Herbert Croly's Transformation of the American Regime
For students of American political thought, the Progressive Era remains one of the most difficult periods in American history to define with much precision. Scholarship on the period differs so much in their final estimate that many are inclined to believe that there can be little agreement on where the debate over Progressivism's contribution to American political development ought to begin. Some scholars, for example, argue that the label of "Progressivism" is meaningless because the heterogeneity of the period is so great that no simple thematic designation can adequately describe the political ambitions and intellectual constitution of the time. The problem with this position, however, is that, while there were many different opinions passing under the banner of "Progressive," this assessment does not acknowledge the fact that both political leaders and intellectuals during this period thought of themselves as one common movement despite their differences. It is true that no one then or even now would like to be thought of as "regressive," but it is important to see that the term "progressive" was chosen for a specific purpose. It designated the crucial issue of early twentieth century politics: how a government of laws could adapt to the dynamic forces of economic growth. Other scholars, on the other hand, see Progressivism in just the opposite terms of the former group. Progressivism, according to these scholars, was a coherent political and intellectual movement which produced a radical departure in the traditional practice of American politics. According to this position, the Progressives laid the framework for the New Deal and particularly the administrative state of 20th century America by emphasizing centralized government over federalism, programmatic rights over natural and civil rights, and public policy over the rule of law. This position has a certain lure because it is able to suggest that contemporary administrative government has not developed from a series of ad hoc responses to the interests of civil society, rather it emerged from a well-designed plan for the transformation of the American regime. My view, however, is that such scholars tend to read the into Progressivism later twentieth century political development. It is true that there are many similarities between say modern regulatory government and the political agenda of many Progressive politicians, but far more difficult is tracing a clear genealogy between today's political elite and their supposed progenitors. Finding similarities between modern government and Progressive aspirations tends to be too shallow because it tries to establish a common ground between the vagaries of modern government and the shibboleths of Progressivism.
Neither position adequately explains the contribution of Progressivism to American political development because the majority of scholarship on the Progressive Era does not attempt to understand the problems and the limitations the Progressives faced in soliciting popular support for their political ambitions. America, according to the Progressives, was becoming increasingly undemocratic both politically and socially. If the public could perceive the escalating inequality around them, they had not deciphered the means towards ameliorating their condition. A voting public had not succeeded in passing the political reforms necessary for government to make the adjustment to industrial and corporate growth. In other words, democracy had not proven to be the best means towards the advancement of democratic life in America. The American public was still attached to its traditional laws and institutions despite the fact, claimed the Progressives, that its laws and institutions were failing to promote equality and genuinely democratic politics. But if the goal was to improve democratic life for all Americans, how could the Progressives surmount the obstacle imposed by the people without compromising self-government? A better democratic order could not be simply imposed on the people by a more far-sighted and politically wiser elite.
Progressivism, consequently, was not a simple political movement. It was a two-fold movement; one part aimed at an ambitious political agenda for reform that could meet the increasing complexity of economic life in the nation, while a second part concerned itself with finding the appropriate justification for reform that could accommodate the traditional principles of the American democratic order. In order to sever the entrenched dogmatic attachment of the public to its laws and institutions of government, the Progressives searched for a reevaluation of American history that could justify a departure from the literal elements of the American political order without directly attacking the people's attachment to their common political tradition. Among the most notable members of this portion of Progressivism was Herbert Croly. Croly was undeniably among the New York elite, yet his work aimed to not only transform the thought of the nation's greatest political leaders but to educate the general public to exercise their consent more intelligently and thoughtfully. Towards this goal, Croly wrote both two lengthy treatments of American politics and he founded a popular journal, The New Republic, for the common education of Americans in political thought. This paper focuses on Croly's treatment of American history and seeks to explain why Croly believed that the American political tradition could be interpreted as a defense of Progressive reform.
Nearly half of The Promise of American Life is concerned with the history of American political development; Croly provides a treatment that covers all the major periods of American history beginning with the Revolution and proceeding up to the contemporary Progressive reformers. This rather lengthy survey and analysis of American political history seems excessive for a prelude to economic and political reform in the early twentieth century. It also seems superfluous since, according to Croly, the reform movements have been hampered by America's inadequate intellectual preparation for economic and political specialization. Reform, Croly explains at the opening of his work, demands that we transcend our thoughtless attachment to the past and cast off the harmful psychology of "optimism, fatalism, and conservatism" that characterizes our manner of political thought. Why then look to the past to gain any insight into America's future? Why put the reader on-hold for nearly two hundred pages, if the conclusion has already been determined?1
Contrary to our anticipation, however, there are more than a few surprises in this survey of American political development; not the least of which is that we discover Croly's history is not simply a train of denunciations against America's past. Oddly enough, we find Croly praising the Framers of the Constitution and even admiring the egalitarian posture of reckless democratic enthusiasts like Thomas Jefferson. Croly's history turns out to be more complicated than we might have expected, as it both admires the political leaders of the past while still maintaining a critical distance from their ideas and deeds. The purpose of Croly's lengthy treatment of American history requires a more careful consideration.
One reason why we could expect an extended treatment of American political development lies in Croly's historical determinism. In his treatment of economic development, Croly explains how political thought is powerfully influenced by material and social circumstances. The fortuitous economic and social conditions of early America the so-called "Frontier Thesis" -inspired the democratic doctrine of laissez-faire, a formula so influential that in subsequent generations, when the conditions had radically changed, the doctrine still prevailed. Like these material and economic conditions, our common history of political ideas has a similar influence over our thought. Americans imagine that by serving as custodians of the past they will bring a better future for themselves, just as they would like to imagine that they can prevail over undesirable economic and material conditions without the aid of leadership and original thought. But our commitment to the past is really an unwitting concession to how difficult it is to think originally and how reluctant the public is to allow leadership to propose unprecedented ideas. Each generation requires new ideas to address new material and social challenges to democracy, but our political life is rooted so strongly in previous political choices that it requires a rather extraordinary mental strength to maintain any critical distance from our predecessors. To acknowledge the need for such extraordinary thought would require a rethinking of the nature of self-government. Not only then does history strongly influence the thought of future generations, but democracy narrowly understood has a vested interest in sustaining the traditions of the past.
Democracy's attachment to historical precedent might merit a sketch of American history, but it does not explain why Croly dwells at such length on American political development. The reason, I believe, is that Croly does not think that history is absolutely deterministic. Rather, the relationship of the present to the past is complicated. In the case of material and social circumstances, Croly does reveal that it is possible for political leaders to discover original solutions to the exigencies of their own time and it is possible for the people to recognize the need for original solutions. The demand for reform in the early twentieth century, according to Croly, is itself incipiently a repudiation of the past and a demand for new ideas. Americans may not be entirely aware that this is what they mean by reform, but, for Croly, this is the inescapable logic of reform. It is possible then for human beings to think through their conditions and to find original solutions to their problems if they first come to a better understanding of what they want from politics. History does explain many of the reasons we behave and think as we do, but the study of history might also point to the way out of the influence that historical precedent exercises over the present. By understanding the source of our political prejudices, we might be able to transcend mere prejudice in favor of reason.
Croly's lengthy treatment of American history, therefore, can be understood as an attempt to work out the complex psychological features in American democracy in order to give Americans the opportunity to improve their self-knowledge and consequently the prospects for reform. America, argues Croly, is distinct from other nations because it prizes thought over mere subservience to tradition. At the same time, Americans actually have a deeper attachment to their common history because their traditions are not arbitrary rules cemented by traditional practice; rather they are regarded as constellations of independent thought. "The higher American patriotism, on the other hand, combines loyalty to historical tradition with the imaginative projection of an ideal national Promise."(PAL 2) The American psychology is a remarkable combination of historical and material determinism and, at the same time, a sort of idealism that privileges thought over the past and the material conditions of the present. America's attachment to history is no arbitrary patronage to tradition; rather we imagine that our historical accomplishments are a testament to the triumph of reason over mere prejudice and routine habits. But while Americans praise the past as a model of political wisdom, they increasing loose the confidence to think originally about the future. Croly criticizes this psychology because it tends towards a politically destructive fatalism: what was done in the past can be done again, as if America were an unsegmented ribbon of linear reasoning. Yet, America's fatalism is only one strand, one interpretation of its history. There lies in the American political experience the possibility of seeing our common history as a portrait of constant political ingenuity and original thought and not, as so many would have it, a list of decrees that oblige its progeny. The choices of the past will always have a profound effect on the present and future, but how we understand those choices can have a similarly profound effect.
The success of reform then will require a new orientation toward the past that will inspire the possibility of original thought in the future. The key to democratic prosperity, according to Croly, is to simultaneously take pride in our traditions while privileging forward-looking independent thought over tradition. Croly's political history attempts to simultaneously do both, by defending America's heroes as they responded to the exigencies of their own time, while criticizing the inadequacy of their ideas for the present.
A critical account of American political development must begin, according to Croly, with Jefferson and Hamilton. But in fact Croly's account goes farther back to the contest between the Federalists and the Anti-federalists. There are many reasons why Croly may privilege Jefferson and Hamilton as the architects of American political development. The opposition between Federalists and Anti-federalists may not have appealed as much to Croly since it did not pit two towering individual leaders against one another as did the opposition between Jefferson and Hamilton. Croly generally prefers a contest of extraordinary individual leadership rather than parties because only a contest of individual minds brings ideas into clear contrast. But as importantly, Croly begins with Jefferson and Hamilton because they have been the most common reference points for the political parties throughout American history. It is their ideas to which we most commonly refer, and not to the fact of the Founding.
During the reform era, Hamilton was the popular figurehead among reformers who wanted to extend the reach of the federal government under the management of men with substantial intellectual expertise and financial experience. Other reformers, however, appealed to Jefferson, the patron of the common man, to once again restore the luster of democratic equality from the gloom of consolidated economic power and political elitism. Appeals to Jefferson, romanticized the ideal of self-government; they envisaged individual citizens living uncoerced by the economic power of avaricious tycoons and innocent of the corruption in political bossism. We begin with Hamilton and Jefferson because they are the most well-known representatives of political thought today. Whether public opinion is right to attribute them so much prestige is less important. The fact that Jefferson and Hamilton have molded the opinions which animate public debate makes them the right starting place for a critique of American political thought as a whole.
