Herbert Croly (1869-1930): The Progressive Movement’s “fruitful limitations upon traditional individual freedom”


By Lee Cary –

“Herbert David Croly was an intellectual leader of the Progressive Movement as an editor, and political philosopher and a co-founder of the magazine The New Republic in early twentieth-century America. His political philosophy influenced many leading progressives including Theodore Roosevelt…and Supreme Court Justice Flex Frankfurter.

The New Republic - Herbert David Croly

His book, The Promise of American Life (1909) looked to the conservative spirit of effective government as espoused by Alexander Hamilton, combined with the democracy of Thomas Jefferson. The book was one of the most influential books in American political history, shaping the ideas of many intellectuals and political leaders. It also influenced the later New Deal.” (Source)

Today, the Obama administration operates in the firm grip of the Progressive Movement for whom Herbert Croly is a leading historical patriarch. No understanding of current political events is complete without acknowledging Croly’s role in forming the political philosophy that has helped bring America to the verge of national bankruptcy.

John Nesbitt, author of Megatrends, once said that Ronald Reagan wasn’t leading the conservative parade –he was riding the horse that was leading the parade. Barack Obama isn’t leading the progressive parade – he’s riding the old horse name progressivism.

In his book The Promise of American Life, Croly largely set the progressive agenda for the 20th Century.

Leaning heavily on his own words (in italics) through excerpts, below are several of the core beliefs of progressivism that Croly previewed in his book, and then promoted in the magazine he founded.  There’s no attempt herein to overview Croly’s references to Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. It will suffice to suggest that his reading of both men’s role in the early formation of the nation is, at a minimum, debatable.

The historical setting of America’s Progressive Movement

Michael Mcgerr wrote the Foreword to the 1989 Northeastern University Press edition of Croly’s book originally published in 2009. Page numbers below refer to that edition.

Mcgerr states that, “Croly wrote at a time when democracy was clearly under siege, when the rise of giant corporations and big businessmen challenged democratic institutions.  The Promise of American Life reflects the mingled urgency and optimism of middle-class men and women trying to cope with these developments. It reflects as well the striking ideological transformation and culminated around World War I.” (vii)

Croly argued for a new “national purpose,” calling America to be “…prepared to sacrifice to that traditional vision [of American life] even the traditional American ways of realizing it.  Such a sacrifice is, I believe, coming to be demanded’ and unless it is made, American life will gradually cease to have any specific Promise.” (p.5)

“[T]his better future…will have to be planned and constructed rather than fulfilled of its own momentum.” (p.6)

This new national purpose will depend on an “economic and political system [that] must be made to secure results of moral and social value.  It is the seeking of such results which converts democracy from a political system into a constructive social ideal.” (p.17)

The Need for a new Social Ideal (p.21)

“Unless the great majority of Americans not only have, but believe they have, a fair chance, the better American future will be dangerously compromised.” (p.21)

“[T]he traditional American confidence in individual freedom has resulted in a morally and socially undesirable distribution of wealth.” (p.22)

Traditional American freedoms, that have brought “the malevolent social influence of individual and incorporated American wealth,” have been beneficial, but only up to a point. “Beyond that point it is not merely harmful; it is by way of being fatal. Efficient regulation there must be; and it must be regulation which will strike, not at the symptoms of the evil, but at its roots...The existing concentration of wealth and financial power in the hands of a few irresponsible men is the inevitable outcome of the chaotic individualism of our political and economic organization, which at the same time is inimical to democracy, because it tends to erect political abuses and social inequalities into a system.” (p.23)

The problem belongs to the American national democracy, and its solution must be attempted chiefly by means of official national action.” (p.24)  In other words, the federal government must act.

 “A more highly socialized democracy,” instead of excessive individual democracy

“[A] more highly socialized democracy is the only practical substitute on the part of convinced democrats [“democrats” with a small “d”] for an excessively individual democracy.” (p.24)

Our legislatures were and still are the strongholds of special and local interests, and anything which undermines executive authority in this country seriously threatens our national integrity and balance.” (p.69)  In other words, a strong and assertive presidency is needed.

The problem with traditional American freedom

The plain fact is that the individual in freely and energetically pursuing his own private purposes has not been the inevitable public benefactor assumed by the traditional American interpretation of democracy.” (p.107)

For example, the ambition of the American business man “was to conquer, and he did not scruple to sacrifice both the law and the public weal to his own prosperity. All unknowingly he began to testify to a growing and a decisive division between the two primary interests of American life, – between the interest of the individual business and the interests of the body politic…” (p.117)

“[I]t is obvious that the development in this country of two such powerful and unscrupulous and well-organized special interests [corporations and unions] has created a condition which the founders of the Republic never anticipated, and which demands as a counterpoise a more effective body of national opinion, and a more powerful organization of the national interests.” (p.131) In other words, a more powerful central government.

