4th of July Thoughts on the Tension Between Classical and Social Liberalism

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[4th of July Fireworks from Park Slope, Brooklyn: Photograph by The New Centrist] 

Today is Independence Day in the United States. The American Revolution, anti-imperialist, bourgeois, individualistic, while not as radical as the French or bloody as the Haitian, nevertheless was of paramount importance. The American Revolution was the first example of colonists successfully rebelling against a royal government, developing a liberal society based on individual rights and a separation of church and state. At least that’s the story I grew up with.  

This perspective is ably articulated by Louis Hartz’ influential The Liberal Tradition in America. Written in the 1950s, The Liberal Tradition remains an eloquent and convincing account of the intellectual and political history of the United States. And while Louis Hartz has accumulated plenty of critics over the past half century, his perspective continues to influence the way many Americans think about the United States and its historical development. For example, spokespeople for the political right and left continually refer to Hartz’ supposition that Lockean notions of individualism and property rights are the apotheosis of American political culture. 

Hartz also viewed the development of the American state through a liberal lens, a popular government of limited powers that is controlled ultimately by citizens through the institution of universal suffrage. Yet can a slave society that denies citizenship to a substantial percentage of the populace living within its environs based on ascriptive characteristics (women, Africans, Asians, Indigenous tribes, etc.) be deemed liberal? Can a society that bases the entire notion of liberty on the ability to procure property consider itself liberal when human beings are considered chattel in that very system?  

Rogers Smith provides a counter narrative. Smith’s, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in United States History, examines political struggles over citizenship laws from the colonial period through the Progressive era showing a consistent and disturbing pattern. Most adults were legally denied access to full citizenship, including political rights, solely because of their race, ethnicity, or gender. Smith argues that conflicts over these denials, rather than the march of liberalism, have driven American political development. Further, “these conflicts are what truly define U.S. civic identity up to this day.”  

Whether you agree with all of Smith’s findings or not, he certainly makes a strong case. Jeremy Rabkin, who wrote a critical review of Civic Ideals in Public Interest, nonetheless recognized the scope and depth of Smith’s scholarship:

Smith has to be honored for the immense scholarly industry displayed in this work. It does not simply raise intriguing questions with quick sketches of abstract issues. It takes us, decade by decade, through the precise disputes about every issue it covers, describing court battles, legislative debates, and broader political controversies in relentless detail. The table of covered court cases, provided as a separate index at the end of the volume, extends through 25 double-column pages. After 500 pages of text, this history only gets up to 1912, promising to take up the rest of the story in a separate volume. Civic Ideals is a work of scholarly ambition on a Victorian scale.

By illuminating contradictions between the tenets of classical liberalism and the economic, social, legal and political practices of classical liberals, he forces readers to come to terms with some very unsavory aspects of American history. I think the social liberalism of the abolitionists, suffragettes, trade unions, and other reformists developed as a result of, or in response to, these contradictions. More on that later. And if I didn’t make my case clear, you really should read both of these books.

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[4th of July Fireworks from Park Slope, Brooklyn: Photograph by The New Centrist]

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One response »

  1. Pingback: Happy Independence Day! Gil Troy on Centrism « The New Centrist

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