Jefferson and Hamilton established what Croly calls the "formative constituents" of American democracy; Jefferson represented what Croly calls "the democratic idea" and Hamilton represents "the national idea." The conflict between their ideas constitutes the animating feature of all political debate in America. Though Croly's definition of democracy and nationalism remain extremely vague throughout his work, it is possible to roughly sketch their respective meanings. Democracy means more than a form of government for Croly. Politically, Croly makes the same claim as the Declaration of Independence: governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. However, democracy also implies a social meaning: human beings share a common equality in the struggle for social amelioration. Democratic men are equals because they share a common investment in the perfection of the human condition. Croly is undoubtedly aware that this addition of social equality does not have a strong precedent in American political thought and to attribute such a claim to the author of the Declaration would appear to take some improper license with history. But, for Croly, the practice of democracy must support the philosophical assumptions behind democratic life. If the legitimacy of government rests upon the claim that all human beings are equal and therefore cannot be ruled without their consent, then political life must support some degree of material and social equality to sustain these assumptions. People who are grossly lacking in wealth and social class are unable to effectively exercise their freedom of consent. Consequently, in Croly's view, all citizens have a common interest in social amelioration because they all have an interest in the perpetuity of democratic life. It is this concern for equality, according to Croly, that explains almost the entire significance of Jefferson's political career from his hostility to Hamilton to his agrarian policy and beyond.
Nationalism, on the other hand, is concerned with the fact that the common good can only be sustained by a political power capable of organizing and directing the various faculties and interests of individual members of the polity. While democracy emphasizes the common equality of human beings and the primacy of consent, nationalism recognizes the fact that the prosperity of the nation as a whole requires the leadership of a superior few whose talents and abilities are beyond the comprehension of the general public. The superior few, according to Croly, are national leaders because only from the perspective of national leadership can one see beyond local prejudices and towards the comprehensive good of the whole.
Political life in America, according to Croly, has always been and will continue to be an attempt to synthesize the respective political visions of both. The question is not whether they ought to be combined but how. As we will see, the defect in American political development has been the failure to achieve a productive synthesis between the two. Of Jefferson and Hamilton's ideas, Croly argues:
...we must seek to discover wherein each of these sets of ideas was right, and wherein each was wrong; in what proportions they were subsequently combined in order to form "our noble national theory," and what were the advantages, the limitations, and the effects of this combination.(PAL 29)
Croly's formulation does seem strange for a treatment of political thought. The language of combination and proportion would be better suited to a debate over the proper ingredients for baking a cake rather than analyzing the unquantified dimensions of political theory. Nevertheless, Croly's background as an architectural critic may offer some enlightenment on his mode of political analysis. A good house is both functional and beautiful. Similarly for Croly, democracy strives to combine efficient political institutions with the promise of moral edification for all its members. But in architecture, the synthesis of beauty and practicality is never brought to term. There are always nuances in style, new demands in the functioning of a house, new neighborhoods, new tastes, etc. Politics, too, appears to be a never-ending effort to combine efficiency and aestheticism. The only constant in democratic life are these two poles: Jefferson's democratic moralizing and Hamilton's practical engineering. The inadequacy of previous attempts to combine them appears to lie in the disproportion that have been made. A house that would compromise utility for the sake of beauty is best used for dolls, while a house that compromises beauty for utility ought to be dubbed "office space."
America is a composite of Jeffersonianism and Hamiltonianism, but their proper combination cannot be defined permanently. The appropriate combination fluctuates according to the particular circumstance. The defect of this or that attempt to combine their respective views can only be discovered in the effects of each political endeavor, just as we can only see the defects in the architect's mind by inhabiting the constructed work. Croly, therefore, does not offer us a set of measurements for the appropriate combination because it is impossible to do so a priori. Rather, Croly turns to the past in order to demonstrate how we ought to reason about political life. Only by thinking about historical events can we understand the effect of Jeffersonianism and Hamiltonianism ideas. Genuine political thought, therefore, means calculating the effects of ideas of the operation of political life. By reflecting on the past, then, can we begin to understand how to think about the appropriate means to political reform.
At the core of the Jefferson/Hamilton debate is the relationship of liberty and Union.
We are content to declare that the United States must remain somehow free and a united country, because there can be no complete unity without liberty and no salutary liberty outside of a Union. But the difficulties with this phrase, its implications and consequences, we do not sufficiently consider. It is enough that we have found an optimistic formula wherewith to unite the divergent aspects of the Republican and Federalist doctrines.(PAL 29)
The combination of Union and liberty appears to be the perennial problem of the American political order. The purpose of the Union is to protect individual freedom, but the stronger the Union the greater the limits on individual freedom. The problem of synthesizing the elements of our tradition also poses a psychological challenge for the tradition as a whole. As a perennial problem, we begin to lose the incentive to think through the relationship of our ideas. Croly has given us no clear indication that Jeffersonianism and Hamiltonianism can be satisfactorily synthesized, that liberty and Union can be made one. Rather, as we observed at the end of the last chapter, Croly appears to see the problem as simultaneously a goal of political life and yet an endless project. The problem then with our "optimistic" but thoughtless formula for liberty and Union is that we have become complacent about the end of politics. We no longer intelligently understand the terms of the debate. Rather than being political, we end up mouthing the words of traditional statesmen. Croly's lengthy reflection on American political development is not designed to finally resolve the tension in American politics, but to restore the centrality of political thought to a nation that inclines towards becoming apolitical.
Croly premises his history of American political development with the following explanation of his purpose:
I am not seeking to justify a political and economic theory by an appeal to historical facts. I am seeking, on the contrary, to place some kind of estimate and interpretation upon American ideals and achievements...The material for this critical estimate must be sought, not so much in the events of our national career, as in the ideas which have influenced its course. Closely as these ideas are associated with the actual course of American political development, their meaning and their remoter tendencies have not been wholly realized therein, because beyond a certain point no attempt was made to think out these ideas candidly and consistently.(PAL 27-28)
As worded, Croly seems to acknowledge that his criticism of the past is a sort of ethereal criticism of ideas unsupported by facts. However, it might be better to restate Croly's claim in the following way. Croly wants to examine the past with an eye towards theory not practice. For Croly, political life operates in two distinct spheres of theory and practice. We naturally tend to think that historical deeds as more important because they are more concrete, just as democracy tends to think political action is more real than political thought. But for Croly, theory is the more important feature of political life. First, only in thought can the various forces of political life be harnessed. It is ideas that direct political action. Second, ideas not only determine the shape of past deeds, but they also supply the only criterion by which we, in the present, can judge the relevance of the past. Political action is difficult to evaluate because it can only be understood by taking account of the hidden motives, environmental circumstances, and the multiplicity of interests that factor into any final political decision. We have less intellectual access to political action because politics really involves so many compromises among the variegated forces of political life. Ideas, on the other hand, are more accessible because they can be understood independently of these forces. Consequently, ideas are the more meaningful aspect of our common political history. The primary activity that ought to govern political life, for Croly, is "interpretation." Interpretation not only guides our understanding of the past but it can direct the course of political action.
Such an examination of ideas is fitting for Croly's vision of a truly democratic polity. If we can understand the ideas that have animated American politics, we can come to a better interpretation of our own political prejudices. The battle for political reform is really a contest between ideas about the best type of political order. It is less relevant what ought to be reformed; rather, how is the central issue of reform. When reform focuses public debate on the question of what, the result will inevitably lead to the triumph of self-interest because people will always ask how this or that particular legislation benefits them. But when we ask how, we suspend our self-interest and are moved to ask broader questions about the adequacy of our general ideas about the operation of political life.
Croly's history of American politics, therefore, is a competition among ideas about the best type of political order. The problem for us is that we tend to search for the victor rather than identifying the combatants; we tend to search for the triumph of either Jeffersonianism or Hamiltonianism. Croly, on the other hand, is less interested in who won but in discovering the significance of the ideas that have animated political debate. Of the ideas of democracy and nationalism, Croly reports:
...while these warring principles have been, and still are, alive, they have never, in my opinion, been properly discriminated one from another; and until such a discrimination is made, the lesson cannot be profitably applied to the solution of our contemporary national problems. (PAL 28)
In practice, American politics is continually forging compromises between two "warring principles," between democracy, on the one hand, and nationalism on the other. Practice, however, has distorted the clarity of the ideas that constitute our political history and the possibility of a solution to their tension. In order to understand the significance of these debates, we need to distinguish the apposition of ideas that animated the debate. The survival of the American polity depends on combining the moral elements of democracy with the intellectual guidance of nationalism. But to combine them, we need to understand them independently. The compromises, however, that have historically been forged between the two for the sake of political comity makes it difficult to assess their independent merits. Political action is historically at odds with political thought. The obscuring of those ideas by political practice tends to suppress the fact that American politics is really animated by ideas and not by political compromises among the parties. Croly promises, therefore, a portrait of political ideas unsullied by political action.
The difficulty with Croly's idealism, on the other hand, is that it appears to be inconsistent with his previous claims for the powerful influence of historical and material conditions. If these circumstances strongly influence political thought, it seems that any account of ideas must begin with the historical and material "facts." For instance, we learn in Croly that the framing of the Constitution was primarily influenced by a crisis of social and economic conditions. In the years following the adoption of the Constitution, a political and economic doctrine that privileged self-government and provincialism dominated American thought only because of fortuitous economic circumstances. At long last, Americans are beginning to consider reform and to think critically about political life because they are again suffering a crisis in their contemporary political and economic conditions. So if the problem in the past has been the radical dependence of thought on social and economic circumstances, how can Croly offer any useful interpretation of ideas that dismisses the historical events and circumstances in which those ideas were conceived? To understand how Croly can maintain this idealism, we need to see how he understands the operation of ideas in the past.
