Home > Book review, US politics > The Decline of American Liberalism, by Arthur A. Ekirch

The Decline of American Liberalism, by Arthur A. Ekirch

This book, written in 1955, recounts the history of the United States from the perspective of the declining importance and success in politics of the liberal tradition as expounded by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Prof. Arthur Ekirch (1915-2000) praises the liberalism of eighteenth century political thought, and how the American Revolution was clearly a liberal one, where Washington did not become a Caesar, a Cromwell or a Napoleon. The American revolutionaries were conscious of the need to avoid replacing the military rule from Britain with a domestic equivalent.

Prof. Ekirch sees the decline of American liberalism beginning effectively from the end of the Revolution, with a brief life under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Throughout the book, he holds agrarian Jeffersonian liberalism as the ideal. He quotes Jefferson, in a sentiment that typifies the principles and attitude of the book,

Government should not only be prohibited from interfering with the rights of individuals and from creating a large bureaucratic class who could live at public expense … The greatest of all dangers to democratic freedom and equality was the use of political power by an aristocracy, a bureaucracy, a mercantile oligarchy, a pressure group, or any other minority interest in order to increase their wealth or to obtain the privilege of living parasitically on other men’s labor.

He chastises attempts by the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to aid business in the early years of the new state. The book, however, should not bee seen as a diatribe by a pseudo-libertarian small government conservative, as gives more space to a criticism of the Alien and Sedition Acts instituted by President John Adams’ administration in 1798, and heavily attacked by Jefferson. Then Jefferson’s own two terms show the difficulties even true liberals have in governing true to their principles, particularly in light of the nationalism provoked by the continuing Napoleonic wars in Europe.

Ekirch believed there was promise in President Andrew Jackson following in the Jeffersonian tradition, but this was ultimately confined to the sphere of economics. “Retaining only its economic program, the Democratic party of Jackson worked out an alliance among southern slaveholders, western expansionists, and the urban and immigrant masses of the North. National unity was thus preserved at the price of liberal values”. Then followed the single greatest example of the decline of American liberalism, in the perpetutation of the practice of slavery, and the extent to which the country had to go to end it. In the case of the Civil War, while Ekirch does give voice to pacifists, he does not write against it, as he does other wars. He does, however, lament the illiberal practices by the government during the time of the war, such as conscription, arbitrary arrest and the seizure of property.

Ekirch’s argument really takes hold recounting the years after the Civil War, when with nationalism the scope of the government grew significantly, and with it the possibility of patronage and favours. He recounts the corruption of the Republican Party in the postwar years. He is also of critical of the Reconstruction policy, “based on force and military occupation of the former Confederacy, was the opposite of liberal”. But there are times when a liberal needs to use coercion, and had they ensured that there would be a democratic society based on liberal values, then I think it would have been justified. The real fault was that the policy of Reconstruction was often times triumphalist and not being directed on liberal ends.

He is strongly critical of the Populist movement, who began in years from 1887 to institute segregation laws in railroad travel and the beginning of the Jim Crow Laws. As poor white activists sought greater political power, they used this to assert a higher place in society than the black population. This time also saw the rise of protectionism, with the Morrill Act from 1862. The Republican Party, as the party of big business, were all too happy subsidize and protect the business and trade of their supporters. During the same period, the native American population lost their separate nation status, with an act of 1871 stipulating that no more treaties be made between Indians and the Federal government.

For much of the late nineteenth-century years, the Republicans were more likely to interfere in the economy, with the Democrats taking a classical liberal approach. This saw a break when President Gover Cleveland, hitherto known as a liberal, used Federal forces to break the Pullman Strike in 1894, led by Eugene Debs against private railroads. The criticism of Theodore Roosevelt’s nationalist outlook is interesting as he was frequently cited by Sen. John McCain last year as his favourite president. In a speech on praising state education, Roosevelt said that “the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable”, as McCain spoke of patriotism and the virtue in serving a purpose higher than oneself.

Liberals saw hope in the election of Woodrow Wilson in1912, but were to be disappointed by his eventual entry into the First World War. He initially received the support of many liberals, for his entry into the War, but when this did occur, there was a growing resentment at the illiberal policies of the war at home, particularly in terms of conscription and censorship. The description of these years again brought to mind recent years, with a war ostensibly fought on liberal grounds leading the government in an illiberal direction. Similarly the reluctance of Republicans to criticize Democrats for entering a war was to reoccur when LBJ started the Vietnam War.

Ekirch shows a particular respect for Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party, who was imprisoned in 1919 for his opposition to the draft during the war. President Wilson proved particularly vindictive in his case, and it took the election of a Republican president, Warren G. Harding, to commute his sentence and invite him to the White House.

President Harding’s return to normalcy was not to see any revival of liberalism, as the 1920s were to witness a rise in anti-immigrant feeling; a resurgence of racism manifested in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan; a constitutional prohibition of alcohol; laws on sexual vice; the prohibition of narcotic drugs (which of all these, is the one to remain to this day); censorship of books and film; and the increase in the brutality of police techniques. There was not even the trade-off for a classical liberal of free trade, as the GOP returned to its old policy of higher protective tariffs.

He sees Franklin D. Roosevelt’s victory over Herbert Hoover as inevitable given the circumstances, but condemns the way the New Deal created institutional framework to the advantage of big business. Ekirch is critical of the way the US prepared for and fought the war. Here he is speaking as a pacifist; as a European pleased on balance with the outcome of the Second World War, I cannot go as far as he does. But he is right to condemn the treatment of Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were citizens, sent to government detention centres, and of conscientious objectors (of which, the author’s biography at the end reveals, he was one, sent for two years to a public service camp).

The ten years between the end of the War and writing his book provided ample further material to account for the declining force of liberal ideals in government, with the way the Cold War was being fought and national loyalty required. Spending on security continued to be high, the Secretary of State was for the first time a former professional soldier, and freedom of speech and association was curtailed for communists. There was some good, however, in the righting of the ancient wrong by the beginning of granting political liberty to the black population. Still, government exercised greater control over education, with laws to fire teachers who would not swear an oath of loyalty to the nation. Sen. Robert Taft was particularly adamant in his opposition to this practice, and Ekirch is critical of liberals for leaving this role to a conservative.

Ekirch’s work here is certainly thorough, cataloguing the encroaching role of the state in all the time since the United States’ independence. He is to be commended for truly taking a universal approach to liberalism, not confining it simply to a single issue such as the economy or war policy, and also for seeing those as different in other aspects as Eugene Debs and Robert Taft as intellectual allies depending on the cause. My one criticism is that he does not give enough room for a discussion of the movement for racial equality, and of the racism of politicians such as Woodrow Wilson. I would certainly recommend it, though it is difficult to come across, as it was a book I had to order in from the Independent Institute in California.

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