In august 1910, Teddy Roosevelt climbed on top of a kitchen table in Osawatomie, Kans., and gave one of the defining speeches of his life. "Ruin in its worst form is inevitable," he said, "if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism." When he described his solution—a "new nationalism" encompassing greater government involvement in financial markets and social programs—the crowd roared. Before long, TR had launched another presidential campaign.
The "new nationalism" speech is remembered as a high point of the progressive movement, but long forgotten is the 1909 book that gave the speech its name: Herbert Croly's The Promise of American Life. The free reign of laissez-faire capitalism in the 19th century had produced great booms—but also busts, trusts, monopolies, and rapidly growing inequality and dislocations. In Croly's formulation, the people required Hamiltonian means (a strong federal government) to achieve Jeffersonian ends (true democracy). "The trust reposed in individual self-interest has been in some measure betrayed," he said. Both the conservative senator Henry Cabot Lodge and the progressive judge Learned Hand recommended the book to Roosevelt (he was on safari in Africa, naturally). "I shall use your ideas freely," TR wrote to Croly. A century later, as the country debates Wall Street excess, the power of the judiciary, healthcare reform, and the overall economic crisis, it's worth looking back to the progressives' heyday to see where they succeeded and where they failed—and why they cared so much.
Croly was an unlikely hero, of progressivism or anything else. Awkward and shy, he spoke in a near whisper. He edited architectural magazines without much distinction until publishing Promise at the age of 40. It made him a sensation; Hand jokingly called him "the Sun-God." He went on to found The New Republic, which became the organ for the Wilson administration. Despite its warm reception, Promise is often turgid and contradictory. It gets a lot wrong (not least Hamilton, who was more on the side of concentrated wealth than Croly allows), and, in the era before fascism and totalitarianism, overlooks the uglier sides of nationalism and the bureaucratic state. What it says, though, is less important than the attitude in which it was written and read. Croly recognized that there had to be a synthesis of the competing American ideals of liberty and equality. The health of the individual and the nation are intertwined and dependent—and a sick nation requires intervention. Croly refused to accept the idea that "the money-making imperative" had to prevail. The American experiment was about something else. A hundred years ago, the great mass of people embraced this idea, and for a brief period it drove them to fight for legislation that appealed to basic decency: child labor laws, workers' compensation, the expansion of suffrage, anti-corruption measures, health care, etc. Isn't it time for that spirit again?