The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914by Nancy Cohen
Tracing the transformation of liberal political ideology from the end of the Civil War to the early twentieth century, Nancy Cohen offers a new interpretation of the origins and character of modern liberalism. She argues that the values and programs associated with modern liberalism were formulated not during the Progressive Era, as most accounts maintain, but
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Tracing the transformation of liberal political ideology from the end of the Civil War to the early twentieth century, Nancy Cohen offers a new interpretation of the origins and character of modern liberalism. She argues that the values and programs associated with modern liberalism were formulated not during the Progressive Era, as most accounts maintain, but earlier, in the very different social context of the Gilded Age.
Integrating intellectual, social, cultural, and economic history, Cohen argues that the reconstruction of liberalism hinged on the reaction of postbellum liberals to social and labor unrest. As new social movements of workers and farmers arose and phrased their protests in the rhetoric of democratic producerism, liberals retreated from earlier commitments to an expansive vision of democracy. Redefining liberal ideas about citizenship and the state, says Cohen, they played a critical role in legitimating emergent corporate capitalism and politically insulating it from democratic challenge.
As the social cost of economic globalization comes under international critical scrutiny, this book revisits the bitter struggles over the relationship between capitalism and democracy in post-Civil War America. The resolution of this problem offered by the new liberalism deeply influenced the progressives and has left an enduring legacy for twentieth-century American politics, Cohen argues.
Our understanding of the intellectual origins of Progressivism, and therefore of the paths taken by American liberalism in the twentieth century, will be greatly deepened by the powerful case Nancy Cohen has made regarding the character and importance of their nineteenth-century antecedents. (Wilfred M. McClay, author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America)
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The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914
By Nancy Cohen
University of North Carolina Press
Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
On hearing of General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, James Russell Lowellabolitionist, Radical Republican, future liberal reformer, and the poet laureate of New England letterswrote to his coeditor at the North American Review of his elation at the Union's victory. "There is something magnificent in having a country to love. It is almost like what one feels for a woman. Not so tender, perhaps, but to the full as self-forgetful." Lowell, transported by the thought of a democratic people overwhelming the slave power and abolishing the barbarity of slavery, imagined that the purified nation would be reconsecrated on its ideals of liberty and human equality. With the licentious slaveholding aristocracy defeated, the marriage of true love could be consummated.
But love is demanding and lovers sometimes capricious. Eleven years later, at the celebration of the nation's centennial, Lowell's Columbia, betrayed, "found it hard to hide her spiteful tears." While living American women continued to be excluded from politics, the ideal of woman merged with the ideal of nation. Victorian American men seem to have had a penchant for expressing their political desires, fears, and frustrations through the figure of Columbia. On the eve of May Day, 1887, an illustration of the approaching ravishment of Columbia adorned the cover of the Harper's Weekly"A Journal of Civilization" and the most widely read magazine among the American middle class. In the cartoon, Columbia sits on the pedestal of a maypole decorated with stars-and-stripes bunting and a liberty cap. She is quite alarmed, for around her a burlesque of a maypole dance is taking place. The dancers, instead of cooperating to weave an orderly pattern around the pole, are kicking, kneeing, slashing, and snarling at one another. To the side, winged Hermes appears, bearing the government's message to railroad corporations that they will be controlled by a higher power. But he has just met up with the railroads, and his classically athletic limbs are tangled up in the railroad's iron legs. Who might win the contest between the modern machine and the elegant, agile, but ancient messenger? Front and center the main struggle goes on. A swarthy, whiskered, apelike laborer, wielding a large knife and a satchel of "anarchy dynamite," plunges headfirst from his severed ribbon into an abyss. "Labor" has just passed him in the circular processionhad he used his saw to cut the alien anarchist's bond to Columbia? "Labor" now goes knee to boot with "Capital," as Columbia is framed by their ribbons; they stare each other down with menacing glances, and she casts a pleading gaze on the viewer.
The Harper's Weekly illustration was a revealing representation of the fate of the ideal of national harmony that Lowell had evoked at the moment of Union victory. By 1887, an observer of national life had to render its discord. Coming round the bend were Congress and the railroads, figuring the impending upsurge over the problem of monopoly. The lead dancers in the 1887 maypole dance were capital and labor, just as the "labor question" had become the national preoccupation. As the eight anarchists convicted of the Haymarket bombing awaited execution, no one could mistake the seriousness of the danger posed to Columbia as she sat ensnared in the closing web of conflict.
When Lowell had first expressed his optimism, he knew that the consummation would require a thorough reconstruction of the South. Only later did he and others realize that forces unleashed during the war had raised issues about the reconstruction of the North in equally powerful ways. Most obviously, the stimulus given to industrial growth by the Union war effort laid the foundations, ultimately, for the rise of corporate capitalism. In the decades after the war, the ongoing transformation of the economy deeply affected the daily lives of Americans.
