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In The Decline of American Liberalism, renowned historian Arthur Ekirch chronicles the powerful and moving story of individual liberty across three centuries of American history. Contrary to the conventional view that this de-humanization, immense expansion and centralization of government power, and decline in liberty are temporary or manifest some sort of progress, Ekirch believes that this changethough hardly perceptible, often uneven, and occasionally reversed, is nevertheless a real descent.
Readers across the political spectrum will be fascinated by this widely celebrated and beautifully written book, as Ekirch traces how the ideals of individual liberty, free markets, and self-government have weathered the Revolutionary War, Civil War, two World Wars, Great Depression, and civil rights battles. The books far-reaching discussion of the growth of government and its negative effects on the economy, peace, and the rule of law is highly illuminating for modern readers who currently face unprecedented expansions of the size and reach of State power.
Table of Contents
Foreword to the 2009 Edition by Robert Higgs
Preface to the 1966 Edition by Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.
Preface to the First Edition by Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.
1. The European Experience
2. The Hope of America
3. A Revolutionary Shift in Emphasis
4. Federalist Centralization and Consolidation
5. Jeffersonian Compromise
6. Jacksonian Democracy: The Many and the Few
7. The Curse of Slavery
8. An American Tragedy
9. New Nationalism and New South
10. Pre-emption, Exploitation, Progress
11. The Progressives as Nationalists
12. America Enters the Struggle for Power
13. Harsh Reaction and Bitter Disillusionment
14. The Cult of Conformity and Prosperity
15. The Cult of Planning and Reform
16. From New Deal to New War
17. National Security and the Garrison State
18. National Loyalty and the Police State
About the Author
HighlightsThe American Revolution offered the world hope for a free society based on natural rights. In the decades before 1776, the concept of natural rights, and of government as the agent of a sovereign people, permeated America. Except with respect to slaves and American Indians, colonial America achieved the basic framework of a classical liberal society. The failure to end those rights violations early on, however, hastened the decline of liberalism throughout the land.
Classical liberals faced tremendous pressure to compromise their ideals. Thomas Jefferson, who did so much to spread liberal ideals before he became president, helped undermine them while in the White House. He contributed heavily to the anti-liberal growth of the national government with his Louisiana Purchase (which doubled the national debt), his embargo on trade with war-torn Europe, and his enlargement of the military. In a letter in 1822, Jefferson expressed regret for interpreting his constitutional powers too broadly. By then, however, nationalist ideas were taking root.
Slavery egregiously violated the liberal principle of natural rights, as did the Norths conduct during the Civil War. Both sides seized private property, suppressed freedom of the press, politicized the schools, and imposed military conscription on a scale unprecedented in the history of the United States or Great Britain. Furthermore, the saving of the Union made possible a degree of nationalism and a repudiation of liberalism that were inconceivable in the older federalized United States.
The progressive movement represented perhaps the first wholesale rejection of individualistic liberalism in American history. Progressives favored greater concentration of economic and political power in the Federal government. Teddy Roosevelt, who typified progressivism at the national level, sought a balance between constraining big business and protecting it with his benevolent regulation that moderated competition. Herbert Croly, one of the movements leading thinkers, blamed individual freedom for creating a morally and socially undesirable distribution of wealth. The progressives collective approach to fighting moral crusades reinforced nationalism.
World Wars I and II eroded individual liberty in America. The Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918 made virtually any criticism of the war a criminal offense. Government interventions in the domestic economy during World War I set precedents for further interventions during the Great Depression and World War II, some of which survive to this day.
The loyalty campaign of the early Cold War undermined the First Amendment and was unnecessary. By March 1952, out of four million individuals whose loyalty was checked, only one out of two hundred required a thorough field investigation and one out of two thousand were removed from government jobs. These dismissals were for alleged disloyalty, not for any misdeeds that could be prosecuted by the courts. Indeed, the whole intent of the loyalty program was to dismiss those individuals whose activities, though suspect, were not such as to subject them to normal legal and judicial procedures.
Can classical liberalism return? The decline of American liberalism is not irreversible, nor does it negate liberalisms world-historic achievement of bringing freedom, dignity, and opportunity to so many. Arthur Ekirch concludes his book with words of solace and hope: So long as honest history is writtena by no means certain circumstance in a totalitarian worldliberals will at least be able to look back with some satisfaction into the distant past, while they do their best to challenge the fate held out by an increasingly illiberal future.
