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American History IV: Founded in Liberalism, Conservatism, and Socialism - Part 3: Active State Liberalism

ME has spent most of his retirement from service to the United States studying, thinking, and writing about the country he served.


I WANT TO BEGIN PART IV with where I left off in Part III. There I concluded as follows:

WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO, THEN, is the fundamental difference in world-view which separates the two groups of Liberals [minimal and active state] is the degree of responsibility external forces have on and are involved with a person's ability to succeed. Minimal state liberals tend to think there is very little degree of responsibility and therefore requires no external action to alleviate the problem. Active state liberals, on the other hand, believe that there is a high degree of responsibility and does require intervention to equalize the playing field so that each individual has an equal chance at success.

With that, let me begin.




ABRAHAM LINCOLN CAN BE THOUHT OF as the first "active state" liberal who sat in the White House's Oval Office. Some may argue that it might have been John Adams, POTUS #2, and they might be right; but it was Lincoln and the Republican Party who finally brought it into the mainstream political policy arena. Lincoln said, in speaking to why one needs to continue the struggle of the Civil War,

"... It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations ..."

and in a 1859 speech in Cincinnati,

" ...I do not mean to say that this general government is charged with the duty of redressing or preventing all the wrongs in the world; but I do think that it is charged with the duty of preventing and redressing all wrongs which are wrongs to itself. ..."

and finally, in a 1859 letter to Boston Republicans, he wrote:

"The democracy of today hold liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing when in conflict with the liberty one man's right of property. Republican's, on the contrary, are for the man and the dollar, but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar. Equality before liberty, conceived in liberty, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Prior to Lincoln, there was a succession of minimal state liberal or conservative Democratic administrations after Jefferson beat Adams; the only real break was with John Quincy Adams, John Tyler, and Millard Fillmore, each with four year terms. It took Lincoln and the Civil War to set in motion the idea that it was the central governments duty to see to the equality and liberty of all white males, then to all males, and finally to women. Each of these latter two sea changes in American life was bitterly contested by both conservatives and minimal state liberals; just for different reasons.

In the conservatives case, the objection would be based on changes in the social class status quo; bringing women and blacks up to the same social and economic status as white males is not a Conservatives idea of good policy. Minimal state liberals, on the other hand, do not necessarily object to the status of these two groups being elevated, it is who is doing the elevating; the minimal state liberal would say it is not the federal government's responsibility, but the States.

Enter Abraham Lincoln and the philosophy of active state liberalism. It is the active state liberals belief that, under the Declaration of Indepence (Lincoln's main inspiration) the U.S. Constitution for most others, the federal government has a duty to insure "of preventing and redressing all wrongs which are wrongs to itself".

[Now, before I go on, I need to make clear that Lincoln was not a liberal as we think of one today. The fact is, he was bigoted against Blacks, as most of the other whites of his time in America. What made Lincoln different from Conservatives of the time is his absolute disapproval of one man enslaving another and that blacks (sorry women, your time is still to come), while not necessarily equal in intelligence (buying into the current "scientific proof" of the day); moral development; and social capacity, they were clearly equal in their possession of natural rights as individuals.]

After Lincoln's assassination, the cause for active state liberalism went into quick decline with, over then next two decades, the conservative Supreme Court taking the teeth out of 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. Not only did they almost eliminate the federal governments ability to enforce the meaning of these amendments, they also went a long way in preventing the States from enforcing them as well. It is clear, the Supreme Court, populated by justices brought up and appointed in the era of conservatism and minimal state liberalism felt America need to return to these principles; the courts tendency to rule in this manner lasted until about 1933; which helps explain why women had such hard time gaining their proper status in American society.

In 1909, 44 years after Lincohn's death, Herbert Croly published The Promise of American Life, the first comprehensive philosophical discussion of active state liberalism, attempting show this philosophy is the result of understanding how Thomas Jefferson's idea of individual liberty is linked with Alexander Hamilton's belief in a strong central government.


HERBERT CROLY (1869 - 1930)

HERBERT CROLY (1869 - 1930)



HERBERT CROLY TRIED TO DEFINE ACTIVE STATE LIBERALISM AS "HAMILTON MEANS FOR JEFFERSON ENDS"; an awesome task! Croly, with his book The Promise of American Life in 1909, laid down the first coherent intellectual foundation for the idea of active state liberalism. He was the inspirational force behind the ideas of Presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt as they tried to bring the American Dream back to most of the American People.

