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Yale University Press
The Strange Death of American Liberalism / Edition 1

The Strange Death of American Liberalism / Edition 1

by H. W. BrandsH. W. Brands
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In this provocative book, H. W. Brands confronts the vital question of why an ever-increasing number of Americans do not trust the federal government to improve their lives and to heal major social ills. How is it that government has come to be seen as the source of many of our problems, rather than the potential means of their solution? How has the word liberal become a term of abuse in American political discourse?

From the Revolution on, argues Brands, Americans have been chronically skeptical of their government. This book succinctly traces this skepticism, demonstrating that it is only during periods of war that Americans have set aside their distrust and looked to their government to defend them. The Cold War, Brands shows, created an extended—and historically anomalous—period of dependence, thereby allowing for the massive expansion of the American welfare state. Since the 1970s, and the devastating blow dealt to Cold War ideology by America’s defeat in Vietnam, Americans have returned to their characteristic distrust of government. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Brands contends, the fate of American liberalism was sealed—and we continue to live with the consequences of its demise.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300098242
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 09/10/2003
Pages: 218
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

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Chapter One


    Americans who came of age after 1945 might have been forgiven for assuming liberalism was the norm in American politics. From the New Deal through the Cold War, there was indeed a liberal bias in American thinking about the relation of government to people. But in the overall scheme of American history, this liberalism was anomalous. From before they had become a nation, and continuing until almost the middle of the twentieth century, Americans registered chronic skepticism regarding a more active role for the federal government in their lives. Every generation harbored its advocates of activism, but every generation comprised a larger collection of skeptics.


    Distrust of government came over on some of the first ships from England. The Pilgrims and Puritans who settled New England did so explicitly to escape the arm of Anglican law, and they were followed shortly by Catholics, Quakers, and dissenters of other stripes. Once established in America, these and their colonist kin grew accustomed to having their own way in secular matters as well. London legislated for the colonies, for instance on trade and manufactures, but London was far away and for most of the colonial period contented itself with Walpole's famous "salutary neglect." Imperial prohibitions didn't prevent the colonists from smuggling molasses, forging nails, or doing a hundred other things nominally proscribed to them.

    It was precisely Parliament's belated effortto remedy this neglect that set in motion the events leading to the American Revolution, for the colonists considered the Sugar, Stamp, Tea, and related acts not remedies but just the opposite. When they vowed "no taxation without representation," it wasn't the representation they wanted (they rejected Charles Townshend's offer of same) but the taxation they did not want. Thomas Paine's Common Sense and Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence were chiefly indictments of the overweening power of the British imperial government.

    The Revolutionary War itself revealed the depth of American distrust of centralized authority—even when that authority was their own. George Washington was repeatedly driven to distraction (and almost to resignation) by the refusal of a jealous Continental Congress to grant him the wherewithal to prosecute the war effectively, and by the refusal of the states to supply what the Congress did requisition. Many, probably most, Americans of revolutionary bent believed Providence smiled on their cause; that their side won in spite of its hobbled leadership appeared additional evidence of divine favor (and of George Washington's greatness).

    To guarantee that they not simply resaddle themselves with despotism, Americans in most states insisted on attaching bills of rights to their state constitutions. The concept came from English history, dating to Magna Carta; the purpose, as articulated in the instructions of the Virginia voters of Albermarle County to their delegates to the state's constitutional convention, was to draw "a proper and clear line ... between the powers necessary to be conferred by the Constituents to their delegates, and what ought prudently to remain in their hands."

    When the difficulties of fighting a war and managing a peace convinced many Americans that the Articles of Confederation required replacement by something stronger, the most vigorous advocates of a federal government denied that the new national charter needed a bill of rights. If Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the other Federalists were to be believed, the very nature of the new government—as the careful creation of the American people, endowed with only those powers expressly delineated in the Constitution —rendered a bill of rights unnecessary. "For why declare that things shall not be which there is no power to do?" asked Hamilton disarmingly.

