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Can Democrats Reclaim Their Heritage of Liberty?

Americans have largely lost the original meaning of the word “liberal.”

  • Timothy D. Terrell,
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Americans have largely lost the original meaning of the word “liberal.” For us, a liberal is someone who believes that the civil government should manage our lives, preferably from the highest possible level of bureaucracy. It means high taxes, onerous regulations on businesses, and coerced wealth transfers in place of family and church support networks.

Classical Liberalism

But the term “liberal” actually is rooted in the Latin word for freedom — liber. Americans have turned the word 180 degrees to mean the opposite of freedom, so that when I want to identify the original concept of limited government and individual liberty, I have to add a qualifier: classical liberalism. It is classical liberalism that incorporates many Christian ideas about government.

Today, both major political parties have become liberals, in the modern, upended sense of the word. Democrats are of course far more likely to be identified as liberals, but, ironically, the label would also have fit Democrats back when liberalism still meant freedom.

Nineteenth-century Democrats were a far more freedom-loving bunch than modern Democrats or Republicans. They favored lowering trade barriers, promoted political decentralization, detested most government wealth transfers, opposed corporate welfare, and — until the populists arrived with William Jennings Bryan — favored the gold standard. It was the Republicans of the era who had raised tariffs to astonishing levels (during the Lincoln administration), who had centralized government power in Washington, who had subsidized incredibly wasteful railroad projects, and who had produced the “greenback” currency not backed by gold. Perhaps the future for the Democratic Party lies in reclaiming their heritage of opposition to big government.

Maybe that is too much to hope for, but there are a few planks in the old Democratic platforms that would be attractive to a large number of modern voters.

Anti-War Democrats

Of all the older Democratic positions, perhaps the one that offers the most hope for today’s Democrats is the opposition to unnecessary war. Classical liberalism opposes offensive or imperialistic war. War of that sort ratchets up the level of government taxation and control, and destroys private property — for the victor as well as the vanquished.

Democrats have a respectable anti-war heritage. This is not the peace-at-any-price, “better Red than dead” idea of misguided Vietnam era hippies. Nineteenth-century Democrats recognized that a true commitment to liberty requires a non-interventionist foreign policy. While standing ready to defend ourselves if attacked, we encourage peaceful cooperation through trade.

Democrats in both the North and in the South showed their opposition to imperialism during the War Between the States. One Northern Democrat from Ohio, named Clement Vallandigham, became one of Lincoln’s harshest critics. In March, 1863, at a political meeting, he called Lincoln a dictator and said that the war was “wicked and cruel.” Many Northern Democrats saw that the war was largely about keeping the southern states as a market for Northern manufactured goods, forcing them to provide tariff revenues for federal projects mostly centered in the North and run by corrupt Republicans. Some were in favor of allowing the South to go its way, rather than engage in a war for commercial gain.

Vallandigham also opposed the income tax in no uncertain terms: “Through a tax law, the like of which has never been imposed upon any but a conquered people, [the Republicans] have possession…of the entire property of the people of the country.” 1 Vallandigham “was arrested and charged before a military court in Ohio, even though civilian courts were open and Ohio was not a war zone.” 2 The military court found him guilty of expressing “treasonable sentiments” and Vallandigham was to be deported to the South (he fled to Canada instead).

Later in the century, Democrats found U.S. expansionist intentions equally objectionable. The great classical liberal Grover Cleveland, president from 1885-1889 and 1893-1897, found the militaristic “Manifest Destiny” (a belief that the United States was destined to expand its territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific and beyond) “every bit as odious as imperialism and misguided nationalism.” 3

Free Trade Democrats

Democrats of the nineteenth century were the party of free trade, for the most part. They objected to the high protectionist tariffs that sheltered politically influential domestic industries at the expense of consumers. In fact, classical liberal Democrats were more likely to contest the limited “welfare” schemes of the late 1800s. The heroic Grover Cleveland fought the high tariffs leftover from the Lincoln administration, calling them “indefensible extortion,” and vetoed increases in veteran’s pensions as the blatant wealth grab that they were. 4 It was Cleveland again who said, “[T]he people support the government, but the government cannot support the people” and then vetoed a bill that would have sent $10,000 to Texas cotton farmers suffering from unfavorable weather.

The Democratic Party began to lose its moorings in Cleveland’s second term. In the election of 1896 the Democrats put forward the populist William Jennings Bryan, who advocated inflation as a way to reduce the real value of farm debt. McKinley and the gold standard won that critical election.

The disastrous presidency of the Democrat Woodrow Wilson brought us the Federal Reserve and World War I. Socialist ideas permeated Wilson’s wartime bureaucracy, and formed a pattern for the far more disastrous presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR’s New Deal prolonged and deepened the Great Depression, and the crisis of World War II provided yet another opportunity for increasing the size and scope of the federal government (see “Crisis and the State,” at

Clearly, the Democratic Party today is far from its liberty-loving heritage. It has become an aggregation of special interest groups seeking political favors —environmentalists, the subsidized intellectual and artistic elites, trial lawyers, racial minorities, feminists, homosexuals, and labor unions. Ideology is merely a wrapper for a bundle of wealth transfers.

What About the Republicans?

In this, it is not much different from the Republican Party. The Republicans merely have a different set of interest groups. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are categorically opposed to forcibly transferring wealth from the politically weak to the politically strong. Republicans maintain a semblance of ideological unity by paying lip service to a few remnants of paleo-conservative moral ideas, such as opposition to abortion and homosexual marriage.

But Republicans are largely neo-conservative today, fully subscribed to foreign military interventionism, tolerant of domestic protectionism and corporate welfare, and defensive of New Deal-style bureaucracies. There is no longer any real commitment to the principles of limited government in the GOP — and this is especially true under the current administration, which has expanded the federal government faster than any President since Lyndon Johnson. Perhaps the Democrats can reverse the policy switch they pulled off over a century ago — back to the principles of classical liberalism that made that party great.


1 Charles Adams, For Good and Evil, 334.


3 Alyn Brodsky, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character ( New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 228, quoted in Tom DiLorenzo, “The Last Good Democrat,”

4 Tom DiLorenzo, “The Last Good Democrat,”

  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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