A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

Lyndon B. Johnson and
American Liberalism

Bruce J. Schulman

Elevated to the presidency in late 1963 by the assassination of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson faced a difficult task. Stepping into the shoes of the nation’s slain leader, a man very different from himself, required enormous political savvy. But Johnson turned the challenge to his advantage. As he later explained, his goal was to take a “dead man’s program and turn it into a martyr’s cause.”

Johnson was elected to the presidency in 1964 with 61 percent of the popular vote. He used this mandate to further his ambitious legislative agenda, which he called the Great Society. In the following excerpts from his book, Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism, historian Bruce Schulman analyzes the Great Society and explains the development of 1960s liberalism. In this portrait of a larger-than-life political figure waging legislative war on the ills of American society, Schulman assesses the successes and failures of the Great Society and, by extension, of American political liberalism in the 1960s.

In the early years of the twentieth century, T[eddy] R[oosevelt], [Woodrow] Wilson, and the Progressives had initiated a transformation of American liberalism, changing the very meaning of the term. Liberalism derived, of course, from a passion for liberty, a concern for freedom. Nineteenth-century liberalism, what historians now term classical liberalism, embraced a largely negative view of freedom. Freedom, in this sense, meant only absence of restraint, the ability to do as one pleased without undue encumbrance or regulation. Classical

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