Despite the importance of Jefferson and Hamilton to American political development, Croly actually begins his historical analysis at the Founding. Croly finds tension between the Federalist and Anti-Federalist particularly useful for interpreting American political thought because it highlights a debate over the purpose of government before there was a government. Here we find a clear delineation of the different theoretical perspectives on government. The Federalists held "the nationalist perspective" emphasizing the need for efficient and strong political institutions. The Anti-federalists, on the other hand, represented the "democratic perspective" emphasizing the moral dimensions of personal freedom and the primacy of equality in political life.
While there is a transparent view of the theoretical differences between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, Croly argues that their ideas cannot be divorced from private interests and hidden motives. The Federalists, according to Croly, desired a strong and efficient national government because they were among the well-to-do whose property and future prosperity were vulnerable to a weak and disorganized democratic order. Hence, the Federalists were not motivated by unselfish concern for the common good. Nor were the Anti-federalists motivated by a pure desire for the common good. They opposed a centralized government, in theory, because it would erode the power of self-government and weaken democracy, but their deepest motivation lay in the fact that they were among the less educated, poor, and political inexperienced. As much as we were promised a portrait of ideas, the material facts of American history seemed to be taking a lead role in Croly's account.
The self-interests that animated the parties at the Founding did serve a useful function. They helped clarify the major theoretical ideas that make up the whole of American democracy. Consequently, we are forced to conclude that any serious debate about the common good requires citizens who have a certain degree of self-interest in the outcome. For Croly, ideas are not in fact independent of interests; rather the ideas implicit in the Founding were extensions of their self-interest. Here, self-interest served a useful purpose by focusing the public mind on the relation of democracy and nationalism.
The problem, however, is that these passionate interests prevented each side from understanding the virtues of their opponents. The contest between the Federalists and the Anti-federalists cast American politics in a mode of "mutual suspicion" pitting the democratic multitude against the elite; neither of which could engage in a fair-minded debate about the common good. Self-interest animated a productive debate about the common good, but at the same time it prevented the parties from acknowledging the mutual dependence between their ideas.
For Croly, the effect of the Anti-Federalist's ideas was ultimately self-defeating for the party. The Anti-Federalist, according to Croly, would have won had they been more organized. But their opposition to an efficient national government made them immediately hostile to any efficient form of organization. They understood organization as the antithesis of democracy and self-government. Democracy, according to the Anti-federalists, meant a moral opposition to politics. By moralizing democracy, they thereby demonized political life altogether.
The Federalists, on the other hand, tended to believe the Anti-Federalists and therefore regarded democracy as the antithesis of good government. Their political experience with the Anti-federalists combined with their interests in protecting their property drove them to envision democracy as a sort of anarchic mob of thieves. In one of Croly's very rare references to the letter of the Constitution, he offers the Constitutional protections on property, contract, and personal liberty as evidence of the Federalist's anti-democratic ideas; a legal fortress that, according to Croly, "cannot be justified by the theory of Popular Sovereignty." The interests of the Federalists, therefore, undermined the opportunity for genuine deliberation and the possibility of a healthy and productive synthesis between idea of democracy and nationalism.
"Real Democracy," according to Croly, recognizes that there is a radical dependence between "organization" and "democracy." The dichotomy of ideas that was forged between the opposing parties at the Founding was a false dichotomy. This does not mean that Croly thinks it is easy to synthesize the two. In fact, the virtue of the Founding is that it highlighted the central struggle in American democracy which seeks to bring democracy and nationalism together. The defect of the Founding, however, is that the interests of the parties diminished the possibility of a complete synthesis between nationalism and democracy. The Founding gave the impression that there is a natural opposition between the two. But the truth is that both are radically dependent on each other. The Founding made it impossible to achieve a perfect synthesis because interest triumphed over theory. As the authors of the Constitution, the Federalists, according to Croly, imparted this meaning into the Constitution: "That instrument was framed, not as the expression of a democratic creed, but partly as a legal fortress against the possible errors and failings of democracy.(32). But even this reference to the Constitution is not demonstrative evidence of the Federalists hostility to democracy. As Croly explains a little farther on: " The security of private property and personal liberty....demanded at that time, and within limits still demand, adequate legal guarantees."(35) Thus, even the presence in the Constitution of such protections might be justified as a pragmatic solution to immediate political dangers. The real failing of the Federalists was their mental disposition their opponents and democracy.
The defect of the Founding, then, was a lack of "sufficient democratic spirit" in the construction of the Union. It is important to note that Croly makes this charge with very little analysis of the legal structure of the Constitution. Rather, Croly emphasizes "spirit" over the fact of law.2 The final product forged in the contest between Federalists and the Anti-Federalists is best understood by interpreting the relative dispositions of the parties. The major legacy of the Founding, then, is not really the legal structure of the Constitution, but the tension between democracy and nationalism forged by the mutual hostility of the parties. For instance, it is commonly believed that there is a tension between liberty and equality. What is the origin of this tension? Croly argues that the Federalists tended to emphasize liberty over equality because they believed that good government depended on individual freedom especially for the superior few. The Anti-federalists, on the other hand, emphasized equality because they distrusted individual expertise and idolized the self-governing common man. To understand why there is a tension then between liberty and equality we have to understand the reasoning or lack of reasoning behind the prejudices of the two parties.
But there is another lesson to be learned from the Founding, one that points towards the possibility of overcoming these prejudices. The lack of democratic spirit among the Federalists, argues Croly, was excusable because interest is difficult for individuals to overcome. How could the Federalists have overcome their prejudices? Croly explains:
The Federalists may have misinterpreted and perverted he proper purpose of American national organization, but they could have avoided such misinterpretation only by an extraordinary display of political insight and heroic superiority to natural prejudice.(PAL 34)
While Croly excuses the Framers, he also subtly offers the direction towards transcending the inadequacies of the Founding. Overcoming interest requires something extraordinary among individuals. The Framers distortions were forgivable in so far as their conduct was ordinary. Croly's assessment of the Founding is rather odd since we generally think of the Founding as a rather extraordinary political act among the events in American history. But for Croly, the Founding is simply an ordinary illustration of the prejudices in political life. The only distinctive feature of the Founding is the exceptional circumstances in which the Framers had to decide on a form of government.
Croly's critique of the Framers foreshadows both the challenge he envisions for democratic life and the problem that The Promise of American Life aims to resolve. Here, we have the following dilemma. Democracy and nationalism constitute the formative ideas of the American political order. The problem is that hidden interests and motives tend to prevent honest and candid debate about the proper balance between the two. Self-interest is rarely independent of these ideas unless people posses "an extraordinary display of political insight" and "heroic superiority to natural prejudice." The question that remains for the rest of the work is how to generate in political life both a widespread interest in the common good while at the same time encouraging a sufficient intellectual distance that makes it possible to see the justice of both sides of the argument.
There appear to be two possible directions. First, the cultivation of a citizen body that posses both profound political insight and can exercise consent without prejudice. Second, cultivate a place in democratic life for extraordinarily leadership utilize its political insight in the absence of prejudice. It is my view that Croly believes his analysis of American political development can supply the public with sufficient political knowledge for making informed choices about the direction of political life while at the same time instructing the public to recognize a place for extraordinary leadership. Since the Framers could not entirely overcome their prejudices and circumstances, possibly we can overcome them by reflecting on their contribution in thought. In other words, we can imitate their virtues while distancing ourselves from their ideas and their prejudices. What is unique about Croly's interpretation is that it makes overcoming the Founding consistent with reverence for the Framer's intent. The intention of the Framer's was to create a political order that would improve the life of all of its citizens. The problem is that their prejudices prevented them from fulfilling this intention. Pious regard for the Framer's intentions requires reform.
Croly also has an untraditional explanation of why the Founding is an extraordinary event in American history. The importance of the Founding is not the legal obligation it imposes on the people; rather, it is an exemplary illustration of political thinking. The Founding was a great achievement in American history because the Constitution was a product of "foresight and thought, not compulsion." Interpreted as such, the Founding is a model for ordinary political life. Croly diminishes the traditional importance of the Founding by turning an extraordinary political deed into an ordinary discourse among ideas. Understanding the Founding in this way allows us to overcome our tendency to regard the Constitution an object of pious fidelity or as an obligatory contract among all members of the polity. The significance of the Founding is not what the Framers did but how they did it. If we look to the how, we see foresight and prudence acting in the face of growing crisis in national affairs. The Founding is important because prudence and foresight are important, but to imitate their virtues we cannot be thoughtlessly subject to their ideas about politics.
It is difficult, however, to understand how we could emulate the Framer's prudence and foresight without compulsion given the fact that in Croly's historical sketch almost all political action is derivative of compelling economic and social circumstances. The claim that the Framers acted with foresight and prudence turns out to be less isolated from compulsion than Croly initially suggests. The Framers were compelled to act, as Croly admits, in on order to avert a crisis. But the crisis they averted seems to have been a crisis primarily in thought. The crisis they averted was not an immediate financial or physical threat to the national welfare. Rather, they prevented a dogma from taking hold of the American mind, "a policy of drift," the sort of lethargic thinking that accompanied the Anti-Federalist's naive faith in self-government. This intellectual crisis did threaten real consequences, one that Croly reports might have required a "violent purgation." But the foresight and prudence of the Framers was to prevent crisis before it happened.
For Croly the danger that should really concern reformers is not so much the immediate disparities in wealth or the blatant abuses of political power, but the potential evaporation of a thoughtful public and the demise of intelligent and skilled political leaders. The Founding is therefore an important model of political action because the Framers prevented the degeneration of political life by attacking a doctrine that would have undermined the conditions for political debate. To emulate the Founding would require the compulsion of a crisis that is not yet a real crisis. The problem with a real crisis is that there is no longer any room for political thought, rather there is only the necessity of action. Croly prefers what we might call "a crisis in speech;" something that acknowledges that human beings must be compelled to act according to their particular circumstance, and yet at the same time does not compel them to act in a particular way but permits thought to lead action. The great skill of political leadership, therefore, is the ability to foresee a possible crisis without actually being in a state of crisis; that is, to interpret the future rather than being ruled by it.