When the Declaration of Independence spoke of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the Founders understood these as natural rights and saw their protection as the purpose of government. Within two centuries, however, the political philosophy that guided themclassical liberalismhad long been passé in intellectual circles, and individual liberty was in retreat from the onslaught of the welfare-warfare state. Even the term liberalism no longer meant what it originally stood for: maximum freedom for the individual and strong constraints on government power.
The Independent Institute is delighted to republish the landmark analysis of that trend, The Decline of American Liberalism, by renowned historian Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., a founding member of the Institutes Board of Advisors. First published in 1955, this powerful book has long been revered by advocates of individual liberty. The reason it has endured owes as much to Ekirchs incisive analysis and masterful erudition as it does to the importance of the subject.
Even now virtually every reader is sure to learn much from Ekirchs descriptions and evaluations, writes Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert Higgs in his foreword to the new edition. To my knowledge, no good substitute for The Decline of American Liberalism is available, and this new printing serves a valuable purpose by preserving and making conveniently available the great classical-liberal historians most important contribution to American political and intellectual history.
Liberalism in Early America
The key to understanding U.S. history, according to Ekirch, is to recognize that liberalism and colonial America grew up together. Rooted in the doctrines of the Humanists of the Renaissance, the religious reforms of the Reformation, and the natural-rights philosophy of the Enlightenment, early liberalism was concerned largely with criticizing existing institutions and protecting certain fundamental individual rights from government infringement. Despite the presence of slavery and indentured servitude, liberals viewed the New World as fresh soil in which their principles for a more humane society could take root.
The American Revolution reflected liberalisms respect for reason and individualism: its manifesto, the Declaration of Independence, appealed to world opinion that the revolution was a just cause; its conduct also showed the moderating influence of liberal ideals. Although both sides had their lapses of illiberal brutality and terror, ordinary colonists were largely able to continue their peacetime interests and pursuits. Nevertheless, anti-individualistic, anti-democratic aspects of the war disillusioned many American liberals.
The conservative reaction that followed the revolution represented a direct challenge to the liberal tradition. The Federalists consolidated power, and the wars legacy facilitated the growth of the central government. The rise of a new business class to equip the new government, worries over the repayment of war debts, American Indians in the western frontier, discriminatory trade measures of the separate states, and Shayss Rebellion created additional pressure for a stronger national government and a weakening of liberal policies.
Although the new Constitution exhibited liberalism in its natural-rights philosophy, enumerated and limited powers of the national government, and checks and balances to limit government abuses, it also gave government broad and far-reaching powers over the economic life of the nation, thereby setting the stage for the abandonment of laissez-faire liberalism and the substitution of a policy of economic nationalism or government paternalism. The short-lived Alien and Sedition Acts, pushed by the Federalist Party, were a further strike against liberalism.
The election of Jefferson and his followers in 1800 disrupted the Federalist agenda in the short run, but the Jeffersonian revolution was transient. Jefferson sought compromise between the extremes of his own radical followers and the conservative Federalists. The outbreak of new hostilities in Europe led Jefferson to adopt measures to strengthen the central government.
After his presidency Jefferson seemed to realize that the old liberal goals had been subverted by means that his party had taken over from his Federalist predecessors, but the trend toward a larger national government continued. New taxes were levied to pay for the War of 1812, a protective tariff was imposed to encourage favored industries, and pressure mounted for government to build ports, roads, and bridges.
The decades between the War of 1812 and the Civil War showed great strides in the direction of democracy, progress, and reform, but the age of Jacksonian democracy was not a bastion of old-style liberalism. Yielding to the demands of the proslavery South and western expansion, the Jacksonians found themselves supporting the suppression of free speech and free thought and justifying the manifest destiny of the nation at the expense of the rights of Indians and Mexicans.
The Civil War and Its Aftermath
Slavery was the greatest single factor in the decline of nineteenth-century American liberalism. Although many of the Founders expected slavery to die out, it achieved a new vitality in the early 1800s.
The North and South had clashed over differing political and economic interests, and their rivalry for control of the West worsened those tensions. What began as a war over secession led to the defeat of slavery. And yet, in almost all other respects, the Civil War was to occasion a setback for traditional liberal values, writes Ekirch.
Civil liberties were dealt a harsh blow: Lincolns administration suspended the writ of habeas corpus, arrested and confined war critics and southern sympathizers, confiscated private property used to aid the Confederacy, and imposed censorship and conscription. In the name of liberal values, the North had undermined them. This was the essential tragedy of the war, according to Ekirch.
