'Liberal' Enters the American Political Lexicon


In the nineteenth century, liberalism was identified with the
laissez- faire policies of William Gladstone's British Liberal
Party, but, in the twentieth century, liberalism came to be
identified in Britain and the United States with support for
government intervention in the market. As Ronald Rotunda recounts
in The Politics of Language, The New Republic played an important
role in effecting this transformation in American politics.What we now think of as American liberalism goes back to the British
Liberals and to Republican progressives. The British Whigs of the
1830s, who favored expanded suffrage, were branded "Liberals"
(after the continental revolutionaries) by the opposition Tories.
The term was meant to be derogatory, but it became a badge of honor
rather than of shame, and the Whig Party became the Liberal Party,
which espoused what would now be thought of as a laissez- faire, or
libertarian, opposition to government interference in the market.

In the early twentieth century, British Liberals, competing with the
Labour Party for working-class votes, adopted a "new liberalism"
based upon the premise, spelled out by Liberal Party philosopher L.
T. Hobhouse, that, if capitalism couldn't provide citizens with
basic economic security, it had to "be secured by the deliberate
action of the state." In the United States, Theodore Roosevelt and
the Bull Moose Republicans adopted a similar approach, but they,
like their Democratic counterparts, called their politics
"progressive" and not "liberal."

When The New Republic began shifting its allegiance from Theodore
Roosevelt and the Republicans to Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats
in the 1916 election, it used the term "liberal" in a June
editorial to describe Wilson's "preference for a governing
government." That marked perhaps the first use of the term to
describe a Democratic version of progressivism, and it stuck. In
1932, Franklin Roosevelt adopted the term to describe his own
progressive convictions, and, in 1941, summing up his own
achievements, he wrote, "I have always believed, and I have
frequently stated, that my own party can succeed at the polls so
long as it continues to be the party of militant liberalism."

Here's the 1916 editorial, available only at TNR Online:

June 24, 1916

President Wilson has had his day at St. Louis. His Democratic
associates have renominated him with every indication of loyalty
and satisfaction. They allowed him his way about the platform and
about the proceedings of the convention. The delegates did not
entirely agree with Mr. Wilson in the emphasis he wished to place
upon on the issues of the campaign; but they did not permit their
disagreement to become embarrassing. It was his day, and they knew
it. They owe their success to him. If they had elected William J.
Bryan or Champ Clark to the Presidency in 1912, they would have
long since been floundering around in a wilderness of difficulties.
The Democracy of today is even more deeply indebted to Mr. Wilson
than its forebears were indebted to Jefferson and Jackson. The
elder statesmen dominated and led the party during a period in
which it was far more homogeneous than it is now--far more united
in spirit and purpose. The contemporary Democratic party is
preserved by no similar bond of class interest and feeling. It is
an exclusively political organization whose members are associated
for the purpose of getting and keeping control of the government.
Its existing vitality is the creation of Mr. Wilson's leadership.
The Democrats cannot get along without it. They have no substitute
for Mr. Wilson, no alternative to his policy. For the time being
they are not merely a Wilson but a Wilson-ized Democracy.

Mr. Wilson has not been a great President; he has been a great party
leader. His eminence as a party leader is a clue to the policy of
his administration and to the larger part of its successes and
failures. From the day of his first nomination, his unwavering
purpose, his absorbing preoccupation has been the resurrection of
the Democratic party as a capable organ of government. In his
devotion to his party he has been only following in the footsteps of
his party predecessors. Jefferson and Jackson were also great party
leaders rather than great Presidents. Or, if you please, they were
great party Presidents only in so far as they were great party
leaders; and in this respect they offered a sharp contrast to the
great Presidents belonging to the opposite nationalist tradition,
Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt, who always appealed to something
more than a partisan idea and aroused something larger than partisan
support. Mr. Wilson assumed office at a critical moment in the life
of Democracy. The progressive movement had caused a schism among
the Republicans. Both the conservatives and the radicals in that
party had become more attached to conservative or radical ideas
than they were to partisan success. Mr. Wilson was resolved that
under his leadership the fellowship of his party should never be
similarly shattered, that no effort should be spared to preserve the
unity and renew the vitality of the Democracy.

Never for one moment has he allowed this major purpose to be
neglected or obscured. In the effort to accomplish it he has been,
as he was obliged to be, a thoroughgoing opportunist. He has made
many sacrifices and adopted many different and even contradictory
expedients. He has at times flourished his convictions with
reckless zeal and at others abandoned them in discreet silence; he
has at times conciliated opposition at a very high price and at
others ridden it down with ruthless determination; he has played
painfully safe on some issues and taken long chances on others; he
has posed both as the leader of his party and as its humble and
faithful mouthpiece. His course has been a striking example of the
agile and resourceful selection of the most available road to
immediate success.

The most emphatic indication of his success consists in his ability
to dispense with the services of William J. Bryan. Four years ago,
Mr. Bryan had to be included in the Cabinet because as an outsider
and a possible malcontent he was in a position to ruin the
administration. Today the Commoner is innocuous both as an outsider
and as a malcontent. American politics has rarely staged a
spectacle more ironic and more pathetic than that of Mr. Bryan at
St. Louis. He was obliged to march to the beat of martial music
behind the triumphal car of Wilson Preparedness, while at the same
time continuing to intone in obedience to some inner rhythm his
familiar personal pans to the Prince of Peace.

