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July 4, 1776: Liberals Up, Conservatives Down

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.:

In a sense all of America is liberalism. "The great advantage of the American," Tocqueville wrote over a century ago, "is that he has arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution and that he is born free without having to become so." With freedom thus a matter of birthright and not of conquest, the American assumes liberalism as one of the presuppositions of life. With no social revolution in his past, the American has no sense of the role of catastrophe in social change. Consequently, he is, by nature, a gradualist; he sees few problems which cannot be solved by reason and debate; and he is confident that nearly all problems can be solved. It is characteristically American that every war in American history has been followed by an outburst of historical "revisionism" seeking to prove that the war was unnecessary.

It is this birthright liberalism of American society which justified the European political thinkers two centuries ago who saw in America the archetype of primal political innocence. Here, at last, men were free to inscribe their own aspirations in society without the clog or corruption of the accumulated evils of history. "In the beginning," as Locke put it, "all the world was America." This was, of course, an overstatement, since no American could escape the history he brought with him from Europe, any more than he could escape the peculiar stamp of the American experience, especially the ever-receding frontier. But, though extreme, the view was not entirely misleading. The American tabula rasa may not have been totally blank; but it lacked one determining phenomenon in particular of the European scene — that is, feudalism. As a young American political scientist, Professor Louis Hartz of Harvard, has brilliantly argued in his recent book The Liberal Tradition in America, the absence of feudalism is a basic factor in accounting for the pervasive liberalism of the American political climate.

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