By reinterpreting the Founding, Croly has made two important shifts towards justifying the cause of Progressive reform. First, his analysis of the Founding establishes a central place for leadership where democracy has typically been, at best, ambivalent about leadership. The Anti-Federalists' opposition to organization and leadership was the result of prejudices peculiar to their economic condition and social circumstances. Since the Anti-Federalists' hostility to leadership was merely the product of their narrow self-interest and blind prejudices, human beings of superior talent and expertise might now perceive that democracy is not their natural enemy. Croly, therefore, has opened the door to the mutual accommodation of national leadership and democracy. Second, democracy no longer needs to feel obligated to the legal obligations of the Constitution when it is injurious to the improvement of democratic life. The Constitution was specifically tailored to the needs of the nation at the time of the Founding. But what is important about the Founding is the attempt to improve political life by reconciling the interests of democracy with the requirements of a strong national government. Imitating the Founding means constantly searching for the best political constitution. Croly, therefore, enlists the support of the public without attacking their attachment to their common tradition.
Jefferson and Hamilton
It must be remembered that the achievements of the Federalists were made during a period of potential crisis when the fate of the Union hung in the balance. But when the decision to adopt one form of government has been made, how will people continue to think about politics? To answer this question, Croly proceeds to the subsequent debate between the Federalist and the Republicans, between Hamilton and Jefferson. Their debates, according to Croly, were, in some degree, a continuation of the debate over the structure and organization of the new nation; Hamilton representing the Federalist ideas, and Jefferson, the Anti-Federalist ideas. Here, however, the character of American political thought would be defined finally; "The Union, which had been celebrated in 1789, was consummated in 1801."(47) For Croly, then, the defining moment in American politics is to be found in the contest of Jefferson and Hamilton, after the nation had decided on a form of government.
Croly's treatment of this period is divided into two parts. In the first part, we observe the open theoretical confrontation between the two parties. Here, the division of ideas that constituted the debate at the Founding continued to compete for their place within the American political tradition. Hamilton would continue the legacy of supporting the interests of the national government and the elite few who would conduct its operations, while Jefferson mustered the moral fervor of the common man in the interests of democratic equality and provincial freedom. But in the second part, Croly turns to the political consequence of Jefferson's victory over the Federalists. The victory of the Jeffersonians is presented differently from the victory of the Federalists. Rather than a product that represents the best in the operation of democracy, Jefferson's achievement reveals the great danger implicit in American politics.
Croly begins then with a contrast of ideas between Hamilton and Jefferson. As the representative of the national idea, Hamilton, in Croly's view, was the political realist, who understood the "facts" about good government. Unlike many of his opponents who simply lacked any political experience, Hamilton did not indulge in moralistic aphorisms about the purpose of government. Rather, Hamilton knew what needed to be done in government because he actually did something. Croly calls attention to Hamilton's "greatest achievement" as the Secretary of the Treasury. His experience in organizing the nation's financial and monetary structure gave him the material for his political perspective. As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton understood the indispensable elements of good government. First, good government requires a strong national organization. Hamilton's assimilation of the debts and establishment of a National Bank were not isolated schemes but parts of a systematic plan for the centralization of political power in the national government. Hamilton's particular genius was to see, for instance, that the monetary power was the heart of the nation's attachment to power. The key to the preservation of the Union required the subordination of national economic resources to the federal government. The federal government, therefore, needed to secure the attachment of the people by encompassing the deepest source of their interests, their pocketbooks.
The second fact of government understood by Hamilton was the instrumental importance of leadership to the national welfare. "It implied a conscious and indefatigable attempt on the part of the national leaders to promote the national welfare."(40) Political leaders had to be self-confident in their judgement regardless of popular opinion and they ought to be capable of exercising political power without fear of popular retribution. Hamilton prized what is missing among contemporary reformers: leaders who were both intellectually superior and morally strong.
Aware that democracy tends to suspect such leadership, Hamilton worked to make government a special place for these types of human beings. Government, for Hamilton, was an on-going project in which extraordinary individuals must be provided with the same opportunities for great political achievements as those of the Founding. Their decisions, then, should have the same profound influence on behalf of the national welfare as the adoption of the Constitution.
It implied the predominance in American political life of the men who had the energy and the insight to discriminate between those ideas and tendencies which promoted the national welfare, and those ideas and tendencies whereby it was imperiled. It implied, in fine, the perpetuation of the same kind of leadership which had guided the country safely through the dangers of the critical period, and the perpetuation of the purposes which inspired that leadership.(40)
Unlike American statesmen at the turn of the century, Croly's Hamilton recognized that the Constitution was not a fait accompli for political life, but a part of an on-going project of building the nation.
As a political realist, Hamilton also thought of the Union as something to be constantly achieved and not to be naively presupposed by the establishment of legal and political institutions in the Constitution. For Croly, the Constitution's real power, therefore, lies in the way in which it is interpreted. Only through interpretation is the Constitution capable of adjusting to political and economic circumstances. Political life requires the rule of thought rather than law. Croly believes that Hamilton shared this understanding of the Constitution. It is a rather strange account of Hamilton since Hamilton had generally defended his projects as Secretary of the Treasury by the letter of the Constitution. Croly, on the other hand, never suggests that the Constitution offers much guidance for interpretation. Rather, the efficacy of Constitutional power depends on the interpretation's capacity to efficiently accomplish its purpose. Hamilton's interpretations were sound, according to Croly, because they successfully engineered the progress of national consolidation.
Hamilton was an extraordinary mind, but his ideas were not independent of selfish motives. He was naturally dissatisfied with much of the Constitution because the Convention failed to adopt many of his own proposals. For these losses, Hamilton blamed the influence of democratic interests on the Convention. Oddly enough, this explains part of Hamilton's virtue. He favored a strong national government because he thought that provincial interests had weakened the final Constitution. Hamilton favored leadership over the narrow and literal application of law because he thought the legal procedures of the Constitution inadequate. Furthermore, he prized talent and ability over equality because he felt that democratic equality was responsible for the weakness of the Constitution. Had Hamilton had his way at the Convention, he might have been less animated about the place of leadership in American politics and he certainly would have less reason to think of government as an perennial project of nation building.
Fortunately for American national government, there was a happy coincidence between Hamilton's ideas and interests. Hamilton's dislike for the Constitution not only made it better than it was, but his example demonstrated how the Constitution could be manipulated for the sake of improving government. For those who might see the Constitution as an obstacle to contemporary reform, Hamilton offers a model for simultaneously opposing narrow Constitutional piety while patriotically devoting oneself to country.
However, this happy coincidence of ideas and interests also took a great toll on Hamilton's career. Hamilton ultimately underestimated the need for broad popular support. As good as his ideas were he never rallied the popular support needed to make his achievements concrete. Hamilton thought that wisdom and expertise were sufficient for ruling the nation. But democracy, according to Croly, is also a "fact" of American politics and Croly suggests that, in the end, Hamilton's political realism was partially lacking. Unlike the Federalist, who knew that their project could never succeed without persuading the people, Hamilton thought of the people as an obstacle to the realization of good government.
Hamilton blamed democracy for the inadequacies of the Constitution, a prejudice that strengthened his understanding of the proper application of political power, but prevented him from seeing the real source of political power. Hamilton could not see beyond his prejudices and hence he could not offer a comprehensive vision of democratic life in America. While Hamilton's best thoughts emerged from his personal resentment of the Convention's unwillingness to adopt his own ideas, Hamilton might have also developed a more pragmatic appreciation of democracy had he fared better at the Founding. Croly's Hamilton appears to be caught in a conundrum; made superior by his private animosity towards democracy and yet less politically effective for the same reason. But this is a conundrum we have seen before, a labyrinth of ideas and interests that seems impossible to escape. The national government is improved by elite individuals who are suspicious of the self-interests and capacities of democracy, but their suspicion prevents them from ultimately realizing their own ambitions.
Hamilton's example, however, does point towards the possibility of a better synthesis between democracy and nationalism. A nationalism that can see beyond its own elitism by recognizing "the utility" of democracy for its own purposes could do better than Hamilton. This is a different understanding of democracy than is usually experienced in America. According to Croly, most Americans think of democracy as moral, but never as something useful. But if democracy is simply moral then it will never be desirable to the elite who find no advantages from it. For Croly, democracy is something useful and even essential to the ruling elite. Democracy is the real source of political power in America, a fact that any successful elite must understand.
The political consequence of Hamilton's antipathy towards democracy was the meteoric rise of Jefferson to the presidency. Jefferson was the anti-thesis of Hamilton not only because he opposed Hamilton's ideas for a strong national government, capable leadership, and the flexibility in Constitutional matters, but Jefferson also organized a successful political organization without a serious intellectual core. Jefferson merely possessed an unquestioning faith in the people and a moral enthusiasm for democracy such that whatever superior merit might lay in Hamilton's vision of politics, it was no match for the power generated by Jefferson's appeal to the people. Democracy, according to Croly, does not have to think about its status in political life in order to gain political power, it simply is the animating force of political life in America. A contest between democratic moralizing and the rule of the elite will always favor the former regardless of the merits of the latter.
It did not really matter that Jefferson lacked the knowledge of how to govern, because democracy has so strong a force in American political life that it cannot be destroyed except by itself. Croly's account of Jefferson has the flavor of something like the triumph of the moral idiot. Despite the immaturity of his ideas, the appeal of Jefferson offers an important lesson in the nature of political power in America. The people followed Jefferson because he truly loved them, but he had little experience in governing a nation. Jefferson's enthusiasm for democracy tolerated almost any self-contradiction or inconsistency in thought. For example, despite his own leadership, Jefferson thought leadership inimical to democracy. Despite his faith in the people, he thought representative government should do little or nothing for the people. Finally, Jefferson insisted on the superiority of provincial self-government despite the fact the he himself occupied the supreme seat of the national government. But regardless of how "meager, narrow, and self-contradictory" Jefferson's understanding of democracy was, his democratic enthusiasm made him politically undefeatable.
