“I believe in America” are the first words of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Even in the worst times of American life, and the 1970s was one of them, Americans have had a unique faith in their country. This comes not from our government’s strength or resources, but rather from our ambitious character.

Ambition weaves together several characteristics that explain America: optimism about the future, self-confidence, hard work, entrepreneurialism, and idealism. Together they form a passion that is unparalleled in any other country, and one of the core components of American exceptionalism. Ambition is ingrained in American history; it remains central to both the American experience and the American myth. America without ambition would be how Gay Talese described Frank Sinatra having a cold: like a Ferrari without fuel.

In today’s essay, I trace ambition’s rise and fall from popularity, and its restoration to importance, from the founding era to the Reagan presidency. Tomorrow I argue that the ambition guiding the current generation of young adults is stale, and suggest that President Obama’s appeal came from his ambition to bridge ordinary goals with extraordinary ones.

The Roots of American Ambition

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Of the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin is most associated with ambition. At age seventeen, he ran away from his printer’s apprenticeship in established Boston to livelier Philadelphia. In his new city Franklin became a savvy networker, a social organizer, and soon enough a successful printer in his own right. In midlife he retired from business for a new career in public service and science.

In his survey of the American character, Making the American Self, Daniel Walker Howe calls Franklin “one of the most famous exemplars of self-construction who ever lived.” A good part of Franklin’s myth can be chalked up to his Autobiography, which is stuffed with self-help instruction. Franklin conceived himself as the archetype for a cultural product of American ambition—the self-made man who teaches the masses how to find success. Franklin’s start as a vagabond is a crucial component of this narrative because it shows the breadth of his ambition—his was the stuff that made constructing a new self possible. Franklin was willing to offer up his secrets of success because they were accessible. This ambition was lofty but populist, and it found its way into American identity and politics.

Alexis de Tocqueville, true to his European heritage, was much more pessimistic about what ambition could accomplish in America. He bought into the Franklin model of self-construction, but not its potential for the masses. He frames the paradox in Democracy in America: “The first thing that strikes one in the United States is the innumerable multitude of those who seek to get out of their original condition; and the second is the small number of great ambitions that make themselves noticed in the midst of this universal movement in ambition.”

Tocqueville claims that Americans are short-sighted in their striving: “All want constantly to acquire goods, reputation, power; few envision all these things on a grand scale.” The culprit in his eyes is American democratic society. It places equality of conditions before all else, which limits ambition’s reach. As people become more like one another, the opportunities for advancement narrow. Material and superficial things become the markers with which to separate oneself from others in a society where the bonds of equality discourage “long-lasting monuments” of achievement.

Because Tocqueville had low expectations for American ambition, he was also pessimistic about its role in politics. He feared that the masses would be taken as easy prey by the politically cunning. “So when the ambitious have power in hand, they believe they can dare all; and when it escapes them, they immediately think of overturning the state to get it back,” he writes. He attributes a “violent, revolutionary character” to political ambition in democracies. Americans marinate in their equality and aren’t prepared to distinguish malicious ambition from the benign kind.

Writing in 1835, Tocqueville failed to see how fluid nineteenth-century American society would become, nor how ambition could mature. As great as the sentiment for equality of conditions was, the fluidity of the American capitalistic system and the race to claim the frontier cut against it.

The monolithic equality Tocqueville saw as casting a long shadow over America gave way to more freedom instead. Howe charts the consequences: “In sum, the expansion of the market economy widened the scope for personal autonomy on a scale previously unparalleled: choice of goods and services to consume, choice of occupations to follow, choice of life styles and identities.” Americans were finding ways to become less like one another and have more influence over their lives. Ambition developed to reflect the maturation of the country. Tocqueville’s interpretation overlooked the story of Franklin and couldn’t anticipate the likes of Andrew Mellon—men whose material ambition morphed into more inspiring second acts of public service.

Americans Accept Their Ambitions           

“Let me introduce myself,” Norman Podhoretz tells the reader in Making It. “I am a man who at the precocious age of thirty-five experienced an astonishing revelation: it is better to be a success than a failure.” Of course, Podhoretz did not mean that he had only then become ambitious, but that he had finally put to rest the ambivalence about ambition that had haunted him all his professional life.

In seizing his opportunities (an education, the editorship of a prestigious magazine, the authority of a public intellectual), Podhoretz realizes that there is all too little acknowledgment of the American Dream in the elite world he has entered. “Ambition seems to be replacing erotic lust as the prime dirty little secret of the well-educated American soul,” he writes. Writing in the mid-1960s, Podhoretz was describing the last throes of the WASP dominance of high society. As an inheritor class, WASPs had to reconcile their fortunes with the leftover obligations of power. The compromise Podhoretz points to is Yeats’s idea of the gentleman: the kind of person who is thought not to be too much occupied with getting on.

