The Evolution of American Thinking on Liberalism and Equality (1860-1980)

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American thinking on liberalism and equality over timeCongresstime congress over time between the 1800s and 1900s. Beginning in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated but lived on through one word: liberty. Lincoln provided many benefits for America as he attempted to grab hold of the term liberalism as a whole. He began his definition of liberalism with a successful movement to abolish slavery and did not get to see this success. As time went on, new leaders interpreted the definition of liberty very differently and this was a debate that continued throughout the 1900s.

Lincoln was a determined president who had his eyes set on helping the African American people and wanted the best for them. He was unable to fulfill this aspiration and Andrew Johnson took his place after he was assassinated in 1865. After the Civil War, the North and South were split due to their different views, and Johnson was left to unite these conflicting states (Britannica, “Andrew Johnson”). Following Lincoln’s death, the 13th amendment was ratified and slavery was abolished. The Southern states did not agree with this amendment due to their belief that slaves were inferior. This is where the Black Codes were introduced by the politicians of the Southern States as they aimed to confine the freedoms of African Americans. The politicians declared their perspective, “No person of color shall pursue or practice the art, trade or business of an artisan, mechanic, or shop keeper, or any other trade, employment or business on his account and for his benefit, or in partnership with a white person, or an agent or servant of any person until he shall have obtained a license therefor from the Judge of the District Court, which license change sure be good for one year only” (CAPCT Vol. 1, p. 1143). This quote exemplifies that the Southern States believed liberty was based on skin color and that’s why these African Americans were seen as inferior. The Southern people’s outlook was that slaves were the working class and that the working-class people were never going to be capable of becoming economically independent. A Republican man, named Thaddeus Stevens, was one of many who opposed these ideas of the Black Codes and wanted to “remake the South”. Stevens wanted to change over the time changedsure Southerners didn’t use their powers to screw over the vulnerable slaves. He introduces the 14th amendment as he strives to extend the rights of citizens in America. He wanted the African Americans to be considered citizens of the country by increasing the power of the federal government and protecting the civil rights of the people.

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In 1867, The First Reconstruction act was introduced, laying out the protection of the people’s civil rights. This Reconstruction act was introduced to prevent exactly what Steven and other radical Republican’s feared and it implemented civil rights protection by giving the federal government complete power over the defeated South. It consisted of placing military districts in each Southern state and every state was assigned Northern officers to make sure they were obeying the obligations of the 14th amendment. This bill was vetoed by Andrew Johnson himself, “I would simply ask the attention of Congress to that manifest, well-known, and universally acknowledged rule of constitutional law which declares that the federal government has no jurisdiction, authority, or power to regulate such subjects for any state, to force the right of suffrage out of the hands of the white people and into the hands of the Negroes is an arbitrary violation of this principle” (CAPCT Vol. 1, p. 1173). President Johnson saw the First Reconstruction Act as unconstitutional and concluded that congress had no say in how many rights people of color got. He saw this bill as an abuse of the legal rights of the South and a tempestuous way of bringing peace between the North and South. Congress thought otherwise and fought for the ratification of this Reconstruction Amendment, resulting in the impeachment of President Johnson (Britannica, “Andrew Johnson”). Following the impeachment of Johnson, the 14th amendment was approved and slaves received citizenship. Overall, Congress brought attention to the fact that a strong but fraudulent president like Johnson is capable of altering a nationsnation’s attainment ofnations nations modern liberalism.

As 1869 approached, the evolution of liberalism continued ofbeganand began to focus on large and small businesses. Around this time, a secret organization known as the Knights of Labor was founded by Uriah Smith Stephens and Terrence V. Powderly (Britannica, “Knights of Labor”), focusing on the benefits of small business owners. Small business owners benefitted in society because of their investment in the community, while working for large businesses did not. The Knights of Labor focused on the “eight-hour work day” workdayand wanted to help laborers who weren’t as skilled, to own what they worked so hard for. The idea was to introduce laws to restrict female and child labor and prevent poverty because Capitalism led to poverty as more people were being hired, making low wages from large industries. The Knights of Labor observed the big businesses to be tyrannical and this brings classical liberalism into the picture. Classical liberalism focuses on the freedom of the individual and the most damaging threat to this concept was the abuse of power and how power corrupts. Terrance V. expresses the moral worth of people and their greatness in his Preamble to the Constitution of the Knights of Labor, ‘To bring within the folds of organization every department of productive industry, making knowledge a stanstandpointd point for action, and industrial and moral worth, not wealth, the true standard of individual and national greatness'(Preamble 1889). He expresses the worth of the individual because working for large businesses can demoralize a person because in some cases people had no choice but to become an employee of a large business after their small business went bankrupt.

