`The Promise Of American Life'

WHAT is ``the promise of American life''?

Our political debate keeps coming back to this question, though with changing terms of reference, because many Americans believe there is a profound promise. The very idea of American nationality involves one.

The phrase, ``the promise of American life,'' comes from Herbert Croly, the progressive philosopher and journalist, who founded the New Republic. It is the title he gave to a brilliant and far-seeing book on United States political development, published in 1909. For Mr. Croly, the promise was an ever-more fulfilling and fulfilled life for each citizen. The American nation had been erected not on a common ethnicity, but on the commitment embodied in the Declaration of Independence. It offered, in Croly's words, ``the highest hope for an excellent worldly life that mankind has yet ventured, the hope that men can be improved without being fettered, that they can be saved without even vicariously being nailed to the cross.''

As Croly saw things in 1909, the US could take satisfaction in progress it had made. ``Americans have been more than usually prosperous,'' he wrote. ``They have been more than usually free.'' And from the individual opportunity thus conferred, though no wiser or otherwise better than their counterparts abroad, Americans had achieved ``a higher level of individual and social excellence.''

Nonetheless, ``The Promise of American Life'' is anything but a complacent book. Croly saw the promise as a restless, never-ending search. He understood the magnitude of what was implied in the country's unbounded commitment to the individual. Each citizen is promised real opportunity to achieve distinction and equality before the law - goals so demanding as to remain always somewhat unfulfilled. But the promise of American life goes further still. The ultimate goal, in the words of John Crozier, a Canadian historian Croly much admired, is ``the distinct raising of the entire body of [the] people to a higher level, and so [bringing] civilization a stage nearer its goal.''

Each generation of Americans has had to overcome, Croly thought, distinctive obstacles to advancing the national idea. In the years of the country's founding, the great challenge lay in translating the Declaration's call into workable governmental practice. Unlike most of his fellow progressives, Croly sided with the federalists over the anti-federalists, with Hamilton over Jefferson. The sense of an American nation with rich promise, already tangible in what John Adams called ``the minds and hearts of the people,'' needed vigorous national political institutions.

The next great challenge came in eradicating slavery. Croly saw that institution precisely as Abraham Lincoln had. It was not only wrong - it was corrosive of the idea on which the US was built. ``Popular sovereignty,'' which held that the future of slavery could be resolved through the choice of local majorities - the principal response of Jacksonian democracy - had to end in bitter failure, Croly insisted. Lincoln ultimately carried the country with the argument that a stark choice between slavery and the Declaration could not be avoided. He thus redeemed the promise of American life.

The big challenge in Croly's own day was the response to vast changes that accompanied America's transformation from a rural and agricultural to an urban and industrial nation. Industrial nation-building offered resources that could enhance prosperity and individual opportunity, Croly thought. He welcomed it. He dismissed as good-hearted bunglers contemporary leaders such as William Jennings Bryan, who saw the country's best days in a Jeffersonian-Jacksonian past. But, he argued, the new promise required a larger role for government in a far-flung economy no longer susceptible to personal control. He backed expansion of national government to extend individual opportunity, the approach embodied in Theodore Roosevelt's ``New Nationalism.'' More than anyone, he anticipated Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

As we look back, the responses Croly championed seem necessary, even inevitable. Of course the equality and opportunity promised in American nationhood required a national government sufficient to their advancement. Of course slavery was incompatible with the Declaration's promise. And, of course, the greater abundance and the expansion of individual opportunity which technological change offered required that industrialization serve democratic ends.

But where are we today? What do we most need to do to advance what Croly called ``the highest hope of an excellent worldly life''? Where does the health-care debate fit? Or the right balance of governmental action and individual initiative? How should we respond to the problems that beset a large segment of family life? Most Americans evidently believe, however they might depict it, that we are falling short in meeting today's challenges.

I think that Croly, while not giving the answers, establishes the right framework. As in his day, we believe that American life should aspire to enlarged individual opportunity and fulfillment. As in the past, we recognize that this individualism requires a coherent national response. And, Croly reminds us, today's obstacles to realizing the promise of American life are never the same as yesterday's. Only the ultimate end - fuller individuality through energetic national action - is unchanging.

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