One of the reasons active state liberalism never coalesced prior to Croly involved a concept called "space". There were plenty of pockets of activity calling for such a policy, mainly revolving around abolition, as far back as 1797. Once the industrial revolution began in the early 1800s, activism representing the plight of the American industrial worker began popping up. Later, the women's movement began, pushing the limits even further.

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The problem for active staters is each time the pressure built up to do something about the mounting economic inequality and the related social inequality, America expanded westward again; renewing the possibility of the American Dream and relieving much of the pressure. This continued until the early 1900s; Arizona was the last to be admitted in the Continental United States in 1912. (Alaska and Hawaii were admitted in 1959.) From a different aspect, the technical innovation exploded in the 1900s as well opening up huge new opportunities as people began being connected via automobiles and roads, electricity and telephones, and other such leaps into modernity. All of this activity took America through the Gilded Age and the Roaring 20s.

Contrary to current belief, however, these last two periods of American life were not great for most Americans; the separation between poor and rich increased dramatically, before the major equalizer, called the Great Depression, beset the nation. The disparity between income and social classes based on income remained relatively constant for the next 50 years, only to be matched again in the latter part of the 20th Century and the first 10 years of the 21st.

When "space" ran out, the pressure release valve was shut; it is not a coincidence that active state liberalism/progressivism took off at this point in time. No longer could people move westward to improve their lot in life, they were now stuck in an environment they could not get out of. Consequently, there had to be other ways for Joe Sixpack to see a way forward, a way to leave his children better off then he was. The only way to do that was to improve his status where he was, which meant change the status quo.

What was the status quo in the late 1800s and early 1900s? It was complete domination of business interests over the people leaving the playing field for 90% of Americans at almost an 80° angle with the people at the bottom, looking up. There was no recourse to government or the courts because they just spent the last 30 years undoing any progress toward leveling the field the Lincoln and Grant administrations may have made. Something had to give and it was the political and social dynamic of America; thus active state liberalism was born.


THE FIRST THING TO KNOW ABOUT ACTIVE STATE LIBERALISM is that it is not Socialism. The two philosophies are antithetical to each other. For one, Liberalism, believes totally in individual liberty while the other, Socialism, suppresses individualism in favor of Class benefit. Where one, Socialism, believes the best course is for the State, or some other overarching organization, take control of the means of production for the benefit of all. The other, Liberalism, things the better way is to empower individuals to improve their own lot by the sweat of their own brow; therefore, what the State's role should be is to insure each individual has an equal chance at the brass ring and are not inhibited by external forces out of their control.

The way Croly puts it is thus:

The chance which an individual has to compete with his fellows and take the prize is vitally affected by by material conditions over which he has no control. It is as if a competitor in a marathon cross-country run were denied proper nourishment or proper training, and was required to toe the mark against rivals who had every benefit of food and discipline. It would be absurd to claim that because all rivals toed the same mark, a man's victory or defeat depended exclusively on his own efforts. Those who enjoy the benefit of wealth and thorough education start with an advantage which can be overcome only by very exceptional men; men so exceptional, in fact, that the average competitor without such benefits feels himself disqualified from the contest.

This is a very different view from the minimal state liberals even though each believes the role of the government is to "give security for the pursuit of happiness", to put it in Sumner's words. Croly shines a bright light on the issue that active state liberals with concept of equal chances in that "equal chances" are equal only in the eye of the beholder and very colored by the bias the user of that phrase.

Using Croly's example, the active state liberal sees a need for government intervention to correct the problem causing the "denial of proper nourishment or proper training"; the minimal state liberal does not. This is a prettly simple concept and presents a clear separation between approaches to individual liberty.

What Croly believes is that the other side, as well as Conservatives, don't understand this vital point about their simplistic democratic notion that all that is required is for each individual start at the same place in the race, an equal place in other words:

[The minimalist's assert] The democracatic principle requires an equal start at the race; all runners must start at the same point, while, at the same time, expecting an unequal finish. But, Americans who talk this way seem wholey blind to the fact that under a legal system which holds private property sacred, there may be equal rights, but there cannot possibly be any equal opportunity for exercising such rights.

Where, as we saw in the last Part, minimal state liberals believe freedom and equality are about the same thing, what Croly is saying is that freedom and equality are not the same thing.


AND THIS IS A FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE in world-view between minimalists and activists. Further, active staters' think that equality, where in conflict, is supreme to freedom (liberty); minimal staters would believe the opposite. Where Sumner would say about equality:

We owe it to each other to guarantee rights. Rights do not pertain to results, but only to chances. Each has a right to acquire and possess property if he can. Rights should be equal because they pertain to chances, and all ought to have equal chances so far as chances are provided or limited by the action of society.