Throughout the 189workday and a political party, called the Populist Party was formed, consisting of many irritated farmers from around the nation. The farmers came together from the South to form a group thatconsider the needs of farmers share their frustrations about the Republican and Democratic Parties and they were known as the “People’s Party”. The Populist party grew angry with the two parties because of their suspicions that the Republican and Democratic Parties were controlled by the high class who did not take the needs of farmers into consideration. The farmer’s industry in agriculture was not prospering around this time because prices began to decrease for their goods and they began to struggle to keep afloat. The People’s Party pushed for social, political, and economic reform to give the government more control in regulating work labor in the United States. The People’s Party showed this in the Populist Party Platform by stating, “We believe that the power of government in other words, of the people- should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land” (CAPCT Vol. 11, p. 229). This quote makes it apparent that the Populist Party wanted the government to have more control overall forits1800s poverty to come to a standstill. The Populist Party and their platform represented modern liberalism as they strived for a balance in agriculture and government.

As the 1800’s came to an end, a new era was on the rise. Between the 1890slaissez-faire and 1900fair, consider a time of reform and social activism began, known as the Progressive Era. The Progressive Era focused on the issues of the Gilded Age, involving the industrial revolution and the rise of Corporate Capitalism. It also feeds the ideals of the working class, representing Populism. Many Politicians leading this movement grew sick and tired of people sitting back and just watching policy take shape, otherwise known as the “laissez faire” approach. Politicians1890toward such as Herbert Croly, wanted more of a central government to take place in the nation and he laid out his main ideas of Progressivism in, The Promise of American Life. Croly’s ideas consisted of reform for a greater economy while maintaining a limited government. Croly believed the ritual purpose of America was to liberate and enlarge the individual citizen, therefore the nation needed to be living better lives as a liberal society instead of filling their lives with just things and money. As one of the most persuasive thinkers of the Progressive Era, Croly made a significant point by connecting democracy with economy and stating that Jefferson’s theories will no longer work for America. He states this in The Promise of American Life, “The assumption of such a responsibility implies the rejection of a large part of the Jeffersonian creed, and a renewed attempt to establish in its place the popularity of its Hamiltonian rival. On the other hand, it involves no less surely the transformation of Hamiltonianism into a thoroughly democratic political principle” (CAPCT Vol. 11, p. 312). He demonstrates his Hamiltonian view on the matter and believed the economy would thrive if America supported the larger industries. In addition to the focus on the economy, the Progressive Era touched on the modernization of technology, education systems, and women’s suffrage. If all these categories were to improve, the overall quality of life would be enhanced for the citizens of America. During the 1890’s the National Women Suffrage Association strived for equality as they considered themselves citizens who are just as important as the man. An activist woman, named Victoria Woodhull, expressed her want for equality in, A Lecture on Constitutional Equality, and she made it clear that women deserve to be considered citizens with the right to vote. She states, “It should be the task of the next Congress to remove this damning thing.  That Congress which recognized negroes as citizens is already reverenced for its mighty work.  So, too, will that Congress which shall recognize women as citizens of equal rights with the negro be regarded with reverence in proportion to the magnitude of the result of its labors” (Woodhull, Victoria C.). Woodhull’s women empowerment stuck out to Congress and the 19th Amendment for a woman’s right to vote was ratified! This accomplishment was huge for the Progressive Era and an even bigger step towards the fight for liberalism in America.

