The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914

The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914

The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914

The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914


Tracing the transformation of liberal political ideology from the end of the Civil War to the early twentieth century, Nancy Cohen offers a new interpretation of the origins and character of modern liberalism. She argues that the values and programs associated with modern liberalism were formulated not during the Progressive Era, as most accounts maintain, but earlier, in the very different social context of the Gilded Age.

Integrating intellectual, social, cultural, and economic history, Cohen argues that the reconstruction of liberalism hinged on the reaction of postbellum liberals to social and labor unrest. As new social movements of workers and farmers arose and phrased their protests in the rhetoric of democratic producerism, liberals retreated from earlier commitments to an expansive vision of democracy. Redefining liberal ideas about citizenship and the state, says Cohen, they played a critical role in legitimating emergent corporate capitalism and politically insulating it from democratic challenge.

As the social cost of economic globalization comes under international critical scrutiny, this book revisits the bitter struggles over the relationship between capitalism and democracy in post-Civil War America. The resolution of this problem offered by the new liberalism deeply influenced the progressives and has left an enduring legacy for twentieth-century American politics, Cohen argues.


On hearing of General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, James Russell Lowell—abolitionist, Radical Republican, future liberal reformer, and the poet laureate of New England letters—wrote to his coeditor at the North American Review of his elation at the Union's victory. “There is something magnificent in having a country to love. It is almost like what one feels for a woman. Not so tender, perhaps, but to the full as self-forgetful.” Lowell, transported by the thought of a democratic people overwhelming the slave power and abolishing the barbarity of slavery, imagined that the purified nation would be reconsecrated on its ideals of liberty and human equality. With the licentious slaveholding aristocracy defeated, the marriage of true love could be consummated.

But love is demanding and lovers sometimes capricious. Eleven years later, at the celebration of the nation's centennial, Lowell's Columbia, betrayed, “found it hard to hide her spiteful tears.“ While living American women continued to be excluded from politics, the ideal of woman merged with the ideal of nation. Victorian American men seem to have had a penchant for expressing their political desires, fears, and frustrations through the figure of Columbia. On the eve of May Day, 1887, an illustration of the approaching ravishment of Columbia adorned the cover of the Harper's Weekly—“A Journal of Civilization” and the most widely read magazine among the American middle class. In the cartoon, Columbia sits on the pedestal of a maypole decorated with stars-and-stripes bunting and a liberty cap. She is quite alarmed, for around her a burlesque of a maypole dance is taking place. The dancers, instead of cooperating to weave an orderly pattern around the pole, are kicking, kneeing, slashing, and snarling at one another. To the side, winged Hermes appears, bearing the government's message to railroad corporations that they will be controlled by a higher power. But he has just met up with the railroads, and his classically athletic limbs are tangled up in the railroad's iron legs. Who might win the contest between the modern machine and the elegant, agile, but ancient messenger? Front and center the main struggle goes on. A swarthy, whiskered, apelike laborer, wielding a large knife and a satchel of “anarchy dynamite,” plunges headfirst from his severed ribbon into an abyss. “Labor” has just passed him in the circular procession—had he used his saw to cut the alien anarchist's bond to Columbia? “Labor” now goes knee to boot with . . .

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