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Book Review: The Decline of American Liberalism by Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.

JULY 01, 1956 by WILLIAM H. PETERSON

New York: Longmans, Green & Co. 401 pp. $7.50.

In the very infancy of the American Republic, the tradition of central authority and political privilege began to assert itself despite the liberal individualistic philosophy and limited government ideas embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. For instance, though the Congress had no Constitutional authority to create a central bank, the first U. S. Bank was successfully sponsored by the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

Thus, as soon as the new republic got going it began to fall away from true liberalism. A second central bank succeeded the first. Pointless wars were fought against England and Mexico. Protective tariffs were erected to give domestic manufacturers advantages in the local market. Political interventions multiplied during the nineteenth century.

With each decade of the twentieth century the erosion of liberalism unsteadily increased. Americans became imbued with the notion of “manifest destiny,” and the American empire stretched from the West Indies to the Philippines. A parallel development was the clamor for social legislation and the demand for a large and strong federal government willing and able to provide the country with the various “Deals,” square, new, and fair.

Professor Ekirch depicts well these major trends away from the political and social ideals of classic liberalism. For him, liberalism means the emergence of man over the State; it conveys a sense of the dignity and self-determination of the individual. The intellectuals of the present time have pre-empted the word “liberalism” and corrupted it to mean the use of the State’s power to accomplish “social ends.”

But as this book makes clear, the true liberal—whether he calls himself a conservative, a libertarian, or an individualist—is the man who sets his heart and mind on the eternal but elusive goal of liberty.

William H. Peterson

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July 1956

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