The Jeffersonian conception of democracy did not emerge from thinking about democracy. Jefferson and his followers never asked "what is democracy?" or "what is required to sustain democratic life?" Rather, the Jeffersonian conception of democracy was entirely deduced from their opposition to Hamilton. Their success depended strictly on opposing whatever Hamilton was for. Hamilton favored government by the distinguished few; the Jeffersonians, in contrast, preferred rule of the common man. In order to defeat the superior wisdom and expertise of Hamilton, the Jeffersonians moralized the significance of democratic life. Hamilton's political vision, according to the Jeffersonians, was amoral; he did not care about the people but only the privileged few. Jefferson's platform, therefore, drew its strength strictly by its moral opposition to Hamilton and not by the superiority of its ideas about politics.
The Jeffersonians' thoughtless moral enthusiasm for democracy, however, made for an absurd misunderstanding of political reality. Jefferson, according to Croly, conflated "faith in the people" with a na´ve confidence in their "native goodness." Consequently, under Jefferson's ideas there was little room for debate about political choices because democratic politics was indistinguishable from majoritarianism. In fact, there was no need for political debate since the Jeffersonians did not distinguish between the better sense of the people and the opinion of the majority. Not only did Jefferson misunderstand and minimize the complicated dimensions of democratic politics, but he assumed a rather shallow psychological understanding of democratic man and society.
In Jefferson's mind democracy was tantamount to extreme individualism. He conceived a democratic society to be composed of a collection of individuals fundamentally alike in their abilities and deserts; and in organizing such a society, politically, the prime object was to provide for the greatest satisfaction of its individual members. The good things of life which had formerly been monopolized by the few, were now to be distributed among all the people.(PAL 43)
According to Jefferson, it was not necessary to invent "artful arrangements" for the equal division of goods among the people. As long as politics prohibited "special privileges" an equitable distribution of economic and political goods would naturally take care of itself. Jefferson's vision of democracy had to assume this natural distribution of goods. If goods could not be equally distributed by the operation of individual selfishness, then one would have to concede to Hamilton that political life requires the rule of superior talent and expertise to harness and direct the various elements of civil life. Jefferson's political vision, in contrast, was essentially apolitical. The vitality of democracy simply required protecting the "native goodness of the people" from politics.
Jefferson's naive conception of democracy is best seen in his understanding of the relationship of equality and liberty. "His theory implied a complete harmony both in logic and in effect between the idea of liberty and the idea of equality; and just in so far as there is any antagonism between those ideas, his whole political system becomes unsound and impractical."(44) Because there is in fact a tension between equality and liberty, the Jeffersonians favored the former in practice, though they still believed in theory they encompassed both. For instance, they believed all ought to be free to exercise their individual faculties according to their own abilities, but only when those faculties exercised did not accumulate special privileges over their fellow-man. There is a tension then in Jeffersonianism between their theory and their practice. In reality, equality and liberty are not a natural harmony. Equality, therefore, is the real cornerstone of Jeffersonian political thought because the common man tends to prefer seeing that others have no more than him rather than attempting to acquire more than the other.
The Jeffersonian preference for equality actually required an enormous sacrifice of individual freedom. For example, the Jeffersonians privileged local self-government over national politics, because they believed that locally people are more equal since they share common prejudices and interests. But this preference for local self-government, according to Croly, really only amounted to a preference for mediocrity. Local government is not capable of far-sighted judgement because it is not able to see beyond its own prejudices. Local government needs the correction of a national perspective even to calculate its own interests. Nor is local government likely to produce the kind of individuals needed for expert management and political leadership. Those who aspire to national government must compete on a broad scale with talent and expertise. Only in national politics can individual stake advantage of the benefits of individual freedom. Jefferson's elevation of local self-government, on the other hand, downplayed the significance of national leaders.
Jefferson himself might have done more for democracy had his platform not been antithetical to his own political role. But Jefferson's preference for equality and his animosity towards Hamilton finally undermined the possibility of real statesmanship. Leadership, for Croly, requires a certain freedom of mind that permits self-confidence in individual judgement regardless of public opinion. But the constitution of Jefferson's thought made him slavish to public opinion.
Jefferson offers a useful illustration of the limits of democracy. The simple insistence on democracy without any consideration of leadership, political rule, and national organization merely amounts to affirming the status quo. The idea of democracy appeals to the public because it claims that regardless of the circumstances the people are in control of their destiny. But in fact the people do not rule simply by insisting on the moral superiority of democracy. Without superior leaders and the expert administration of the national government, the people soon become victims to the material and economic circumstances of their time.
Democracy also appeals to the people because it encourages human beings to think of politics as something moral rather than practical. Moral considerations have a common universal appeal, while the practical details of government require a certain degree of experience and political insight. In American history, argues Croly, we find that the moral demands of the public are often at odds with the practical requirements of good government, genuine leadership at odds with public opinion, nationalism at odds with democracy. But, for Croly, democracy's insistence on its own moral superiority to all other competing demands in political life actually leads to the immorality of government. When democracy fails to see the need for prudent calculations of power and interest, the consequence is that ambitious individuals eventually dominate political life. It is natural that the elite will find venues unsanctioned by democracy when they discover that talent and expertise are regarded as threats to the political order. For Croly, the crisis in political and economic inequality at the turn of the century illustrates the perils of Jeffersoniansim.
Nationalism offers an escape from the tension between the elite and the people by providing a place within democratic life for the elite. By making government an attractive home for expertise and natural superiority, democracy can benefit for such human beings. Though it is in the interests of democracy to utilize such venues, democracy typically lacks the capacity to see beyond its own prejudices and to acknowledge its dependence on the elite. In the case of Jefferson, there were at least two obstacles to a better understanding of democratic life in America. First, the party of Jefferson was organized strictly to oppose Hamilton. They were correct to fear Hamilton's excessive hostility to democracy, but they failed to see how Hamilton's ideas could aid their democratic ambitions. Second, the Jeffersonians could not comprehensively understand the nature of democracy in American politics because democracy as the unimpeachable moral sovereign is never really forced to think about its intellectual constitution. Democracy rarely feels it has to solve the tension between its interests and the means to securing its interests because it is naturally the most powerful element of political life in America. It cannot see the means to its own preservation because it is not cognizant of the tensions within its own structure.
For Croly, government for the people sometimes means limiting government by the people. In other words, the fact that the people are the source of political power and justice in America does not mean that we should cease to think about the proper role of the people in government. It was Hamilton who understood well the limitations of government by the people and who understood the importance of liberty better than Jefferson. But Hamilton also failed to see that such liberty was powerless without the support of the people. In contrast to Jefferson's confidence in the natural harmony of liberty and equality, Hamilton may have gone too far in thinking that they were utterly irreconcilable. If human freedom does not have the recognition of popular consent, then it cannot aid the cause of human amelioration nor can it in the long run sustain its autonomy from popular opinion. Hamilton's vision of freedom for the elite would never be realized because it never acknowledged that Jefferson was partially right about the importance of equality in American life.
The problem for both Hamilton and Jefferson was that they did not realize how essential both equality and liberty are to the comprehensive portrait of American life. Liberty and equality are always in tension in the American political tradition. To understand American politics, therefore, we must understand how to accommodate that tension. The consequence of Jefferson's misunderstanding of this tension led to a sort of de facto Hamiltonianism. In thought, the Jeffersonians were democratic and provincial, but in fact America has become more and more national as well as centralized. The fate of economic and political power under the robber barons and the political bosses illustrates the inadequacies of Jeffersonian thought. When insisting on decentralized government and local autonomy, political and economic power naturally find other venues toward national consolidation. Jefferson's thought lost out to the facts of political life. The tycoons and political bosses pursued in deed the centralization of national power while giving lip-service to the doctrine of equality in speech.
Despite the respective short-comings among the ideas of Jefferson and Hamilton, the initial contest between their visions of political life offers a useful scene for the American spectator. They competed vigorously for control of the nation's destiny because each side understood that there was something deeply true about their understanding of political life. The contest between Hamilton and Jefferson illustrates what is really at stake in American political life. Democracy needs strong political institutions as well as talented and experienced political leadership in order to both persevere through incommodious social and economic conditions and to pursue the common amelioration of the human condition. On the other hand, neither such political institutions nor these types of political leaders can be justified except in their service to democracy. American political life, therefore, is animated by the perpetual effort to synthesize these two parts.
The most serious threat to American politics, then, is not the confrontation between ideas such as the one between Hamilton and Jefferson, but the attempt to obscure the tension between these ideas. According to Croly, the Constitutional project begun in 1789 was "consummated in 1801." The alliance formed by Jefferson was a key moment in American politics because it established what we might call the psychology of American political tradition. "The adoption by Jefferson and the Republicans of the political structure of their opponents is of an importance hardly inferior to that of the adoption of the Constitution by the states."(PAL 47) The initial struggle between the two parties was so bitter that Jefferson's statement in the first inaugural seems rather amazing: "We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans." The subsequent alliance between the Federalists and the Republicans illustrates a real threat to the possibility of a genuine synthesis between nationalism and democracy. The significance of this section is that here we have a triumph of political practice over ideas. Political compromise, for Croly, is a sort of synthesis that lacks conviction.
For all of Croly's emphasis on the importance of ideas and political thought, it seems strange that the defining moment of political history is an act of political expediency. In Croly's account of American history, we discover that the historical circumstances do have an extremely powerful influence over ideas. In fact, what is most striking in his account is the way that the strong political convictions of the parties and their leaders tend to erode after the initial stage of debate. In American political development, an initial struggle between two parties highlights the core principles of the American political tradition. One party always represents the side of democracy and emphasizes equality, while the other stands for intelligent leadership and efficient national administration. Croly seems to admire this tension because it makes people acutely aware that these are the two fundamental elements of American politics. Leaders take advantage of the opportunity by conceiving original solutions to the immediate political exigencies. Here, democracy as a whole appears to have a real sense of what is at stake in political life. The problem is that the tension quickly disappears as parties seek to achieve political victory through conciliation and compromise. As leaders begin to forge the political alliances necessary for public support, the strength of their convictions begins to wane. Such a compromise of principles, for Croly, makes a genuine synthesis of democracy and elite leadership impossible because it supplies a false and negative synthesis for a fruitful and positive one.