The earlier homogeneity of American society has been impaired, and no authoritative and edifying, but conscious, social ideal has as yet taken its place.” (p.139)

The role of the central government is to enforce the “new ideal”

“No substantial progress had been made in the direction of reform until it began to be understood that here, also, a national responsibility existed, which demanded an exercise of the power of the central government…If reform does not and cannot mean restoration, it is bound to mean reconstruction.” (p.152)  This is Croly’s call to, as candidate Barack Obama said before the 2008 election, “fundamentally transform America.”

“[T]he Jeffersonian policy of drift must be abandon…[T]here must be a vigorous and conscious assertion of the public as opposed to private and special interests, and that the American people must, to a greater extent that they have in the past, subordinate the latter to the former.” (p.153)

“[T]horoughly Jeffersonian individualism must be abandoned for the benefit of a genuinely individual and social consummation.” And that involves “the transformation of Hamiltonianism into a thoroughly democratic political principle.” (p.153)

Here’s how Croly characterizes opposition to the “new ideal”: “[I]t will seek still further to undermine the representative character of American institutions, to deprive official leadership of any genuine responsibility, and to cultivate individualism at the expenses of individual and national integrity.” (p.154)

The problem of “equal rights” is solved by government’s “constructive discrimination”

“Belief in the principle of equal rights does not bind, heal, and unify public opinion. Its effect rather is confusing, distract, and at worse, disintegrating.” (p.185)

“[I]n so far as the equal rights are freely exercised, they are bound to result in inequalities; and these inequalities are bound to make for their own perpetuation, and so to provoke further discrimination.” (p.189)

“The national government must step in and discriminate; but it must discriminate, not on behalf of liberty and the special individual, but on behalf of equality and the average man.” (p.190)

“If [government] remains impartial, it simply agrees to abide by the results of natural selection.” (p.193)  In other words, individual liberty is a tacit default to a Darwinian society.

And in a sentence replete with the irony attendant to a progressive political philosophy that has contributed substantially to the formation of an asphalt plantation in America’s inner cities, Croly wrote: “The individuals constituting a democracy lack the first essential of individual freedom when they cannot escape from a condition of economic dependence.”(p.205)

The socialistic “transformation” of American democracy

The proposed definition of democracy is socialistic if it is socialistic to consider democracy inseparable from a candid, patient, and courageous attempt to advance the social problem toward a satisfactory solution…There are two indispensable economic conditions of qualitative individual self-expression. One is the preservation of the institution of private property in some form, and the other is the radical transformation of its existing nature and influence.” (p.209)

The emancipation of individualism

It is the economic individualism of our existing national system which inflicts the most serious damage on American individuality; and American individual achievement in politics and science and the arts will remain partially impoverish as long as our fellow-countrymen neglect or refuse systematically to regulate the distribution of wealth in the national interest.” (p.409)

The Solution: The “fruitful limitations upon traditional individual freedom”

Economically and politically the need is for constructive regulation, implying the imposition of certain fruitful limitations upon traditional individual freedom. But the national intellectual development demands above all individual emancipation.” (p.421)

One-hundred and four years after The Promise of American Life was first published, the progressive ideology advocated by its author is in full American bloom.

POSTSCRIPT from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – Words from the real Hamilton

“George Washington Parke Custis, the President’s adopted grandson, told how Hamilton appeared at the presidential mansion after tendering his resignation. Washington’s staff was there when Hamilton smilingly entered. Congratulate me, my good friends,’ he announced, ‘for I am no longer a public man. The president has at length consented to accept my resignation and I am once more a private citizen.’ Hamilton, noting their dismay, explained, ‘I am not worth exceeding five hundred dollars in the world.  My slender fortune and the best years of my life have been devoted to the service of my adopted country.  A rising family hath its claims.’  Hamilton then picked up a slim volume on the table and turned it over in his hands, ‘Ah, this is the constitution,’ he said. ‘Now mark my words. So long as we are a young and virtuous people, this instrument will bind us together in mutual interests, mutual welfare, and mutual happiness.  But when we become old and corrupt, it will bind us no longer.’” (pp. 483-484)