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Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader (Independent Studies in Political Economy)
Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader (Independent Studies in Political Economy)
Jonathan Bean
University Press of Kentucky, 2009
306 pp., $24.95

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Reviewed by Paul Harvey


Inventing a Tradition

Race, liberty, and classical liberalism.

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Provocation can make for good pedagogy, and I love to champion texts that resurrect understudied authors. Yet this compilation ultimately fails in presenting a coherent argument, for two basic reasons. First, the "tradition" invented here encompasses too many people who were fundamentally and philosophically at odds with one another; the center of this imagined community does not hold. Second, Bean too often fails to investigate the complexity and contradictions within classical liberalism with the same zeal that he applies (especially in the conclusion) to left liberalism. The result is an anthology that mostly cheerleads rather than analyzes, and that quite often grievously distorts and oversimplifies the history of the people and subjects it covers.

Documentary readers work best as provocative pedagogy when they open up a topic. On occasion, this text does that, most successfully in the last chapter. Most of the other chapters fail in this regard. Take for example the treatment of R. C. Hoiles, as unsullied a representative of 20th-century classical liberalism as one can imagine (think Milton Friedman on steroids). The premise of Hoiles' argument against Japanese internment was the same as his argument against government involvement in anything whatsoever. Hoiles' opposition to internment, moreover, must be set in the context of his opposition to every single civil rights bill of the 1950s and 1960s, his defense of private rights of discriminatory behavior, and especially his vitriolic denunciation of all forms of public education, K through PhD. Public education, he said in a document reproduced here, inevitably leads to "moral delinquency."

Nearly all of Hoiles' positions would have enraged that other alleged classical liberal, Frederick Douglass, who fought valiantly for public education after the Civil War, demanded government activism on behalf of the same, and decried the Supreme Court's disastrous 1883 decision which (on classical liberal grounds) found unconstitutional the Civil Rights Bill of 1875. Douglass is the single most reproduced author in the entire volume and emerges at the end as the heroic "omni-American."

Douglass certainly drew (as did most antislavery activists) from the classical liberal tradition, and the contribution of classical liberalism to the antislavery movement stands as its proudest moment. But of course, the most representatives defenders of that classical liberal tradition were southerners such as Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, who perceived the Republicans as the party of big government, conspiring to take away local authority, individual freedom (especially property rights), and the proper Constitutional authority of the states. The Confederate revolution was, in large part, a classical liberal one, an inconvenient truth for the thesis presented here. Moreover, the villain of the antebellum section of this text, William Lloyd Garrison (criticized for viewing the Constitution as a proslavery document, which Douglass rejected), emerged after the war as the perfect classical liberal in arguing that slaves had freedom, therefore the job was done. But Douglass knew that the slaves had "nothing but freedom," and that freedom was not enough.

Much the same historical distortion appears in the author's arguments about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, especially Title VII of that act. Bean reproduces Barry Goldwater's explanation of his principled libertarian reasons for opposing the act. Goldwater believed, for example, that if you didn't want to serve someone of another color in your restaurant, then you had the right to exclude that person. So did (more famously) Lester Maddox, who stood at the door of his Atlanta restaurant heroically defending his individual rights against the encroachments of government power and "group rights." Moreover, Goldwater's position was further developed and continued by the legion of classical liberal authors in National Review. Like William F. Buckley, by attacking every single civil rights act of that era they stood athwart history and yelled "stop." They drew from the same reasoning as does Pat Buchanan, whose recent diatribe against Sonia Sotomayor and affirmative action and his extolling of the "white man who built this country" simply update arguments extending down from a long line of classical liberal thinkers, including John C. Calhoun, Alexander Stephens, the Southern Dixiecrats, James J. Kilpatrick, William Rusher, and Glenn Beck. In contrast to them, Frederick Douglass' words lie smoldering in his grave.

Left unmentioned here is how and why the Civil Rights Act of 1964 actually worked (to the extent that it did). It only did so because of black and female pioneers who sued in court and demanded that the law be enforced. They knew that "freedom" was necessary but not sufficient; they knew that freedom was not enough. Ultimately, the law worked (and revolutionized American life, for the better in every way) because black and female litigants made it work. And in making it work, they opened up the door for the very figures who, late in this text, resurrect the pure classical liberal tradition (including opposition to "group rights") for our time. Without Title VII, Clarence Thomas would be unimaginable. The same, it should be said, goes for the Voting Rights Act, which produced a revolution in black political participation through the very kinds of government activism which depended on arguments contradicted by the classical liberal position.

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