Ambition, A History


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From Vice to Virtue

William Casey King

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How ambition, once considered a pernicious vice, became a celebrated virtue that defines American character

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.

William Casey King is executive director of the Yale Center for Analytical Sciences, Yale University. He was previously a Salomon Brothers bond trader and executive director of the W. E. B. DuBois Institute of African and African American Research, Harvard University. He lives in Hamden, CT.

“In this masterpiece of intellectual and cultural history, Casey King brilliantly traces the tensions and profound changes in the meaning of ‘ambition’ from Elizabethan England to the Declaration of Independence. Long associated with sin, vice, avarice, and all threats to social stability, ambition acquired new connotations as the Spanish and English colonized the New World and then compared themselves with Indians and African slaves. Written with clarity and elegance, Ambition, A History combines astonishing sources and discoveries with larger economic and political contexts usually missing from the history of ideas.”—David Brion Davis, author of Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

"Truly ground-breaking, vital, profound, deeply nuanced and subtle. . . one of the most important and original manuscripts I’ve ever read."—John Stauffer, author of Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln


 “Extremely important, deeply researched, very well-written, and, yes, extraordinarily ambitious. . . King offers a compelling explanation of how ambition became transformed from a sin or vice into a potential (if doubled-edged) virtue that could be harnessed for positive ends.”—Steven Mintz, author of Moralists and Modernizers: America's Pre-Civil War Reformers

 "Being ambitious is for better or worse a peculiarly American characteristic. This important book helps us understand where we have been and where we are going at a crucial moment for our culture and our role in the world."—Lawrence H. Summers, Charles W. Eliot University Professor, Harvard University, and former Secretary of the Treasury of the United States
ISBN: 9780300182804
Publication Date: January 29, 2013
256 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
10 b/w illus.