On the Origins of Liberalism

The following is my side of a discussion from the comments section of a post by Corey Robin, The Definitive Take on Donald Trump. Considering the topic of the post, it’s odd that it became a historical and philosophical analysis of liberalism.

My comments are in response to Jason Bowden. He sees John Locke as more central to American liberalism. I don’t deny his importance, but I see it as having more diverse origins.

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“The menu above is liberalism — limited government, individual rights, states rights, balance of powers, paper-worshipping Constitutionalism, privatization, deregulation, market-knows-best, blah blah blah. That’s the tradition of Locke, Jefferson, Godwin, Mill, Spencer, etc. It isn’t the counter-revolutionary tradition of Hobbes, Hume, Maistre, Burke, etc.”

I consider those type of people to be more in the reactionary category. That is particularly true of Locke, but even Jefferson and Godwin were never consistent and moderated their views over time. Also, as far as I know, none of these thinkers came from poverty or even the working class. The same applies to Burke with a father who was a government official and, I might add, began as a strong progressive before his reactionary side was elicited by the French Revolution.

Consider the details of Locke’s political views, as compared to an earlier thinker like Roger Williams:


“Basically, Williams was articulating Lockean political philosophy when John Locke was still in diapers. Even Locke never defended Lockean rights as strongly as did Williams. Locke didn’t think Catholics and atheists deserved equal freedom. Locke was involved in writing the constitution of the Carolina Colony which included slavery, something Williams wouldn’t have ever done under any circumstances and no matter the personal benefits. In writing about land rights, Locke defended the rights of colonists to take Native American Land whereas Williams defended against the theft of land from Native Americans.”

That demonstrates this difference between ‘liberal’ and reactionary. There was no liberalism as such when Williams lived, but by his example he helped set the stage for what would become liberalism. Locke came from an entirely different tradition, that which influenced the Deep South.


The difference between liberal and reactionary to some degree aligned with the difference between democrat and republican during the revolutionary era, and to some degree it matched up with Anti-Federalist and Federalist. Josiah Tucker, a critic of Locke, wrote:

“Republicans in general . . . for leveling all Distinctions above them, and at the same time for tyrannizing over those, whom Chance or Misfortune have placed below them.”

The more reactionary Enlightenment thinkers and American founders were wary of democracy. Liberals like Thomas Paine, on the other hand, advocated for democracy openly. Paine saw the failure of the French Revolution as their not having created a democratic constitution when they had the chance. Also in the category of liberals, as opposed to reactionaries, I’d place people like Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Abraham Clark, etc.



Paine, in particular, is the archetype of modern American liberalism and progressivism. Besides supporting democracy in general, he was for rights for (poor men, women, blacks, Native Americans, non-Protestants, etc), along with being for progressive taxation and strong welfare state. Paine represents what we mean by liberalism today. But even a classical liberal like Adam Smith pointed to how inequality endangered a free society and so he argued for progressive taxation and public education.

Someone like Jefferson was more of a fence-sitter. It is hard to categorize him. But he obviously never fully committed himself to the progressive liberalism of his friend, Paine. And as he aged he became considerably more conservative. The same happened with Godwin. It must be understood that both Jefferson and Godwin came from the elite and they never betrayed their class. It was class position that distinguished strong progressive liberals and everyone else. Paine, Allen, Young, and Clark were never fully accepted into the more respectable social circles.

“Sometimes I wonder if many Sanders supporters are closet reactionaries and don’t know it yet.”

I support Sanders’ campaign. I do so because I see it as a way of promoting needed debate. It is also good to challenge Clinton’s sense of entitlement to the presidency. But in the end I might vote Green. I’m undecided. I just like how Sanders has been able to shake things up so far.

“The left is defined as groups on the ascent. People benefitting from the established order — CEOs, immigrants, government employees, and the managerial class.”

I can’t say, though, that I feel like I’m part of a group on the ascent. I am a government employee, but my position is about as low as you can get. I have no college degree and I don’t make much money, as I’m only part time. I don’t particularly feel like I’m receiving any immense benefit from the established order, at least no more than the average American.

“A lot of suburban and rural whites have a lot to lose by the way things are going. In one possible political realignment in the future, they could be on the same side — the right.”

I see that as a separate issue. Many other realignments may form in the future, such as between various non-black minorities and whites, especially in terms of the growing Hispanic population. How that all settles out would be speculation.

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What interests me about Williams is that he held to a view similar to Lockean land rights. This was before Locke was even born. I don’t if the idea was just in the air or where it might have originated. I’m not sure why Locke gets credit for it. It is sad that this philosophical and legal justification came to be used to take Native American land away, when for Williams it was meant to protect Native American rights.

He was an interesting guy, way before his times. I liked how he went to convert the Native Americans and came away converted to their having a superior society than their neighboring white settlers. He seemingly gave up on organized religion. He also took religious freedom much further than Locke ever did.

“I’m glad you brought up Roger Williams, because I definitely view progressivism, with its moral self-certainly, as a kind of secular Puritanism.”

That is at least partly true. I might broaden it a bit.

I see progressivism as largely a product of dissenter religions—not just Puritans, but also Quakers, Anabaptists, Pietists, Huguenots, etc. These were people who were tired of religious persecution and religious wars. I’d include Samuel de Champlain in this category, similar to someone like Roger Williams.

I’m most familiar with the Quakers. Having read about John Dickinson, I was fascinated by their separate tradition of living and evolving constitutionalism as a pact of a people with God, not a piece of paper. That is not unlike how many liberals and progressives still like to interpret the US Constitution, minus the God part.

“But Locke, while not a progressive, nor a democrat, brings the conceptual heft.”

