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Friday, March 23, 2007

Arthur Ekirch’s The Decline of American Liberalism


I like revisiting classic, and unfortunately forgotten, works in the (classical) liberal, or libertarian, canon. This pays several dividends. For one, it brings great books to the attention of people who never knew they existed. Moreover, old books often contain insights and information you can find nowhere else. Murray Rothbard was fond of pointing out that, contrary to what people assume, knowledge does not advance inexorably onward and upward. Important things can be omitted, overlooked, and forgotten. Consequently, later books on a subject can be less complete than earlier books. So it is wrong to think that the older books need not be consulted because subsequent work incorporates everything of value from the past.

I first became acquainted with the late Arthur A. Ekirch Jr.’s The Decline of American Liberalism in my college days. The book was first published in 1955, then reissued in 1967. It was a History Book Club selection and, I’ve been told, a contender for a national book award. Ekirch wrote nine other books, including Ideologies and Utopias: The Impact of the New Deal on American Thought (1971) and The Civilian and the Military (1972), especially relevant today.

He was a professor of history at SUNY Albany from 1965 to 1986 after holding teaching posts at Hofstra and American universities. As Lawrence Wittner wrote in an appreciation of Ekirch, a leading scholar of American intellectual history, when he died in 2000 (available at the American Historical Association website):

In many ways, Ekirch was a model faculty member and, eventually, history department chair — hardworking and efficient. And yet, although students and colleagues respected his erudition and diligence, some did not know what to make of his unpretentious style, his iconoclastic views, and his blunt pronouncements. His unusual candor and uncompromising libertarian beliefs delighted some and dismayed others.

Ekirch wrote for the intelligent nonspecialist, and his work sets the standard for accessible scholarship. The Decline of American Liberalism is a great place to start because it provides a readable look at the whole of American political-economic-intellectual history in under 400 pages. I highly recommend it.

The title of course portends pessimism, particularly in light of this statement in his Foreword: Since the time of the American Revolution the major trend in our history has been in the direction of ever-greater centralization and concentration of control — politically, economically, and socially. As part of this drift toward ‘state capitalism’ or ‘socialism,’ the liberal values associated with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment — and especially that of individual freedom — have slowly lost their primary importance in American life and thought.

But he adds, Despite the pessimism implied in such a stand, I wish to disclaim any intent to essay the role of a Jeremiah or a Cassandra. My purpose is rather that of an historian and social scientist. I desire to examine the history of liberalism because I think that evidence of a decline would tell of an important facet of our history, deserving more consideration than it has hitherto received…. I believe the weakening of the liberal tradition should be of sufficient concern to cause us to reassess that easy assumption of continual progress which has no frequently characterized American historical writing.

I can’t do justice to such a book in a short space. So I will discuss the early chapters and return to the subject in coming weeks.

In chapter 2, The Hope of America, Ekirch writes,

[I]t is not far from correct to say that liberalism and colonial America grew up together. …Probably the majority of the settlers who came to America did so because of their longing to break away from the rigid class society and restraints of Europe. In one way or another the average settler was fleeing absolutism. …An abundance of free land ensured the widespread diffusion of property, higher wages, and greater social equality. Feudal customs of restricted land tenure proved impossible of general application in the New World. No hereditary aristocracy of lords and ladies owned exclusive title to the land, and the Old World customs of primogeniture and entailed estates were never popular in the colonies. Prosperity bred economic individualism and, in a land of seemingly boundless wealth, mercantilist notions of political economy began to yield the economic stage to a rising laissez-faire capitalism….

In large part therefore the American colonial economy fulfilled liberal expectations, approximating closely the agrarian dream of a society in which property was widely diffused and divided on fairly equal terms. Only the presence of the lower class of Negro slaves and indentured white servants intervened to mar the picture of a free and liberal social system. …Almost as unfortunate as the Negro slave was the American Indian, who, though not enslaved, was often warred upon and divested of his lands and hunting grounds.

While Ekirch writes glowingly of the rise of liberalism in colonial America (without ignoring the contradictions of chattel slavery and the oppression of Indians), he underscores a shift in emphasis that occurred during the Revolution with its encroachment of a new spirit of nationalism and Americanism upon the older, local frontiers of colonial days. He quotes historian Vernon L. Parrington, who wrote that the Revolution marked the turning point in American development; the checking of the long movement of decentralization and the beginning of a counter movement of centralization…. The history of the rise of the coercive state in America, with the ultimate arrest of all centrifugal tendencies, was implicit in that momentous counter movement.