Nevertheless, the Union war machine nurtured an equally potent and politically significant force by mobilizing the citizenry under the banner of patriotism, free labor, and democracy. The Northern populace had been called on to make the ultimate sacrifice, to give their lives and fortunes for the higher good of the nation. They had been appealed to with the claims that only through the preservation of the Union could their interests and their most expansive dreams of a more perfect society be realized. They had been warned that defeat would spell the end of all they valued. Emotions and identifications thus fostered could not simply be turned off when they were no longer needed. The heartfelt patriotic rhetoric that permeated Northern society during the war not only cemented the loyalty of the vast majority of the population to the state but also, unintentionally, heightened their expectations about what the nation could do for them. Most important, as the events of the next three decades would show, wartime appeals to the superiority of "free labor civilization" gave warrant to a vision of America as a producers' democracy.
As the cartoonist's metaphor of national peril conveys, the decades after the war, the "Gilded Age," were ones of endemic, ideologically suffused social conflict. It has long been recognized that the disruptions caused by breakneck industrialization sparked conflict and that much of it revolved around economic questions that pitted workers and farmers against the propertied classes. But to appreciate fully the meaning and significance of social conflict, it is important to keep in mind the legacy of the war, in all its dimensions. If the core of Northern patriotism resided in the complex of ideas that historians have termed "free labor ideology," then it appears logical to propose that the movements of the postbellum decades were asserting historically specific claims about the linkage between producerism and democracy that they believed had been validated in the war. They, as well as their opponents, claimed the mantle of the victorious Union and true democracy. The stakes were high, as in many ways the national government found itself in a situation akin to that of a consolidating postrevolutionary regime, pressed on one side by counterrevolutionists (in the South) and on the other by the popular forces it had itself authorized.
In this specific economic, political, and cultural context, a new problem emerged as the preeminent one. Were the values of democracy and the social relations of capitalism reconcilable, and if so, on what terms? Revolving around this question, the social conflict of the Gilded Age upended the political values and identities of an earlier America. Among the many ideological shifts and changes of the era, none left a larger and more portentous legacy than the transformation of liberal ideology, which resulted in the creation of modern American liberalism.
This work offers a new narrative of the origins of modern American liberalism and, in doing so, forces a reconsideration of its character. A new set of problems and questions about society, economy, and state arose after the Civil War: among them, the first real confrontation with the implications of universal suffrage and mass democracy, the transformation of the majority of the citizenry into wage earners, the rise of the corporation as a new type of property, the devastating fluctuations of the international market economy, and the growth of the administrative capacity of government. These were distinctively the problems of a new America, a modern America, and Gilded Age liberals faced them squarely and honestlyif not without their own particular interests. Contrary to most accounts, I demonstrate that the distinctive values and programs of modern liberalism were formulated by Gilded Age liberals, not in the very different context of the Progressive Era.
The reconstruction of liberalism hinged especially on the response of postbellum liberal political intellectuals to two of the most important political questions of their age: the "labor question" and the "monopoly question." As new social movements of workers and farmers arose, protesting the economic developments of the era and demanding change in the name of democracy, the liberals of the Gilded Age reacted. Their trepidation over democratic majoritarianism in the new landscape of organized labor, agrarian populism, and large financial and industrial capital prompted them to reevaluate earlier political ideas and commitments. At the same time, even as large numbers of Americans decried the rise of monopoly and economic inequality, liberals were among the first to look upon economic consolidation with a favorable eye, appreciating the progress it wrought.
As an abundant literature makes clear, by 1900 the producers' movements that had been so characteristic of nineteenth-century America had gone down to defeat, and corporate capitalism had risen to dominance over the American economy. Gilded Age liberals had been in the vanguard of analyzing, explaining, and legitimating these innovations. Through a three-decades-long examination and debate about the nature of American society, they invented a new liberalism that posited an active role for the state in society and economy, even as it justified constraints on democracy and the ascendancy of corporate capitalism. In doing so, liberals played a critical role in legitimating corporate capitalism and politically insulating it from democratic challengein reconciling corporate economic dominance and its attendant asymmetries of power with American democracy.
It was this legacy that was bequeathed to twentieth-century liberals, and, to a large degree, the progressives and their successors built on, rather than razed, the foundation left to them. During the Progressive Era, even as the basic institutions of the capitalist economy and representative, constitutional government were preserved, the minimal state of an earlier liberalism was abandoned in favor of one with the power to intervene in the market and to promote social welfare. The progressives' new liberalism, most historians conclude, was fundamentally reformist; it sought to use state power to regulate the capitalist economy and to improve the living conditions and "security" of the citizenry, without abolishing private property or revolutionizing liberal-democratic political institutions. In a period of turmoil, the poles of revolution and reaction had been averted: neither socialism, corporatism, nor authoritarianism had overthrown America's liberal, constitutional democracy, even if in the scheme of international social reform, American new liberalism was a pale copy of its competitors. This new liberalism continued to be politically hegemonic through much of the twentieth century, as the New Deal, Fair Deal, and Great Society elaborated and extended the ambitious but tentative innovations of the Progressive Era. From Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom to Lyndon Johnson's Great Society reigned modern American liberalism; its decline was evident by the mid-1960s, as movements from both left and right challenged the settled routines of reformism and state activism. The victory of Ronald Reagan, at the head of a professedly conservative movement, signaled the apparently irreversible defeat of the now aged modern liberalism.