I don’t necessarily disagree. I’m not sure how to categorize Locke. He did formalize many ideas and made them useful for the purposes of new laws and constitutions.

I have come to the view that Spinoza was important as well. Someone like Jefferson probably was familiar with Spinoza, but I don’t know how influential his ideas were in the English-speaking world. There were large non-English populations in the American colonies (some colonies were even a majority non-English, such as Pennsylvania). Besides dissenter religions, I couldn’t say what else non-English Europeans brought with them.

“It is a complete “Captain Picard” theory of man, strutting about the galaxy, pleading with everyone to put their irrational biases aside and just be reasonable.”

That might be what differentiated Locke from the likes of Williams and Penn. Religious dissenters weren’t so obsessed reason in this manner. I suspect that Paine inherited some of this earlier tradition. Paine’s deism wasn’t just about being rational but about knowing God directly, a very Quaker attitude. Paine, besides having a Quaker father, spent two influential periods of his life in a dissenter Puritan town and in Quaker Pennsylvania. Paine’s common sense could relate to his Quaker style of plain speech, it’s about a directness of knowing and communicating. It’s seems different than how you describe Locke.

“Out of Locke, one gets the instrumental nature of the state, disinterested power, the presumption of liberty when making trade-offs, popular sovereignty, and even government intervention for the public good, providing it meets a threshold of justification.”

In the non-Lockean traditions of dissenter religions and Spinozism, I sense another kind of attitude. It’s not clear to me all that distinguishes them.

Williams definitely had a live-and-let-live attitude, a proto-liberal can’t we all just get along. He didn’t want war, an oppressive government, or anyone telling anyone else how to live. Instead of banning, imprisoning, or torturing Quakers like the Puritans, he invited them to public debate—for the time, a radical advocacy of free speech. He expressed so many modern liberal and progressive values before almost anyone else in the colonies.

Along these lines, Penn later created the first tolerant multicultural colony in America. Franklin, who was a child when Penn died, complained about the German majority that refused to assimilate. This multiculturalism led to strong democratic culture.

“Liberals today write books like “Moral Politics” and writers like Dworkin think the Constitution should be interpreted in a moral spirit.”

That moralistic attitude would definitely be a result of dissenter religions. It also would relate to the Constitution being a living document.

“This is why a liberal like Spencer claimed that in reactionary thought, government resides in the “very soul of its system.” Spencer dreamed of a non-coercive world — morality is supposedly prior to government — while conservatism is about borders, culture, hierarchies, identity, etc.”

That is interesting. I’m not familiar with Spencer.

“Even in the United States, the biggest fans of free trade, limited government, and deregulation were southern slavers. The cultural inertia remains. It isn’t an accident that Clinton and Gore, both pimping for NAFTA, are from the south.”

That fits into Locke’s influence. He wrote or co-wrote the constitution for the Carolinas colony. This Southern classical liberalism is, of course, what today we call conservatism—an ideologically mixed bag. But it also shaped Clinton’s New Democrats, which partly returned the Democratic Party to its Southern roots. The early Democratic Party was weakest in New England.

“Liberalism has always been a top-down movement, usually spearheaded by university professors.”

There has also always been a working class liberalism, often a mix of progressivism, populism, and moral reformism. It’s harder to identify this tradition because the people who have held it weren’t and aren’t those with much power and voice.

The revolutionary era began as a bottom-up movement, a class-based restleness about not only distant British rule but also local ruling elite. It was the process of Renaissance and Enlightenment ideas spreading across the dirty masses. Paine was so influential for the very reason he could be understood by the most uneducated person. The upper class so-called founders only joined the revolution once it became clear it wasn’t going away.

“If anything, liberalism is aristocratic and Puritan in temperament, an attempt to improve the perceived immorality of rowdy, sinful, shameless, vulgar people.”

There were those like the Quakers and Baptists as well. People of this other strain of liberalism hated haughty Puritanism and aristocracy. I wouldn’t discount this aspect, as this bottom-up liberal tradition has been a powerful force in American society and politics.

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I’ve recently been reading about Abraham Lincoln. I was specifically curious to learn more about his having been influenced by Thomas Paine.

Lincoln was born at the end of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. It was only months away from Paine’s death. Much later, Jefferson and Adams died when Lincoln was 17 years old. Lincoln read many of the writings of the founders and others from the revolutionary era, including a number of radical thinkers. He was very much a child of the Enlightenment, even embracing a rational irreligiosity with a deistic bent. His mind was preoccupied with the founding generation.

I find interesting the contrast between Lincoln and Paine. Lincoln became a mainstream professional politician, something that Paine never would have done. Paine, even with his desire to moderate extremes, was a radical through and through. Lincoln ultimately mistrusted radicalism and had no desire for a second revolution. The government, in his mind, represented the public good. Paine, on the other hand, had a more palpable sense of he people as something distinct from particular governments.

Another difference seems to be related to their respective religious upbringings. They both held progressive views, but their motivations came from different sources.

Lincoln admitted to being a fatalist and that this came from his Baptist childhood with its Calvinist predetermination. This fed into his melancholy and sense of doom, oddly combined with a whiggish view of history (i.e., moral arc). The divine, portrayed in the light of Enlightenment deism, was an almost brutal force of nature that forced moral progress, decimating humans in its wake. Lincoln believed that individuals were helpless pawns, facing a dual fate of inborn character and cosmic forces. The Civil War was the perfect stage for Lincoln’s fatalistic drama of transformation through death and suffering.

