The United States of America is a Crazy Liberal Idea

Guest post by Dr. William Turner.

It may seem hard to believe these days, with the United States as the only superpower left standing, with the world’s largest economy supporting the world’s largest military, but at the outset, lots of people doubted this new nation would last very long as such.  The initial circumstances did not encourage much optimism. A ragtag bunch of colonists picked a fight with what was, at the time, the world’s leading military power, with a central government that had functioned for hundreds of years (granted, with a few hiccups) and a centralized bureaucracy and revenue stream.  But, with a little help from the French, the colonists won the hot war, leaving the task, more difficult in some ways, of organizing themselves into a functioning polity.

Thank god for liberalism.  It offered the answer.

No one had ever done exactly this before.  Yes, during the Renaissance, various Italian city-states had organized themselves as republics, and the ancient Greek and Roman examples were notionally available to well educated Americans, as well as the example of England during the previous century, but never before had an otherwise largely unrelated group of persons blown off their primary political and cultural identity – which not all of them shared anyway – and decided to start a new nation from scratch.  But all of those previous examples, whatever their deliberate, considered efforts at republic-building, began with a solidly shared sense of cultural identity among the participants that had existed for centuries beforehand.  Those republics were organic emanations from a more or less cohesive, monolithic culture.

Thank god for liberalism.  It provided a readily adaptable theory for how an otherwise unrelated group of people could assemble themselves as a functioning polity.

Well educated Americans were quite aware of the various precedents, and of the widespread belief among informed observers that republican governments were viable only for small territories such as individual cities, and that territories as large as any one of the American colonies alone, much less all thirteen colonies banded together into one political entity, would be impossible to govern as a republic.

Which is why James Madison, active participant in the Constitutional Convention that drafted the Constitution, was at pains in his famous Federalist #10, which he wrote to help persuade his fellow Americans to adopt the Constitution, to demonstrate that a large republic would be even more successful than a small republic.  Thus, following on the heels of his participation in the liberal decision to defy the King of England by declaring the colonies’ independence from him, Madison persisted in dissenting from the prevailing authorities of the day in matters of political theory.  Such defiance is a characteristic posture of liberalism.

Thank god for liberalism.

Madison had just lived through the period of experimentation that erupted in the individual colonies after the Declaration of Independence made each of them a mini-republic unto itself, free to adopt whatever constitution its citizens wished.  Many of them chose to veer as far as humanly possible toward the extreme of simple majority rule, which produced outcomes that horrified Madison, who became convinced that protection of individual rights should be the paramount concern of government.  In Federalist #10, he argued that a large republic would serve better for this purpose than a small republic because a large republic would contain more individuals with a necessarily wider range of interests, making it harder for any subset of them to band together to oppress any minority.

Thank god for liberalism.  They didn’t call it that back then, but Madison and his colleagues all had ready access to the ideas of the person whom we now regard as the founder of modern liberalism, John Locke.

John Locke’s political ideas suffused the culture of the American colonies.  In her brilliant book, The Consent of the Governed: The Lockean Legacy in Early American Culture, historian Gillian Brown demonstrates that Locke’s ideas about political culture were pervasive in the American colonies, appearing in primers young students learned to read with, and persisting up through the universities.

Locke, by the way, was profoundly Christian in a way that is likely impossible in the modern United States, where one would practically have to grow up in a box not to know that myriad other faiths exist on the planet, including – especially — in the nation you live in, if you live in the United States.  Locke derived his political theory largely from his close reading of the Bible, but, lest modern Christian conservatives attempt to appropriate him too quickly and thoroughly, a close reading of the Bible profoundly tempered by his equally strong belief in the power of human reason and commitment to empiricism as his primary theory of epistemology, as Kim Ian Parker demonstrates in his book, The Biblical Politics of John Locke.  This is, after all, the same John Locke who wrote An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, an important monument to the articulation of empiricism as a theory of epistemology.