The birth, career, and fate of modern liberalism are thus deeply implicated in the political history of the twentieth-century United States. But it is important to emphasize that the origins of modern liberalism lay in the Gilded Age, when the alternatives were clearer and sharper, the balance of social forces more equal, and the possibility of a different outcome greater. This book turns to the Gilded Age to examine the reconstruction of liberal political ideology, its causes and consequences, and its deeper implications for American governance and culture in the late nineteenth century and beyond.
In seeking to examine the reconstruction of American liberal political ideology, and the process by which the relationship between liberalism and democracy was redefined, it is necessary to say a few words about the definition of terms. It is quite obvious that, in its long historical career, liberalism has had a varied and changing existence. What distinguishes liberalism from other traditions, and what gives the long history of liberalism a unity? The political uses to which liberalism has been put have differed historically, and likewise, there are alternative approaches to the scholarly analysis of liberalism.
The values of liberalism are the commitment to freedom, tolerance, self-rule, the rule of law, and justice. Debate begins on the question of the assumptions underpinning liberalism. Liberalism understands human beings as rational, autonomous, and equal and conceives of history as progressive. But it also expresses a distinctive sociology. Breaking with the dominant tradition in Western thought, which viewed human beings as fundamentally social beings contained within and subordinate to the social body, liberalism defined man as an autonomous being, human because of his ownership of his own person and his own capacities and free in his lack of dependence on the will of others. The individual possesses himself and hence possesses rights upon which neither society nor the state can trespass. (The male pronoun is indicative of the inherently gendered conception of the individual within liberalism, as political theorists now routinely acknowledge.) The ambiguous portrait of the individual in the texts of political liberalism lends itself to different interpretations. The concept of the self-possessed individual can have democratic or libertarian implications: the former if the equality among individuals is emphasized; the latter if the person's possession of self is emphasized. Conversely, as is suggested in John Locke's much debated use of the metaphor of property for all rights, the self-possessed person is the propertied man, and the primary purpose of government can be seen as the protection of the property owner's liberty in the market and the inequality of possession in society. The complicated relationship between liberalism and democracy, in part, is rooted in this tension within liberal theory.
Individualism is, as the historian Anthony Arblaster observes, "the metaphysical and ontological core of liberalism." It may be possible in theory to preserve a commitment to the rights of the individual person while dispensing with the individualistic premises of liberalism, as some contemporary philosophers have attempted to do. Nevertheless, a historical analysis of liberalism must recognize that in practice this has not yet occurred and that the current resurgence and popularity of free market ideology suggests that the prospects for the success of this project in the near future are not bright. The priority of the claims of the self-possessed, self-interested individual over that of society continues to be the pivotal determinant of the scope of governance in liberal societies, and it is clear that this is what distinguishes liberalism from its competitors. In the Anglo-American tradition, furthermore, market freedom has been understood as one of the essential rights of the free individual. The central political ideas of liberalism flow from the premise of individualism. Positively, liberalism asserts that the ultimate end of politics is to give scope to the individual's pursuit of self-rule, self-satisfaction, and self-realization. Negatively, no matter how far modern liberalisms have gone toward accepting state action and "positive liberty," there remains the assumption of an inherent conflict between the society and the individual. From this analysis derives the bias against collective action; the defense of individual autonomy, privacy, and rights; the commitment to rule based on consent; and the conception and enforcement of a sharp division of social space between private and public realms.
As a historical practice, liberalism has been powerfully shaped by the opponents it has faced in its long history. Liberal philosophy and politics were born in a reaction against monarchical absolutism, and liberalism's central principles can be understood as the repudiation of conservatism, its organic worldview, and its defense of hierarchy and order, tradition and religious dogma, authority and obedience. Liberals represented the party of progress against the party of order, and the opposition between liberalism and conservatism remains one of the critical divides in world politics. The union of liberalism and democracy, on the other hand, is a very recent development, despite the contemporary tendency to conceive of the two as synonymous. Only in the late eighteenth century, in the American and French Revolutions, did democracy appear to any significant social force to be a positive principle of social organization. Likewise, it was not until then that the egalitarian and democratic potential within liberal theory was discerned. By the early twentieth century, the liberal regimes of the Western world were also representative democracies, but the advance of political democracy had been bitterly contested and resisted in many countries. (The United States, in which political democracy and liberal constitutionalism coexisted early, is the exception in this regard.) Thus, the emergence of democratic forces in the age of revolution created a new dynamic in the historical development of liberalism. And as modern labor and socialist movements arose in the developing economies of the transatlantic world, liberalism faced challenges from the left that were in certain respects more threatening than those from its right. Not only were the democratic and socialist lefts able to mobilize a mass constituency, but they also claimed to be the true heirs of the Enlightenment legacy of freedom, equality, and progressa claim that was aided by the resistance many European liberals mounted against the democratization of politics. The history of liberal politics, thus, is a tale of relationships, most important, of the triangular struggle for power between liberals, conservatives, and socialists. The period with which this work is concerned, the late nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, was an era of revision in liberalism throughout the transatlantic world. It was also an age when conservatives were weak, the contest between liberalism and socialism accelerated, and the widening of the franchise to include the propertyless was a central issue in European politics.