Paine had so much more to be melancholy about. He saw one of his childhood friends, convicted of a petty crime, hanged from the scaffolding that could be seen from his home. His first wife and child died. His second marriage led to divorce. He spent many years struggling financially, sometimes unemployed and homeless. He almost died from sickness on his way to the American colonies. Yet, unlike Lincoln, Paine seemed to have an optimistic bent to his nature. He was a dreamer, opposite of Lincoln’s cold pragmatism. I suspect this at least partly has to do with how much Paine was influenced by dissenter religions, most especially the positive vision of Quakerism where God is seen as a friend to humanity.

The two represent different strains of Anglo-American progressivism, neither of which is particularly Lockean in mindset. In today’s politics, I’m not sure there is much room for either Lincoln or Paine. Their worldviews are almost alien to the contemporary mind. Politics has become so mechanistic and government so bureaucratic. There isn’t any room left for the vast visions of old school varieties of progressivism. Maybe that is why Trump is so appealing. He brings drama back into politics, no matter how superficial and petty that drama is.

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I follow much of what you say. You describe the gist of the dominant strains of American liberalism and progressivism. But I keep thinking about origins. You wrote that,

“Locke invented liberalism: reasonable citizens updating public policy through reasonableness without resorting to terrorism.”

Did Locke really invent liberalism? To be specific, did he invent what you describe above as liberalism? To Locke, who was a citizen, specifically a reasonable citizen?

He had no problem writing or helping to write the constitution for a colony whose economy was dependent on slavery—in fact, a colony where the majority of the population was enslaved. He also didn’t support religious freedom for all, but only for certain religious groups and definitely not for heretics and atheists.

By reasonable citizens, would he have simply meant white male adults who were propertied and adherents of particular acceptable religions? Or did he think peasants, indentured servants, slaves, and indigenous people should be considered part of the reasonable citizenry? The reasonable citizens among the ruling elite and upper classes in the British Empire, including in the colonies, didn’t mind resorting to terrorism. Lockean land rights were even used as justification for taking away the land of various indigenous people. All of colonialism was built on violence, terrorism even, and Locke didn’t seem too bothered by that.

Was Locke genuinely praising reasonableness any more than previous thinkers? Didn’t those with wealth and power always think of themselves as reasonable? I’m sure the highly educated elite in the Roman Empire also thought of themselves as reasonable citizens maintaining order reasonably in their reasonable republic. The rhetoric of a reasonable citizenry goes back to the ancient world, e.g., classical Greece.

What was entirely new that Locke was bringing to the table? As I pointed out, even Lockean land rights as a theory preceded Locke, such as with Roger Williams. Others had also previously argued for social contract theory and against divine sanction, such as Thomas Hobbes. Many of these kinds of ideas had been discussed for generations, centuries, or even millennia—consider Giordano Bruno’s views on science and religion or consider how some trace liberalism back to Epicurus. What made Lockean thought unique? Was it how these ideas were systematized?

Also, what do you think about Benedict Spinoza? Some think Locke was influenced by him. Spinoza began writing long before Locke did. And Locke spent time in Spinoza’s Netherlands, during a time when Spinoza’s work was well known among the type of people Locke associated with. Locke did most of his writing in Netherlands and following that period. Some of Spinoza’s ideas would have likely resonated with and influenced Locke, specifically Spinoza’s advocacy of free speech, religious tolerance, separation of church and state, republicanism, etc.

There is always the argument as well that Spinoza and Locke represent separate strains of the Enlightenment, one radical and the other reactionary or moderate. Do you agree with this argument? Or do you prefer the view of there being a single Enlightenment and hence a single Enlightenment basis of mainstream liberalism? Do you think Spinoza had much of any influence in early America, either directly or indirectly? If so, can a Spinozistic element be detected in American political thought?

A number of people argue for an influence, e.g., “Nature’s God.” For example, Spinoza’s collected works were in
Thomas Jefferson’s library. Thomas Paine likely was familiar with Spinoza’s ideas, either by reading him or through those around him who had read Spinoza. One can sense Spinozism in deism and maybe in Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Theosophy, New Age spirituality, and New Thought Christianity. Spinoza’s panentheism has aspects of unitarianism and universalism, both of which have been influential over American history—and so maybe it was incorporated into the Unitarian-Universalist tradition. I could see even Quakerism, or more mainstream Christianity being influenced.

Plus, there is someone like Algernon Sidney. I don’t know much about him. He doesn’t get as much attention from popular works, at least here in the US. From what I can gather, his views were partly in line with Spinoza. Some other related early Enlightenment thinkers are Conyers Middleton and Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke.

Your comment got me thinking about all of this. I decided to do a web search. Here are a few things that came up (some that I’m familiar with and others new to me):

Radical Enlightenment
by Jonathan Israel

Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism
by Lewis Samuel Feuer

Nature’s God
by Matthew Stewart

New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty
Evan Haefeli

The Island at the Center of the World
by Russell Shorto


Click to access paine_spinoza_bisheff.pdf










Pursuit of Happiness and Consent of the Governed

Conservatives prefer to see the American Revolution and Founding as part of a Lockean lineage. This would be true for some of the Founders, but not true for all. One Founder conservatives take as an example of a Lockean founder is Thomas Jefferson.

Many scholars have assumed a connection of Jefferson’s “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and Locke’s “life, liberty and estate”:

“Locke argued in his Two Treatises of Government that political society existed for the sake of protecting “property”, which he defined as a person’s “life, liberty, and estate”. In A Letter Concerning Toleration, he wrote that the magistrate’s power was limited to preserving a person’s “civil interest”, which he described as “life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things”. He declared in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness”.”