During Reconstruction, ill will and obstructionism prevailed on both sides, as victorious Northerners resorted to force and military occupation, and embittered Southerners employed extremist and extralegal means to impede African Americans.
Later, a Populist backlash against the emergence of big business, often a result of government favoritism, signaled another departure from liberalism. Moreover, a new nationalistic political theory arose to keep pace with the reconstituted Union. In place of Locke and other proponents of natural rights and compact theories of government, American thinkers turned to German philosophers who glorified the role of the state.
Progressivism Eclipses Liberalism
Reformers and intellectuals of the late nineteenth-century looked to Bismarks Germany and Englands Fabian Socialists for ideas. Society, they argued, should be based not on individualism but on a collectivist, or nationalized, political and social order. Although they considered themselves liberal, their divergence from classical liberalism was profound, spawning a progressive crusader movement in domestic and international affairs. Only a handful of old liberals stood out against the forces of nationalism engendered by the times.
Advocates of U.S. entry into World War I hoped to extend their crusade for progressive democratic ideals to a war-torn and reactionary Europe. Americas fight for liberal ideals abroad, however, undermined liberty at home. Soon after U.S. entry, Congress, at the Wilsons urging, passed legislation enacting conscription, establishing an official propaganda office, and suppressing any opposition or dissent. Business leaders were enlisted to oversee government control of the economy.
Although the post-war climate was one of disillusionment with the war, classical liberal ideals remained dormant. Dissidents were prosecuted, immigration was curtailed, and subsidies and protectionism for big business continued. Prohibition gained momentum.
The legacy of the progressives continued long after their official demise: the policies and rhetoric of the New Deal borrowed from Wilsons New Freedom and Teddy Roosevelts Square Deal. Although the courts struck down some of FDRs programs, intellectual momentum favored federal encroachment in economic matters to achieve collectivist ends.
The Permanent War Economy
New Deal economic planning was easily diverted from peace to war. Conservative businessmen who opposed spending for domestic reform went along with spending for military purposes. During World War II the interment of Japanese Americans, the suppression of dissidents and conscientious objectors, and an extensive system of rationing and price controls ensured that civil and economic liberties would not be spared in the federal governments quest for control.
After the war a few key developments helped transform the erstwhile republic into what political scientist Harold Lasswell called the garrison state, such as the creation of the National Security Council and unprecedented peacetime funding of a large military. The merging of big government and big business under the concept of a permanent war economy created a new danger to the individual and a new threat to liberalism.
Tensions generated by the cold war and the accompanying militarization of the American economy brought a new series of attacks upon traditional civil liberties. Whereas existing laws were adequate to prosecute genuine criminal conspiracies, the eras national loyalty oaths, Congressional investigations, and the official registration of organizations deemed subversive created political criminals of those found or presumed guilty by association. As Ekirch puts it, To the danger of the garrison state there was added the new threat of a police state, with its grim portent for American liberalism.
In his preface to the 1966 edition, Ekirch acknowledged that certain advances had been made since the book was first publishednotably in regard to civil rights for African Americans. Nevertheless, he believed his major thesis remained valid. Government-granted freedoms bestowed for membership in a group, he argued, are no substitute for natural rights, a concept long absent from public discourse.
Individual freedom, Ekirch writes, continues to be threatened by the forces of nationalism and warand the resultant concentration of ever greater powers in the institutions of the modern state and its corporate adjuncts.
. . . Mr. Ekirch has read widely and deeply in the history of the United States. America, in Mr. Ekirchs view, began in the liberal tradition of western civilization. This liberalism was in part a doctrinethe freedom of the individual. But in addition to being a doctrine it was a habit of mind, a tendency toward the reasonable, the tolerant, and the moderate. Since the American Revolution the story of the United States has been one of the steady decline of this liberalism. In recent times the welfare state and the military state have pushed political, economic, and ideological centralization to a point where all the major values of the American liberal tradition are gravely menaced. . . . Mr. Ekirch systemically applies his thesis to each period in American history. . . .
Ekirch argues in The Decline of American Liberalism that the main trend since the American Revolution has been to augment concentration of economic and state power and thus whittle away individual freedom. Mr. Ekirch admits that the decline of the liberal tradition has been paralleled by the advance of other philosophies and valuesbut his sustained argument pulls few punches in its well-written, hard-hitting pages. Professor Ekirch has written an intelligent and important book. That such a book could be written and published proves that liberalism in America can still be thoughtfully interpreted and eloquently championed.