The ambivalent relationship between liberalism and democracy derives not only from problems inherent in liberal theory and the history of liberal practice but also from the varied meanings democracy has contained in its history. It is relatively simple to define democracy: democracy is rule by the people. But what is meant by each term is far from clear. First, who are the people? If democracy entails political equality of the citizenry, what are the principles for inclusion and exclusion? Second, what are the conditions and preconditions for democracy? Is it sufficient that all individuals are formally equal and possess equal civil and political rights? Or must legal equality be linked to concrete opportunities to participate in civil society and governance? Must formal legal equality be buttressed by substantive material equality for equality and democracy to be more than an abstraction? Third, what are the procedural requirements for a legitimate democracy? What is the scope of participation and decision making? What is the relationship between the people, representatives, and rulers? Is it sufficient that there be fair and free competitive elections, that representatives be accountable to the people, and that the state be neutral toward the diverse interests in society? Or must there be avenues for participation in decision making by the average citizen, and if so, in what range of decisions should the people participate? Fourth, in what social spheres must democratic procedures operate and substantive democracy result for a society rightfully to claim to be democratic? Historically, the contention on this subject has focused on the relative importance of political democracy and economic democracy, with a persisting undercurrent of attention to gender inequality and democracy within the family. At the heart of all these questions is the primary one: What is the object or purpose of democracy? Is formal political equality the means used by society to achieve a higher end, such as individual liberty or economic progress or the general good, or are substantive self-rule and equality ends in themselves? Are the purposes of democracy fulfilled if all individuals have the opportunity to participate in the political process for the purpose of protecting their private interests? Or, rather, must there be a substantive material equality among all citizens for democracy to survive, and as a corollary, is the object of democratic government to preserve substantive material equality? Or is the claim that democracy is a superior form of government based solely on an instrumental defense, that in an imperfect world democracy is the most fair and most efficient type of government? The history of democracy is marked by conflicts over these and related questions. As we shall see, debates about democracy were explicitly formulated during the social conflicts of the Gilded Age, and through them, American liberal political ideology and the practices of liberal democracy were transformed.
Liberal democracy has been one of the most frequently studied subjects in the historiography of the United States, and the changes that occurred within liberal politics and thought between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I have attracted many analysts. The dominant interpretation, with few exceptions, is that progressive liberals after the 1890s rejected the "classical" liberalism of their Gilded Age forebears and that, in doing so, they created a new liberalism and defined the parameters of modern liberalism. Richard Hofstadter's typology in his influential Age of Reform is characteristic of this view. To Hofstadter, the Gilded Age "Mugwump type" was "a conservative in his economic and political views" and a "'liberal' in the classic sense." Ignoring "the serious abuses of the unfolding economic order," he was "dogmatically committed to the prevailing economics of laissez faire." Progressive reform was born out of the revolt against the outmoded ideas of the mugwumps by their successors. Even as Hofstadter fundamentally reoriented the historical debate about progressivism, he largely accepted the value judgments that the progressive historians had first enshrined in the discussion. Sidney Fine, in what remains a frequently cited intellectual history of the origins of modern liberalism, Laissez Faire and the General-Welfare State, made explicit the teleology on which the typology was based:
Industrialization and urbanization intensified old problems and brought with them a host of new ones. . . . Although, for the most part, the intervention of government was required for the solution of these issues, existing theories with respect to the role of the state constituted an intellectual barrier to the development of any realistic program of state action. . . . What was needed was a new philosophy of the state, a new liberalism embodying something of the spirit of Jeffersonianism but ready to use government as an agency to promote the general welfare. Industrial America made necessary the evolution of the general-welfare state.
Having asserted a rigid distinction between the liberals of the Gilded Age and those of the Progressive Era, Fine praised the right-thinking and righteous modern liberals and condemned the illiberal Gilded Age liberals. The negative portrayal of the Gilded Age mugwump classical liberal, in sharp contrast to the new progressive liberal, is likewise conveyed in the most widely cited history of the politics of Gilded Age liberalism, John Sproat's "The Best Men".
Thus, the history of liberalism in the postbellum decades has been dominated by the tale of the rise and fall of the only American generation of doctrinaire classical liberals, who sacrificed the humanitarian core of liberalism at the altar of laissez-faire. One of the objects of this study is to reassess the conventional portrait of Gilded Age liberals and hence to reconsider the question of the relationship between Gilded Age and Progressive Era liberalism and its implications for questions about the substance and character of progressive reform and modern liberalism. As I shall demonstrate, a closer examination of the ideology of Gilded Age liberalism and attention to the cultural networks through which it was elaborated and disseminated reveal that the liberalism of the Gilded Age was both more complicated and more influential in the formation of modern liberalism than is generally perceived.