Even if that were the case:

“According to those scholars who saw the root of Jefferson’s thought in Locke’s doctrine, Jefferson replaced “estate” with “the pursuit of happiness”, although this does not mean that Jefferson meant the “pursuit of happiness” to refer primarily or exclusively to property. Under such an assumption, the Declaration of Independence would declare that government existed primarily for the reasons Locke gave, and some have extended that line of thinking to support a conception of limited government.”

Besides, Jefferson wasn’t alone in his views:

“Benjamin Franklin was in agreement with Thomas Jefferson in downplaying protection of “property” as a goal of government. It is noted that Franklin found property to be a “creature of society” and thus, he believed that it should be taxed as a way to finance civil society.”

Furthermore, other scholars have offered and alternative interpretation:

“Garry Wills has argued that Jefferson did not take the phrase from Locke and that it was indeed meant to be a standard by which governments should be judged. Wills suggests Adam Ferguson as a good guide to what Jefferson had in mind:

“If, in reality, courage and a heart devoted to the good of mankind are the constituents of human felicity, the kindness which is done infers a happiness in the person from whom it proceeds, not in him on whom it is bestowed; and the greatest good which men possessed of fortitude and generosity can procure to their fellow creatures is a participation of this happy character. If this be the good of the individual, it is likewise that of mankind; and virtue no longer imposes a task by which we are obliged to bestow upon others that good from which we ourselves refrain; but supposes, in the highest degree, as possessed by ourselves, that state of felicity which we are required to promote in the world.”
—Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society

“The 17th-century cleric and philosopher Richard Cumberland wrote that promoting the well-being of our fellow humans is essential to the “pursuit of our own happiness”. Locke never associated natural rights with happiness, but his philosophical opponent Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz made such an association in the introduction to his Codex Iuris Gentium. William Wollaston’s The Religion of Nature Delineated describes the “truest definition” of “natural religion” as being “The pursuit of happiness by the practice of reason and truth”. An English translation of Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui’s Principles of Natural and Politic Law prepared in 1763 extolled the “noble pursuit” of “true and solid happiness” in the opening chapter discussing natural rights. Historian Jack Rakove posits Burlamaqui as the inspiration for Jefferson’s phrase.”

A more nuanced view is offered by Howard Schwartz in Liberty In America’s Founding Moment (Kindle Locations 485-506):

“I offer a different approach to the question of the Declaration’s position on rights, arguing that a key aspect of the Declaration’s meaning and function has been missed. Instead of asking whether the Declaration is Lockean or what literary documents are the source of its ideas, I will suggest that the Declaration’s position on natural rights and independence is much more equivocal than has been typically realized. The question about the source of Jefferson’s ideas is less relevant and interesting than the question of what position on rights was getting articulated. The answer to that question is more ambiguous than typically thought. And the equivocation is one part of the Declaration’s meaning and function. Indeed, one central purpose of the Declaration was to unite the colonies behind the decision to declare independence. As such, the Declaration had to evade and sidestep any disagreements about rights that might still have lingered. In this sense, the Declaration had to speak as if “debate had ended,” to use the words of Thomas Paine in Common Sense, when in fact on the matter of American rights, the debate had not completely ended and there remained some significant disagreements about the foundations of and nature of natural and American rights. Jefferson himself did not agree with the view endorsed by the First Continental Congress in 1774, though that constituted the official view endorsed by the Congress on behalf of the colonies. When Jefferson sat down to write the Declaration, he had to find words to unite those who otherwise had diverging views. On this interpretation of the situation, Jefferson’s brilliance was not only in his powerful rhetorical performance, but in finding an articulation of rights that would seemingly be amenable to as many parties as possible, including himself. In this sense, “all its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day,” to use Jefferson’s own words, is a more profound and ironic interpretation than anyone has fully appreciated.21 If Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence captures the American Mind, then it does so in all the complexity and disagreement that characterized the “American Mind” at the time. There was arguably no single American Mind on the question of rights.22 And the Declaration was harmonizing a tradition that did in fact have divergent views and loose ends. This statement on rights would have to speak not just to those who endorsed the position of the First Congress, but also those who did not, including its author. This interpretation of the Declaration thus takes a position that both affirms and criticizes all of the various the positions in the debate. The Declaration does endorse natural rights language and a Lockean-like view but at the same time it exhibits some of ambivalence about natural rights and the way natural rights are linked up to American rights. It thus affirms that Locke’s ideas were in the air but also argues that these ideas were contested and doubted. The American foundation of rights was not a settled matter.”

As for Jefferson’s personal view, a fundamental right related to happiness had to do with consent. A government earned consent by ensuring the happiness of citizens. When that happiness abated, so did the requirement of consent. This puts “pursuit of Happiness” in a whole other context.

Deep South, American Hypocrisy, & Liberal Traditions

This post is a continuation of my previous post: Deep South, Traditional Conservatism, & Future Possibilities. I have a couple of points to add to my analysis/commentary. First, I want to point out the consistent culture and politics of the Deep South, not just recently but for its entire history. Second, I want to point out an element of hypocrisy in the American psyche and how it relates to the Deep South.