Without Hamilton as a formidable opponent, the worst in Jeffersonianism became real. In opposition to Hamilton, the extreme individualism of Jeffersonian thought produced vigorous debate on the proper constitution of democratic life. Absent Hamilton, Jeffersonian individualism became simply a dogma for apolitical selfishness.
The Jeffersonians could now define the meaning of leadership, government, and consent. The Founding had required vigorous, responsible, enterprising leadership. Jefferson, however, opposed the supposedly undemocratic nature of leadership and was now set to eliminate its role in American politics. Without the Federalist opposition, Jefferson could weaken the role of political leadership by restricting it to "routine political ideas." The presidency would now function as a sort of clerkship processing a few democratic requests but avoiding an ambitious agenda for the common good. Jefferson's conservative policy of "strict interpretation" simply privileged mediocrity in government rather than action. Without much of a role for political leadership, consent really amounted to accepting the status quo rather than exercising foresight in government. It was more important to protect the people from government than protecting them from unjust social forces. Overcoming unfavorable social and economic conditions demanded expertise and experienced judgement, but since the people cannot simultaneously consent to political rule and understand the nature of political rule, the public simply had to accept its immediate environment. Jefferson's solution to the tension between consent and political leadership was to simply eliminate the difference between the people and their leaders by restricting the role of government in the life of the nation.
Paradoxically, the Jeffersonians established the psychology of American Constitutionalism by conceding to the major contribution of their Federalist opponents. The Founding had been an important illustration of elitism surmounting democratic opposition and yet acting on behalf of the interests of democracy. By accepting the Constitution, the Jeffersonians transformed the meaning of the Founding into a narrow edifice of permanent fixed institutions designed to protect democracy from ambitious political leadership. In other words, the Republicans destroyed the animating spirit of the Constitution by reinterpreting the Constitution as an object of religious reverence that piously compelled "strict interpretation." Jefferson, therefore, relieved Americans from the need to think politically. Thinking politically, for Croly, requires an awareness of the merits of opposing points of view. Jefferson's religious transformation of the American polity eliminated the possibility of critical thought in politics.
This unholy alliance between the Federalists and the Republicans has deeply influenced the nature of political thought in America. American politics tends to prefer a certain degree of comity between competing political parties rather than intellectual debate. It also prefers the promise concrete action rather than an extensive exchange of ideas. American politics is fundamentally anti-intellectual, according to Croly, because it imitates the action of Jefferson rather than the thought of the Founding. Croly dislikes this tendency in American politics because it militates against any pure theoretical conviction. The alliance of 1801 was neither wholly Hamilton nor was it wholly Jefferson. It was not an alliance of ideas; rather it was an alliance of political convenience.
Croly's historical account does not do precisely what he initially claimed; it is not simply an interpretation of ideas. Rather, it is a sort of drama in which ideas struggle to survive forces beyond their control. Throughout Croly's analysis, we have seen that ideas are continually fettered by accidental circumstances and interests that compromise their purity. The drama between ideas and facts offers a lesson not in what Americans ought to think but rather how they ought to think. Idealism is not the mode of Croly's analysis; instead, it is the goal of political life in America. The strongest criticism of American political development in Croly's historical exegesis is not for the ideas of the parties, but for political deeds that obscure the role of thought. If ideas can be privileged over the political events and material circumstances that have determined American political development, a better democratic life might be possible in America. It is in the initial stage of political conviction that Croly identifies a model for political life.
Not only are these convictions stronger at the initial stage of any one political struggle, but they are strongest at the very beginning of American political development. The Founding is the highest stage of American history since it is before there was a government that there must have been the purest convictions about the purpose of government.
For one generation American statesmen were vigorous and fruitful political thinkers; but the time soon came when Americans ceased to criticize their own ideas, and since that time the meaning of many of our fundamental national conceptions has partly been obscured, as well as partly expressed, by the facts of our national growth.(PAL 28)
There is a linear decline in the primacy of thought throughout the history of American politics. The highpoint of American political debate is the Founding in which the very structure of political life was the subject of controversy. Following the Founding, the ideas that animate American politics begin to diverge from the facts of political life. No longer are we able to think about political action; rather, we become the victims of the need for action. Both the history of American politics and the natural inclination of democracy share the same path. They both tend towards becoming progressively more apolitical by abandoning the primacy of thought. Croly's solution to the problem of democracy, then, is an interpretation of the past that will encourage Americans to place thought over political action.
The best that can be said about the alliance between the Federalists and the Republicans is that it contained "the germ of better things." In a sort of hibernated state, the ideas are vaguely still there. In other words, the best thing about the alliance is that it provided for the opportunity for interpretation. Interpretation offers the possibility of resurrecting thought over ideas.
To elevate thought and ideas over deeds, American politics must be very different from the politics of the Republicans. Republican politics was self-satisfied and therefore complacent; genuine democratic politics must be goal driven. It must seek something in the future in order to resist merely consenting to the status quo. To restore and establish the centrality of thought to the American political tradition, Croly argues that our traditional terms need to be transformed. Liberty should be replaced with "democracy", "Union" replaced with "nationality." The idea of democracy and nationality are themselves interpretations of our traditional language of liberty and union. Croly does not clearly spell-out what the difference in the terms are. The only explanation he offers is that Democracy means "something more" than liberty and so nationality means something more than a mere legal union. By "something more" Croly hopes to restore the spirit that once animated the Founding to the fixed principles of liberty and Constitutionalism that were solidified in the Republican/Federalist alliance. Just as Jefferson defeated the Federalists by offering an interpretation of the Founding, so Croly hopes to defeat the influence of Jefferson on American political thought by offering a superior interpretation of the past.
The Western Democrats and the Whigs
Jefferson's expedient compromise between nationalism and democracy offered a temporary political remedy to the binary opposition among American political ideas. In Croly's analysis, however, that compromise only worked in so far as little political action was required of the nation as a whole. The War of 1812 undermined Jefferson's compromise when it revealed how embarrassingly the nation was prepared for collective action. Forced to act decisively, the nation found itself determined by powers outside of its control. The embarrassing military effort exerted in the war reflected a much deeper problem; one that revealed the weakness of our intellectual constitution. By evading the issue of nationalism and its relation to democracy, America was forced to act like a nation without thinking about the place of nationalism in democratic life. American was ill-prepared to defend democracy because it had dodged the question of how democratic idealism ought to be synthesized with national realism. Ideas about democratic life ceased to animate the flow of political events that structure the nation's destiny; rather our political destiny now followed the dictates of reacting to an external power. Faced with a physical threat to its safety, American democracy, conceived originally in the exchange of great ideas, now had to obey the dictates of necessity.
The War of 1812 demanded a realignment of political ideas that could simultaneously inspire national action and preserve democracy. From the War of 1812 emerged a new formula of ideas, the Western pioneer democrat whose influence in American politics would continue to inform the reform movements of the early twentieth century. The Western democrat was the heir of Jefferson, but the experience of the war led to a new synthesis of democracy and nationalism. He was nationalistic because he was fiercely patriotic and unquestionably loyal to the national government. But his nationalism was not like the Federalists who conceived of the national government as a tool for harnessing the collective power of the polity. Rather, the Western democrat's loyalty to the national government was "in feeling" rather than in reason. His loyalty was accidental to his political condition and not a product of his thought. As a resident of former territories, he had gained his official status in the Union through the direct power of the national government. He was attached to the national government as a child is attached to its family, conceived in issue rather than by choice. The Western democrat did not think of the nation as an abstract social contract; rather, "the Federal Union meant to them something more than an indissoluble legal contract. It was rooted in their life." It is difficult to say what this "something more" is. What is important is that the Western democrat's loyalty to the national government was a natural part of his constitution rather than something capable of intellectual articulation.
The Western democrat's conception of democracy was also determined largely by accidental circumstances. The Western democrat believed that there was little tension between the national good and self-interested individualism because he experienced very little tension between the pursuit of private and public ends on the frontier. Democracy was morally superior to all other forms of government for the Western democrat because it endorsed this supposed natural harmony between individual liberty and human equality. Unlike the Jeffersonians who may have sensed the some-what protruding corners in their edifice of liberty and equality and who at least recognized the need to suppress the tension through political compromise, the Western pioneers whole-heartedly believed that liberty and equality were in natural harmony. Thus their conception of democracy was even less informed than Jefferson. Being less informed, they were not only "genuinely national in feeling," but Croly remarks, "They were also the first large body of Americans who were genuinely democratic in feeling."(61) Their major contribution then to American politics, Croly claims, is that they imparted a "certain emotional consistency" to American democracy. The Western democrats' faith in democracy had none of the reservations that might be found in men like Hamilton, and even more than Jefferson, they rejected the need for politics.
Croly does seem to admire the pride the Western Democrats placed in democratic life. They believed so strongly in democracy that they managed to generate a new found loyalty and patriotism in the American nation as a whole where their nationalist opponents, the Whig party, could not. Without the unqualified loyalty of the Western Democrats, Croly appears to suggest that the nation might not have survived the War of 1812 at all. It is important then to understand what is admirable about their understanding of democracy.
The valuable political service rendered by the Western pioneer was his contribution to the "social vitality" of democracy. Despite their "perverted ideas and their narrow view of life," the Western democrats reveal an essential ingredient necessary for realizing the promise of American life.