Merle E. Curti, Pulitzer Prizewinner; Professor of History, University of Wisconsin (in the New York Times)
Brilliant, penetrating and often illuminating study of American political history. . . .
The New Republic
The New Deal and its successors substituted the ideals of security and equality for freedom and diversity. It is a formidable indictment, and Mr. Ekirch marshals a large body of evidence for itenough to make his book stimulating and rewarding reading.
To most people the term liberalism is confusing. Some people equate it with the New Deal, others with any kind of leftist philosophy. In this powerful and brilliant book, Arthur Ekirch uses the term in the only way it can be properly usedin its historical and classical sensenot as a program, nor even as a well-defined system, but more as an attitude of mind. . . . Everyone who respects the worth and dignity of individual human beings and dislikes totalitarianism can read this distinguished book with profit.
Dumas Malone, Pulitzer Prize Winner; Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Biographer-in-Residence and Professor Emeritus of History, University of Virginia (in the History Book Club Review)
Taking as his standpoint the classical conception of liberalism as an attitude and including belief in limited representative government and economic freedom for the individual, Arthur Ekirch traces its decline from the beginning of our national history. . . . Professor Ekirch has contributed a stimulating interpretation and survey of American development. His chapters on the growth of the garrison state and the cult of national loyalty are a devastating commentary which has the virtue of relating these development to long term trends in this society.
The Decline of American Liberalism is an extremely interesting, thoughtful, and valuable book. It is one of the most stimulating surveys of American history that I have seen in years.
Allan Nevins, Pulitzer Prizewinner; Harmsworth Professor of American History, Oxford University
Arthur Ekirchs The Decline of American Liberalism is gloomier about liberalism and more loyal to the original (i.e. libertarian) understanding of it. Rather than celebrate the rise of reform, he laments its contribution to the decline of individualism.
Jonah Goldberg, Editor at Large, National Review Online
With its brilliant emphasis on ongoing, never-ending battles between forces of centralization and decentralization since our colonial days, The Decline of American Liberalism provides the key to fully understanding not only our countrys past but its present and future too.
Nick Gillespie, Editor, Reason Online and Reason TV
Although originally published in 1955 and much engaged with the Cold Wars chilling effects on civil liberties, Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.s provocative The Decline of American Liberalism has perhaps never been more relevant. By stressing that, from the very start of American history, forces of centralized and decentralized power have been warring over the country, Ekirch makes a case for limited government and individual rights in a way that is extremely well-suited to the twilight years of the American Century.
For [Ekirch], liberalism means the emergence of man over the State; it conveys a sense of the dignity and self-determination of the individual. The intellectuals of the present time have pre-empted the word liberalism and corrupted it to mean the use of the States power to accomplish social ends. But as this book makes clear, the true liberalwhether he calls himself a conservative, a libertarian, or an individualistis the man who sets his heart and mind on the eternal but elusive goal of liberty.
Sheldon Richmond, former Editor, The Freeman
In the fifties, at the peak of another similar era of liberal evisceration (in the face of McCarthyite conformism and national security fears), Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., in The Decline of American Liberalism, offered a cogent analysis of liberalism having been in perpetual retreat since soon after the American Revolution. . . . Thus the illusion that freedom is on the march (it is, if one takes as the criteria the tentacles of the regulatory state, which has over time shed the distinction between the public and the private), even as it is really in secular decline (if measured by the scope of an individual to lead a life of his own choice, free from interference).
In order to understand and evaluate Professor Ekirchs interpretation of the fate of liberalism, one must first understand the meaning he attached to the term. . . . Liberalism is best thought of not as a well-defined political or economic system, but as a collection of ideas or principles which go to make up an attitude or habit of mind. It must include the concept of limited representative government and the widest possible freedom of the individualboth intellectually and economically.
American Political Science Review
. . . . American liberalism derives mainly from the ideas of the Enlightenment and was institutionalized during the Revolution; and from this [Ekirch] reasons, again with force, to an anti-statist and anti-militarist tradition in America
. . . . Possibly, and I would say we may hope, the perspective of some happier future and the writing of some very large and persuasive book may give Ekirchs convictions a new historical standing.
This book is well worth studying if for no other reason than the light it sheds on the confusion attending the term liberal. Moreover, some readers will find useful the authors pessimistic portrait of decay (often long quotes from well-known textbooks) in recalling once again how frequently the ideals of the democratic state have been violated in our national past.