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Deep South’s Unique Place In American History

In the book American Nations by Colin Woodard, I found a good summary of the agenda of the Deep South or rather the agenda of the oligarchs of the Deep South who have maintained their dominance of local politics for its entire history (Kindle Locations 4915-4927):

“The goal of the Deep Southern oligarchy has been consistent for over four centuries: to control and maintain a one-party state with a colonialstyle economy based on large-scale agriculture and the extraction of primary resources by a compliant, poorly educated, low-wage workforce with as few labor, workplace safety, health care, and environmental regulations as possible. On being compelled by force of arms to give up their slave workforce, Deep Southerners developed caste and sharecropper systems to meet their labor needs, as well as a system of poll taxes and literacy tests to keep former slaves and white rabble out of the political process. When these systems were challenged by African Americans and the federal government, they rallied poor whites in their nation, in Tidewater, and in Appalachia to their cause through fearmongering: The races would mix. Daughters would be defiled. Yankees would take away their guns and Bibles and convert their children to secular humanism, environmentalism, communism, and homosexuality. Their political hirelings discussed criminalizing abortion, protecting the flag from flag burners, stopping illegal immigration, and scaling back government spending when on the campaign trail; once in office, they focused on cutting taxes for the wealthy, funneling massive subsidies to the oligarchs’ agribusinesses and oil companies, eliminating labor and environmental regulations, creating “guest worker” programs to secure cheap farm labor from the developing world, and poaching manufacturing jobs from higher-wage unionized industries in Yankeedom, New Netherland, or the Midlands. It’s a strategy financial analyst Stephen Cummings has likened to “a high-technology version of the plantation economy of the Old South,” with the working and middle classes playing the role of sharecroppers.”

The Deep South has had limited power over national politics ever since the Civil War. However, several factors have lead to their gaining power: decades of Cold War attacks and propaganda against Leftist politics, Civil Rights movement bringing Appalachia into alignment with the Deep South, the Southern Strategy which created an effective way to campaign, and the globalizing of the economics that favored deregulation and vast wealth disparities. Because of this, national politics has fallen under the sway of the Deep South worldview. The results are what has happened in recent decades (Kindle Locations 5002-5017):

“From the 1990s, the Dixie bloc’s influence over the federal government has been enormous. In 1994 the Dixie-led Republican Party took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years. The Republicans maintained their majority in the U.S. House until 2008 and controlled the Senate for many of those years as well. While perhaps disappointed with the progressivism of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Deep Southern oligarchs finally got one of their own in the White House in 2000, for the first time since 1850. George W. Bush may have been the son of a Yankee president and raised in far western Texas, but he was a creature of east Texas, where he lived, built his political career, found God, and cultivated his business interests and political alliances. His domestic policy priorities as president were those of the Deep Southern oligarchy: cut taxes for the wealthy, privatize Social Security, deregulate energy markets (to benefit family allies at Houston-based Enron), stop enforcing environmental and safety regulations for offshore drilling rigs (like BP’s Deepwater Horizon), turn a blind eye to offshore tax havens, block the regulation of carbon emissions or tougher fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, block health care benefits for low-income children, open protected areas to oil exploration, appoint industry executives to run the federal agencies meant to regulate their industries, and inaugurate a massive new foreign guest-worker program to ensure a low-wage labor supply. Meanwhile, Bush garnered support among ordinary Dixie residents by advertising his fundamentalist Christian beliefs, banning stem cell research and late-term abortions, and attempting to transfer government welfare programs to religious institutions. By the end of his presidency—and the sixteen-year run of Dixie dominance in Washington—income inequality and the concentration of wealth in the federation had reached the highest levels in its history, exceeding even the Gilded Age and Great Depression. In 2007 the richest tenth of Americans accounted for half of all income, while richest 1 percent had seen their share nearly triple since 1994.

It’s amazing when you think about it. That is a long time for an entire region to have so little power. And then when they regain power, they take national politics by storm. You might even say a perfect storm. The stage was in the process of being set for a takeover ever since the Southern Strategy began. Reagan argued he was against the Civil Rights Act because of his defense of states’ rights, the very same argument the Deep South oligarchs often used to defend slavery and originally used to steal the land of Native Americans living in their states. To rub salt into this wound, Reagan gave a states’ rights speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi that was famous for being the location where 3 civil rights workers were killed. If not for the strong racism, the Dixie bloc would not have been possible. There was very little love lost between Appalachia and Deep South, but white supremacy was something they could agree upon.

I’ve heard some argue that they’ve experienced worst racism in parts of the North. There is racism in the North like most places, but it would be disingenuous to say it is worse. The North doesn’t have a long history of killing uppity blacks and the white civil rights workers who would defend them. It wasn’t in the North where the KKK was so politically active and powerful. For all the faults of the North, violent and oppressive racism isn’t top on the list, especially not in the past century or two (although it is fair to say that long ago the Puritans were far from friendly to those perceived as different: Quakers, Native Americans, etc). The point being that the North, despite what racism existed, didn’t seek to create a politcal bloc based on racism.

There is another argument made about slavery in America being race-based and that slavery was somehow different in the past. As Skepoet wrote in response to a comment of mine:

“It’s racialization was part of the counter-enlightenment as there is NO talk of “race” before that recorded, and most prior slavery was not racialized but the result of war.  That is also true for slavery in the colonies, as there were many “endured servants” of all races, but it was increasingly racialized through time.”

Here was my counter-argument:

“I don’t know the history of racial attitudes, but I doubt that it is true that there was no talk of “race” before that time. Earlier people may not have used that term. There are many ways to speak of race since race is often connected to so many other factors in societies: culture, geography, national identity, language, religion, clothing, etc. But it would be true that globalized capitalism would lead people to make more generalized conclusions based on race as it would lead them to make more generalized conclusions about everything. I don’t think this would be limited to recent centuries, though. When the Greek and Roman empires were trading with other empires all over the world, I’m sure people began to increasingly categorize people according to ideas of race and other similar categories, although their particular ideas might look different than those of the modern era.

“Race isn’t just about skin color. The whitest of white people from Northern Europe sometimes weren’t considered ‘white’ in the US because they came from a culture very different than that of Britain. I’m sure, for example, that most Roman slaves weren’t both genetically and ethnically of Roman descent. Most slaves came from conquered people which usually meant in those days of a different race. To go further back, the Spartans had an overtly race-based slave society. The two models of Western democracy have always been that of Athens and Sparta.”

