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The Frustrated Liberals

July 2024
4min read

The liberal reformers of nineteenth-century America are taken more or less on their own valuation. Since they had very high opinions of themselves, this means that they come down in history bearing excellent reputations. Everything is working for them, because they are the authorities whom the historian consults when he tries to reconstruct the past. Reformers are not always loved by their contemporaries, but they tend to be deeply admired by posterity.

So we have today this informal list of the “best men”—the expression is their own—of the distressing Gilded Age: E. L. Godkin, Carl Schurz, Charles Eliot Norton, William Dean Howells, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, George William Curtis, Henry Adams, joined by a few working politicians like Lyman Trumbull and Samuel J. Tilden, and once in a while by an authentic genius like Mark Twain. From the best of motives, they set out to identify and to correct the manifold abuses of the post-Civil War era. Some of the abuses, to be sure, turned out to be beyond immediate correction, but the reformers themselves were knights in shining armor, and a grateful republic remembers them—when it bothers to recall their names—with gratitude and admiration.

The Best Men: Liberal Reformers in the Gilded Age , by John G. Sproat. Oxford University Press. 356 pp. $7.50.

The contemporary historian John G. Sproat takes a critical look at them in his new book, The Best Men: Liberal Reformers in the Gilded Age , and he does not care much for what he sees. He argues that the reformers started from the wrong base and attacked the wrong targets. They were specialists on things that did not matter so much. The biggest problems of their age they neither recognized nor grappled with. We inherited the result, and the reformers might as well never have existed.

As Mr. Sproat sees it, these reformers were really conservatives, not liberals. They wanted to restore “a natural balance in society”; they believed that there really was a natural balance, that certain immutable “natural laws” of political economy would come to the rescue if only men would return to economic orthodoxy. They believed in “good government,” they saw complete remedies in the application to business, politics, and everyday life of the old moral principles, and they suspected that nothing would be helpful unless “the heart be revived.” They faced the manifold discrepancies of the postwar generation and concluded that what was really needed was civil service reform, an end to political corruption, a sound currency, a low tariff, and a rebirth of dedication to right thinking and right living.

Sound enough: reform of civil service and politics was badly needed, so were proper policies in respect to money and tariffs, and men really ought to be better than their unguided instincts permit them to be—but there were a couple of staggering problems that the reformers quietly swept under the rug, either because they did not understand them or because the remedies would have made their hair curl.

One of these problems was the business of making sure that the black man got properly placed and adjusted in a world wherein he was no longer a slave, and this problem the reformers found too much for them. They began as ardent abolitionists, and during the first years after Appomattox they called earnestly for equal rights and legal security for the freedman. But they found, before long, that it simply was not expedient to insist too strongly on these things. Reconstruction involved too much government interference in the affairs of private citizens; it was good that slavery had been abolished, but there must be no further experimentation with political and economic change.

So, in the end, the reformers simply ignored this problem; they cheered when Simon Legree went out, but they looked the other way when Jim Crow came in. They turned angrily against President Grant when he failed to fight against the political spoils system, but they left him to stand alone when he demanded a new deal for the Negro, contenting themselves with advising the bewildered ex-slave to cultivate honesty and frugality and to put money in the savings bank; as Mr. Sproat puts it, they were convinced that “the inexorable operation of natural economic laws would insure the triumph of thrifty, industrious freedmen over adversity.”

That triumph has been a long time coming, and the men who ought to have led in the fight for it found other things to think about. As a result, we today have inherited the problem they failed to attack; it has grown great with the years, and at times it seems likely to tear the country apart.

In the same way the reformers hardly so much as recognized the problems brought by the new industrial age. They believed that capital and labor, if left to themselves, would rely on their natural rights and work out their differences; any artificial limitation on the free play of the mighty forces of the age of industry would weaken society’s moral foundations. No individual, as they saw it, suffered economic hardship except by his own shortcomings. The farmer who went broke was probably shiftless to begin with, and the worker who was intelligent, prudent, and skillful inevitably got his just rewards.

The liberal reformers, in short, never understood what was going on. Mr. Sproat sums it up:
… the Gilded Age was a period of exciting social change. It laid down a revolutionary challenge to responsible men, a challenge to harness the industrial giant and make it work for the benefit of all, rather than for the comfort of a privileged few. For all his intellectual endowment, the liberal reformer closed his mind to the challenge. He fancied himself a realist, but he never grasped the realities of the Industrial Revolution. … He turned away from his age not only because it refused his advice, but also because it insisted that he live in it.

It was living in the new age that was tough. The liberals kept looking back fondly to a simpler era, because they wanted something they could understand. The evils of the spoils system, of big-city bossism, and of the mad scramble for riches they could understand, because these things fitted their special frame of reference; the gigantic issues posed by human freedom and the age of industrial combinations were things that affected other men. The reformers ignored them, and, as Mr. Sproat says, “in the end, they were reduced to playing the role of querulous aristocrats in a nation that had long since become infatuated with democracy.”

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