    In point of fact, most Americans did not believe Hamilton and the others. Although a working majority were willing to accept a stronger government, they were not about to do so without explicit hedges on the powers of that government. "Why was not the Constitution ushered in with the bill of rights?" demanded James Lincoln of South Carolina. "Are the people to have no rights?" Luther Martin of Maryland thought he knew the answer to Lincoln's question. Speaking of the framers of the proposed federal government, Martin warned, "Their object is the total abolition and destruction of all state governments, and the erection on their ruins of one great and extensive empire, calculated to aggrandize and elevate its rulers and chief officers far above the common herd of mankind."

    The upsurge of skepticism forced the Federalists to retreat and accept a bill of rights as the price of ratification—a price that subsequently diminished somewhat when one of their own, Madison, assumed charge of drafting the promised guarantees.

    In 1789 Madison held his nose at what he called "the nauseous project of amendments": within less than a decade he decided that the amendments weren't so stomach-turning after all. Now a Republican and an opponent of the Federalist administration of John Adams, Madison joined Jefferson in opposing the Sedition Act of 1798 as a violation of the First Amendment—besides being odious on its merits. Madison quietly penned a resolution by which the Republican-controlled Virginia legislature denounced the Federalist usurpation (including the companion Alien Act); Jefferson did likewise for Kentucky.

    The small-government Republicans succeeded in displacing the Federalists in the elections of 1800, causing Jefferson, in his inaugural address, to reaffirm his commitment to "a wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned." In this same address Jefferson said Americans were "all Republicans and all Federalists," which not surprisingly raised doubts in his listeners, both among Republicans who hoped he was fibbing and among Federalists who were sure he was. Subsequent actions suggested that his continued devotion to minimal government was likewise at least partly rhetorical. Jefferson was hardly the last president to discover that power wasn't half as bad when wielded by oneself as it had been in the hands of those rascals who went before. He swallowed his strict-constructionist principles to purchase Louisiana and extended the reach of government to breathtaking—specifically, transoceanic—distances in engineering the embargo of American commerce with Britain and France.

    Even those Republican loyalists who loved nearly everything Jefferson did had difficulty endorsing such a sweeping assertion of federal power, and Jefferson left office to the jeers of his enemies and the embarrassed silence of many of his friends. The war his embargo foreshadowed was the most controversial foreign conflict in the nation's history (more controversial than the Vietnam War, which even at its most divisive didn't provoke the serious talk of secession the War of 1812 did, except in such epicenters of activist symbolism as the People's Republics of Madison, Wisconsin—what must Jemmy's ghost have been thinking?—and Berkeley, California, and then only with tongue-in-chic).

    The "era of good feelings" that followed the War of 1812 felt good chiefly by comparison with the decades of dispute that preceded and followed it. A continuing concern of Westerners like Henry Clay of Kentucky was the desirability of federal support for infrastructure development—"internal improvements," as they were called. Clay dressed his designs for federal funding of roads in the language of an "American system," which also embraced a national bank and a tariff to bar imports that competed with American products. Clay found a majority (mostly among those refugee Federalists who were following him into the Whig party) for a protective tariff; likewise for a second Bank of the United States. But federal road building foundered on the apathy of the East (which already had most of the roads it needed) toward projects that would principally benefit the West, and on a lingering conception that something so geographically specific ought to be left to the states. Appropriately for anything with Clay's name on it, a compromise was struck: Congress funded the National Road (as the main interstate highway from Baltimore to—eventually—Vandalia, Illinois, was called) but, facing opposition from Presidents Madison and Monroe, ignored most of the rest of Clay's infrastructure program.

    Clay's centralizing vision received still rougher treatment from Andrew Jackson. Clay brought his troubles upon himself by persuading the director of the Bank of the United States, Nicholas Biddle, to apply for early recharter in 1832; Jackson, up for reelection, accepted the challenge and made the bank the centerpiece of his campaign. To the Jacksonians the bank represented an unwarranted and dangerous usurpation by the federal government (in league with the hated Eastern money men) of prerogatives legitimately reserved to the states. Jackson vowed to return power to its rightful place. "The bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me," Old Hickory told his protégé and eventual successor. "But I will kill it!" He proceeded to do just that, first by veto of the recharter, second by winning reelection, and third by the transfer of federal funds from the national bank to state banks.

