The Promise of American Life eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 620 pages of information about The Promise of American Life.
or military success were no longer the best roads to public distinction.  Men became renowned and distinguished quite as much, if not more, for achievements in their private and special occupations.  Along with leadership of statesmen and generals, the American people began to recognize that of financiers, “captains of industry,” corporation lawyers, political and labor “bosses,” and these gentlemen assumed extremely important parts in the direction of American affairs.  Officially, the new leaders were just like any other American citizen.  No titles could be conferred upon them, and their position brought with it no necessary public responsibilities.  Actually, however, they exercised in many cases more influence upon American social and political economy than did the official leaders.  They were an intrusion, into the traditional economic political and social system, for which no provision had been made.  Their special interests, and the necessities of their special tasks, made their manner of life different from that of other American citizens, and their peculiar opportunities enabled them to appropriate an unusually large share of the fruits of American economic development.  Thus they seriously impaired the social and economic homogeneity, which the pioneer believed to be the essential quality of fruitful Americanism.



Before seeking to trace the consequences and the significance of this specialized organization of American practical affairs, we must examine its origin with some care.  An exact and complete understanding thereof will in itself afford an unmistakable hint of the way in which its consequences are to be appraised, and wherever necessary, corrected.  The great and increasing influence of the new unofficial leaders has been due not only to economic conditions and to individual initiative, but to the nature of our political ideas and institutions.  The traditional American theory was that the individual should have a free hand.  In so far as he was subject to public regulation and control such control should be exercised by local authorities, whereof the result would be a happy combination of individual prosperity and public weal.  But this expectation, as we have seen, has proved to be erroneous.  While it has, indeed, resulted in individual prosperity, the individual who has reaped most of the prosperity is not the average, but the special man; and however the public may have benefited from the process, the benefit is mixed with so many drawbacks that, even if it may not be wholly condemned, it certainly cannot be wholly approved.  The plain fact is that the individual in freely and energetically pursuing his own private purposes has not been the inevitable public benefactor assumed by the traditional American interpretation of democracy.  No doubt he has incidentally accomplished, in the pursuit of his own aggrandizement, certain manifest public benefits; but wherever public and private advantages have conflicted, he has naturally preferred the latter.  And under our traditional political system there was, until recently, no effective way of correcting his preference.

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The Promise of American Life from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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