The Decline of American Liberalism


From the Revolutionary War and World Wars I and II to the Great Depression and civil rights battles, this chronicle takes a historical look at how principles such as individual liberty and democratic rule have weathered the last few centuries. The growth of state empowerment and its effect on autonomy and the economy is also discussed.

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From the Revolutionary War and World Wars I and II to the Great Depression and civil rights battles, this chronicle takes a historical look at how principles such as individual liberty and democratic rule have weathered the last few centuries. The growth of state empowerment and its effect on autonomy and the economy is also discussed.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Ekirch argues in The Decline of American Liberalism that the main trend since the American Revolution has been to augment concentration of economic and state power and thus whittle away individual freedom. Mr. Ekirch admits that the decline of the liberal tradition has been paralleled by the advance of other philosophies and values—but his sustained argument pulls few punches in its well-written, hard-hitting pages. Professor Ekirch has written an intelligent and important book. That such a book could be written and published proves that liberalism in America can still be thoughtfully interpreted and eloquently championed.” —Merle E. Curti, the New York Times
“Although originally published in 1955 and much engaged with the Cold War’s chilling effects on civil liberties, Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.’s provocative The Decline of American Liberalism has perhaps never been more relevant. By stressing that, from the very start of American history, forces of centralized and decentralized power have been warring over the country, Ekirch makes a case for limited government and individual rights in a way that is extremely well-suited to the twilight years of the ‘American Century.’” —American Enterprise
"For [Ekirch], liberalism means the emergence of man over the State; it conveys a sense of the dignity and self-determination of the individual. The intellectuals of the present time have pre-empted the word ‘liberalism’ and corrupted it to mean the use of the State’s power to accomplish ‘social ends.’ But as this book makes clear, the true liberal—whether he calls himself a conservative, a libertarian, or an individualist—is the man who sets his heart and mind on the eternal but elusive goal of liberty.” —Sheldon Richmond, former Editor, The Freeman

"Brilliant, penetrating, and often illuminating study of American political history." —New Republic

“Taking as his standpoint the classical conception of liberalism as an attitude and including belief in limited representative government and economic freedom for the individual, Arthur Ekirch traces its decline from the beginning of our national history. . . . Professor Ekirch has contributed a stimulating interpretation and survey of American development. His chapters on the growth of the garrison state and the cult of national loyalty are a devastating commentary which has the virtue of relating these development to long term trends in this society.” —The Nation

“ . . . Mr. Ekirch has read widely and deeply in the history of the United States. America, in Mr. Ekirch’s view, began in the ‘liberal’ tradition of western civilization. This liberalism was in part a doctrine—the freedom of the individual. But in addition to being a doctrine it was a habit of mind, a tendency toward the reasonable, the tolerant, and the moderate. Since the American Revolution the story of the United States has been one of the steady decline of this liberalism. In recent times the welfare state and the military state have pushed political, economic, and ideological centralization to a point where ‘all the major values of the American liberal tradition’ are gravely menaced. . . . Mr. Ekirch systemically applies his thesis to each period in American history. . . .” —Saturday Review

“The New Deal and its successors substituted the ideals of security and equality for freedom and diversity. It is a formidable indictment, and Mr. Ekirch marshals a large body of evidence for it—enough to make his book stimulating and rewarding reading.” —The Economist

“To most people the term ‘liberalism’ is confusing. Some people equate it with the New Deal, others with any kind of leftist philosophy. In this powerful and brilliant book, Arthur Ekirch uses the term in the only way it can be properly used—in its historical and classical sense—not as a program, nor even as a well-defined system, but more as an attitude of mind. . . . Everyone who respects the worth and dignity of individual human beings and dislikes totalitarianism can read this distinguished book with profit.” —Dumas Malone, the History Book Club Review

The Decline of American Liberalism is an extremely interesting, thoughtful, and valuable book. It is one of the most stimulating surveys of American history that I have seen in years.” —Allan Nevins, Harmsworth Professor of American History, Oxford University

"Arthur Ekirch’s The Decline of American Liberalism is gloomier about liberalism and more loyal to the original (i.e. libertarian) understanding of it. Rather than celebrate the rise of reform, he laments its contribution to the decline of individualism. —Jonah Goldberg, editor at large, National Review Online

“Libertarian-ish Rand Paul is officially running for president. For those looking to understand libertarianism, or how it influences Paul, this book is a good place to start. . . . Originally published in 1955 with the Cold War at a full simmer, The Decline of American Liberalism offers up a unique reading of American history from the colonial period on as a struggle between forces of centralization and decentralization. A historian of militarism, Ekirch feared that in our quest to defeat the Soviet Union, we had ironically ended up valorizing the collective at the expense of the individual, ushering in an age of conformity in politics, culture, and commerce. ‘Liberal values associated with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—and especially that of individual freedom,’ wrote Ekirch in the year when The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit was published, ‘have slowly lost their primary importance in American life and thought.’ Big government, big business, big labor—all these things were more closely interrelated than anyone wanted to acknowledge, argued Ekirch. Ekirch’s titular liberalism refers to the 19th-century variety of the term, which is far closer to contemporary libertarianism than, say, Ted Kennedy’s policy agenda. A critic of the draft and economic planning—as well as of McCarthyism—Ekirch worried that living in a ‘garrison state’ that is forever on war footing inevitably limited all sorts of social and economic freedoms while granting the government more and more power to surveil and regulate citizens. Today’s great patriotic war, of course, is being fought not against international communism but Islamic terrorism. But to the extent that the war on terrorism is underwriting massive intervention abroad and at home, The Decline of American Liberalism is an essential guide to the connection between civil liberties and economic ones that libertarians take for granted but often seem puzzling to conventional conservatives and liberals.” —The Daily Beast

“With its brilliant emphasis on ongoing, never-ending battles between forces of centralization and decentralization since our colonial days, The Decline of American Liberalism provides the key to fully understanding not only our country’s past but its present and future too.” —Nick Gillespie, editor, Reason Online and Reason TV

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781598130270
  • Publisher: Independent Institute, The
  • Publication date: 4/3/2009
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Arthur A. Ekirch Jr. was a leading scholar of American intellectual history and a professor emeritus of history at the State University of New York–Albany. He is the author of numerous books, including The American Democratic TraditionThe Civilian and the Military, and Man and Nature in America.
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Table of Contents

Foreword to the 2009 Robert Higgs xv

Preface to the 1966 Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr xxi

Preface to the First Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr xxix

Acknowledgments xxxiv

1 The European Experience 1

2 The Hope of America 11

3 A Revolutionary Shift in Emphasis 25

4 Federalist Centralization and Consolidation 37

5 Jeffersonian Compromise 55

6 Jacksonian Democracy: The Many and the Few 73

7 The Curse of Slavery 95

8 An American Tragedy 116

9 New Nationalism and New South 131

10 Pre-emption, Exploitation, Progress 147

11 The Progressives as Nationalists 171

12 America Enters the Struggle for Power 195

13 Harsh Reaction and Bitter Disillusionment 221

14 The Cult of Conformity and Prosperity 243

15 The Cult of Planning and Reform 268

16 From New Deal to New War 288

17 National Security and the Garrison State 314

18 National Loyalty and the Police State 336

Notes 365

Index 395

About the Author 403

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