Another important politician of the 1900 was Theodore Roosevelt, who was influenced by Croly, and his many contributions during the Progressive Era. Roosevelt became president in 1901 and was the first major politician to use the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, while putting many other acts into place. His use of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act idea denotes his efforts in regulating business monopolies and ensuring opportunities for the people. He focused on four main elements of progressivism including equality of opportunity, wealth’s distortion of democracy, citizens’,good citizens access to a “living” wage, and government regulations. Roosevelt was in favor of government regulation to deal with some of these ideas, however he insisted their laws must be economic accountability citizenscanto sanding andsandingandand sanding andchanged sure for the people. Therefore, he supported laws to regulate child labor and food. Both Roosevelt’s Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act demonstrated the expansion and extension of Populism. These acts proved that citizens contained entitlement, which brings two new kinds of rights into consideration: positive and negative rights. Positive rights are the policies that the government is obligated to enforce, such as the Federal Meat Inspection Act that Roosevelt signed. This ensures the safety of the people and enforces that citizens have the right to know what they are eating and that they should be aware of the sanitation precautions taken. Although some citizens liked the idea of this, not all politicians focused on food regulations because they had a bigger eye on economy reform. For example, Woodrow Wilson introduced a tariff reform, a national banking system, direct government regulation of all businesses, and legislation to protect American workers. He was the president of the United States as the Progressive Era began to come to an end and still placed his emphasis on renewing the economy. His achievements lowered tariffs on imported goods, created the first bank in America, lowered competition rates between businesses, and protected the workers of America. Through the Progressive Era, society found a common ground and accomplished so much through the evolution of modern liberalism.

After America worked so hard to fix the economic and social problems of society, A time of economic downfall began1930s introducing the Great Depression of the 1930’s. President Herbert Hoover was president during this time and contributed very little to the relief. He was left with no hope and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was soon elected as president. Roosevelt had a strategy and was ready to take on the Great Depression with a sequence of reforms. He launches his method known as the New Deal and brings importance to its three main objectives: relief, recovery, and reform. The three main targets would benefit people of all ages, along with the farmers and people without jobs. He begins with the first goal, relief, by putting together jobs for the unemployed through the Public Works Administration. The government provided job openings to help around the community by building roads, sansanding the ewers, constructing buildings, and even helping out the agriculture community for the farmers. Roosevelt’s next goal was to decrease company’s competition and he introduced the National Recover Administration to begin the recovery of industries and large businesses. His last major goal was to create reform for the people of America, similar to the Reconstruction Era, but this time he wanted to make reform last for good. He implemented the Social Security Act for direct relief of the individual and this act created a universal old-age pension program, unemployment insurance, and create benefits for the impaired or handicapped people. Roosevelt’s strong efforts consisted of fundamental ideas of modern liberalism and he was very successful in bringing the United States back to being a prosperous nation. Roosevelt further demonstrated the idea of individual freedom with these rights by declaring an Economic Bill of Rights, “these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence individuals(Roosevelt, State of the Union Address). He declares this to ensure the individuals equality and pursuit of happiness while supporting the economic security of different ages and classes of all people in order for them to flourish and thrive.

The idea of economic security gets picked up again in the 1960’s1960sTo by Lyndon Baines Johnson as part of what is known as the Great Society. LBJ wanted to bring an end to poverty and racial injustices by proposing that we need to be the best versions of ourselves and that we need to challenge ourselves to be better people. In order to make America a better place, he suggests we need to try to be better people by fulfilling the promise of American life and he creates a set of domestic programs. LBJ is arguing for progressivism by insisting on the need for regulation with Corporate Capitalism. He infers that wealth does not buy happiness and that ccitizens’themselvesitizens leisure time should be spent on making your people, elf a better person, rather than spending time escaping from reality. This whole idea is based on benefiting children of the future and is expressed in LBJ’s Remarks at the University of Michigan, “The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community” (Johnson, Remarks at the University of Michigan). Ultimately, Johnson is saying that we need to challenge ourselves to be better people and he makes this clear through this inspirational commencement ceremony. Johnson was inspired by FDR’s New Deal and wanted to maximize all people’s ability to thrive by introducing Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor. LBJ strived for individual opportunity and does this by providing liberty for all classes.

Throughout history the evolution of liberalism has taken many different paths to get to where it is today. Americans have been arguing about every meaning of liberty for years and each and every politician has contributed his or her input on liberalism. The politicians of the United States have proved the importance must the finding equal footing when it comes to federal rule. It has been shown throughout history that when the government has too much power, the individual rights of citizens can be overlooked. This is demonstrated in Ronald Reagan’s, A Vision for America when he talks about citizens being taken advantage of. Reagan concludes that to encounter modern liberalism, America must find a common ground between government power and its people.

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The Evolution of American Thinking on Liberalism and Equality (1860-1980). (2022, May 15). Retrieved from

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