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The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914

by Cohen, Nancy
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Retail Price: $59.95
Issue: Fall 2002
ISBN: 0807826707

A new capitalist order'

Russell Baker, the former New York Timescolumnist and memoirist, made a careerof blurring the lines between fact andfable, thereby gaining critical acclaimand a popular following. Writing in theApril 11, 2002, issue of the New YorkReview of Books, he recited the prevailingaccount of American politics at the end of the19th century: Everything in the Republicans'history since the Lincoln assassination thirty-five years before argued that political andfinancial success depended on giving capitalismunrestricted license to do whatever wasnecessary to maximize profits.

Although a good storyteller, Baker still hassome Growing Up to do before he is readyto tackle American history. Contemporaryresearch on Reconstruction and the GildedAge has yielded complex, sometimes conflictingaccounts of the postbellum decades, butwhich collectively overturn the caricature ofcorpulent Gilded Age capitalists running theircorporations from the White House. Moreambitious yet is the interpretation offered inNancy Cohen's recent work, The Reconstructionof American Liberalism. Cohen is notcontent with redeeming late-19th-centurycapitalists from their troglodyte reputation;she insists that many of them paired withProgressive social scientists to create a newcapitalist order, one in which corporationsand the state worked in concert.

Cohen picks up where Eric Foner, in FreeSoil, Free Labor, Free Men (Oxford UniversityPress, ISBN 0195094972, $17.95, softcover)leaves off. Mid-19th-century Europe waswracked with labor disputes arising fromindustrialization, but in antebellum America,slavery overshadowed all other labor questions.With the advent of Reconstruction,Radical Republicans were torn between socialreform and economic liberalism, with economicliberals opposing social measures toaid freedmen, for the same reasons that theyopposed governmental regulation of northernfactories and labor conditions.

At the heart of postbellum politics, Cohencontends, was dispute over the purpose andends of the Civil War. Was the war undertakenfor constitutional reasons, as a millennialistcrusade to usher in moral reformation, orto liberate slaves from bondage so that theymight contract their own free labor? It is notsimply the triumph of American democracythat we rejoice over, but the triumph of democraticprinciples everywhere, the Nationmagazine boasted in its July 5, 1865, issue,even if no public consensus then existedabout the philosophical content of thosedemocratic principles.

The Reconstruction of American Liberalismrecurs to a Hegelian historical frameworkto explain the eventual resolution of thelabor question (which in turn generated thetariff question, the money question, andthe trust question). In dense but non-jargonedprose, Cohen argues that contentionbetween two factions within liberalism¨thedemocratic and the libertarian¨was transcendedonly when moderates of both campsdecided to join forces, thereby casting outthe free market and socialist ideologues. AsCohen puts it: Contrary to the prevailinghistoriographical interpretation, the protoprogressivesocial scientists did not overthrowthe classical liberals. Rather, after a culturalstruggle in the 1880s, liberal reformers andsocial scientists ended up collaborating witheach other to forge a new liberalism.Cohen advances this interpretationthrough sketches of its participants: Nationeditor Edwin Godkin is set against fieryabolitionist Wendell Phillips, economist William GrahamSumner is contrasted with social scientist Henry CarterAdams, and so on. Far from being an era of do-nothingcomplacency, the final decades of the 19th century emergeas profoundly fluid.

By the time that Theodore Roosevelt and WoodrowWilson were elected, a fusion of liberalism and state activismhad already emerged, making this statement by Wilsona truism rather than a pledge: The antagonism betweenbusiness and Government is over. Nancy Cohen mayintend it as no compliment, but nonetheless she concludes,The political and ideological reconstruction of the GildedAge and Progressive Era conserved, not transcended, liberalism."

Contributing editorMorgan Knull may bereached by email


The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914, by Cohen, Nancy, Civil War Book Review, (Fall 2002).