On the other hand, Croly has a much more expansive view of equality:

Even the meager social interests, which Jefferson concealed under cover of his demand for equal rights, could not be promoted without some effective organ of social responsibility, and the Democrats of today [1909] are obliged, as we have seen, to invoke the action of the central government to destroy those economic discrimination's which its former inaction encouraged. Only with this can the promise of American life be fulfilled. The arduous and responsible political task which a nation in its collective capacity must seek to perform is that of selecting among the various prevailing ways of exercising individual rights, those which contribute to the national property and integrity.

This is not a call for socialism, not even close, because the focus is on the individual. What Croly suggests is that certain "liberties" must give way in order to insure that all have equal chances to succeed.

This is just the opposite of minimal state liberals who, as we have seen in Part II, think that "full equality", as Jefferson defines it, must give way to insure absolute liberty. If fact, to minimalists, all equality is that the starting point in the race be equal, not the opportunity to succeed. Active staters, on the other hand, think it is incumbent on the central government to make sure the opportunities are equal, not the starting points.

Why not the starting points? Because, as a matter of reality, they are not equal, nor will they ever be. One class in society will always be in a better place to succeed than another, lower class. As a consequence, in an activist's world, even though the starting points are not the same, the opportunity to move from a lower class to a higher one is much brighter than it is in a minimalist's world. This is because the government has seen to it that the individual in the lower class has the same opportunity to succeed, e.g., adequate basic education and equal access to higher public education, discriminatory barriers removed, etc, as the one in the upper class; the barriers to success have been removed.


WELL, THE LAST CROLY QUOTE sort of sums it up, the central government has a large role to play, mainly because it played virtually no role at all the previous, in Croly's timeline, 120 years. What advances had been made toward balancing equality with liberty were reversed by the Supreme Court up until that time. In fact, the Supreme Court kept reversing virtually any progressive move up until 1937 when Associate Justice Owen Roberts permanently switched from voting with the four other conservative justices and sided with progressive Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and the three other liberal judges. From that point until the Rehnquist court in 1986, the Supreme Court supported an activist state view of governance. Since 1986, however, the Court has been moving the Nation back to a minimal state stance.

It was in the period from 1937 to 1986 when America made its greatest advances in civil rights and equality since the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments in 1865, 1868, and 1870, respectively and the 19th Amendment in 1920. In that period, momentous achievements were made:

  • In 1956, for the first time in American history, a president, President Eisenhower, enforced an unpopular Supreme Court decision, Brown v Board of Education, with Federal troops in Little Rock, AR
  • in 1964 and 1965, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act which closed the final loopholes left open with the original amendments designed to provide equality in America. Interestingly, Southern Democrats and Republicans, which are minimal state liberals and conservatives, voted overwhelmingly against the Act in both the House and the Senate, while Northern Democrats (mostly active state liberals) and Republicans (probably a mixture) voted overwhelmingly for the Act.
  • In 1966, in Miranda v Arizona, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of individual rights over coercion by the State, required persons who are arrested to be advised of their rights.
  • In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled, in Roe v Wade, that in certain circumstances an individual's rights are superior to those of the state's rights to regulate their behavior.
  • In Regents of the U. of California v Bakke, in 1978, the Supreme Court upheld the theory of "affirmative action" by allowing the university to count race as a positive factor in admission criteria.

Why is there not a similar list on the minimal stateside? Because that would be an oxymoron, wouldn't it? It is antithetical to minimal state liberals (and conservatives) for the State, especially the central government, to take the kind of actions that would lead to these types of advances.

One has to wonder what America would have looked like if Justice Owen Roberts had kept siding with the other conservative Justices.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Scott Belford


Scott Belford (author) from Keystone Heights, FL on March 27, 2013:

Thanks HS. Yes, the Kock Brothers are certainly a symbol of that ilk, but I personally don't get too worked up over them and their billions for the Left have their cohort of billionaires polluting the political scene with their cash as well.

Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on March 27, 2013:

Excellent history of active liberalism and its origins, My Esoteric. I never had read anything on Herbert Croly. The reasons for active liberalism are clear. Pure capitalism naturally creates many losers and impediments for people to get back in to the game. Our current government minimalists are backed by the Koch Brothers and their corporate brethren who want to return us back to the time when they ran roughshod through our economy with lower taxes and regulations for themselves.

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