive Democracy, 110.
103. Croly, 423-424.
104. Croly, 427.
105. Croly, 1-2. Levy, 162.
106. Levy, 182-183.
107. Cavell, 51.
108. Cavell, 59. Political philosopher Cornel West makes much the same argument in his writings on "prophetic pragmatism," a pragmatism that is "unashamedly guided by moral ideals of creative democracy and individuality." West writes: "To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America -- this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it." Robert Mangabeira Unger and Cornel West. The Future of American Progressivism: An Initiative for Political and Economic Reform (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), 56-93 -- quoted in Cornel West, ed. The Cornel West Reader (Boston: Civitas Press, 1999), 332.
109. Blake, 2.
110. Randolph Bourne. "A War Diary," (September, 1917), in Olaf Hansen, ed. Randolph Bourne: The Radical Will (Berkeley: University of California at Los Angeles Press, 1977), 329.
111. Randolph Bourne, "Twilight of Idols," (September, 1917), in Hansen, ed., 336.

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