Podhoretz did not have the luxury, as a first-generation American, to disdain or dismiss ambition. Making “one of the longest journeys in the world”—from ethnic Brooklyn to white-collar Manhattan—required of him the peace of mind that there was no shame in his efforts and accomplishments.

After a while in the city he learned that “it was possible to achieve cultivation without losing touch with oneself, without doing violence to one’s true feelings, without becoming pompous, pretentious, affected, or false to the realities of one’s own experience—without, in short, becoming a facsimile WASP.” In writing a book about getting to this point, Podhoretz shows how much work it takes to sort through one’s feelings about success. He triumphed over the still-potent and widespread American sentiment that striving was a dark art.

Making It was the rare literary interpretation of ambition that didn’t equivocate and was capable of true honesty on the subject of success. Podhoretz made Ben Franklin’s journey in reverse: He began with grand ambitions in public life, then craved the worldly ones. Though his confessions were shocking at the time, they now stand as a literary watershed between two perspectives on ambition in American life: that it was a sensation to be contained and a virtue to be cultivated.

The Trials of Ambition in Politics

As the civic unrest of the 1960s was followed by the economic turmoil of the 1970s, it was harder to believe that ambition worked well for America.

“These are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem,” said Lyndon Johnson, probably the twentieth century’s most politically ambitious president, following his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964. Four years later he walked away from the White House, spent from the protracted misadventure in Vietnam and his hard-won victory in implementing the Great Society. His successor Richard Nixon, like Johnson a cauldron of ambitions, followed his own massive electoral victory by resigning in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

The low point for ambition in American politics was Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech. Before the lights could go out on the seventies, he summed up a decade of stagflation, recession, war, political scandals, labor strikes, gas lines, and bad taste with this insightful conclusion: The glum national mood was the fault of the American people rather than its leaders.

“It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will,” Carter said. “We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” Never before had an American president attempted to psychoanalyze the public as Carter did. Rather than taking explicit blame for his own presidential mistakes or extrapolating lessons from the failures of his predecessors, Carter reprimanded the American people. The crisis of confidence was brought on by their materialism, not the government.

Carter called for a sacrifice of personal ambitions for the nation. His policy proposals in the speech—mandatory conservation of energy, gas rationing, quotas on oil imports—asked for this directly. He blamed high oil prices on Americans’ “dependency” on foreign oil and announced that as president “I will lead our fight, and I will enforce fairness in our struggle, and I will ensure honesty.”

Tom Wolfe had dubbed the seventies the “Me Decade” in 1976 and the charge was fair. But materialism was the effect and not the cause of the crisis of confidence. Americans turned inward because they didn’t like what they saw on the outside.

Unlike Carter, Ronald Reagan believed in the persistence of the American character. A lesson he took from the seventies was that the American people were okay; it was the elites (particularly the ones in Washington) who were sick. Carter convened a summit before the malaise speech to hear the ideas of ordinary people; Reagan did it every day by reading his mail. He understood that renewing confidence in the nation started with restoring it in the American self.

Self-confidence played an important role in the economic philosophy Reagan had fully embraced by 1980. Supply-side theory, an updated version of classical economics, views the producer as the protagonist of the economy. Prosperity is determined by the level of production in the economy, rather than demand, and policies that encourage it will lift economic growth. This model depends upon the willingness and ability of entrepreneurs to take the risks necessary to start productive ventures.

George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty best explained the human dynamics of this model of capitalism. It did for American capitalism in 1981 what Making It had done for personal success in 1967: provide an unashamed but moral defense of an idea not in vogue. “Capitalism has been presented as a transitory and conditional compromise: The worst possible system, as Churchill once said of democracy, except for all the others,” he wrote.

The moral virtue Gilder found most impressive in capitalism was the faith in the system and society it requires. It asks the entrepreneur to put in the work before the reward. It demands that he trust a wide array of people—employees, customers, neighbors—in running his venture. Because the returns are greatest on the capitalization of labor, as opposed to inherited or corporate wealth, the system also rewards the ambitious. Entrepreneurial capitalism is deeply personal because it requires so much of the person not just in labor but also in emotional commitment. It asks for ambition, confidence, and faith that you can dive in and come up on the other side.

Wealth and Poverty became part of the Reaganomics canon because it focused on the bright side of the human story in capitalism. This was an important demarcation for the Reagan administration in the 1980s from Carter’s foray into the dark side of capitalism (materialism) in the 1970s. In promoting pro-entrepreneurial economic policies, Reagan signaled the end of shaming capitalism. He also understood, as Gilder implied in his book, that entrepreneurial capitalism is the kind most suitable for America.

Whereas most of the capitalist systems around the world make wealth dependent upon government connections, in the United States wealth tends to flow from the merit, ingenuity, hard work, and ambition of the people. For too long, while the nation was confronting all the problems of the seventies, there hadn’t been much defense of these traits, especially the last one. But the public’s acceptance of Reagan’s interpretation of American capitalism—that it was deeply connected to the virtues and passions of the American self—proved that it had finally buried its misgivings about ambition.