This dual commitment – to Christianity and to human reason – caused Locke such perplexity that he admitted to simply refraining from thinking about it.  At one point, Locke confessed, “I cannot make freedom in man consistent with omnipotence and omniscience in God, though I am as fully as [sic] persuaded of both as of any truths I most firmly assent to.  And therefore I have long since given off the consideration of that question, resolving all into this short conclusion, that if it be possible for God to make a free agent, then man is free, though I see not the way of it.”

Especially in the context of widespread hypocrisy and manifest intellectual absurdity, such honesty is refreshing.

Thank god for liberalism.

Indeed, as important as Locke’s Christian belief undoubtedly was to his worldview, his commitment to the power of human reason is probably more important for our purposes, because it was his commitment to reason that led him to reject as absurd the claims of conservatives in late 17th century England that the King’s authority to rule emanated from a genetic descent from Adam, to whom the Christian god had putatively granted the power to rule over the earth shortly after expelling him from the Garden of Eden.  And ultimately, “liberalism” exists primarily as a response to conservatism of the sort that demanded uncritical deference to the Monarch.

So, theocrats take note: Locke was profoundly Christian, but his political theory was expressly an argument for defying a self-appointed representative of god on earth.  Also, he was no Biblical literalist.

Thank god for liberalism.

Technically, Thomas Jefferson, America’s original liberal, plagiarized from Locke’s main book on political theory, The Second Treatise of Government, in writing the Declaration of Independence, but it doesn’t really count, since all rules are off when one is fomenting revolution.  His act of plagiarism was essential, because one wants all the allies one can get when picking a fight with the world’s leading military power, and Jefferson likely never thought twice about it, so pervasive were Locke’s ideas among the educated classes who were the leaders of American culture at the time.  Invoking Locke’s notion that, in the words of the Declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” was the most likely way to secure widespread support among American colonists for the revolution.

Thank god for liberalism as a pervasive ideology in the American colonies.  You don’t start a revolution by whipping out brand-new ideas on your fellow revolutionaries.

So the American Revolution was a crazy, liberal idea to start with.

Crazy because, again, the Americans were picking a fight with the world’s leading military power at the time, and liberal because the explicit justification for the revolution came straight out of the literal definition of western liberalism, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government.  Locke’s theory of government has several distinctive characteristics, most or all of which made it into the United States Constitution, which is no great surprise because the persons who wrote the Constitution were mostly the same as those who started the revolution to begin with.

That is, the United States was a crazy, liberal idea from the outset.

Liberalism as a theory of government has distinctive characteristics both in terms of substance and in terms of procedure.  Its most distinctive procedural feature is the notion of a social contract, the idea that humans gather in a given society and choose to relinquish their hypothetical complete freedom in favor of the constraints and benefits that come with government.  This is the explicit acknowledgement that creating government does impose certain limitations on human choices, but that populations who consent to such limitations gain thereby much more valuable rewards in the form of security and stability.  Plainly, the enormous prosperity and strength of the United States depends to a large degree on the consistent security and stability that have prevailed largely uninterrupted, save during the Civil War, since the adoption of the Constitution.

The Founders lived up to the principle of a social contract by putting the Constitution to a plebiscite in which most states even relaxed their usual restrictions on voting, mostly property qualifications, but not the prohibition on either women or black people, in recognition of the fundamental character of voting to approve or reject a constitution, as opposed to ordinary legislation.

As a purely practical matter, Locke suggested that, once they had formed a government, the polity would have to operate by majority rule.  Not majority rule unfettered, or in all things, however.  Locke was very clear that, axiomatically, along with his proposition that god created all humans as equals, humans also operated with the responsibility to respect one another’s rights to life, liberty, and property, and that, if we could trust all humans genuinely to live up to that responsibility, government would be unnecessary.

But, even as he expressed doubts about the notion of original sin, Locke was realist enough to recognize that, inevitably, humans will attempt to infringe on one another’s rights to life, liberty, and property, such that prudent humans will choose to establish governments and assign to those governments the power to inflict punishments on persons who so infringe.  He also recognized, however, in part because he lived through it, that government officials are no more saints than anyone else, such that the governed had to retain a trump card in the form of the right, any time they saw fit, to withdraw their consent from the government if they find that it is failing in its responsibility to protect their natural rights.