I was reading more from American Nations and so I have further clarifications. An important point is that a specifically racialized slavery was introduced by the Deep South because their colony was modeled on Barbados which was racialized slave colony. Tidewater later adopted this racialization of slavery, but never to the extremes of Deep South. Even Native Americans were enslaved to a greater degree by the Deep South than in the other colonies, sometimes shipping off Native American slaves in exchange for shipping in African slaves. Furthermore, Deep South and Tidewater were the only colonies that were primarily based on a slave economy. Here is what Colin Woodard writes on this particular issue (Kindle Locations 1447-1482):

“Of course, the Deep South wasn’t the only part of North America practicing full-blown slavery after 1670. Every colony tolerated the practice. But most of the other nations were societies with slaves, not slave societies per se. Only in Tidewater and the Deep South did slavery become the central organizing principle of the economy and culture. There were fundamental differences between these two slave nations, however, which illuminate a subtle difference in the values of their respective oligarchies.9 We’ve seen how Tidewater’s leaders, in search of serfs, imported indentured servants of both races—men and women who could earn their freedom if they survived their servitude. After 1660, however, the people of African descent who arrived in Virginia and Maryland increasingly were treated as permanent slaves as the gentry adopted the slaveholding practices of the West Indies and Deep South. By the middle of the eighteenth century, black people faced Barbadian-style slave laws everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line.

“Even so, in Tidewater, slaves made up a much smaller proportion of the population (1 to 1.7 whites, rather than 5 to 1), lived longer, and had more stable family lives than their counterparts in the Deep South. Tidewater’s slave population naturally increased after 1740, doing away with the need to import slaves from abroad. With few new arrivals to assimilate, Afro-Tidewater culture became relatively homogeneous and strongly influenced by the English culture it was embedded within. Many blacks whose ancestors had come to the Chesapeake region prior to 1670 had grown up in freedom, owning land, keeping servants, even holding office and taking white husbands or wives. Having African blood did not necessarily make one a slave in Tidewater, a fact that made it more difficult to dismiss black people as subhuman. Until the end of the seventeenth century, one’s position in Tidewater was defined largely by class, not race.10

“The Deep South, by contrast, had a black supermajority and an enormous slave mortality rate, meaning thousands of fresh humans had to be imported every year to replace those who had died. Blacks in the Deep South were far more likely to live in concentrated numbers in relative isolation from whites. With newcomers arriving with every slave ship, the slave quarters were cosmopolitan, featuring a wide variety of languages and African cultural practices. Within this melting pot, the slaves forged a new culture, complete with its own languages (Gullah, New Orleans Creole), Afro-Caribbean culinary practices, and musical traditions. From the hell of the slave quarters would come some of the Deep South’s great gifts to the continent: blues, jazz, gospel, and rock and roll, as well as the Caribbean-inspired foodways today enshrined in Southern-style barbeque joints from Miami to Anchorage. And because the Deep South’s climate, landscape, and ecosystem resembled those of West Africa far more than they did those of England, it was the slaves’ technologies and practices that guided the region’s agricultural development. “Carolina,” a Swiss immigrant remarked in 1737, “looks more like a negro country than like a country settled by white people.”11

“In the Deep South, African Americans formed a parallel culture, one whose separateness was enshrined in the laws and fundamental values of the nation’s white minority. Indeed, the Deep South was for at least the three centuries from 1670 to 1970 a caste society. And caste, it should be noted, is quite a different thing from class. People can and do leave the social class they are born into—either through hard work or tragedy—and can marry someone of another class and strive for their children to start life in a better position than they did. A caste is something one is born into and can never leave, and one’s children will be irrevocably assigned to it at birth. Marriage outside of one’s caste is strictly forbidden. So while the Deep South had rich whites and poor whites and rich and poor blacks, no amount of wealth would allow a black person to join the master caste. The system’s fundamental rationale was that blacks were inherently inferior, a lower form of organism incapable of higher thought and emotion and savage in behavior. Although pressed into service as wet nurses, cooks, and nannies, blacks were regarded as “unclean,” with Deep Southern whites maintaining a strong aversion to sharing dishes, clothes, and social spaces with them. For at least three hundred years, the greatest taboo in the Deep South was to marry across the caste lines or for black men to have white female lovers, for the caste system could not survive if the races began to mix. Even the remotest suspicion of violating the Great Deep Southern Taboo would result in death for a black male.”

I quoted that passage in full because I wanted to be clear. The slavery of the Deep South wasn’t like anything else found in the other American colonies. As the author goes to great effort in explaining, it wasn’t just race or even class for it had a thoroughly structured racial caste system. This was necessary in a slave society where the slaves out-numbered the non-slaves, but it also was what Deep South inherited from the Barbados model of slavery. It is also important to note that this has everything to do with war. Britain was a war-mongering imperial power that conquered and built colonies. It wasn’t anything new. Empires have been warring and conquering new lands for millennia and it isn’t unusual for the conquered (typically of another race) to be made into slaves. There wasn’t anything particularly new about this. Even the Romans would ship in slaves from far away and treat their slaves brutally according to a strict caste system.

* * *

An American Hypocrisy

The hypocrisy part relates to the two regions most dominated by a capitalist worldview: Deep South and New Netherlands. The former has led to a more neoconservative authoritarian vision of capitalism and the latter a more neoliberal egalitarian vision, but it is the neoliberal vision that has been most powerfully used as libertarian rhetoric. The American colonies were already well established prior to the era of classical liberalism. However, because of the revolutionary times, classical liberalism had a great impact on what America was becoming.