Most historians of Progressive Era modern liberalism accept that the distinction between old and new liberalism is coincident with the dominance of old or new liberals. The best recent work on the ideology and social theory of the liberal progressives, such as that of James Kloppenberg, Mary O. Furner, and Daniel T. Rodgers, has deepened our understanding of modern liberalism by illuminating the distinct and competing strains within progressive thought and by situating the rise of social reform and new liberalism in the overarching transatlantic context. But the analysis of the character of progressive thought is dependent on a contrast (implicit or explicit) with the "laissez-faire" liberals of the Gilded Age. Even when these historians look for originators in the postbellum decades, they exclude from their purview the alleged "classical" liberals of the Gilded Age or ignore the close connection between them and some of their new liberal protagonists. The implications of a revision of the existing genealogy of modern liberalism is one of the subjects explored in this book.
As these debates attest, the history of American liberalism must be told through the people who shaped it. Before a political ideology becomes common sense and in little need of explicit formulation, it is a body of ideas and assumptions, problems and solutions, that emerges out of the common intellectual production of particular individuals. The reconstruction of American liberal political ideology between the end of the Civil War and the Progressive Era was the accomplishment of two generations of nationally prominent liberal political intellectuals, Gilded Age liberal reformers and the first American generation of professional social scientists. Contrary to the prevailing historiographical interpretation, the proto-progressive social scientists did not overthrow the classical liberals. Rather, after a cultural struggle in the 1880s, liberal reformers and social scientists ended up collaborating with each other to forge the new liberalism.
Gilded Age liberal reform was both a political and an intellectual movement. The political movement of liberal reform included prominent politicians; the nation's most renowned writers and scholars; the editors of leading newspapers, magazines, and journals; the heads of the main publishing houses; presidents and professors of the most prestigious colleges and universities; and a significant segment of the nation's financial and industrial elite. A full roster of the liberal reform constituency reads like a Who's Who of American "respectable" culture: among them were Senator Charles Sumner, Governor and near president Samuel J. Tilden, President Grover Cleveland, Mark Twain, James Russell Lowell, William Dean Howells, Charles Eliot Norton, Henry Adams, George William Curtis, Edwin Lawrence Godkin, Joseph Medill, Horace White, Daniel Coit Gilman, Andrew Dickson White, Francis Amasa Walker, William Graham Sumner, Thomas McIntyre Cooley, Simon Newcomb, Edward Atkinson, John Murray Forbes, and Andrew Carnegie. In their editorships of Harper's Weekly, the Nation, the Atlantic Monthly, the North American Review, and Scribner's Monthly, they held a virtual monopoly on the periodicals read by the refined Northern middle class. Their opinions of political affairs received wide broadcast in the Chicago Tribune, New York Evening Post, New York Times, and many other urban dailies.
Among the most influential in formulating, articulating, and publicizing the ideas and ideology of their movement were Godkin, Curtis, Charles Francis Adams Jr., Henry Adams, Atkinson, David Ames Wells, Walker, Sumner, White, and Carroll Davidson Wright. (Throughout this work, I refer to these men as liberal reformers or liberal reform political intellectuals.) Politically, these men shared doubts about the new tendencies of American democracy. Personally, they shared a common social world. With few exceptions, they were heirs of prominent Yankee Protestant families. At a time when only a tiny minority of Americans received even secondary education, most of the leaders of liberal reform had graduated from college, in which they had been formally educated in the canons of English liberal political philosophy, Scottish moral philosophy, and English classical political economy. The vast majority of them came from families that were prominent in abolitionist, antislavery, and Unionist organizations.
Notwithstanding personal conflicts and intellectual differences, liberal reformers forged a cohesive group culture, creating political associations, social clubs, and institutions for intellectual community. They quite consciously banded together in voluntary organizations to influence the public sphere. They founded the American Social Science Association and met within it to discuss their most serious intellectual work. They edited newspapers, magazines, and journals and owned publishing companies; they read one another's writings, wrote letters to one another about them, and republished the best and most persuasive articles as pamphlets to disseminate to a broader audience. They created a multitude of political reform clubs locally and nationally and tried on several occasions to create a liberal political counterforce to the two major parties, most famously in the Liberal Republican movement of 1872 and the mugwump bolt of 1884 that helped elect Democrat Grover Cleveland to the presidency. Some were active businessmen, and many served in government positions, pioneering the field of administrative and investigative commissions in the 1860s, long before the rise of the modern liberal state. They also married one another's sisters and cousins and summered together in Saratoga, the Berkshires, or Newport; they spent many evenings in all-male clubs with politicians and businessmen, dining, smoking, and conversing as gentlemen. It is appropriate to observe that, until the 1890s, nearly every person who debated the subjects of state policy and economy and who was recognized as possessing cultural authority was a man. As the opening of this work illustrates, the language of patriotism included stock metaphors of femininity and sentimentality. Poets and cartoonists could be indulged when they reminded the Victorian middle class that its ideal of the masculine political sphere was suffused with dreams and fears of ideal femininity and sexual union. But when political intellectuals sat down to discuss politics, they did not invite women to the discussion, nor did they show awareness of the gendered inflections in their use of the prosaic terms of political economy, statistics, statecraft, political theory, and social science.
