Ambition, A History: From Vice to Virtue
From rags to riches, log house to White House, enslaved to liberator, ghetto to CEO, ambition fuels the American Dream. Americans are driven by ambition. Yet at the time of the nation's founding, ambition was viewed as a dangerous vice, everything from "a canker on the soul" to the impetus for original sin. This engaging book explores ambition's surprising transformation, tracing attitudes from classical antiquity to early modern Europe to the New World and America's founding. From this broad historical perspective, William Casey King deepens our understanding of the American mythos and offers a striking reinterpretation of the introduction to the Declaration of Independence.
Through an innovative array of sources and authors—Aquinas, Dante, Machiavelli, the Geneva Bible, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, and many others—King demonstrates that a transformed view of ambition became possible the moment Europe realized that Columbus had discovered not a new route but a new world. In addition the author argues that reconstituting ambition as a virtue was a necessary precondition of the American republic. The book suggests that even in the twenty-first century, ambition has never fully lost its ties to vice and continues to exhibit a dual nature, positive or negative depending upon the ends, the means, and the individual involved.
Syres.16 Condemnation of ambition is most virulent among those most invested in mitigating its potentially challenging nature. Consider, for example, William Herbert (alternatively “Harbart”), Third Earl of Pembroke. Herbert was chancellor of the University of Oxford and later one of the founders of Pembroke College, Oxford. He was also a patron of Shakespeare. He also wrote poetry, and in his England’s Sorrow of 1606 he describes ambition as an Inhumane monster, borne of Adam’s pride, Eves
those who wrote of ambition as sin suggested that ambition was a vice of excess, Bacon applied this theological concept to theories of medical science. Choler makes men “active” and “earnest.” But let us return to the qualifier at the end of the characterization, “if it not be stopped.” To Bacon ambition is both part of human nature, a part that must be given an outlet, an object. Ambition must be drawn off, given an outlet, released: “So, ambitious men, if they find the way open for their
“find their way open.” This suggestion is later clarified. Bacon’s intention is clear, as is his explicit redefinition of ambition as a quality that can, in fact, be beneficial to the state. This is the origin of the “private vice, public virtue” paradigm that has traditionally, and incorrectly, been associated only with the eighteenth century. It is also a watershed in ambition’s trajectory. From vice to two-headed passion: “He that seeketh to be eminent amongst able men hath a great task; but
done unto him.”180 Their participation did not include “subduing” the land through cultivation, and therefore their presence could be discounted, as could their ownership. The Presbyterian Scots-Irish also used the Bible to denounce the Delaware Indians, who they believed were guilty of ignoring the Parable of the Talents.181 The Delawares had no right to their land because of their failure to improve it. The Spanish and English were superior by virtue of their comparative excellence, as judged
Letters of Richard Henry Lee, vol. 1, ed. James Curtis Ballagh (New York: MacMillan, 1911), 211. 8. Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, vol. 1 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1948), 222. 9. I am referring here to Jefferson’s sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. For years, mainstream historians refuted this suggestion as a near impossibility. DNA evidence later substantiated the claim. See Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998).