The Promise of American Lives:

Heroic Individualism in the Writings of Herbert Croly

[Page 4]

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

Crolian Virtues: Independence

Not surprisingly, many of the virtues and vices displayed by Croly's dramatis personae are rooted in his historical bifurcation between Hamiltonian individuality and Jeffersonian individualism. Indeed, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson are used as Croly's first two historical exemplars, and each represent a democratic virtue worth emulating. As one might guess from his oft-stated respect for individuality, Croly seems to most admire the former because he "was not afraid to exhibit in his own life moral or intellectual independence." Nor was he afraid to "incur unpopularity" and "general disapprobation" for "pursuing what he believed to be a wise public policy." In contrast, Jefferson illustrated a debilitating dependence on public opinion -- He "assiduously and intentionally courted popular favor," his administration was marked by "fine phrases and temporary expedients," and he, like "the courtiers of an absolute monarch," made it his "business to flatter and obey" the American people.35 Croly's message is clear -- in both democratic citizens and duly elected representatives, independence is a predominant virtue.

Indeed, independence here is so closely related to Croly's earlier definition of individuality that it seems to border on the tautological. And in fact, we can see the same cultural trends at work in Croly's view of "independence" as we did with "individuality." For one, as noted earlier, historian Wilfred McClay reads this Crolian virtue of independence as the definitive embodiment of the "Progressive creed of...disinterestedness."36 According to McClay, this creed, shared by muckrakers and settlement progressives alike, can only be understood in contrast to the "interests," meaning the "pernicious values of individualism, particularism, self-seeking, and growing structural inequality...everything that threatened to corrupt the great American experiment in political democracy." Instead, in McClay's casting, the Progressive virtue of disinterestedness represented "a contrasting vision of hope" in a "just and rationally ordered public realm." As such, disinterestedness was used by the progressive generation to invoke "common subjection to the rule of the common good" and to promote the "unsullied ideal of theoretical and practical expertise, to be conscientiously, impartially, and selflessly administered by an enlightened 'new middle class'"37 While Croly is clearly up to more in Promise than simply fashioning an apologetic for rule by bureaucratic experts, McClay's argument does plausibly locate Croly's work within the Progressive milieu, and illustrates once again that Promise is emphatically a book of its time.

Obviously, however, the idea of intellectual independence has a longer and more complicated relationship in American thought than just Progressive disinterestedness. As Michael Sandel observes in Democracy's Discontent, similar questions to those confronting the Progressives also haunted civic republican leaders at the time of the founding, for "rather than governing in a disinterested spirit on behalf of the public good, [newly elected] representatives of the people were all too representative -- parochial, small-minded, and eager to serve the private interests of their constituents."38 Indeed, by characterizing the independent man as one with the moral courage to pursue an unpopular policy despite public criticism, and his opposite as one who flatters and cajoles the democratic Mob as would "the courtiers to an absolute monarch," Croly hearkens back to some of the earliest republican conceptions of virtuous independence. On one hand, his casting of independent as "incorruptible" recalls not only the Pocockian republican spirit that informed the revolution but also (probably to Croly's chagrin) Jefferson's own warning that "dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition."39 On the other, Croly's view of independence as the wisdom to follow an unpopular path suggests James Madison's declaration in Federalist 10 that the republic must rest in "a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations."40 Either way, Croly's arguments for the virtue of intellectual independence are clearly grounded in civic republican terms.41

Croly's articulation of independence as such also invites comparison to other writers and observers who have railed against the dangers of democratic conformity, from Alexis de Tocqueville to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Regarding the former, Croly's remarks echo de Tocqueville's own delineation of the "Courtier spirit" in America. As he puts it, "the rareness now of outstanding men on the political scene is due to the ever-increasing despotism of the American majority...I saw very few men who showed that virile candor and manly independence of thought which often marked the Americans of an earlier generation and which, wherever found, is the most salient feature in men of great character."42

Similarly, Croly's words recall Emerson's vehement condemnation of democratic man's proclivity towards conformity in his most famous essay, "Self-Reliance." "The virtue in most request is conformity," declares Emerson, and "Self-reliance is its aversion." Without this self-reliance, he argues, "man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright." Auguring Croly's later distinction between individualism and individuality, Emerson argues that men "measure the esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is." While in contrast, an independent or self-"cultivated man becomes ashamed of his property, out of new respect for his nature." For both Emerson and Croly, the message is clear: "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."43 In sum, Croly's invocation of the virtue of individualism, as much as his rhetorical strategy of heroic emulation, illustrates once again The Promise of American Life's surprising compatibility with the tenets of Emersonian perfectionism.

Continue to Part V: "Crolian Virtues: Sociability."

Return to Part III: "Crolian Means: Artisanal Fulfillment and Heroic Exemplars."

35. Croly, 45-46.
36. McClay, 159-160. According to McClay, "perhaps no writer before or since [Croly] has employed the word disinterested with greater frequency or forced it to bear a more critical weight."
37. McClay, 152-153.
38. Sandel, 128.
39. Gordon Wood. The American Revolution (New York: Modern Library, 2002), 92-94.
40. Sandel, 131.
41. Although once again, it is important to note that Croly is in some ways upending the normal republican argument about the font of independence. Rather than extolling the virtues of the yeoman farmer beloved by Jeffersonians, Croly instead portrays the rural pioneer as the true enemy of intellectual independence. In so doing, Croly reverses the rural-urban valence in republicanism, and thus makes republicanism newly compatible with urban-industrial-bureaucratic life.
42. Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 257-258.
43. Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Self-Reliance," in Stephen E. Whicher, ed. Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Houghton Mifflin Company (Boston: 1957), 157, 167-168.

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