Natural Rights And Herbert Croly

Natural Rights And Herbert Croly

“They did it, no doubt, in the name of democracy; but of all perverted conceptions of democracy, one of the most perverted and dangerous is that which identifies it exclusively with a system of natural rights” (Croly 81). To Herbert Croly, in his book The Promise of American Life, God or nature cannot secure individual rights. The entire nation, as a whole, must work to make sure that all of the people have equal rights and equal opportunity.

The American people’s loyalty to the idea of democracy, as they understand it, cannot be questioned. But what it means to them is more of an idea of popular sovereignty. The will of the people determines what the government should or should not do. For Croly, democracy means much more than just popular sovereignty. Although “there can be no democracy where the people do not rule,” a “government by the people is not necessarily democratic” (Croly 179). While individual freedom is important, the whole of a nation must create the future; thus no one person can do it. For this to work there must be equal rights for all individuals.

“A community in which no man or no group of men are granted by law any advantage over their fellow-citizens is the type of the perfect and fruitful democratic state” (Croly 180). The majority of Americans would contend that this arrangement is perfectly fine. Individuals are free to pursue the interests that they want, and all individuals can enjoy any liberties that one person enjoys. Under this arrangement, there should be no room for permanent legal privileges for any class of citizens. Equality is then associated with individual rights, when in reality individual rights do not always mean equality in receiving such rights.

The natural rights philosophy clearly won’t work for Croly. God or nature does not give equal rights and equal opportunity to all. Although all are born with the same rights, not all people are born with ways to attain these rights. Equal rights do not mean equal resources. Americans who believe in the notion of an equal start are “wholly blind to the fact that under a legal system which holds private property sacred there may be equal rights, but there cannot possibly be any equal opportunities for exercising such rights” (Croly 181). Comparative material conditions dramatically affect opportunities. In the current system, a person who is born to privilege starts with an advantage over others born at the same time.

So then, how can a society be built with true equality if natural rights won’t do? Revere those that have truly made it on their own, and have lived the American dream. Those who have merely used the privileges they were born with to achieve the same goals should not be congratulated. Privileges do not translate into rights. Men who are “naturally disposed to be envious and suspicious of others more fortunate than themselves come to confuse their suspicions with a duty to society” (Croly 184). This confusion shifts the blame of American social development from the vagueness of America’s fundamental development, to different social groups. Those that have more money, or are better looking, or live in a different part of town are playing unfair. Instead a truly democratic society must rely on an underlying unity.

Democracy “cannot prevail unless the individuals composing it recognize mutual ties and responsibilities which lie deeper than any differences of interest and idea” (Croly 185). It is not God’s divine will that makes men equal. Men make men equal. Individuals must come together in a sort of brotherhood if they are to be truly free to pursue their destiny. Narrow-mindedness and selfishness must be transformed for genuine equality to exist. For equal rights and equal opportunity to coincide, individuals must be empowered to do their best. To do so would require some individual property rights to be given up to the nation. Only by doing this can private ambition and selfishness be changed into brotherhood. In Croly’s mind only liberty can overcome selfishness, and liberty and thus equality can only come from a nation united in itself. To create a true brotherhood of men, a new Declaration of Independence must be written.

The existing Declaration as is only says that rights are self-evident; it does not say that rights are self-attaining. “The idea of a constructive relation between American nationality and American democracy is in truth equivalent to a new Declaration of Independence. It affirms that the American people are free to organize their political, economic, and social life in the service of a comprehensive, lofty, and far-reaching democratic purpose” (Croly 278). If nothing is done to change the fabric of the United States citizen, then the “independence of spirit vanishes” (Croly 279). For the American people, this point may soon be approaching.

“They must either seize the chance of a better future, or else become a nation which is satisfied in spirit merely to repeat indefinitely the monotonous measures of its own past” (Croly 279). The national government is responsible for the social improvement of its people, but the people must stand united behind the government for it to work. Popular sovereignty is essential to the democratic process; people in themselves, however, are not sovereign so popular sovereignty must then mean “national sovereignty” (Croly 280). The people are sovereign “in so far as they are united in spirit and in purpose; and they are united in so far as they are loyal one to another, to their joint past, and to the Promise of their future” (Croly 280). For democracy to work, people must work together for this Promise and possibly give up pieces of their past or give up wishes for their future. Democracy is not simply the creation and exercising of rights; it has to be a collaborative effort of brotherhood for all people.

Natural rights are simply unchecked individualism and selfish attachments to private property. True and equal rights are not something that nature can give individuals. The belief that rights are given in such a way is destructive to the fabric of American democracy. If the public only believes that rights are given and can be associated with privilege, no one will work for true equality. Men must come together and strive to achieve their goals through helping each other; they must all meet their goals by starting on equal ground. When one individual makes it, he or she should be praised above all others and held up as an example of what true freedom can do. “The common citizen can become something of a saint and something of a hero, not by growing to heroic proportions in his own person, but by the sincere and enthusiastic limitations of heroes and saints, and whether or not he will ever come to such imitation will depend upon the ability of his exceptional fellow-countrymen to offer him acceptable examples of heroism and saintliness” (Croly 454).


1.Croly, Herbert. The Promise of American Life. New Jersey: Transaction

Publishers, 1993.

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