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A Short Historical Sketch on the Idea of Freedom (An Introduction by James P. Young)

The Struggle to End Slavery/Post–Civil War Issues

The Struggle to End Slavery

More or less contemporaneously with Tocqueville's visit to America, the struggle for the abolition of slavery got under way in earnest in the mid-1830s and intensified as the nation expanded westward.

Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States
Much of the debate had religious foundations, often augmented by well-documented accounts of atrocities endured by slaves in such books as Theodore Dwight Weld's American Slavery As It Is, the best-selling book on the topic until the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's renowned Uncle Tom's Cabin. Slavery was also vigorously attacked as an economic system. Northern workers began to oppose slavery not so much out of the goodness of their hearts as because they did not want to have to compete with slave labor. They were confronted by Southern thinkers such as George Fitzhugh, who argued not only that slaveholders treated their slaves better than employers treated free workers, but also that sooner or later Americans would have to decide whether labor should be organized on the basis of freedom or slavery. Northern workers, particularly those belonging to the Free Soil Party, an ancestor of Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party, adopted the slogan "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men." And whether laborers were aware of Fitzhugh's somewhat obscure writings or not, Lincoln was certainly reacting to Fitzhugh in his great "House Divided" speech, in which he insisted that a nation divided against itself, half slave and half free, could not stand. Beyond that, Lincoln and many other antislavery thinkers explicitly stated their belief in the concept of fundamental rights as articulated in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, even as they disagreed with his ownership of slaves in practice.

Prior to the Civil War, Lincoln was hostile to slavery on moral and other grounds but stopped short of outright abolitionism, feeling that he lacked the constitutional authority to end the slave system nationwide. This is a reflection of the constraints the Constitution sometimes places on the pursuit of highly desirable policies, and the question of when constitutional rectitude should trump moral concerns is open to debate.

As a wartime measure, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. 
But during the war, when slaveholders argued that President Lincoln could not touch their property, he took the obvious position that one cannot plunge the nation into conflict and escape unscathed.

1863 photograph of a slave several months after being whipped
As a wartime measure, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in rebel territory. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified just after the end of the war, abolished slavery across the country. This measure and the two amendments that followed it amounted to a constitutional revolution. In the long run, the 14th Amendment has been perhaps the most important of the three. It establishes that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens, and that no state may abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens; deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; or deny to any person the equal protection of the laws. Nor could adult male citizens be denied the right to vote, except for those found guilty of crime or rebellion. Violation of this last principle could result in a reduction in the number of a guilty state's representatives in Congress. The 15th Amendment explicitly reinforced this point, stating simply that the rights of citizens to vote could not be denied or abridged by any state on account of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The 15th Amendment is a perfect example of the importance of negative liberty in that it forbids interference with the positive rights of citizenship.

Unfortunately, once the Reconstruction period had ended after the disputed election of 1876, the guarantees announced in the 14th and 15th Amendments were widely ignored, particularly though not exclusively in the Southern states. By the early 1890s, the rule of Jim Crow had settled over the South, and less explicit forms of discrimination continued in much of the rest of the nation. Nothing better illustrates the fact that constitutional guarantees of freedom must be supported by statutory law and the dominant forces in society if they are to have any meaning. It took another century for the post–Civil War amendments to be fully implemented in practice.

Post–Civil War Issues

Following the war, the question of true freedom for former slaves was placed on the back burner.

Civil rights and union leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.
Whites in the South were not ready to accept ex-slaves as equals, and the rest of the nation was little more enthusiastic. Moreover, new issues came to the fore. The postwar period featured the emergence of unprecedented, large-scale corporations in industries such as transportation, steel, and oil. Workers in these and other businesses claimed that they were losing their freedoms to the new industrial giants. Over the course of a generation, a rethinking of the relationship between the national government and the economy was undertaken.

The progressive movement of the early 20th century represented a real intellectual and political breakthrough. 

For a full appreciation of these issues it is helpful to return to the debates of the early 19th century. The two leading intellectual and political rivals were Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, who represented opposite poles of political thought and policy preferences. In spite of the fact that he was a slaveholder, Jefferson was a radical democrat who thought that freedom would be endangered by a strong executive branch and advocated a highly decentralized constitutional system, with most power reserved to the states. He believed in the superiority of agrarian life and detested manufacturing, financial interests, and cities. For his part, Hamilton was deeply skeptical of democracy and supported the Constitution only because he considered it better than the Articles of Confederation, which had preceded it. To him the people were a "great beast" who seldom made the right decisions. They were naturally divided into the few and the many, a little like in ancient Rome, and only the few should have a permanent share in government.

