Why History Matters to Liberalism
If the Tea Party is to be believed, radical individualism has defined American history. But their story is wrong, and progressives must say so.
But if the Founders were not perfect, they were bold and visionary, prepared to think and act anew at a time when much of the world was skeptical about the possibility of republican government and self-rule. Our task is to follow their example, not to engage in an inevitably futile effort to parse every word they wrote and spoke to discover how we should act now. The Founders hugely valued individual freedom, but they were steeped in principles that saw the preservation of freedom as a common enterprise.
And if progressives should challenge the conservative interpretation of our founding moment, so too should they challenge the right’s claims that government played a minimal role in the growth and development of our nation. The Founders, after all, didn’t create a strong federal government for it to do nothing. And those who would claim that the federal government did not become a major actor in American life until the Progressive Era and the New Deal are willfully reading Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln out of the first eight decades after the Constitution’s ratification. Hamilton envisioned a national government that would be “intermingled in the normal exercise of government” and be engaged in “matters of internal concern.” Clay advocated for what he called the “American System,” so-named to distinguish it from the British laissez-faire system. He famously fought for federal support for “internal improvements,” the roads and canals that would bind the nation together and foster commerce among the states. (Today’s advocates of public works might usefully note that “internal improvements” is a lovelier phrase than the word “infrastructure.”)
Both Hamilton and Clay foresaw a manufacturing future for our nation, with the federal government playing an important role in its development. Hamilton noted that “in a community situated like that of the United States, the public purse must supply the deficiency of private resource.” For his part, Clay disdained those who saw the Constitution as blocking his efforts to protect American manufacturing. “This constitution must be a singular instrument!” Clay declared derisively. “It seems to be made for any other people than our own.”
And of course Lincoln did more than anyone to bind the states together into a nation while also insisting that the Declaration of Independence’s words “all men are created equal” commanded Americans to end the scourge of slavery. At first, he sought to do so gradually—Lincoln was a moderate. But eventually—moved by the exigencies of war and his own evolving views, documented powerfully by the historian Eric Foner—he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. And as a loyal follower of Clay, Lincoln continued to use the federal government on behalf of national development, signing the Morrill Act to create land-grant colleges and establishing a National Academy of Sciences.
This long history of federal activism was broken by the Gilded Age after the Civil War, the one period in our history when radical individualism predominated over tempered American individualism, which always understood that the preservation of individual freedom is, in the end, a communal project. Members of the Tea Party look to a 35-year exception to a 235-year history as the model for our entire national story. Seen this way, the Populists, Progressives, and, eventually, the New Dealers who overthrew the Gilded Age were not radicals breaking with the American past—though they were, indeed, innovative. Rather, they combined innovation with restoration. They were calling Americans back to the tradition of Hamilton, Clay, and Lincoln while also putting these ideas to the service of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian aspirations to greater equality and expanded democracy. Thus did they propose to use, in a formulation made famous by Progressive Era writer Herbert Croly, Hamiltonian means to Jeffersonian ends.
The Long Consensus now under threat from a conservatism that champions a radical form of individualism is not some European import, a radical scheme aimed at undermining traditional American liberties. On the contrary, it is as deeply and profoundly American as Hamilton and Clay, Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and both Roosevelts.
The classic American balance was well described by FDR in his speech before the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco that was the most philosophical address of his 1932 campaign. If “we must restrict the operations of the speculator, the manipulator, even the financier,” Roosevelt declared, “I believe we must accept the restriction as needful, not to hamper individualism but to protect it [emphasis added].” Government’s responsibility, Roosevelt said, “is the maintenance of a balance, within which every individual may have a place if he will take it; in which every individual may find safety if he wishes it; in which every individual may attain such power as his ability permits, consistent with his assuming the accompanying responsibility.”
That balance is what is at stake now.
Obama Discovers History
I confess that no one outside the Osawatomie Chamber of Commerce was as happy as I was last December when Obama chose to make the case for his own approach to governance by going to the Kansas town where Teddy Roosevelt delivered his 1910 New Nationalism speech. Having spent the previous two years working on a book about the progressive idea in American history, I couldn’t help but be cheered by the President’s eagerness to link himself to TR and the longer American story.
It was not the first time Obama had appealed to history. Ventura’s essay in Democracy had, in part, been inspired by a 2005 commencement address by Obama at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, in which he assailed “Social Darwinism” for “ignoring our history” and “our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we are all in it together and everybody’s got a shot at opportunity.”
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