Classical liberalism has had a profound impact on both the development of liberalism and conservatism in America. It is for this reason that America has never had any political tradition or party that was distinctly and solely conservative in nature. Also, classical liberalism in America has brought forth an egalitarianism that has be ever since shadowed by its ties to colonialism, serfdom and slavery. Classical liberalism was the perfect formula of promoting an equality where some were more equal than others. Even Yankeedom, born out of the Reformationist vision of Puritan egalitarianism, has had a hard time maintaining its distinct identity separate from the classical liberalism introduced into the regions to the South of it. Still, it is Yankeedom and Midlands that has remained most resistant to classical liberalism. Some people make the mistake of assuming all American liberalism originates from classical liberalism. As I explained in my discussion with Skepoet:

“The Yankees and Midlanders were influenced by the German notion of freedom where every person is born with equal freedom, no matter their parentage, their social status, or their race. The Midlands, of course, had a notion of liberty rooted in the more socialist tendencies of German and Scandinavian immigrants. [ . . . ] The two visions are the following: Northerners tend to view property rights being based on human rights; and Southerners tend to view human rights being based on property rights.”

The liberalism of the North originated in religious beliefs, rather than in secular philosophy. And these Northern religious beliefs originated from the Reformation, rather than the Enlightenment. This is why Northern liberalism, besides the exception of New Netherlands (New York City), has fought against unfettered capitalism. In Yankeedom, it was the Puritan vision. In Midlands, it was the Quaker vision. In both Yankeedom and Midlands, it was a vision of a society created by an educated middle class, rather than a capitalist elite. It was because of religious beliefs that Northerners promoted public education for all, the reason being that only if all people were literate could all people read the Bible and have a personal relationship to God. On the other hand, Deep South was originally one of the least religious colonies in America.

Because of certain historical events, classical liberalism has been associated most strongly with the South. The key figure in this development was John Locke who was born and spent much of his life in England. The odd part is that he was born to Puritan parents and so one would think he would have more in common with Yankeedom, but because of political and economic ties he became involved in the Deep South colony and the slave trade. In fact, he even wrote or helped write the Carolina constitution. This is where it becomes interesting. Through the Carolina constitution, Locke both fortified serfdom and slavery in the Deep South while also guaranteeing religious freedom. So, only the latter part could be considered liberal in any reasonable sense and it was precisely that part that was overturned by the Deep South aristocracy in order to stengthen their alliance with colonial rule in England. Deep South aristocrats basically took the classical liberal rationalizations that justified unfettered capitalism and got rid of the rest (American Nations, Kindle Locations 1422-1428):

“While not particularly religious, the planters embraced the Anglican Church as another symbol of belonging to the establishment. Locke’s charter for the colony had guaranteed freedom of religion—Sephardic Jews and French Huguenots emigrated to the region in great numbers—but the elite overturned these provisions in 1700, giving themselves a monopoly on church and state offices. Their Anglican religious orientation also gave the Deep South elite unfettered access to London high society and the great English universities and boarding schools, milieus generally denied to Puritans, Quakers, and other dissenters. Whether English or French in origin, the Deep South’s planters would also come to embrace the Tidewater gentry’s notion of being descendants of the aristocratic Normans, lording over their colony’s crass Anglo-Saxon and Celtic underclass.”

To understand the hypocrisy within Locke’s own beliefs, here is an explanation about one part of the Carolina constitution (John Locke, Carolina, And The Two Treatises Of Government by David Armitage):

“Therefore (as the Fundamental Constitutions’most notorious article put it), “Every Freeman of Carolina shall have absolute Authority over his Negro slaves of what opinion or Religion soever.”40 Though none of his later detractors could have known it, Locke himself had augmented the slaveholders’ “absolute Authority” by adding that “” in the 1669 manuscript nowamong the Shaftesbury papers.41 Had they known, that fact would have only confirmed their suspicion that “the most eminent Republican Writers, suchas LOCKE, FLETCHER of Saltown, and ROUSSEAU himself, pretend to justify the making Slaves of others, whilst they are pleading so warmly for Liberty for themselves.””

This would put Lockean classical liberalism more in line with the reactionary conservatism described by Corey Robin. A conservative critic of Locke, writing in 1776, summarized it well:

“Republicans in general . . . for leveling all Distinctions above them, and at the same time for tyrannizing over those, whom Chance or Misfortune have placed below them.”

The Republican is, therefore, the penultimate reactionary conservative. They seek to level all the traditional distinctions above them which the traditional conservatives seek to maintain. Meanwhile, they seek to maintain the traditional distinctions below them simply out of a tactical effort of keeping more radical liberals/left-wingers from challenging the entire system. To put this in realpolitik terms, reactionary conservatives want to take away the power from those who have power over them and increase the power they have over others. It’s just another way of justifying power, but it is a new form of power being put in old garb. Even as reactionary conservatives attack traditional conservatives, they romanticize about a distant conservative past, which in this case means the oligarchic republics of ancient times.

In this light, classical liberalism is correctly claimed by contemporary American conservatives. Lockean classical liberalism is conservative in that it seeks to defend a class-based society, and it is specifically conservative in a reactionary sense because it is a counter-revolutionary response to the Enlightenment belief that all men should be treated as equals. An odd aspect of reactionary conservatism is that, because it is responding to liberalism, it often takes on the forms and appearances of liberalism… and so some even confuse it with the liberalism it mimics. Reactionary conservatism is purposely distinguishing itself from traditional conservatism which is why mimicking liberalism is such a clever tactic. It seeks to replace traditional conservatism while simultaneously co-opting the tactics and language of liberalism. Both liberals and reactionary conservatives speak of freedom. How you tell them apart is by looking for whether the freedom they propose is inclusive or exclusive.

