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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

3 Great New York Democrats

The Forgotten History of Classical Liberalism in the Empire State


Today is the New York Democratic Primary, and it’s likely to be the last stand for Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton (betting markets currently put her odds of winning the state at 91.5 percent). But either way, it’s not an enviable choice for New Yorkers.

On the one hand, there’s Sanders’ quixotic attempt to rehabilitate socialism and punishing middle class taxes, while blending them with regressive nationalism and downright gleeful ignorance of basic economics. On the other hand, there’s Clinton’s long history of slipperinessnaked political opportunism, bellicose militarism, and blind faith in big government interventions.

But it was not always so — once upon a time, New York Democrats had friends of freedom representing their party (flawed though they and all political vessels may be). As FEE President Lawrence Reed wrote a few years back,

The Democratic Party in the state of New York these days is about as “liberal” (in the twentieth-century, American sense of the term) as it gets. On economic issues in particular, it is reliably statist, meaning it rarely deviates from the “more government is the answer” mentality, no matter how strongly logic or evidence point elsewhere.

But not so long ago, New York’s Democrats were largely of the opposite persuasion. They were often what we now would call “classical liberals,” ardent skeptics of the concentration of power. Classical liberals really believed in liberty; today’s liberals really don’t.

Here’s three throwback Democrats covered by Lawrence Reed in these pages who each represented part of the forgotten (classical) liberal tradition in the Empire State.

Horatio Seymour (1810-1886)

“A long-forgotten New Yorker who served in his state’s legislature and twice as governor, then nearly became President of the United States,” Reed wrote, Seymour vetoed one of the earliest alcohol prohibition laws, explaining in his veto message that “all experience shows that temperance, like other virtues, is not produced by lawmakers, but by the influences of education, morality and religion.”

Seymour opposed slavery, but he nonetheless decried the wartime suspension of civil liberties (“government is not strengthened by the exercise of doubtful powers”) and imprisoning of northern dissenters without charges (“I denounce the doctrine that Civil War in the South takes away from the loyal North the benefits of one principle of civil liberty”).

Seymour also fought against the draft and paper greenbacks, insisting instead on gold. He was nominated (essentially against his will) to be the Democratic candidate for president in 1868 but lost to Ulysses S. Grant. Read more about Seymour here.

William Bourke Cockran (1854-1923)

“Cockran was a classical liberal scholar, an ardent free trade advocate, a civil liberties champion, and a confidant of the last Jeffersonian president, Grover Cleveland. He exerted enormous influence on a young Winston Churchill, who credited Cockran as his first political guru and role model,” wrote Reed.

As a congressman from New York, Cockran was a strong proponent of the gold standard who helped Grover Cleveland defeat the inflationary paper/silver policy that had sent the economy into chaos. Read more about Cockran and the gold fight here.

Grover Cleveland (1837-1908)

Reed succinctly lays out the libertarian case for President Cleveland:

I’ll take a president who leaves us alone over one who can’t keep his hands out of other people’s pockets any day of the week. Honesty, frugality, candor, and a love for liberty are premium qualities in my kind of president. The one man among post-war presidents (post-Civil War, that is) who exemplified those qualities best was Grover Cleveland.

Cleveland took a stand against the nascent welfare state and pork barrel politics, vetoing handouts to businesses, cronies, and special interest groups across the board. In fact, “Cleveland in his first term refused to sign twice as many bills as did all previous 21 presidents combined. Most of those bills were nothing more than cynical attempts by somebody to get something from somebody else by the force of the government’s gun.”

Read much, much more about Cleveland here, and watch Reed discuss his legacy on Fox Business here:


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