Journal of Southern History
Professor Ekirch has written a short history of the United States from the hopeful eve of the revolution to the frustrating morrow of World War II, and, to tell the truth and give him his due, he has managed to write one quite different from almost all other short histories of the United States. . . . This, it need hardly be said, is a very subjective kind of historyeven though written with a fine show of cool, dispassionate objectivityand every reader will have to make up his own mind on the viability if the main thesis. . . . Professor Ekirch proves himself an able, learned historian, and no one will fail to profit from a careful reading of this book. . . . His is a brave attempt.
American Historical Review
In this stimulating book Professor Ekirch undertakes to show that American liberalism has been in steady decline since the founding of our republic. This classical liberalism has as its central doctrines the concept of limited representative government and the widest possible freedom for the individualboth intellectually and economically. . . . In the space of a hundred and fifty years, liberalism has practically reversed its meaning and is now used to sanction a statism potentially more absolute than anything seen in the past. But that [Ekirch] has given the true history of a decline seems to me indubitable.
Richard M. Weaver, Professor of English, University of Chicago (in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review)
He has undertaken to define liberalism rigidly, as containing the essence of individualism; and by that measure can find no important deviation from a road of events which, from colonial times to the present, runs downward and away from liberalism, through capitalism (both liberal and monopoly) and through two world wars to the garrison and police States. . . . I assume that it will take all the heritage of our liberals and liberalisms to forge a modern version of liberty capable of doing what older versions once more or less managed. It is good to think that Professor Ekirchs and social conscience will be of aid in this work.
American Journal of Economics and Sociology
A more thought-provoking de mortuis for liberalism is hard to imagine.
Louisville Courier Journal
What distinguishes this book from so many recent discussions of the American political tradition is the obvious sincerity and passion of Arthur Ekirchs love for individual liberty and hatred for the Leviathan state. On this most important of issues he is uncompromisingly on the side of the angels.
Frank S. Meyer, Co-Founding Editor, National Review
This is a fascinating book in that it is a serious effort by an able and learned historian to prove a thesis with which hardly any fellow practitioner of his craft would agree and the man in the street would hotly dispute. . . . Liberalism to him is a blend of faith and practice designed to insure the maximum freedom to the individual, economic and intellectual, from the power of government, good or bad. The present volume finds four great enemies of American liberalism: war, any and every war; nationalism, including even Lincolns defense of the Union or the Fourteenth Amendment; government intervention, ranging from Hamiltons economic program to Civil Rights proposals; and majoritarian democracy, in which Andrew Jackson and Senator McCarthy are classic examples.
New York History
I disagree with the authors viewpoint and I believe that he would probably disagree with mine. But the book is a remarkable, scholarly, well-documented record of the history of Americas intellectual life. One may disagree with a writers interpretation of the facts, but first one must know the factsand in this respect, the book is of enormous value. This book is The Decline of American Liberalism by Professor Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.
Ayn Rand, author
How is it possible that one hundred and fifty years ago liberalism meant the advocacy of freedom and economic laissez faire and that today it means the creed of totalitarian statism? Many people are aware of this total reversal. But few, especially todays liberals, know, or care to know, how or why it came about. In an engrossing book, distinguished for its scholarship, Professor Ekirch provides the evidence for understanding and explaining how two mutually antagonistic creeds share the name of liberalism and how one led to the other. v surveys the rise and demise of liberal ideology and institutions in America.
Robert Hessen, Senior Fellow Emeritus, Hoover Institution, Stanford University
The book takes the form of an intellectual history of the United States. . . . Ekirchs story is one of moral and political retrogression. . . . It shows, for one thing, that the seeds of liberal self-defeat began with confusions embedded in the Founders own ideology, and shows how these confusions ramified through history. The book also offers a usefully critical perspective on the Progressives, . . emphasizing the continuities between American Progressivism and European anti-liberalism, both fascist and socialist. And Ekirchs discussion of the confusions of Progressive discourse on war and imperialism around the time of World War I is both valuable and topically relevant. There are probably dissertations waiting to be written on the parallels between the wartime discourse of the Progressives and that of our contemporary liberal hawks; chapter 12 of Decline might not be a bad place to begin research.
Arthur A. Ekirch Jr., Ph.D., (1915-2000) was a leading scholar of American intellectual history and professor emeritus of history at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany. Dr. Ekirch was the author of ten books, including The Civilian and the Military.
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