Few in number and bumblers at the art of American party politics, self-styled liberal reformers were nevertheless effective lobbyists for their ideas. Without question, liberal reformers constituted a tiny minority of Americans. But numbers do not equal cultural and political influence. And liberal reformers wielded a very large share of both, particularly from the end of the Civil War until the mid-1880s. They held a presence in virtually every institution through which culture was disseminated to the Northern middle classes, and they controlled many of the most important forums of opinion formation. Derisively labeled "mugwumps" by their political opponents, despised by the working classes of their age for their elitism and the services they provided to capital, they are remembered for their adherence to an extreme individualism, laissez-faire, and social Darwinism. Few of their chroniclers have resisted the temptation to declare them irrelevant to nobler traditions of liberalism and the practical politics of their own time. But contrary to the conclusions of latter-day historians, liberal reformers, by virtue of their strategic positions in American culture, were able to frame the terms of political debate, determine the issues, and establish the values to which others had to conform. The very fact that debates about individualism and the relationship of the state to the market were at the fulcrum of Gilded Age politics testifies to the success of the ideological labors of these liberal intellectuals. Not only has their influence been understated, but the characterization of them as classical liberals is equally mistaken. As this work demonstrates, they were pioneering theorists of economic consolidation and the active liberal state. The politics and ideology of liberal reform are the subject of part I of this book.
Although liberal reformers entered directly into the fray of electoral politics, they always believed that their most enduring work would be culturalthe tutoring of public opinion. Thus, the most distressing opposition they confronted was that of the next generation of intellectuals, who they had hoped would carry on their legacy. It is this group of men who constitute the second generation of postbellum political intellectuals examined in this study. Almost to the man, they were reared in the same kind of middle-class, reform-oriented, Yankee Protestant families as the men of the first generation, albeit less privileged ones. They grew up reading the writings and attending the colleges of the liberal reformers. Yet the young intellectuals came of age in the 1870s, at a time when American capitalism had entered an endemic crisis and had generated astounding social misery and discontent. It also happened to be a time when the training and role of intellectuals were undergoing a transformation. Unlike their predecessors, who received the broad education of gentlemen, most often in the still religiously dominated American colleges, the young intellectuals were educated in the emerging social sciences at modern universities in the United States and Germany. In this they were exposed to more cosmopolitan influences than their predecessors, yet in institutions that encouraged a new kind of specialization. They became professional social scientists and began their careers by challenging the social theories and political practices of the liberal reformers and calling themselves socialists. Henry Carter Adams, John Bates Clark, Richard T. Ely, Edmund J. James, Edwin R. A. Seligman, Edward A. Bemis, and others tried to forge a new way, and they identified the ideas of their liberal reform forebears as obstacles in the path of progress. Indeed, they entered the public arena attacking liberalism and individualism and formed their own organizations, such as the American Economic Association, in the hope of countering the cultural power exerted by liberal reformers from the many institutions they controlled. It is unlikely that they foresaw how much their fate would be determined by the elder liberals. In the mid-1880s a bitter debate ensued between the two generations in which the young social scientists were forced back onto the terrain of liberalism or out of established positions of public power altogether. The conflict of the eighties had the effect of defining limits of acceptable political debate, especially about socialism, collectivism, and the democratic collective action of the working masses. The winnowing out of the unrepentantly radical social scientists, and the reconciliation of most of the older liberal reformers and younger social scientists, set the stage for the forging of a new liberalism. The impact of the liberal reformers in the creation of modern American liberalism was more profound than historians have generally recognized, both in the cultural power they exerted against the young intellectuals and in the specific programs and principles they deeded to progressives. Liberal reformers played a significant role in shaping the American solution to the problem of the relationship between democracy and capitalism, at the moment when "progressivism," "new liberalism," and social democracy erupted into the political arena of the transatlantic world. The relationship between liberal reformers and young social scientists is explored in part II of this book. The concluding chapter explores the question of the influence on progressive social thought and political practice of the new liberalism forged in the debate between the two generations of postbellum intellectuals.
These two generations of late-nineteenth-century liberal political intellectuals confronted the problem of the relationship between democracy and capitalism and in doing so reconstructed American liberalism. The importance of the new liberalism they created lay, in part, in the articulation of specific policies for the liberal democratic state. But as important was its ideological legitimation of the novel economic, political, and social relationships attendant on the rise of corporate capitalism.
