Books History

The Most “Liberal” People on Earth: Louis Hartz’s “The Liberal Tradition in America”

Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America has become a hidden classic of American political and intellectual history. Hartz’s thesis is that the United States, as one of the only daughters of the liberal Enlightenment–is fundamentally a liberal nation. Despite the left-right divide of contemporary liberals and conservatives, most conservatives are a variant of liberal, and this is what Hartz highlights in the second half of his text.

Locke once said, “In the beginning, all the world was America” (Second Treatise of Government). Liberalism is a philosophy of self-preservation, hedonism, and freedom from harm, expressing itself, in Locke, through property rights and the rights to fruit of human toil/labor, often with close attachments to the idea of progress, market economics, and internationalism. Despite what one might read or listen to from ‘conservative’ media outlets, the contemporary Democratic Party and modern liberalism, as preeminent liberal political philosopher and Alan Wolfe has said of it, is essentially a modernized form of classical liberalism that still holds to these cornerstone liberal beliefs.

The uniqueness of America, in Hartz’s eyes, is that the United States never suffered from the baggage of Europe. Namely: no landed aristocracy, no Ancien Regime, no State Church, and no feudal (agrarian) heritage. Granted the Southern plantation owners are similar to the European aristocratic lineage and were tied to a form of agrarianism, and Protestantism was a “de-facto” religious heritage for the United States, even the Rural and Agrarian South didn’t exhibit the same tendencies of the European feudal, aristocratic, and agrarian tradition. Whereas European revolutionaries had to fight a social revolution AND a political revolution, Americans only had to fight a political revolution. In Hartz’s words, Americans are a people “born equal” and with this comes great irony–will Americans ever understand people who are born with oppressive social structures in society? [We seem to think if other people fight a political revolution, they will naturally be liberal, democratic, and secular because that’s all we had to do]

The American tradition is also tied to property rights and materialism. This ensures the other cornerstones of liberalism in American society. In contrast, the enemies of the liberal tradition are opposed to property rights, endorse suprarationalism and emotion over the primacy of reason, and strongly endorse the rule of aristocrats and a state Church (at least in Maistre’s case). As all good students of the Enlightenment and Counter Enlightenment know, Rousseau (whom Hartz attacks) was a radical break with the liberal Enlightenment tradition. He saw the inversion of property rights as reaping class division and inequality. The Ancien Regime in France only heightened this disparity. Collectivism (Rousseau’s “General Will”) took primacy over individualism. He favored emotion over reason. As Hartz says, “The Ancien Regime inspired Rousseau, both inspired Marx” (speaking of the Ancien Regime and Rousseau). Therefore, the socialist tradition is deeply rooted in feudal agrarianism. It is rooted in notions of collectivism and romanticism that were outgrowths of Europe’s feudal past in reaction to the Enlightenment (this is why socialism and other Leftist traditions in the United States were agrarian in nature–the agrarian socialists led to the agrarian revolt in the 1880s, Eugene Debs in the early 1900s). Likewise, Counter Enlightenment Conservatism, authentic conservatism in the classical sense–not the contemporary American sense which is not conservatism but really neo-liberalism, is also founded upon the Ancien Regime, Europe’s feudal, aristocratic, and agrarian tradition but diverge with socialists about the ramifications of these cornerstones. (The irony that conservatism and socialism are actually born from the same foundational philosophy, and why conservatives like Metternich described himself as “a conservative socialist” and the conservative icons Otto von Bismarck and Benjamin Disraeli embarked on the first widespread social reforms and establishment of a welfare state even though such policies are seen as not being conservative in America’s misinterpretation of what conservatism is).

For Hartz, with America lacking the foundation that inspires socialism and conservatism, America will never experience a strong and authentic socialist or conservative movement. Hartz analyzes this through a discussion on the “conservatives” and the “social democrats” in the United States (the Romantic Nationalists of the South and the New Dealers of the more recent past). As Hartz notes, leading southern ‘conservatives’ actually started out their careers as liberal Jeffersonians. However, in their “conservative” turn they returned to the Ancient Greek philosophies for their inspiration. But here was their fatal flaw–unlike Counter Enlightenment conservatism which was anti-rational, endorse the suprarational, and embraced collectivism and an organic conception of society, the American “reactionaries” (as Hartz terms it, “the Reactionary Enlightenment”) still endorsed rationalism, individualism, and property rights–they merely attempt to prevent it from reaching its ultimate conclusion, namely property rights and freedom for everyone! Because the American conservatives defended their heritage, tradition, and lifestyle with liberal principles, they were doomed to fail. In essence, they weren’t really conservatives in any classical sense–more like “conservative” liberals, but still liberal. (Hint, this is why whenever we have “conservative” Republicans and Presidents, liberal policies continue, are increased, or even implemented).

Likewise, the social democrats associated with the New Deal are what the 1950s and 1960s communist Marxists described as “revisionists.” Essentially, the social democrats who expanded democracy, introduced social welfare, and embraced internationalism were protecting the liberal tradition rather than subverting it. Social welfare was seen as the tool to tame capitalism and prevent the proletariat revolution, and therefore keep the market economy in place. The rich could still get richer, albeit at a slower pace, but at least they wouldn’t have to fear an underclass revolution. Modern liberalism hopes to achieve just that. (Hint, this is why, even with the “liberal” Obama Administration, Wall Street is doing great, free-trade deals are still being sought, and the market economy is still intact. In fact, people who bemoan Obama as “not being liberal enough” actually have it backwards, Obama is a liberal, it is they who are not liberal, rather, they are more socialist or post-Marxist but just use the term liberal to describe themselves).

For Hartz, America is so liberal many Americans don’t realize they are liberals. We agree on almost everything that we argue with each other over the smallest details. For instance, does anyone really think that either the Republican or Democratic Party is ever going to abandon a defense of property rights (it’s a right guaranteed in the U.S. constitution–5th Amendment), or that the internationalist project is going to be overthrown in a revolution, or that individualism is going to be socially or politically repressed? Since we’re all in agreement on these liberal cornerstones, we fight over the small details: how much welfare should we give out, how far should our internationalism go, or what individual expressions are permissible and which ones can be considered profane (flag burning, saying something socially inappropriate, etc.). While Hartz doesn’t seem to be 100% correct in his assessment, he does seem to be right that America is an inherently liberal nation, the only daughter of the Enlightenment, and as such, America will never have a vibrant, and authentic socialist or conservative movement.

This review is taken from my Amazon review of Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America.

Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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