The Nineteenth Century Liberal

The two dominant American political parties of the late 1860s, the Republicans and the Democrats, are the parties that continue to dominate the political landscape into the early Twenty-First Century. Although they are the same parties in name, many of the policies they espouse—and the place on the political spectrum their supporters find themselves—have almost entirely reversed in the intervening century and a half. In modern parlance, a liberal is one that finds himself or herself on the left side of the political spectrum and is more likely to be a member of the Democratic Party. In the late Nineteenth Century, the term had an entirely different meaning.

In the years and decades following the Civil War, one was likely to call himself or herself the term “liberal” if he or she “embraced minimal government, a free market economy, individualism, and property rights.”[i] Liberals had a dislike for “established institutions” such as “the Catholic Church” or a “monarchy,” but they also participated in some of those institutions such as the elite American universities.[ii] From being in leadership positions in churches and writing in prominent periodicals—such as the Nation and Atlantic Monthly—they had a widespread presence in American society that would leave some with the impression that the liberal ideology was “all that was respected, learned, and conventional.”[iii] There was a desire amongst liberals to build a society of virtue using organizations, not government, as conduits, and they believed that “culturally and politically the people needed the guidance and uplift” that only liberals could provide.[iv]

Liberals imagined that if they could control and reform the country’s most powerful institutions, including churches and universities, they could supply and sustain the “general intellectual and moral life” of America.[v] Indeed they did rise to prominent positions in those institutions, and in the religious setting, tended to emphasize “salvation and uplift rather than sin and suffering” which had widespread appeal to the burgeoning American working class.[vi] To help reform the country in their image, liberals created the American Social Science Association and published its journal which articulated the liberal stance on issues as varied as “immigration, opposition to the income tax, administration of charities, suffrage, elections, crime and punishment, education, trade, currency reform, and health.”[vii]

With this journal and other liberal media becoming prominent, the values of individual autonomy and free markets became more widely shared throughout the country, and with that change came a shift in how Americans viewed their government and its laws: governance itself “was a matter of creating expert administrators, who would act as a kind of police, blocking those who would violate the natural laws and noting legitimate exceptions to those laws.”[viii] The free market was a reflection of nature—with supply and demand changing based on the aggregate wants and needs of society—and the country’s laws, according to liberals, must not have disturbed or imposed on that free market. Change, inevitable as it is, must have been gradual and natural to satisfy the liberals; likewise, if a reformer sought to accelerate change or implement reforms that are outside the bounds of the incremental nature of change, it was the government’s and its administrators’ role to stop that reform.[ix]

Francis Amasa Walker.

The most fervent liberals would have looked to Francis Amasa Walker for inspiration: he had “defined as socialistic ‘all efforts, under popular impulse, to enlarge the functions of government, to the diminution of individual initiative and enterprise, for a supposed public good.’”[x] In his view, all affirmative action that a government took “from delivering the mail or cleaning the streets to providing for schools” was socialism and anathema to liberals.[xi] However, Walker—and many other liberals—had flexibility to these beliefs: when Walker was appointed to supervise the 1880 census, that census posed to respondents 13,010 questions and ultimately “gathered information on people, businesses, farms, hospitals, churches, and more.”[xii] Liberals were opposed to the government taking affirmative action unless the actors within the government were ones that could be trusted. In Walker’s case, he did not distrust government as a general rule but instead took issue with democratic governance as it correlated with “inefficiency and corruption.”[xiii] So long as government, and the experts who administrated its functioning, remained “insulated from popular politics,” the most valuable elements of American society—democracy, the free market, and individual autonomy—were safe.[xiv]

[i] Richard White, The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and The Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 172.

[ii] See id.

[iii] Id. (citing Sidney Fine, Laissez Faire and the General-Welfare State: A Study of Conflict in American Thought, 1865-1901 [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1956], 47-56).

[iv] See Richard White, The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and The Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 174.

[v] See id.

[vi] See id.

[vii] Id. at 177.

[viii] Id. at 179.

[ix] See id.

[x] Id. at 180 (quoting Michael Les Benedict, “Laissez-Faire and Liberty: A Re-Evaluation of the Meaning and Origins of Laissez-Faire Constitutionalism,” Law and History Review 3, no. 2 [1985], 306).

[xi] See Richard White, The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and The Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 180.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] See id.

[xiv] See id. at 180-81.

Leave a Reply