Ekirch himself goes on to note that In the process of fighting the Revolution, economic advantage and social privilege were by no means eliminated. Much loyalist property, for example, found its way into the hands of a new group of wealthy landed proprietors. Such transfers sometimes did more to advance speculation in land prices than to further the achievement of an agrarian diffusion of property. Army contracting also resulted in the creation of new wartime fortunes…. [M]ost governmental regulation of the period was favorable to business.

Centralization and Consolidation

Ekirch elaborates the counter movement that occurred after the Revolution in chapter 4, Federalist Centralization and Consolidation. He and Parrington differ with other historians not in their seeing a conservative counterrevolution, but rather in seeing it as something permanent. The Jeffersonian and Jacksonian periods revived the declining liberalism to some extent, but the shift [to centralization] … represented more than a temporary reaction. It was characterized in part by business’s look[ing] to government for economic support. He points out, In a variety of ways therefore the war had an educational effect upon American business thinking and practice, especially teaching businessmen to identify themselves with the policies and operations of government.

This attitude and other things intensified the conservatives’ discontent with the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789), which set up a weak central government without authority to levy taxes or regulate trade. This discontent was increased by rebellious farmers and mechanics who were beginning to unite in their opposition to strong government and higher taxes. (Shays’ Rebellion in 1786 is the best-known example.) Even greater centralization of power was the conservatives’ answer. Ekirch quotes James Madison, a centralist, who explained the move to centralization as a way to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.

The conservative reaction resulted in the 1787 Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia. [A]ll fifty-five of the delegates were men of considerable and varied property holdings, ranging from the possession of slaves and lands to investments in government securities and far-flung business enterprises…. [T]hey easily resolved to disregard the announced plan of submitting amendments [to the Articles] and to prepare instead an entirely new frame of government, Ekirch writes.

His discussion of this period sheds valuable light on constitutional matters still relevant today, for example, the allegedly clear distinction between strict constructionism and living-constitutionalism. Here’s what he says:

Fundamental to an understanding of the Constitution adopted at Philadelphia is the realization that it represented a compromise made possible by the large areas of essential agreement among the delegates. Between the two poles of a colonial and Revolutionary radicalism — which favored democratic individualism and state rights — and a lingering British conservatism — which frankly preferred a constitutional monarchy and the rule of a propertied aristocracy — compromise was relatively easy to achieve. The delegates to the Philadelphia Convention were overwhelmingly agreed upon the necessity of a government that was national, yet republican, and there was little sentiment in behalf of either a monarchy or the kind of decentralized government illustrated by the Articles of Confederation. In accord therefore on the basic theory of the new government, the delegates fashioned a document whose meaning depended to a considerable extent upon how it was interpreted. The very vagueness and silences of the Constitution left much to be inferred and decided in the future. [Emphasis added.]

In the document Ekirch perceives homage to liberalism in the tacit acknowledgement of natural rights (later made explicit in the Bill of Rights), the limitation of powers, and the separation of branches. Yet he also sees an illiberal delegation of economic powers to the central government: The men at Philadelphia were convinced that the economic powers hitherto wielded by the states would be safer in the hands of a centralized national government. To this end, Congress was given exclusive authority to coin money and to regulate both foreign and interstate commerce. Thus the stage was set for the abandonment of laissez-faire liberalism and the substitution of economic nationalism or government paternalism.

The so-called Federalists, epitomized by Alexander Hamilton, were the first to rule under the Constitution and thus were able to establish important precedents under which we still labor. For example, Ekirch notes, when Hamilton asked Congress to charter a national bank and Jefferson protested on constitutional grounds, Hamilton answered with his famous doctrine of implied or resulting powers. That doctrine has stood the advocates of robust central government in good stead ever since. (For Madison’s endorsement of the theory of implied powers, see my The Constitution Within.)

This was ominous both in general and in its specifics. The bank, Ekirch writes, received a monopoly of government business, and by loans to private interests was able also to provide new capital for the business expansion that Hamilton deemed vital to the United States prosperity.

Ekirch sums up a dozen years of Federalist rule thus:

The Federalists were correct in pointing out the necessity of the rule of law, rather than of revolution, for the preservation of liberalism, but they erred in the way they interpreted the laws at home. Using the checks and balances of the Constitution to thwart popular control, they went on to violate their own concept of a balanced government, adopting a broad and elastic interpretation of the Constitution and using expanded power of government and the vague concept of the general welfare for the benefit of a particular class — the commercial, propertied aristocracy. But, though overthrown in 1800, the remnants of the defeated Federalists later had the grim satisfaction of seeing their Jeffersonian opponents embrace many of the same consolidating principles that they had earlier so bitterly denied. [Emphasis added.]

That is, the conservatives gave us the living constitution.


  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.