Democracy has always been stronger as a political than it has a social force. When adopted as a political ideal of the American people, it was very far from possessing any effective social vitality; and until the present day it has been a much more active force in political than in social life. But whatever traditional social force it has obtained, can be traced directly to the Western pioneer Democrat.(61)
Again, Croly's vague phrasing requires some explanation. As a political ideal, democracy is complicated because it can it can only be effective by balancing the demand for popular sovereignty with the practical requirements of an efficient and effective government. Mired in these competing demands, democratic government solicits little public enthusiasm and often more public cynicism. As a social force, however, democracy would entail the cooperation of essentially equal citizens who share a common concern for the public interest and share approximately similar private ambitions and desires. Socially, human beings can share a natural and even unconscious attachment to democracy. Politically, however, democracy requires a difficult struggle through a labyrinth of competing interests. Democracy in America, according to Croly, has always been strongest where its vitality tends to be the weakest. Though the Western democrat lacked a serious political understanding of democracy, he illustrates an important requirement for improving democracy: an unqualified moral devotion to democratic life.
Ironically, the Western democrat provides an important lesson in democratic politics because he understood very little about democracy. He was the beneficiary of certain providential economic and social conditions. Because the frontier presented these pioneers with ample opportunities for individual enterprise, the problems of economic consolidation made no intrusion on their way of life. "An indispensable feature of democratic society," argues Croly, was rendered by their happy circumstances: "homogenous social intercourse." He and his neighbors were bound together by common " interests, feelings, and ideas" and his manner of life was characterized by a "familiarity of association," "quick communicability of ideas," and upon the "easy and effortless sense of companionship."
It was the natural issue of their interests, their occupations, and their manner of life. They felt kindly towards one another and communicated freely with one another because they were not divided by radical differences in class, standards, points of view, and wealth. The social aspect of their democracy may, in fact, be compared to the sense of good fellowship which pervades the rooms of a properly constituted club.(61)
Because the Union depends upon a bond that is stronger than a mere contract, the continuity of feeling embodied in the Western democrat constituted an important improvement on the Constitution. The frontier required neither individual specialization nor any capital for special equipment. Therefore, life on the frontier did not require any arbitration among competing interests by a single ruling authority. There were no barriers then between the members of the frontier as each shared both a common set of interests and a roughly equal distribution of wealth. Political life, for Croly, needs to be embedded in more than a set of political institutions, it must be solidified by a shared moral community.
The pioneer, however, neither invented this feeling nor appreciated its necessity. Rather, it was simply a consequence of his physical environment. The pioneer contributed to the common good without thinking about it and he managed to get along with other members of society without any struggle. The pioneer then could render the nation a model of social life precisely because his conception of democracy was not the fruit of a disinterested contemplation of political life, "it was the product neither of abstract theories nor of a disembodied humanitarianism." Despite Croly's criticism of the pioneer's simple moral vision of democracy, here, he does reveal how attractive an absolute moral commitment to democratic life is. The pioneer represents a sort of golden age for democracy. But if the lesson of Western democracy is the radical dependence of its vision of politics on accidental circumstances and the fortuitous opportunities of the frontier, then we have here a very sober lesson in the usefulness of their ideas about politics. The Western democrat could afford to moralize democratic life because his peculiar conditions permitted it. But the close of the Frontier also suggests that we cannot imitate them and that we must reevaluate the ideas about democracy that we share with them.
While Croly seems to praise the moralizing of the Western Democrats, he also suggests that it was problematic for democratic life. The problem is that it was simply innate and not thoughtful. Their moralizing prevented them from seeing their own self-contradictions and from discovering wherein their ideas were relevant only to their particular circumstances. The Western democrat patriotically defended the national government and yet he insisted on the moral superiority of local government and individual freedom. For Croly, it is not possible to simultaneously defend the need for a strong national government and to privilege local self-government. The fact that the Western democrat could actually hold such a position reveals that his conception of political life was excessively moral and inadequately intellectual.
They willed at one and the same time that the Union should be preserved, but that it should not be increased and strengthened. They were national in feeling, but local and individualistic in their ideas; and these limited ideas were associated with a false and inadequate conception of democracy.(56)
The Western democrat could be moral because he thought he was defending local freedoms against foreign enemies. As long as the battle was against a foreign enemy, he did not need to consider the possibility of a contest between local self-government and the national interests. But this also meant that his ideas about political life were in fact dictated by the events of the War of 1812. They drew moral strength for their position from the an external threat, but internally their ideas were extremely vulnerable to the possibility of a tension between local and national interests.
The Western democrat lacked an intelligent understanding of the relationship between democracy and nationalism because his political thought was strictly conceived within the scope of his local experience. He embraced the federal government not because he understood the function of nationalism in the political landscape of the country, but because he owed his existence as a State in the Union to the national government. Unlike the Federalist who had to reflect on how the federal government would make the nation better, the Western Democrat simply assumed the nation was good and he never considered the possibility that it might be a threat to the purity of his democratic interests. What the Western Democrat did not understand is that the national perspective is at odds with the local perspective. Locally, we think in terms of our surrounding prejudices, but nationalism offers a much wider and better-informed perspective. From the perspective of nationalism, we see that local governments are dependent on elements outside of their immediate control. The Western Democrats' praise of local self-government was simply a short-sighted illusion.
The Western democrats' misconception of the relation of democracy and nationalism had its most pronounced effect on the national government in the introduction of the "spoils system." Since there was no conflict between nationalism and democracy in the mind of the Western democrat, it was believed that the offices of the national government ought to be democratic. Hence, a vigorous nationalist like Andrew Jackson had few reservations about distributing political offices to any Western crony who aided the party.
The Western democrats' moralizing eventually led to political corruption. The real effect of the patronage system was just the opposite of what the Western democrat hoped.
It merely substituted one kind of office holding privilege for another. It helped to build up a group of professional politicians who became in their turn an office-holding clique-the only difference being that one man in his political life held, not one, but many offices.(50)
For Croly, it is always true that a distinguished group of people will always rise to power according to their skill or talent. The consequence of the spoils system was that it prevented government from distinguishing the good from the bad. The problem then with Western democratic morality is that its conception of democracy cannot adapt to the facts of political life. When democracy does not pragmatically consider facts it generally becomes corrupt.
The problem with the Western democrat's conception of nationalism extends to their conception of democracy. Though Croly admires their social continuity this too proves ultimately deficient.
Neither the pioneers themselves nor their admirers and their critics have sufficiently understood how much individual independence was sacrificed in order to abstain this consistency of feeling, or how completely it was the product, in the form it assumed, of temporary economic conditions. If we study the Western Democrats as a body of men who, on the whole, responded admirably to the conditions and opportunities of their time, but who were also very much victimized and impoverished by the limited nature of these conditions and opportunities if we study the Western Democrat from that point of view, we shall find him to be the most significant economic and social type in American history.(63)
The Western democrat truly believed that there was a natural harmony between liberty and equality because their individual ambitions rarely strayed beyond their common social standards and prejudices. They defended the right of self-determination but at the same time their circumstances did not permit specialization or narrow expertise. As Croly relates, 'In that country it was a sheer waste to spend much energy upon tasks which demanded skill, prolonged experience, high technical standards, or exclusive devotion."(64) Individual freedom was really an illusion on the frontier since the application of their different faculties never rendered any significant individual distinctions. The pioneer possessed a remarkable ability to do many things, but this always came at the cost of doing any one thing particularly well.
The Western democrats' misconceptions about liberty and equality are best illustrated by their defeat of the National Bank. According to Croly, the Western democrats' misunderstood the utility of the National Bank because they were blinded by their moral conception of democratic life. The National Bank, according to Croly, rendered a necessary service to the nation and it did so by conferring certain exceptional privileges on men of distinguished ability and expertise. Andrew Jackson, however, failed to appreciate the usefulness of the National Bank to the nation because he could not bear the privileges it bestowed on certain individuals. In a world principally constituted by equal freedom, the means used by the National Bank were a heretical assault on the moral foundation of democratic life.
For Croly, the National Bank was actually a model of good government.
When we consider how important those services were, and how difficult it has been to substitute any arrangement, which provides as well both flexible and a stable currency and for the articulation of the financial services were, and how difficult it has been to substitute any arrangement, which provides as well both a flexible and stable currency and for the articulation of the financial operations of the Federal Treasury with those of the business of the country, it does not look as if the emoluments and privileges of the Bank were disproportionate to its services.(58)
The National Bank supplied an official place in democratic life for the elite. It was a model for good government because it utilized talent and expertise for the good of the nation as a whole. For Croly, the National Bank rendered useful services that were proportionate to the exceptional privileges it permitted. It is this pragmatic give and take between the conferral of political privilege on the prudent and intelligent and the bestowal of useful services that makes the National Bank a model of political life. Jackson's elimination of the Bank illustrates how an excessive moralizing in democracy can recklessly destroy the pragmatism necessary for sustaining democratic life and for contributing to the common improvement of mankind. The Western Democrats' moral enthusiasm prevented them from recognizing what was actually in their own interest. Democracy is more than just a form of government, it aims at the common improvement of the human condition. To realize this vision requires a pragmatic disposition towards political life that can accept useful services despite their undemocratic appearance.
According to Croly, the Western democrats thought that the advantages gained by wealth would be eliminated by the removal of the National Bank. "The Western Democrat devoutly believed that an approximately equal division of the good things of life would result from the possession by all American citizens of equal legal rights and similar economic opportunities."(59) Though Croly does not offer any empirical evidence that the removal of the Bank was economically harmful to the nation, his contemporary reader would be expected to see that the recent debates over the national currency were a direct result of the absence of a national institution for the organization of the nation's financial operations. The destruction of the National Bank did not lead to a more egalitarian polity, but instead to greater economic and social inequality.
From the Western Democrat, contemporary democrats have adopted the formers provincialism, their hostility to the interference of the national government, and the primacy of individual freedom. In other words, the problem with contemporary reformers is that they are too moral; they do not think before they demand political action. The reform efforts have mounted few real achievements in the cause of reform because they still believe like the pioneer that liberty and equality are naturally harmonious and that reform should aim at leaving the individual alone. But if we see the pioneer as the illustration of a "social type" rather than a real political alternative we can understand that his point of view was not a real option for reform. "The substantially equal distribution of wealth, which was characteristic of the American society of their own day, was far more fundamental in their system of political and social ideas than was the machinery of liberty whereby it was secured." The political vision of the Western democrat was made plausible by economic and social conditions of which he was not in conscious control.