    The French observer Alexis de Tocqueville happened to be in America during Jackson's assault on the bank, and he was struck by what this and other contemporary events said about Americans' preference for a weak central government. "The prominent feature of the administration in the United States," Tocqueville observed, "is its excessive decentralization." The preference for local control had "been carried farther than any European nation could endure without great inconvenience."

    Tocqueville took pains to distinguish between government, by which he meant the potential or constitutional scope of federal power, and administration, the actual exercise of day-to-day control. Of the former the United States had no dearth. "It would be easy to prove that the national power is more concentrated there than it has ever been in the old nations of Europe." This simply made the exceedingly modest scope of federal administration more remarkable. "In the American republics the central government has never as yet busied itself except with a small number of objects, sufficiently prominent to attract its attention. The secondary affairs of society have never been regulated by its authority; and nothing has hitherto betrayed its desire of even interfering in them."


    As Tocqueville noticed and Jackson demonstrated, in those relatively few areas of life where Americans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries admitted the need for active government, they greatly preferred that the government doing the acting be a state government rather than the federal government. Until the Civil War, of course, there existed a lively—ultimately deadly—debate over which level of government held sovereign priority. One version of the states' rights argument countenanced nullification: the denial of legitimacy within a given state to a federal law deemed obnoxious. This was Jefferson and Madison's position in the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions; it was also the position of South Carolinians who refused to enforce the 1828 tariff (the "tariff of abominations," they and their friends called it). Jackson, by threatening to hang the South Carolina nullifiers, demonstrated that an advocate of small government could simultaneously be a unionist.

    The Civil War settled the issue of states' rights versus federal authority, but only in the constitutional sense. The federal government could overrule the states; the question remained whether it should. (This was the distinction Tocqueville had drawn in observing that it rarely did.) The new Republican party, emboldened by its own audacity in fighting to preserve the Union—and aided by the secessionary departure of the Southern Democrats—said yes on such matters of legislation as a transcontinental railroad and the dedication of a small part of the public domain to the support of higher education, and on the constitutional adjustments that were supposed to secure the fruits of victory in the Civil War. Yet if the Republicans were the party of Union, they were also the party of business, and while they were delighted to enact measures that facilitated the expansion of American capitalism, they had no desire to create cosily new programs that would require raising taxes. What they couldn't fund through the tariff and the sale of public lands, they didn't deem worth doing, and consequently left undone. And in any event, the post-Reconstruction return of the Democrats put a check on Republican ambitions. (In addition, the Republican wartime program was a wartime program, of which more later.)

    Through the end of the nineteenth century the states remained the focus of political activity in America. Incorporating industrialists looked to the state governments for charters, franchises, and other necessities of business life. The additional attraction of state government, as against the federal government, was that state legislatures were easier to buy, when purchase became necessary, than Congress. (The lagniappe of working with the state legislatures in those pre-Seventeenth Amendment days was that it conferred control over a state's U.S. senators.)

    One measure of the relative lack of interest in the federal government during the last decades of the nineteenth century was the decidedly undistinguished character of the individuals who went into national politics. Of the post-Lincoln, pre-Theodore Roosevelt presidents, none sticks in historical memory; the one who comes closest—William McKinley—does so by fortuitous virtue of presiding over a war he initially opposed. Congress was even more forgettable than the presidency. With the exception of House Speaker Thomas Reed of Maine, who regularly paralyzed opponents in the golden amber of his wit and who single-handedly revolutionized the rules of the lower chamber, there were no members of Congress who could have carried Daniel Webster's law books, tied Henry Clay's cravat, or sharpened John Calhoun's quill pen. Not that the gifted individuals were flocking to state government either—instead they were busy becoming Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan.