Henry David Thoreau, American philosopher and author of Civil Disobedience
He favored a powerful executive and would have preferred to abolish the states altogether, but, conceding that such a step was politically impossible, he proposed to have the state governors appointed by the national government. In public policy he was devoted to economic development led by manufacturing and financial interests. He also championed an official Bank of the United States, which was anathema to Jefferson and his followers on both policy and constitutional grounds.

The populist movement, which had an agrarian, antibanking character and was much indebted to Jefferson, opened the economic reform struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The populists were never able to achieve much electoral success because of their difficulty in connecting to urban interests, though some of their policy proposals, such as the income tax, did eventually triumph. The progressive movement of the early 20th century represented a real intellectual and political breakthrough. Its most interesting theoretical text was The Promise of American Life, published in 1909 by the journalist Herbert Croly. He argues that Hamilton's view of government and political economy is far superior to Jefferson's, except for the fact that Hamilton was simply not a democrat. Hamilton's virtue, he says, lies in his advocacy of activist government. What Croly proposes is to pursue democratic Jeffersonian ends through Hamiltonian activist means, an idea that had a good deal of influence on the progressive movement and continues to affect liberal politics today.

A more immediate result of the progressive ferment was the divided presidential election of 1912. The candidates were President William Howard Taft, who ran on the Republican ticket; former president Theodore Roosevelt, who split from the Republicans and ran for the new Progressive Party; and Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic Party candidate. The election, which Wilson won due to the Republican split, was arguably one of the last presidential contests that was of genuine intellectual interest.

Protest against school segregation
Roosevelt's arguments were closer to Croly's than were Wilson's. Abandoning his early reputation as a trust buster, Roosevelt held, like Hamilton, that large business interests could work for the public good and were not a threat so long as they were carefully regulated through a program he called the New Nationalism. Wilson, influenced by the lawyer Louis Brandeis, whom he later appointed to the Supreme Court, argued along Jeffersonian lines that bigness was itself an evil. He therefore opted for a program of trust busting known as the New Freedom. The differences between the two were not so great as they appeared, since both programs aimed to create a larger, more active national government for the purpose of regulating economic activity. Both were effectively committed to the idea that individual freedoms could best be protected and extended through the agencies of a stronger government.
Woodrow Wilson, influenced by the lawyer Louis Brandeis, argued along Jeffersonian lines that business bigness was itself an evil. 
This involved a lessening of the distrust of government that had been characteristic of American liberal political culture since the founding of the republic, and the change helped give rise to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s, the Fair Deal programs of his successor, Harry Truman, and the Great Society projects of Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. The progressive notion of an activist government drew opposition from free-market economists in books such as Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom, which argued that the government should play little or no role in the economy. This debate established the broad outlines of the policy positions that dominate the political arena even today.

As the discussion over economic regulation and the role of government continued, there was a return in the mid-1950s to the unfinished business of Reconstruction in the South, and civil rights issues became the central battleground of American politics. Beginning with the Supreme Court's 1954 declaration in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that supposedly "separate but equal" schools were in violation of the principle of equal protection of the laws, American race relations underwent a revolution.

Voter registration form showing Martin Luther King Jr. giving his famous "I have a dream" speech
Alabama resident Rosa Parks's 1955 decision to defy a rule relegating black passengers to the back of municipal buses helped to inspire a series of civil disobedience campaigns across the South. They aimed to abolish racial segregation and assert equal rights in the political, social, and economic spheres. The struggles were long, complex, and sometimes violent, though the violence came largely from the defenders of segregation; the main civil rights activists were devotees of the theory of nonviolent civil disobedience that Martin Luther King had derived from the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi. More generally, the ideas that powered the movement represented a revival of the long-neglected 14th and 15th Amendments as well as the fundamental ideas of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. The two amendments had been largely ignored or distorted since the end of Reconstruction, but in the 1950s and 1960s they provided the legal foundation for the federal government's dismantling of segregation and other forms of injustice at the state level. Jefferson's Declaration, whose commitment to self-evident natural rights offered a more general philosophical foundation, had always been present in American political thought, even when it was deeply buried in practice. The ideas it articulated were constantly repeated in King's writings and speeches, not least in his "I Have a Dream" address, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The appeal to the ideals of the Declaration is a fine example of what political philosopher Michael Walzer calls "connected criticism," in which reformers return to principles enshrined in the American tradition in order to attack current practices that violate them. This says something important about the latent power of ideas even when they appear to have been abandoned in practice.

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