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The birth of modern American liberalism

By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
web posted March 27, 2006

In my quest to understand what makes the liberal mind tick, I have argued on these pages (Understanding the Liberal Agenda, 8/2/04) that the liberal agenda for a more egalitarian society explains many of their actions. For purposes of this paper, my definition of a liberal is one who looks to a strong central government to achieve social reform, usually of an egalitarian nature. Some examples: using tax policy to narrow the disparity between the rich and the poor; using the courts (busing) and Executive decree (racial preferences), and Congress (Civil Rights Act of 1964) to bring about racial equality; using Congress (Title IX) and again the courts (forcing all-male public schools to accept women) to bring about gender equality, and so on, all at the Federal level. When did the liberal idea of using a central government to achieve social policy, to solve problems, become widespread and accepted in this country? Since the Framers of our Constitution envisioned a very limited central government, with social policy dictated from local or state governments, it had to have come later.

In The Age of Reform, Richard Hofstadter writes that "Beginning slowly in the 1890's, members of these classes [large sections of the intellectuals, the professional and opinion-making classes] deserted the standpat conservatism of the post-Civil War era to join the mainstream of liberal dissent and to give it both moral and intellectual leadership." Why would this happen in the late 19th Century? To get an idea of what was going on at that time, we need look no further than the April '06 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Atlantic, and in its honor, they are reprinting archival excerpts, one of them called, "Monopoly on the March," by Henry Demarest Lloyd, published in 1881. (The full text, Story of a Great Monopoly, is reprinted at www.theatlantic.com/ideastour.) The excerpt is forwarded by the comment: This was one of the earliest pieces of progressive muckraking to be published in a national, well-respected magazine – and the first expose of the Standard Oil Trust to be taken seriously. The issue in which the article appeared sold out seven printings, and it helped bring antitrust legislation to the forefront of national debate, auguring the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

The article first tackles the problems of railroad strikes at the time. "The remarkable series of eight railroad strikes, which began during the Centennial Exposition … culminated on July 16, 1877, in … Martinsburg, West Virginia. This spread into the greatest labor disturbance on record. For a fortnight there was an American Reign of Terror." Lloyd goes on to describe the strikes and the inability of the states to deal with the violence. "… from the facts we have recited, the States cannot prevent its arrest by the struggle between these giant forces within society, outside the law."

The next 16 pages of the article deal with the monopoly of Standard Oil and its collusion with the railroads. Lloyd convincingly showed how the railroads gave Standard favoritism in transportation which ultimately bankrupted competitors. "The Standard had a contract with the railroads which made them master. …Refiner after refiner in Pittsburg … met with a continued succession of losses, and was forced into bankruptcy or a sale of his works to the Standard, who always had a buyer on the spot."

Lloyd demonstrates how competitors had nowhere to go for relief, including government, and concludes with disgust: " America has the proud satisfaction of having furnished the world with the greatest, wisest, and meanest monopoly known to history."

Lloyd goes on to show how this hurt the common man. "Very few of the forty millions of people in the United States who burn kerosene know that its production, manufacture, and export, its price at home and abroad, have been controlled for years by a single corporation – the Standard Oil Company…Today, in every part of the United States, people who burn kerosene are paying the Standard Oil Company a tax on every gallon amounting to several times its original cost to that concern."

And finally, the solution: "In less than the ordinary span of a life-time, our railroads have brought upon us the worst labor disturbance, the greatest of monopolies, and the most formidable combination of money and brains that ever overshadowed a state…The cat must be killed or belled. In either case, it must be confronted by a power greater than itself. There is but one such power…The common people, the nation, must take them in hand…the nation is the engine of the people…The States have failed. The United States must succeed, or the people will perish." Only a strong national government, not the states, could bring about the reform needed to solve those problems.

As Hofstadter points out, for the progressive intelligentsia of the time, "…not the least of their grievances was the fact that…professional affairs were under the control of the plutocracy." So the growth of liberal thought can be seen as a reaction to the plutocracy of the time, the capitalists and their perceived immoral business activities.

The Constitution presented a different problem as it severely limited the role of the Federal government to influence public policy. It was during this period that the idea of a "Living Constitution" became a bulwark of liberalism. By allowing the Supreme Court to free itself from the text of the Constitution, it allowed greater flexibility for Congress at the Federal level to enact legislation that previously had been the province of the states.

Times have changed since the late 19th Century, but liberal thought has not. It is still anti-business. Where Standard Oil kept the price of kerosene artificially high, Wal-Mart, for example, has brought the price of almost everything down. No matter, it is big-business and evil. It is still anti-state's rights. Where "state's rights" once meant racial segregation, that was decades ago. No matter, state's rights are still viewed with contempt. And it still clings to the concept of a "living Constitution." Since so much of the left's agenda is achieved through the courts, the "living Constitution" is very much at the center of today's judicial nominating process.

In my opinion, liberal thought will never change because of the never-ending search for an ever more egalitarian society. While it became accepted and widespread and, yes, relevant during the late 19th Century, and through the Great Depression, and through the Civil Rights era, the question is, will liberal thought remain widespread and relevant in the future?

My nephew William Burns, professor of history, author of The Scientific Revolution among other books, and self described liberal, gave me the OK on my historical analysis.  On the political side, he pointed out that liberals don't necessarily have contempt for state's rights as they will argue for states rights when it satisfies a "desired outcome."  For example the argument that "marriage law has traditionally been a state matter," is used against the idea of a Federal marriage amendment.  My Wal-Mart example was dismissed with, "You really oversimplify the liberal case against Wal-Mart, which is that it lowers prices, but also depresses wages..."  And on the "living Constitution" matter, "I'm not sure liberals are at the center of today's judicial nominating process in any sense."  I'm sure he's referring to the relative ease of the Alioto and Roberts confirmations.

Robert S. Sargent, Jr. is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at rssjr@citcom.net.

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