Digital History

The Progressive Era

Herbert Croly and The Promise of American Life Previous Next
Digital History ID 3135



If any one book can be said to offer a manifesto of Progressive beliefs, it was Herbert Croly's The Promise of American Life. Croly (1869-1930), a political theorist and journalist who founded The New Republic, was Progressivism's preeminent philosopher. Published in 1909, his book argued that Americans had to overcome their Jeffersonian heritage, with its emphasis on minimal government, decentralized authority, and the sanctity of individual freedom, in order to deal with the unprecedented problems of an urban and industrial age. Industrialism, he believed, had reduced most workers to a kind of "wage slavery," and only a strong central government could preserve democracy and promote social progress.

Croly, like most Progressives, was convinced that only a public-spirited, disinterested elite, guided by scientific principles, could restore the promise of American life. Thus, he called for the establishment of government regulatory commissions, staffed by independent experts, to protect American democracy from the effects of corporate power. He also believed that human nature "can be raised to a higher level by an improvement in institutions and laws."

Progressivism in Government

According to Croly, the challenge confronting early 20th century America was to respond to the problems that had accompanied the transformation of American society from a rural, agricultural culture into an urban, industrial society. Filled with faith in the power of government, Progressives launched reform in the areas of public health, housing, urban planning and design, parks and recreation, workplace safety, workers' compensation, pensions, insurance, poor relief, and health care.

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