    That was precisely what worried Ignatius Donnelly, Mary Lease, and the other founders of the People's Party of the 1890s. The Populists were the first group to seriously challenge the new political economy of the industrial age. The mythology of the movement stood in a long line of American looniness; the black-helicopter spotters of the 1990s were the direct ideological, and doubtless in some cases biological, descendants of those many Populists who were convinced that the Rothschilds held the world in the palms of their grasping, and not coincidentally Jewish, hands. But the Populists' platform was hard-headed enough. They wanted the federal government to devalue the currency, to nationalize the railroads and telephone and telegraph lines, to seize land held by railroads and other corporations in excess of actual use, to redistribute wealth through a graduated income tax, to market crops for farmers, and to shorten the workday for industrial laborers. "We believe," they stated by way of summary in their 1892 platform, "that the powers of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded ... as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land."

    It was a breathtaking program, and one that American voters decisively rejected in 1896. William Jennings Bryan and the Democrats didn't steal the whole Populist program, but even free silver—essentially a scam by which Washington would engineer massive across-the-board price hikes that would relieve debt-strapped farmers—was sufficient to frighten that resounding majority that chose McKinley and the status-quo Republicans over Bryan and his Democratic-Populist coalition.

    Yet the problems the Populists identified didn't disappear with McKinley's election. (Actually, two did: Grover Cleveland's depression gave way to a McKinley recovery, and fresh discoveries of gold in South Africa and the Yukon, and better techniques of refining gold ore, expanded the currency in a way that rendered silver superfluous.) After the turn of the century a new coalition of reformers recycled parts of the Populist agenda. The progressives—both those who joined the party of that name in 1912 and the many more Republicans and Democrats who held similar views but stuck with their old parties—followed the Populists in advocating a larger role for government. Progressivism surfaced at the national level after years of bubbling up from the cities and the states. Reformers attacking municipal corruption often found themselves trumped in the statehouses; to fix the former required repairing the latter. Likewise state reformers trying to rein in the trusts found themselves stymied by the commerce clause of the Constitution, which reserved such power to the federal government; to save the states demanded going federal.

    If the logic of the American system pushed the progressives toward federal politics, so did the psychologic of certain progressive leaders. Theodore Roosevelt thirsted for power, not entirely for its own sake but also for what it allowed him to accomplish toward what he deemed worthy goals. Roosevelt had been tilting against the trusts and the bosses since his time in the New York assembly, and he spent six years during the late 1880s and early 1890s implementing the Pendleton Act and related reforms as a federal Civil Service commissioner. When fate—in the form of McKinley's assassination—made him president in 1901, progressivism suddenly had a champion at the apex of the federal government, one who intended to make the most of his position atop that pinnacle.

    Roosevelt's reforms included the first meaningful enforcement of the Sherman antitrust act of 1890; he shocked the corporate world in 1902 when he announced prosecution of the J. P. Morgan-organized Northern Securities railroad trust. Morgan went to the White House to demand to know why the president was making such a fuss. "If we have done anything wrong," the financier said, "send your man to my man and they can fix it up." Roosevelt replied, "That can't be done." Roosevelt's point was that the days of the bosses' fixing things up were over. "We don't want to fix it up," explained Attorney General Philander Knox. "We want to stop it."

    Roosevelt followed his triumph in antitrust (which the Supreme Court obligingly ratified in 1906) with legislation that strengthened federal oversight of railroads. The Elkins Act of 1903 was largely toothless, but the Hepburn Act of 1906 established enforceable schedules of maximum charges and cognate standards of corporate good behavior. In other areas as well, Roosevelt extended the reach of Washington. After Upton Sinclair caused national indigestion with The Jungle, his indictment of the meat-packing trade, Roosevelt and the president's progressive allies in Congress pushed through the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

    In still other areas Roosevelt didn't need the help of Congress. By executive fiat he placed millions of acres of federal land into forest reserves (later called national forests), where they would be beyond the reach of the most rapacious cut-and-run timber interests. On a smaller scale he enlarged the nation's game reserves—partly out of concern for the wildlife therein, partly out of fear that hunters like himself would someday want for targets.

