The first half of The Liberal Tradition in American Thought (G. P. Putnam Sons, 1969), an anthology “selected and edited” by Walter E. Volkomer, is a fine testament to the robust nature of classical liberalism in its heyday in America, up until the Civil War. The second half of the volume is something completely different, a series of progressive and populist perspectives obviously and utterly at variance with the liberal ideas of the rule of law and limited government limned before.
The switch is astounding in its suddenness and extremity.
It marks an about-face.
That the anthologist and his readers could call the first half liberal while bequeathing the same name to the very different second half, is instructive. No wonder the anthologist admits, up front, that “liberalism has been identified with different ideas during different periods of American history.” No kidding.
The first five chapters begin with Roger Williams on religious freedom and end with Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The clear theme is liberty.
The second section of eleven chapters is titled “Anti-Federalism and Jeffersonian Democracy,” and begins with Richard Henry Lee criticizing the proposed Constitution (approved in 1787) and ends with John Taylor of Caroline’s defense of state’s rights. Between these pieces, most of the selections are from Thomas Jefferson.
Taylor’s piece is worth extensive consideration. “I renounce the idea sometimes advanced,” explains Taylor, “that the state governments ever were or continue to be, sovereign or unlimited. If the people are sovereign, their governments cannot also be sovereign.” Obviously, as an advocate of “states’ rights,” Taylor was not an absolutist. First things first, first persons first: citizens before government.
“A government of laws and not of men, is a definition of liberty; a government of men and not of laws, of despotism.” Taylor’s basic argument is that a union of states cannot make one federal branch of government supreme over all others. As a union, each branch of the federal government and each state against the federal government, must have equal power to resist an unconstitutional encroachment by some other state or branch. Citing the oath explicitly worded in the Constitution, Taylor argues that “The mutuality of the oath, by imposing a common duty, implies a common right; because the duty cannot be discharged, except by the right of construction.” This is basically a balance-of-powers notion, expressed in terms of rights and duties, adding in the states to the mix of Legislative, Executive and Judiciary branches of the federal government itself.
No one of these can hold the last word, an over-riding sovereignty, since no state had that to begin with. The states could not and did not confer power and authority that they never had.
This is, at heart, the essence of the liberal idea: it is the individual that matters most; government can only serve and defend rights, not push people around as if all the right focused in government.
The third section deals with Jacksonian democracy. No Locofoco texts. Alas. The fourth focuses on “Freedom and the Union,” with anti-slavery argumentation by William Lloyd Garrison and an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s near-anarchist extension of John Taylor’s individual sovereignty idea. The rest of the section hails from the pen of Abraham Lincoln, writing against slavery and the Dred Scott decision, and for his own party, the Republican Party, “The Party of the Man.” This latter is a fascinating exploration of ideological inversions. It is also mostly incoherent.
The section concludes with Lincoln’s first inaugural address, a fine specimen of nationalism, and a complete repudiation of John Taylor’s approach to the Constitution. “Plainly, the central idea of secession,” Lincoln intoned, “is the essence of anarchy.” The quotations from the Constitution itself are of the vague clauses, and no serious consideration of the federation idea is anywhere in evidence.
The next section is entitled “The Protest Against Social Darwinism,” and excerpts, first, sociologist Lester Frank Ward, who though influential in the long run, was not popular in his day; second, from a speech by Edward Bellamy, the author of the wildly popular utopian science fiction novel Looking Backward, featuring vague talk of brutality and the horrors of “survival of the fittest” while making a pitch for the nationalization of industry; and finally the preamble and declaration of principles of the reform-minded Populist Party.
Our anthologist justifies these inclusions by identifying as “conservative” the character of “Social Darwinism, with it individualistic, competitive, and laissez-faire corollaries,” which “reigned as dominant” in the post-war period.
So, why is this “social Darwinism” conservative? Ostensibly, because it is “business-oriented.”
The silliness of this, considering that laissez-faire was not the traditional policy of American industrialists; the inanity of this, since William Graham Sumner, one of the briefly mentioned Social Darwinists, considered himself (and was considered by others) a liberal. Worse yet, no mention of how similar Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics (1851) was to Henry David Thoreau’s previously essayed liberalism. And Spencer was the very acme of the Social Darwinist mode of the time.
The anthologist relates how Ward refused to . . . Well, let’s quote our guide in full:
Ward accepted the basic evolutionary doctrines of Herbert Spencer, but he refused to apply them to man’s mental processes. His reform Darwinism distinguished between the wasteful, directionless competition of the animal world and man’s mental capacity for controlling his environment.
The fact that Spencer dealt with all these issues in detail gets no mention — indeed, Volkomer does not quote Spencer at all, much less acknowledge that Spencer was a known liberal, pretty much identical to the Thoreau of the excerpted “Civil Disobedience” (Spencer’s chapter “The Right to Ignore the State” is as Thoreauvian as Thoreau could be said to be Spencerian), and that his liberalism included a hearty anti-imperialist and individual liberationist bent. Characteristically, Ward did not consider Spencer’s actual arguments. At least, not in the excerpt from The Psychic Factors of Civilization, which contains the great marching order, “The individual has reigned long enough. The day has come for society to take its affairs into its own hands and shape its own destinies.”
This is technocratic socialism, not liberalism. That is, this is all very “progressive,” since the idea of limits on power goes out the window in the mad rush for “reform.”
And it is worth recalling that today’s lefty “liberals” — mostly now on the same page with the revived term “progressive” — follow Ward in rejecting biological explanations of the human mind and personality. Anti-science; anti-mind.
The rest of the book carries on in much the same vein. There is scant liberty in the liberalism of the second half of the book.
Which echoes what happened to the word “liberal” itself: it got shanghaied by statist reformers who gave their crackpot reform some cachet by glomming on to the old term.
Why? How? Largely, from what I can tell, because “liberal” was what we would now call “cool,” and was associated with smart people, magnanimous people. The progressives desperately needed cultural cachet, since they sought to revolutionize society along technocratic lines. And by cultural appropriation, they made liberalism into a watered-down socialism.
We’ve been living with the consequences ever since.
This old anthology is worth heading to your local atavism, the public library, and perusing. There is much grist, here, to aid in understanding what 1960s “liberals” thought about the word they used to define their hubristic plans to remake society.
The introduction by the anthologist is probably worth the trip, alone. It is a wondrous farrago of contradiction and nincompoopery, the sheer audacity of hope over reason.