Classical liberalism was partly formulated as a rationalization for colonization. Unlike the Spaniards, the English wanted a more convincing reason for their colonial power than merely the right over the conquered. What was proposed was that those who used the land had the right to the land. Since Native Americans were perceived as not using the land, they therefore had no right to the land. This was a capitalist argument for oppression. More from David Armitage:

“Locke’s argument from divine command to cultivate those “great Tracts”of unappropriated land became the classic theoretical expression of the agriculturalist argument for European dominium over American land. Precisely that argument underlay the rights claimed by the Proprietors over the land of Carolina, according to the terms of their grants from the English Crown. The original 1629 grant had called Carolina a region “hitherto until led. . . . But insome parts of it inhabited by certain Barbarous men,” and this description hadbeen reaffirmed in Charles II’s grant to the Lords Proprietors in 1663, which had charged the Lords Proprietors “to Transport and make an ample Colony of our Subjects . . . unto a certain Country . . . in the parts of AMERICA not yet cultivated or planted, and only inhabited by some barbarous People whohave no knowledge of Almighty God.”83 The agriculturalist argument wasthe best justification that could be given for dispossession after argumentsfrom conquest and from religion had been gradually abandoned. As the English learned from the Spanish, the argument from conquest could only justify imperium over the native peoples but not dominium over American land. Nor could Amerindian unbelief alone provide a justification for dominion. As we have seen, in 1669 the authors of the Fundamental Constitutions had speci-fied that “Idollatry Ignorance or mistake gives us noe right to expell or use[the Natives of Carolina] ill,” and that article remained in all later versions ofthe Fundamental Constitutions. Locke himself later upheld just that same argument in the Letter Concerning Toleration (1685): “No man whatsoever ought . . . to be deprived of his Terrestrial Enjoyments, upon account of his Religion. Not even Americans, subjected unto a Christian Prince, are to bepunished either in Body or Goods, for not imbracing our Faith and Worship.”84 The only remaining argument was the contention (first propounded in its modern form by Thomas More in Utopia) that dominion fell to those best able to cultivate the land to its fullest capacity, not least to fulfill the divine command to subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28, 9:1). The peculiar form of Locke’s argument therefore had identifiably colonial origins, though not exclusively colonial applications.”

As it had other possible applications, it was also an argument that became generalized beyond just colonialism. In its most extreme form, it meant that those who owned the capital had the right to political power over those who didn’t own capital. In Deep South, this meant a strictly enforced class-based society where the vast majority (hereditary serfs, slaves, women, and those who didn’town large tracts of land) didn’t have the right to vote or to hold public office, and this also included through the constitution the first hereditary nobility in America. In New Netherlands (which became New York City), this meant a corrupt anti-democratic political system that was powered by vast wealth and industry (the archetype, sadly, of many other major industrial cities).

It is interesting to consider the relationship of the land use argument to the American Dream. Many early Americans saw freedom in terms of land such as Thomas Paine with his ‘Agrarian Justice’ and Thomas Jefferson with his promoting agriculture over industry. It was, after all, agriculture that originally made America so vastly wealthy. America has some of the best soil in the world and our agricultural sector is still top notch to this day.

It was the agrarian reformists, along with abolitionists and socialists, who helped form the Republican Party. The Republican Party was originally the complete opposite of the Republican politics of the Deep South aristocracy. In fact, the Republican Party started in the North and of course produced the Lincoln presidency which led the North to fight against the aristocracy, slavery and caste system of the Deep South. Many Americans outside of the South were afraid of the Deep South aristocracy forcing their culture onto the rest of the country and they had good reason to fear. The Deep South was actively seeking to expand its slavery into new territories and to enforce its slave laws even onto non-slave states. The agrarian reformist Free Soil advocates were the most aggressive in fighting against the South’s attempt to impose slavery on, for example, the Kansas territory. The majority of Kansan farmers didn’t want slavery in Kansas, but unsurprisingly many elite wanted slavery there. This is why Kansas sided with the Union during the Civil War, Kansas by the way is split between Midlands and Far West (both areas known for having an uneasy relationship with centralized or authoritarian power, especially when it is commanded by people living far away whether in Yankeedom or Deep South).

To return to Locke in my concluding thoughts, I should clarify the claim of hypocrisy. John Locke experienced persecution himself. At one point, he moved to Netherlands which probably was a major influence on his thinking. Netherlands embodied the values of classical liberalism better than any of the other colonial powers of that era. Freedom of religion and of the press allowed Locke to write and publish his own work on religious freedom while in the Netherlands. This side of Locke seems genuinely liberal, but that didn’t change the fact that as an adult he was part of and dependent on the upper class of both English and American society. His liberalism was that of a respectable gentleman and not that of the working class rabblerousers of London who inspired Paine. Still, it seems odd that Locke would get tangled, politically and professionally, in an oppressive caste society like Deep South. It was New Netherlands that more fully embodied what Locke claimed to believe. New Netherlands, like its mother country, had a relative large degree of social freedom in terms of religion, race and social mobility. It’s true that New Netherlands had its ruling capitalist elite, but it at least wasn’t based on racialized slavery and a caste system.

Locke’s failings being what they may, he seems to have maintained some genuine streak of liberalism. Despite of or rather because of his close associations with the Deep South, he wrote in reference to the Deep South aristocracy, “The Barbadians endeavor to rule us all.” The Barbadians of course had limited interest in Locke’s ideals of freedom, other than how classical liberalism might be used to help maintain their power and authority.