    Compared to what had gone before, the years of Roosevelt's presidency were indeed an age of federal assertiveness. But not even TR, speaking from his bully pulpit, was able to overcome the inertia of popular skepticism regarding Washingtons intentions. Republican regulars had from the first resisted Roosevelt's efforts to draw power to the White House, and by the end of his second (first full) term, he had a regular revolt on his hands. His last great effort on behalf of conservation came in the waning moments before a midnight withdrawal of federal forests from executive control; at that eleventh hour he and Gifford Pinchot were on hands and knees on maps spread out across the floor of Roosevelt's office, claiming this parcel and that tract, then that and that and that, before his authority expired.

    Although he might have seen this insurrection as a portent, Roosevelt left office thinking reform was safe in the hands of William Howard Taft. But Taft, by temperament a judge rather than an executive, lacked Roosevelt's confidence in the capacity of government to fix what ailed America. Taft continued to pursue antitrust violators, yet in other respects he was happy for private interests to regain ground they had lost under Roosevelt.

    What made Taft happy infuriated Roosevelt, who returned from safari in Africa to rally the forces of reform against his heir. Roosevelt was clearly the more popular of the two; in primary elections (a progressive reform just taking hold in the spring of 1912) he trounced Taft, who in turn carried most of the party caucuses. These latter victories revealed Taft's continuing grip on the party machinery, which duly delivered him the nomination that summer.

    Roosevelt's resulting Bull Moose bolt delighted Democrats even as it rankled Republicans, the party of Jefferson and Jackson looked likely to elect a president for the first time since 1892. Progressives felt torn by the need to choose between Roosevelt and the Democratic nominee, the progressive governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson; but many simultaneously took encouragement from the near-certainty that one of the two progressive challengers would displace the conservative incumbent.

    As Taft fell back in the autumn race, an important distinction surfaced between Roosevelt's and Wilson's brands of progressivism. All the progressives recited the mantra of democracy in stating their case for reform; government must act to restore the balance between business interests and the American people that had been upset by industrialization. But where Roosevelt would restore the balance at the enlarged level of big business by strengthening government, Wilson proposed to restore the balance at the historic lower level of the people by weakening business.

    Roosevelt's program borrowed from the work of Herbert Croly, who in The Promise of American Life espoused marrying Hamiltonian activism to Jeffersonian individualism—while acknowledging that the union "will necessarily do more harm to the Jeffersonian group of political ideas than it will to the Hamiltonian." With Croly, Roosevelt accepted that modernization had changed forever the terms on which public and private interests would interact. The age of industry was the age of consolidation; small enterprises had consolidated into large enterprises, with benefits to the American standard of living that were obvious daily. At the same time, consolidation allowed America to keep pace with the other great nations in an age of global competition. "If we are to compete with other nations in the markets of the world," Roosevelt told the Progressive nominating convention in August 1912, "as well as to develop our own material civilization at home, we must utilize those forms of industrial organization that are indispensable to the highest industrial productivity and efficiency." In the same speech Roosevelt approvingly quoted from a recent work by Charles Van Hise of the University of Wisconsin, in which the reformist author cited the three C's of centralizing progressivism: concentration, cooperation, and control. "Through concentration we may have the economic advantages coming from magnitude of operations," Roosevelt repeated from Van Hise. "Through cooperation we may limit the wastes of the competitive system. Through control by commission we may secure freedom for fair competition, elimination of unfair practices, conservation of our natural resources, fair wages, good social conditions, and reasonable prices." Lest any confusion cloud his auditors' understanding, Roosevelt stated in his own voice just what he had in mind. "A national industrial commission should be created which should have complete power to regulate and control all the great industrial concerns engaged in interstate business—which practically means all of them in this country."


Excerpted from The Strange Death of American Liberalism by H. W. Brands. Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.

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