Magazine article Reason

The Party of Jefferson: What the Democrats Can Learn from a Dead Libertarian Lawyer

Magazine article Reason

The Party of Jefferson: What the Democrats Can Learn from a Dead Libertarian Lawyer

Article excerpt


ACCORDING TO A December 2004 survey by the Pew Research Center, about 9 percent of the electorate--enough to carry a tight race--prefers candidates who offer the basic libertarian mix of fiscal conservatism and social tolerance. With Republicans apparently uninterested in pleasing the libertarian segments of their coalition, some liberals and libertarians--Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas, former Democratic National Committee press secretary Terry Michael, and reason contributor Matt Welch among them--have suggested an alternative: the libertarian Democrat, the sort of liberal who favors both free speech and free trade, both the right to bare pornography and the right to bear arms.

It's far from clear, however, that the Democratic Party has room for candidates who favor a smaller, less intrusive government. But it did once. The Democratic Party actually has a very distinguished libertarian legacy, one that combined principled anti-imperialism, respect for economic liberty, and a firm commitment to civil rights. If the would be libertarian Democrats are looking for a historical model, they should consider the Boston attorney Moorfield Storey (1845-1929).

A fierce critic of imperialism and militarism, Storey was a founder and president of the Anti-Imperialist League, which opposed U.S. annexation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War and counted Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and President Grover Cleveland among its members. An advocate of free trade, freedom of contract, and the gold standard, Storey also helped organize the independent National Democratic Party, also known as the Gold Democrats, who fought the anti-gold populist William Jennings Bryan's presidential bid in 1896. An individualist and antiracist, Storey was the first president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he argued and won the group's first major Supreme Court victory, Buchanan v. Warley (1917), a decision that relied on property rights to strike down a residential segregation law.

Born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1845, Moorfield Storey was a successful lawyer whose politics tended toward "good government" reform until the mid-1890s. Then came the presidential election of 1896, when the Democrats selected the agrarian insurgent William Jennings Bryan as their candidate. Bryan's chief cause was "Free Silver," a call for the government to coin unlimited amounts of silver at an artificially inflated rate. As the historians David and Linda Beito have noted, "the result would have been a pell-mell rush of silver holders to exchange their metal for dollars, and hence rapid dollar inflation and a corresponding depreciation of the currency." Bryan expected and welcomed this result, believing it would put cheap dollars in the hands of debt-ridden farmers, leaving the banks and other hated creditors to absorb the losses.

Opposition to Bryan's "50-cent Democrats" fractured the party. (Republicans were mostly united against Free Silver.) The luminaries in the Democratic gold camp included President Cleveland, Treasury Secretary John C. Carlisle, Nation publisher E.L. Godkin, Agriculture Secretary J. Sterling Morton, and textile manufacturer Edward Atkinson. They also included Storey, who denounced Free Silver to an audience of fellow Cleveland Democrats as a scam "organized and promoted by men directly interested in the promotion of that metal." From this opposition emerged the Gold Democrats, a third party that offered its nomination to Cleveland and, after he turned it down, ran Sen. John C. Palmer (D-Ill.) for president instead. (Cleveland himself encouraged but never formally endorsed Palmer's ticket.) Palmer's anti-Bryan campaign drew just 134,000 votes, less than I percent of the total. But the same split that divided the party drove many Democrats to support the pro-gold Republican William McKinley, who beat Bryan by a decisive 600,000 votes, collecting 271 electors to Bryan's 176. …

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