There was an opposition to the heirs of Jefferson by the heirs of Hamilton, the Whigs. Like the Hamiltonians, the Whigs were the men of "intelligence" who opposed the political recklessness of their opponent's social egalitarianism and sought national improvements by means of the national consolidation of brain power. But the Whigs faired even more poorly against democracy than Hamilton. Though Hamilton never fully synthesized the elements of American politics because of his hostility to the democracy, he had managed to both strengthen America's political institutions and to establish a system of programs for the consolidation of the national government. The Whigs, on the other hand, not only failed to improve on the consolidation of national power, but they failed to preserve the existing national institutions created by Hamilton.
The difference between Hamilton and the Whigs was that Hamilton was absolutely confident that his ideas were good for the nation. The Whigs, according to Croly, lacked this confidence. While Hamilton may have ultimately failed because he did not convince the public to acquiesce in his thought, he achieved something because he did not care that the people did not appreciate his work.
The Whigs, however, were not as confident about their judgement because they felt the need to compete for the public's approval against the Western democrats. In opposition to the Western democrats, the Whigs hoped to offer an alternative synthesis between democracy and nationalism that would combine the superior leadership of men of specialized talents and abilities with public support. But their synthesis failed to combine an absolute confidence in the superiority of their own judgement with a loyal following by the public.
Their failure is likewise illustrated in the defeat of the National Bank. Of the Whig campaign to save the Bank, Croly explains:
[The Whig leaders] began the fight with the support of public opinion, and with the prestige of an established and useful institution in their favor; but the campaign was conducted with such little skill that in the end they were defeated. Far from being able to advance the policy of national consolidation, they were unable even to preserve existing national institutions, and their conspicuous failure in this crucial instance was due to their inability to keep public opinion convinced of the truth that the Bank was really organized and maintained in the national interest.(68)
The Whig's political defeat is a reminder of how vulnerable intelligent thought is in face of democratic opposition. The Whigs presupposed that merely having a good institution that rendered valuable services to the nation would make those institutions a permanent fixture in national politics. They did not have the incentive to ambitiously develop the resources of the national government. The Whigs, therefore, did not have Hamilton's confidence in the primacy of intellectual leadership because they did not have before them a constant reminder of the potential dangers of democracy. By presupposing the support of public opinion for the Bank, the Whigs realized the consequence of their complacence, but only when it was too late.
Sensing their political weakness, the Whigs opted for the role once played by the Jeffersonian Republicans looking for and finding political compromises at the cost of sacrificing their convictions.
Under their guidance the national policy became a policy of conciliation and compromise at any cost, and the national idea was deprived of consistency and dignity. It became equivalent to a hodge-podge of policies and purposes, the incompatibility of whose ingredients was concealed behind a smooth crust of constitutional legality and popular acquiescence.(71)
The Whigs, according to Croly, deceived themselves in thinking that political compromises would sustain the primacy of the national government in directing the affairs of the nation. Instead, by subordinating their ideas to political expediency, their ideas became meaningless and bereft of force and energy.
In one sense, the Whigs were very similar to Hamilton. They appealed to the people only as an expedient route to protecting their interests. The Whigs, therefore, did not really believe in the idea of democracy; it was simply for them a matter of political convenience. Like Hamilton, the Whigs were suspicious of the place of democracy in American politics and, consequently, they did not take democracy seriously.
The failure of the Whigs, however, was different than Hamilton's failure. Unlike Hamilton's absolute confidence in the superiority of his ideas, the Whigs lacked the confidence to strongly insist on their own superiority. Fearing that their ideas may not prevail, the Whigs were forced to pander to the public for their self-preservation. The more the Whigs realized the formidable status of democracy, the less they acted like the nation's elite.
The history of the Western Democrats and the Whigs provides yet another feature in Croly's analysis of America's complicated political psychology. For Croly, the synthesis of democracy and nationalism, of liberty and Union, is also a synthesis of the intellectual and moral elements of political life. Though it may not be impossible for the contemporary public to imitate the moral unity of pioneer life on the frontier, Croly suggests that democratic reform does require some shared moral commitment to the nation. The chief problem in American politics since the passage of the frontier is the absence of some substitute for the "homogeneous social intercourse" present among the pioneers.
Americans are divided from one another much more than they during the Middle Period by differences of interest, of intellectual outlook, of moral and technical standards, and of manner of life. Grave inequalities of power and deep-lying differences of purpose have developed in relation of the several; primary activities. The millionaire, the "Boss," the union laborer, and the lawyer, have all taken advantage of the loose American political organization to promote somewhat unscrupulously their own interests, and to obtain the special resources of power and profit at the expense of a wholesome national balance.(PAL 138)
For Croly, the reform of democracy requires the consent of the public, but a socially fragmented public cannot genuinely consent to a common goal of reform. Unlike the natural commitment of the Western Democrat to the national interests, contemporary America requires the self-conscious invention of a social bond that will provide a similar moral consistency to democratic life. The elite, on the other hand, must avoid the example of the Whigs, by resisting the temptation to pander to the public in support of their own reform interests. Genuine reform requires the combination of the intellectual superiority of the Whigs with the moral enthusiasm of the Western democrats. While the problem with the Western Democrats was their shallow and self-contradictory understanding of national government, the downfall of great Whig minds like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay was that they "were men of national ideas but of something less than national feeling."(PAL 70)
One problem quickly revealed the inadequacy in the ideas of the Western Democrats and the Whigs. Both parties acknowledged that slavery was an embarrassment to both the moral integrity of democracy and to national honor. But when the issue of slavery began to require national attention neither party possessed the resources to resolve it. The Western democrats would have vehemently opposed the destruction of the Union over slavery, but at the same time they believed that perplexing problems like slavery were best ignored in order to reap the benefits of freedom and self-determination. The Whigs, according to Croly, were even more shameful in evading the issue of slavery because they were the more thoughtful party. But the Whigs lacked the requisite moral courage to deal seriously with such a democratic perversion. Consequently, their intellectual energy was mostly expended on "meaningless compromises" designed to skirt the problem of slavery in order to deal with other national issues. Croly concedes that a solution to the problem of slavery would have been very complicated if not impossible, but the fact that neither party attempted to deal with the problem illustrates how inadequate both parties were. For Croly, then, the proper relationship of democracy and nationalism is not a mere intellectual inquiry, but a serious political concern for the nation as a whole.
Croly admits that his history is not that of a historian. Rather, his account of American political development is designed to give both the public and the elite a common interest in Progressive reform. For Croly, the reform movements would only be successful if great political leaders were permitted the flexibility to bring the arm of government within reach of the escalating complexity of industrial and corporate growth. To do this, political leaders required some license to step outside of the traditional legal and moral norms in American democracy. In fact, great minds would only be attracted to government if they are permitted to exercise their own genius without these traditional restrictions. But, for Croly, democracy cannot be improved unless these changes are done with the consent of the people. In order to bring these two groups together Croly offers this "interpretation" of the American political tradition. Our tradition, according to Croly, is not really a tradition that emphasizes law and rights, but rather it is a sort of dialogue between the moral requirements of democracy and the practical requirements of government. Both the public and political leadership share a common interest in the amelioration of human life. Politics, therefore, cannot be accounted for in a set of legal norms or civil rights; instead, it is a means towards human perfection. "For better or worse, democracy cannot be disentangled from an aspiration towards human perfectibility, and hence from the adoption of measures looking in the direction of realizing such an aspiration." (PAL 454) Since all human beings share the same interest in human perfection, it is possible for the elite to serve democracy without violating the people's consent, while it is also possible for the public to acknowledge that the elite are better able to rule and ought to be provided with the requisite flexibility to do their work.
Croly criticizes America for its "optimism" and "fatalism," but it is Croly who in the end here verges on the extreme of optimism and fatalism. If it is true that all human beings share a common interest in human perfection, there is very little evidence in American history that this minimizes the conflict among competing interests. Why then does Croly's desire to give greater scope for expertise and prudent leadership ultimately rest on an extremely optimistic and grandiose conception of humanity? The reason, I believe, is that in order to liberate political reasoning from the limitations of law, one has to assume that human beings are capable of political cooperation without any of the terror of law. The Progressives commonly regarded American law as an obstacle to the improvement of democratic government. One example of their legacy can be seen not in the constitution of modern regulatory agencies but in the manner of thinking that often guides the operation of those agencies. Rather than enforcing the rule of law, administrative agencies wait until they determine some corporate activity harms the public interest. Of course, it is unfair to put someone in jail for violating an unwritten obligation, so the agency begins by bargaining and only goes so far as to levy a fine. For a while, it seemed Croly's optimism about political cooperation absent law was justified; that is until corporations found it more profitable to treat fines as licensing fees and continue the violations. In the last few months we have seen corporate executives prosecuted and imprisoned under nothing more than the provisions for common law fraud. It may be that the Progressives' optimism has worn-out.
1 There is very little scholarly treatment of Croly's historical sketch of American political development despite the fact that Croly's historical survey takes up the major proportion of the book. The reason, I believe, is that most scholars simply assume that it is simply window-dressing in Croly's typically long-winded attempt to get to a substantive point. However, it is important to note that an extensive historical analysis of American politics was common among the majority of Progressives. Why an extensive analysis of history was so important to the Progressives seems essential to understanding how they conceived the significance of their reform agenda. (Return)
2 One of the very few things Croly praises in the "text" of the Constitution is the institution of the Supreme Court. But this praise itself turns out to be a Trojan horse. The Supreme Court was a positive contribution to American government because it instituted a place for the flexible interpretation of the text. Croly does not suggest that the Supreme Court is the legal custodian of the written Constitution, rather, he endorses the Supreme Court for its potential to transcend the written word through interpretation. (Return)