In 1966 Joseph Schlesinger began his widely acclaimed study on political ambition by identifying the motivation at the core of all politics. He wrote, “Ambition lies at the heart of politics” ( Schlesinger 1966, 1 ). Although political scientists and historians now generally accept Schlesinger's diagnosis as a truism, even at times attributing the origin of the notion to him, the association of ambition and governance predates Schlesinger by millennia.
The English word “ambition” originates from the Latin word ambire, meaning “to aspire or strive.” Ambitio was originally applied in a purely political sense to describe Roman candidates for office who actively solicited or canvassed for votes. It referred exclusively to those in public life. The first use of “ambition” in Latin was value neutral, but it devolved to become vitium, or vice, often described as “corrupt practices in seeking honors, verdicts, graft, and intrigue.” The great Roman historian Titus Livius ( 59/64 BCEa–17 CE ), known as Livy, used ambition in a neutral sense to mean “electioneering,” but he, too, recognized the destructive potential of ambition and used it often to describe political corruption.
Ambition, though often thought of as a secular notion, is found in both Judaism and Christianity. In the Mishna section of the Talmud, the written text of which comes from the Oral Tradition around 200 CE, a section of the tractate focuses specifically on atonement for sin on the day of Yom Kippur. There one finds a Talmudic warning against ambition in Yoma 86, “ambition destroys its possessor.” In Christianity the early Patristic texts suggest what was a vice in antiquity had become a sin in theology.
The word “ambition” finds its way into the first extant English text in 1449. English bishop Reginald Pecock ( ca. 1395–c. 1461 ) writes of “vices [such] as pride, ambition, and vainglory.” Some fifty years later, Italian politician Niccolo Machiavelli ( 1469–1527 ) identified ambition as a “fury” that deprives people of peace and causes war, and was responsible for spurring Cain to fratricide against his brother Abel. But Machiavelli recognized ambition's duality and suggested that ambition could be used productively if harnessed by the state, if instituted under good laws.
By the sixteenth century, the Spanish recognized that ambition could be used as a spur to settlement in their recently claimed New World territories. Spain offered noble title, a hijosdalgo de solar conicido (title of nobility for landowners), and even a coat of arms to those who risked the voyage.
In England, too, some, such as philosopher, statesman, and scientist Francis Bacon ( 1561–1626 ), recognized the utility of harnessing ambition. Bacon, echoing Machiavelli with whom he was familiar, wrote that ambitious men should be bridled to make them less dangerous. But Bacon is in the minority. As the first English ships landed at Jamestown, ambition's association with sin was codified in the margin notes of the Geneva Bible, the dominant biblical translation of the time. In this translation ambition is tied to original sin, witchcraft, and is identified as the antithesis of Christ.
In the new American Republic, ambition, once a sin to be repressed or a dangerous passion to be harnessed for external conquest and colonization, became recognized as an essential feature of the human drive for rank, preferment, political appointment, and governance. But the architects of the new American Republic also recognized that ambition had the potential to destroy their new nation. Drawing on David Hume's theory of countervailing passions, James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” If ambition could not be repressed, or harnessed, then it had to be neutralized by “fighting fire with fire.” The tripartite system of the American government was, in part, driven by a fear of ambition.
Ambition assumed a more positive aspect in America in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Success literature celebrated individuals rising from poverty to power, and the term “self-made man” was coined in 1832. From log house to White House, Abraham Lincoln, the “little engine of ambition,” was elected to the American presidency in 1860. But the meaning of ambition was never unequivocally positive and retained its duality. In 1826 the first American dictionary of Noah Webster ( 1758–1843 ) defined ambition as potentially “positive” or “negative” depending on the ends to which it is applied. But what Webster's dictionary does not capture is that attitudes toward ambition also depended on the individual who dared express it. Generally celebrated in Anglo-Saxon white males, ambition was decried in women, African Americans, and Native Americans. For example, when abolitionist and social reformer Abby Kelley ( 1811–87 ) was named treasurer of the American Anti-Slavery society, American poet John Greenleaf Whittier ( 1807–92 ), an antislavery activist, described her as a “man woman” for daring to assume a leadership position. The term “uppity,” once applied to servants who refused to accept their stations, became increasingly associated with African Americans during Reconstruction and later during segregation. What was celebrated as ambition in the majority culture, became a punishable offense, both legal and extralegal, among African Americans.
The twentieth century witnessed certain milestones in ambition's trajectory from colonial vice to a more pluralistic American virtue. Throughout American history, women expressed ambition through different channels that male politicians deemed “acceptable.” Legal impediments to their right to vote and hold office severely curtailed women's ambition to governance. It was not until 1920 that the Nineteenth Amendment passed, finally allowing women the right to vote.
But women's political participation and ambition to governance continues to be contested ground in the twentyfirst century, and women remain underrepresented at the local, state, and national levels. In 2012 Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox conducted a Citizen Political Ambition Study in an attempt to understand the gender disparity in governance. Their study concluded women are less likely than men to even consider running for office.
They studied political ambition in women after the United States elected its first African American president. To a certain extent, Barack Obama's election may be seen as a referendum on American ambition and a watershed in American attitudes toward it. It represents the rejection of imperial ambition in the wake of Iraq and the celebration of the transformative power of individual ambition in the narrative of the first black president.
That said, from rags to riches, log house to White House, ambition in the twenty-first century retains its centrality in the American mythos. In America people believe that anyone can become anything through effort and industry. In the twentieth century publisher Henry Luce ( 1898–1967 ) captured this ideal when he wrote of the American spirit to which “all of us are called, each to his own measure of capacity, and each in the widest horizon of his vision, to create the first great American Century” ( 1941, 65 ). In the second decade of the twenty-first century, Americans have been shocked by what might be termed a “crisis of ambition.” In the wake of the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression, for many Americans, ambition is seen as a luxury, when survival seems challenging enough. But it may be inevitable that Americans question aspects of their national self when they falter. As in one's life, when things seem to be shaping up not quite as imagined, one looks inward. This momentary and uncharacteristic national introspection becomes paramount, wherein all that constitutes “American-ness,” including ambition, are interrogated most closely. But once Americans recover from this crisis of confidence, they will forget this moment, and ambition will again become inevitable and American, a quality beyond reproach, creating a nation without self-doubt.
SEE ALSO American Dream ; Leadership ; Leadership and Women ; Power ; Separation of Powers .
Bacon, Francis. “Of Ambition.” In Essays, Civil and Moral (1909–14), XXXVI. Bartleby. http://www.bartleby.com/3/1/36.html .
Luce, Henry. “The American Century.” Life (February 17, 1941): 61–5.
Madison, James. “Federalist No. 51.” Constitution Society. June 11, 2015. http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa51.htm .
Schlesinger, Joseph A. Ambition and Politics: Political Careers in the United States. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1966.
William Casey King