One of the fundamental achievements of the new liberalism was to render the dominance of corporate capital compatible with American democracy. It hardly needs to be stated that, in doing so, it promoted the class interests of corporate capitalists. The new liberalism can thus be viewed as an instance of bourgeois ideology, and the interpretation of the origins of new liberalism presented here hence raises the question of the social position of the intellectuals who forged a new liberalism. Although I think the question is secondary to the main purpose of this study, a brief exploration of the issue will help to highlight the differences between my interpretation and others of progressive new liberalism, especially the influential "corporate liberalism" thesis. The "corporate liberalism" school argues that forward-looking and class-conscious corporate businessmen served as the advance guard of modern American liberalism and that the project of forging the ideology of corporate liberalism was a critical element in their successful bid for hegemony. I argue in this book, rather, that late-nineteenth-century liberal reform and social science intellectuals, who had little direct involvement in corporate enterprise, were the prime innovators of new liberalism and its legitimation of corporate capitalism. They also were a good twenty to thirty years ahead of their business counterparts.
What did it take to be an intellectual in nineteenth-century America, and how did one's social position affect one's ideas? Crosscutting influences are evident in the lives of the liberal reform intellectuals and are worth exploring by historians interested in the culture of intellectual production. The family histories of many liberal reformers reveal the marriages of Congregationalist preachers and professors to heiresses of merchant and industrial capital. There were, apparently, quite a few fathers-in-law who were eager to underwrite a lifetime of good works. Perhaps marrying one's daughter off to a man of God eased some troubled souls. By virtue of the powerful Puritan legacy and the Calvinist ambivalence toward material success, Northern intellectuals gained a measure of autonomy.
Nevertheless, institutional support for intellectual work was extremely shallow in the nineteenth-century United States: there was no state bureaucracy to speak of, higher learning was an adjunct of the Protestant churches, and the separation of church and state made churches dependent on the financial support of their members. Those who desired to live a life of the mind, to investigate, interpret, and disseminate knowledge, required access to independent means or had to plunge into the emerging market as producers of intellectual commodities. Liberal reform intellectuals either were born into money, married it, or made it as entrepreneurs of the pen. And, in all three scenarios, investment in the emerging stock and bond markets served as the means of preserving wealth and respectability and funding future intellectual endeavors. Liberal reform intellectuals were owners of capitalist property, but unlike most men of their class, their work kept them at some remove from the day-to-day activities of business and the real conflicts between labor and capital in the Gilded Age. (The journalistic entrepreneurs among them present a partial, and interesting, exception.) Even if by profession they were somewhat autonomous from the central institutions of the capitalist market, they were still financially dependent on the success of their capital investments. Therefore, if it seems that Yankee capitalists sought something profound in their intellectuals that might have encouraged the latter to rise above narrow self-interest, Northern intellectuals were quite dependent on the ownership of capitalist property in ways that made them personally sensitive to threats to property rights. By profession and the social mission assigned to them, liberal reform intellectuals stood above the fray of class interestsor so they imagined they did. But they were also profoundly enmeshedfinancially, personally, and emotionallywith the capitalist elite. They were, in a double sense, the conscience of the capitalist class.
Conversely, new opportunities to pursue intellectual work and earn a decent salary undoubtedly created the circumstances in which the younger social scientists believed they could chart a more critical and autonomous course. They discovered that they were wrong when wealthy trustees of their universities pushed to remove them, and several found themselves on trial. The history of the struggle for academic freedom in the United States is a case study in the social power of capital over nineteenth-century American intellectual life. I would venture to suggest that the ambiguous social position of American intellectuals was an important element in their ability to keep at half an arm's length the promptings of particularistic self-interest and play the role of avant-garde theorists of new social and political relationships. But it also seems reasonable to observe that the virulence of the liberal reformers' defense of propertied individualism, and the social scientists' acquiescence to their elder liberal opponents, demonstrate that matters of self-interest and self-definition were never absent.
A final explanation of the place and role of the intellectuals on whom I focus is necessary. The selection of the individuals arose out of the problems I chose to analyze, and my use of the phrase "political intellectual" is meant to suggest a specific category that is not adequately covered by the category "intellectual" or the currently popular "public intellectual" (although for stylistic reasons, I often use the unmodified noun "intellectual"). The analysis of political ideology requires that ideas be taken seriously, but it is rarely the most original or deepest thinkers of an age who wield the most influence in shaping ideology. A study of ideology requires that a person's influence in shaping public opinion be given greater weight than the intellectual quality of his or her work. Whereas much of what follows analyzes intellectual production, it is a different type of work than many intellectual histories, in which the main object is to trace and analyze specific ideas or to understand the work of exceptional thinkers. The subjects of these kinds of works are those individuals who formulated the ideas in question in the most precise, logical, and rigorous form, and intellectual histories thus tend to focus on the most capable and renowned thinkers of an age and often have in view the recovery of these ideas for contemporary purposes.