In no region has Mr. Wilson been more successfully opportunist than
in his selection and adaptation of political policies and
convictions. He began with a philosophical interpretation of the
progressive movement which transformed it into a revival of
Jeffersonian Democracy. Back of the New Freedom was the traditional
Democratic confidence in free competition among individuals as the
most effective means of securing the public welfare--provided only
the competition was automatically regulated in the interest of fair
play. The prevailing political and economic abuses were traced to
pernicious Republican privileges, for which the Democrats would
substitute a new Democratic Constitution of Freedom. When that new
Constitution was actually framed, however, it provided rather for
more government than for more freedom. The solutions were
administrative rather than legal. All the Democratic legislation
has depended for the accomplishment of its purposes on those expert
commissions which the President had expressly disparaged during the
campaign of 1912. The national banking system was finally pulled
together as the consequence of autocratic powers granted to a
government commission. Another commission was authorized to deal
with violations of fair business practice. Finally the Democratic
tariff, which is supposed to embody some approximation to freedom
of trade, is found to need for its proper administration a Board of
Experts. The same tendency spread by contagion to other regions of
public policy. All along the line the attempt to find negative,
legalistic and automatic solutions of public problems, with which
Mr. Wilson began his presidential term, has yielded to a more
active and positive attitude. He has changed from an
anti-suffragist to a suffragist, from an opponent of military
preparedness to its advocate, from a waiting Mexican program to one
of forcible interference, from a war policy of scrupulous
neutrality to one of positive discrimination among the
belligerents, from a disposition to consider peace as something to
be preserved to a disposition to consider it as something to be
planned, tried out, bought and paid for. In Mr. Wilson's present
program there is scarcely a shred left of the fabric of his
Jeffersonian revival. With every development of his policy he has
been approximating to the spirit and creed of a Hamilton

Our own opinion of Mr. Wilson as a statesman has improved just in
proportion as the indiscriminate and irresponsible individualism of
his earlier views has yielded to a preference for responsible
nationalistic organization. He is a wiser and safer political
leader today than he was four years ago--one who has a better claim
on the support of intelligent liberals. But certain misgivings
persist. That the modifications in Mr. Wilson's policy are the
result partly of an attempt to deal honestly with concrete problems
we fully believe. Every statesman should be to a large extent an
opportunist, and any policy of opportunism which seeks in good
faith the public welfare and is nourished by facts is preferable to
the doctrinaire rigorism. Yet these general considerations do not
provide a sufficient excuse for Mr. Wilson's behavior. His brand of
opportunism has not been convincing. His management has been
unscrupulously adroit; his opinions have been suspiciously fluid;
the reversals and expansions of his policy have been too numerous
and too considerable. He respects facts, it is true, but his manner
of respecting them resembles that of a general in command of a
partisan army more than a statesman at the head of a country. The
concessions which he has made hitherto have usually disconcerted
his party without actually causing any revolt. Hitherto he has been
able to count upon an accommodating disposition on the part of his
fellow Democrats. They were willing to sacrifice pride of personal
opinion and all ordinary party tradition in the interest of
harmony. But suppose an issue were presented which required of Mr.
Wilson, as the issue of sound money required of Mr. Cleveland,
either to split his party or to damage the country? In such an
emergency what course would Mr. Wilson adopt?

Doubts of this kind have kept many liberals from going over to Mr.
Wilson. In the event of a contest between them and his party they
fear he would side with his party. Considering the collapse of the
Progressive organization and the natural resentment caused by
Republican tactics, remarkably few prominent independents have as
yet rallied to his support. They may prefer the exhibition of
Democracy at St. Louis to the exhibition of Republicanism at
Chicago; but on the record they are justified in attributing to Mr.
Hughes a more lukewarm partisanship than to Mr. Wilson, and a
larger measure of personal independence. The attribution may not be
decisive as to their vote. They may argue that Mr. Hughes has more
need of independence than Mr. Wilson, and they will of course
require many assurances from Mr. Hughes, which they have not yet
received. But they also require certain assurances from Mr. Wilson.
His successful partisan management has apparently fastened the
two-party system on the country more firmly than ever. By
revitalizing Democracy he has necessitated a resurrection of
Republicanism and has deprived the liberal of any alternative to
Democracy except Republicanism or Socialism. Although Democratic
law-givers have had to fall back on administrative agencies for the
accomplishment of desirable public purposes, the President has
consented to a lowering of administrative standards in the interest
of Democratic contentment. The whole bi-partisan congressional
system which is organized to suck nourishment for the local party
machine out of the national resources has met with less resistance
from President Wilson than from his two immediate predecessors.
What liberals need to obtain from Mr. Wilson is some assurance that
during a second term he will not think and act too much as a
Democrat; that he will work for rather than against sound
administration; that his later preference for a governing government
will not prove to be as fugitive as his earlier preference for
doctrinaire Freedom; that he will in short shed his ink and his
blood on behalf of a less partisanly Democratic interpretation of
American national policy.

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