Personal Success vs. Public Service

What’s the Debate?

Throughout our history, American society has held up two competing values for young people as they chart their future direction. Should they prioritize personal goals, seeking wealth and individual success, often called the “liberal ethos”? Or should they dedicate themselves to public service and the common good, as the republican worldview advocates? Perpetually in tension, these traditions have been integral to the development of American society and reflect important philosophical influences on the Founding Fathers.

What’s the Backstory?

Liberalism emerged from the writings of John Locke and Adam Smith, who emphasized the pursuit of self-interest as the best way to create a prosperous society. For Locke, “life, liberty, and property”—or “the pursuit of happiness” in Thomas Jefferson’s version—were the fundamental rights of a free society. Likewise, Adam Smith believed that if everyone pursues his or her own interest through the free market, the resulting competition will create wealth for the entire society. The republican tradition was just as important in shaping the Founders’ values. Drawing on classical Roman sources, James Madison and John Adams hoped that virtue and public service would provide the basis of citizenship, tempering personal freedom with dedication to the greater good of the republic. As the nation expanded west and its economy thrived over the next 200 years, individual citizens strived to balance these competing claims, much as young people today attempt to balance the desire for personal success with a sense of responsibility to their community and society as a whole.

An Example of the Debate

The progressive reformer Jane Addams, an important pioneer in the field of social work, offers an interesting case study for how to merge these divergent values effectively. Addams was born in 1860 into a well-to-do family in Freeport, Illinois, where her father John was a successful mill owner active in state and local politics. John Addams was an avid supporter of Abraham Lincoln and believed, like Lincoln, in the republican unity of small-town life even as he prospered handsomely from the expanding economy in frontier Illinois. Jane greatly admired her father, and took seriously his commitment to both liberal and republican values—providing for his family even as he served the local community as a state senator and leading citizen. When Jane left in 1877 to attend Rockford Seminary, among the first women’s colleges in the U.S., she had ambitions to follow in his footsteps. However, she faced considerable obstacles to achieving this because of her gender: in the 1880s, even a middle-class woman like Jane Addams could not vote, hold office, or even own property in most states.

Her path was interrupted soon after she graduated college in 1881 by the death of her father. Already facing an uncertain professional future, the loss of her father plunged Jane into a prolonged depression compounded by physical ailments. Her nervous exhaustion, diagnosed at the time as “neurasthenia,” was not uncommon for educated middle-class women during this period, pointing to a larger crisis of purpose among these women. As she recovered, Jane was not content to adopt the social responsibilities of a dutiful Victorian wife; a life of card games, parlor visits, and opera-going had never been her ambition. After years of illness and doubt, she conceived of a plan daring in its originality, which also put her at odds with the rest of her family. With several close friends from college, she decided to open a settlement house, called Hull-House, in the poor immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago. The Settlement Movement had begun in the working-class slums of London as an outlet for educated middle-class men and women to share their privileged educations with struggling families through classes, dinners, cultural events, and advocacy. In a time before the government provided social services, settlement workers became an important channel between the poverty of the urban masses and the wealthy classes who benefited from the industrial economy. For Addams, it was important to experience “how the other half lived” to help heal the stark divide of inequality in society. But for personal reasons, it also helped fulfill her need for purpose.

How Did the Debate Play Out?

A few years into the Hull-House experiment, Addams described how she conceived of her work for a gathering of settlement workers. This widely read lecture, “The Subjective Necessity of Social Settlements,” makes the surprising argument that it was not just good deeds that drove Addams’s desire to improve conditions in the crowded cities. It also came from a subjective need, both physical and emotional, to break free from the isolated existence of her affluent family life. Ironically, Addams argued, despite their advantages and education, many young men and women of her generation felt that they were living “destitute lives” without meaning or purpose. Addams goes further, expressing her mission in republican terms. In learning about the culture of neighborhood residents on their own terms rather than impose her own ideas, she created a civic connection between her and the residents. She also hoped to model good citizenship through the example of her work, realizing democracy through everyday encounters and dialogue.

What Was the Result?

Addams’s essay is still valuable more than century later because of the honesty with which she discussed her subjective needs in pursuing settlement work. Her liberal “pursuit of happiness” involved a search for meaning in the outside world beyond the constraints that her era placed on women. In this respect, Addams was part of a generational shift among progressive women that culminated with women’s suffrage in 1919. Against her family’s claim that she should marry and settle down to Victorian family life, she asserted the social claim of her work – its value not just to society but also to American democracy as a whole. Her search was also republican in its commitment to citizenship and a good higher than the self. Her work called into question how much meaning can be derived from a life dedicated only to wealth and material success. Thus, Addams’s case is a complex intertwining of liberal and republican values that is relevant for students grappling with how they prioritize freedom and purpose. Her example challenges us to clearly define the values that we use to decide our futures.