The history of political ideology, which is more about power and culture than about ideas, demands a different approach. Above all, it must begin with social history, broadly construed, and pay particular attention to the dialectical relationship between power, politics, and culture. Rarely are those who reveal the most about political ideology in their intellectual work the best thinkers of their time. Nevertheless, they are often incisive or prescient observers, who offer complex assessments, descriptions, or prescriptions that merit close analysis. In this way, they frequently stood out in their own time, even if to a later generation their ideas seem to be of purely historical interest. Godkin, the editor of the flagship Gilded Age liberal journal, the Nation, was no John Dewey. But Dewey was not an influential political thinker before the late 1890s, in part because he spent the Gilded Age in his study wracking himself with the problem of Hegelian idealism. In contrast, Godkin spent four hours a day writing about current politics, economics, culture, mores, and art while bringing to bear on them a well-trained and well-honed intellect. According to the pragmatist philosopher William James, "To my generation, [Godkin] was certainly the towering influence in all thought concerning public affairs, and indirectly his influence has certainly been more pervasive than that of any other writer of the generation, for he influenced other writers who never quoted him, and determined the whole current of discussion." And so, Dewey was no Godkin. It would be tendentious to deny political writers such as Godkin the title "intellectual" and even worse to consign them to the irrevocably derogatory category "ideologue"though it is impossible to deny that, at times, they descended to this level of discourse. Nevertheless, within the broad universe of publicists and political intellectuals, there were some who were more capable than others. After an exhaustive study of the writings and publications of each generation of intellectuals, I have concluded that a close analysis of the work of a few of these particularly capable thinkers reveals more than would an effort to summarize the ideology through as many examples as possible. Likewise, the central figures in this narrative are not necessarily the ones who are most familiar in the historical literature. Some of the lesser-known writers of the era (such as David A. Wells and Henry C. Adams) receive more attention than the more renowned (such as William G. Sumner and Richard T. Ely). The book is structured accordingly. I hope that what I have sacrificed in breadth has been regained through depth.
In the winter of 1872, Mark Twain and his good friend Charles Dudley Warner began writing a send-up of post@-Civil War America. Their Gilded Age (1873) indelibly marked the era as one of crassness, corruption, and deceit, and their name for the age has stuckagainst all rescue efforts to the contrary. It is important to keep in mind that The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today told a story already in process. Although it has been convenient for textbook publishers and standardized test writers to date the dawn of the Gilded Age to 1877, the novel suggests otherwise. The Gilded Age was the era of the Reconstruction of the North, and it, too, began with the end of the Civil War.
Twain and Warner were associated with the liberal reform movement. No group in Reconstruction America appeared more driven than they to root out the corrupted political norms parodied in The Gilded Age. But liberal reform did not begin, as has often been asserted, as a reaction against the political corruption of Republican politicians. It was, rather, one of the harvests of the unforeseen discord among Radical Republicans over matters in the North. Before the sordidness and corruption of party politics captured the minds of liberal reformers, the growth of a Northern labor movement had already jolted them out of the self-satisfaction they enjoyed as the tribunes of the triumphant Union.
The spring of 1865 brought the future leaders of liberal reform a brief interlude of exuberance and confidence, during which they persuaded themselves that the problems of America had been permanently resolved. The conflict that had dominated national politics since the birth of the Republic had ended; the age of slavery and freedom had closed. To liberal Radical Republicans, all the classic antinomies between equality and liberty, democracy and property, seemed to have dissolved in a patriotic transcendence. But that moment would not last. With its passing, the Gilded Age movement for "liberal reform," and the postwar reconstruction of American liberalism, would commence.
Excerpted from The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914 by Nancy Cohen. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
What People are saying about this
An engaging introduction to the political ideas that have helped define the modern U.S.Choice
The history of liberalism never was that simple, of course, a point that many historians have addressed and circled without necessarily landing squarely upon it. Nancy Cohen has dared to try, and the result is enthralling. . . . Cohen does a lot of subjects justice, covering a lot of ground in limited space and leaving the reader hankering for more. . . . [Cohen] has done a prodigious amount of research and produced a vital and readable work for students and scholars of political, constitutional, and intellectual history in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries.Law and History Review
Our understanding of the intellectual origins of Progressivism, and therefore of the paths taken by American liberalism in the twentieth century, will be greatly deepened by the powerful case Nancy Cohen has made regarding the character and importance of their nineteenth-century antecedents. Her work serves to confirm and extend historians' growing awareness of just how rich in ideas, and how crucial to the nation's future, were those oft-neglected three decades after the Civil War.Wilfred M. McClay, author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America
This ambitious study adds a new dimension to a revision in the historical analysis of American progressivism that began with the discovery of corporate liberalism. . . . The challenge [this book] offers to earlier narratives of new liberalism bears serious consideration by all those interested in the distinctive character of U.S. liberalism.Journal of American History
Nancy Cohen demonstrates that a highly educated and close-knit community of eminent writers elaborated laissez-faire liberalism during Reconstruction in a quest to restrain the power of propertyless majorities and that their assumptions and anxieties were not discarded by the subsequent generation of liberal reformers, but rather provided intellectual boundaries to Progressive responses to the consolidation of corporate enterprise and the distempers of urban life. Although much has been written about political liberalism, this perceptive, original, and persuasive reinterpretation stands out as one that every future student of the half-century following the Civil War must take into account.David Montgomery, author of The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925
Meet the Author
Nancy Cohen is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Industrial Relations, University of California, Los Angeles.
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