This was the key point justifying the American Revolution.  Thank god for liberalism.

This trump card had to take the form of natural rights bestowed by an omnipotent deity because conservatives, then and now, have a bad habit of claiming to rule in the name of god, so liberals insist on distributing throughout the population the power to determine for themselves what god wants them to do.  This was particularly congenial to the Puritans, the militant Protestants who settled in what is now Massachusetts and whose belief system still influences American culture, including the proposition that all good Christians have an obligation to read and understand the Bible, resulting in very high literacy rates from the outset.

Thank god for liberalism.

Note well that natural rights are axiomatic for Locke, grounding all else.  Thus, any act that violates another’s natural rights to life, liberty and property is definitionally impermissible and grounds for retaliation by the person suffering the violation.  It seems that modern citizens of the United States have come to believe that our national polity operates primarily on the principle of simple majority rule, no doubt as the result of voting having long since become the primary means of civic engagement for the vast majority of citizens.

That this is not so is readily apparent from a close reading of Mr. Madison’s Constitution, which pays only the most minimal deference to the principle of majority rule.  The only component of the United States government that implements majority rule is the House of Representatives, which apportions membership by population among the states, such that a majority vote in the House is reliably a reflection of the majority sentiment in the United States population, so long as one credits the proposition that House members know and reliably reflect their constituents’ beliefs in voting on legislation.

But enactment of any legislation in the United States requires approval by the Senate as well as the House of Representatives, and the Senate, in allotting two votes to each state, regardless of population, plainly does not implement majority rule, even less so in the original Constitution, which provided for selection of Senators by state legislatures, rather than by the voters of the states (we changed that with the Seventeenth Amendment, a major reform of the Progressive Era).  Enactment of legislation also requires the signature of the President, whom the Founders envisioned essentially no role at all for ordinary voters in the selection of, as the Electoral College, and procedures specified in the event of a tie in the Electoral College, make clear.  As with the selection of Senators, the Constitution vests the power to decide how the states will choose their Electors to the Electoral College in state legislatures.  It is only historical coincidence that every state now allows its voters to choose the state’s Electors (next time you vote for President, look at the ballot closely – you’re not really voting for candidates, you’re voting for Presidential Electors).

So it is that the United States Constitution, from stem to stern, not just in the Bill of Rights, is much more a paean to the goal of defending individual rights than to simple majority rule.  As Madison put the point in Federalist #10, “The diversity in the faculties of men from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of Government.”

Thank god for liberalism

Arguably, from this profoundly liberal beginning, the people of the United States have continued to operate as a mostly liberal polity ever since, periodic triumphalist braying by conservatives to the contrary notwithstanding.  Ironically, it is actually virtually impossible to be a good American and a true conservative at the same time.  Notionally, the Tea Party protesters who have emerged since 2009 are highly conservative, but no true conservative would even think of assembling in the national capital to protest against the head of state, as the Tea Party has repeatedly done.  True conservatives value deference to duly constituted authority much too highly.

Further, their protests against the President, both in content and form, reveal their roots in the liberalism that lies deeply embedded in American culture: they chose as their signature image the Boston Tea Party, an early event that contributed to the eruption of the American Revolution, that most liberal series of events, and their vocal dissents from proposed federal policy amount to a limited withdrawal of consent from a government that, in their view, is falling down on the job of protecting their rights.

But perhaps the best illustration of the profoundly liberal character of the American polity is the fact that, during multiple Tea Party protests in Washington, D.C., metaphorically on the President’s front yard, not a single police or military unit has shown a scintilla of an impulse to disperse the protesters, which of course any good conservative would do in a heartbeat.

Thank god for liberalism.

©2011 Dr. William Turner. Visit his web site

Click here to see our series of posters about the crazy liberal ideas that have made America what it is today

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