Conservatives Versus Liberals

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Thomas Jefferson - Third President of US

Throughout American political history, conservatives and liberals have been battling for control of the government.

Webster’s Dictionary defines liberals as “favorable to progress or reform” and “free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc.” Conservatives are defined as “disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions or to restore traditional ones and to limit change.” The American Revolution started the nation on a liberal footing, establishing a form of government on the Articles of Confederation that rejected the ways of traditional and powerful governments of the Old World.

Jeffersonians, Jacksonians, and Abraham Lincoln

The replacement of the Articles by the Constitution with a stronger national government was engineered by the conservative Federalists. Under President George Washington, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s pro-Federalist policies, such as a national bank, won out over Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy of limited government. Jefferson believed Hamilton’s policies were monarchical. But the people and electors had not forgotten their revolutionary ideals and elected Jefferson president in 1800.

For over twenty years, the Jeffersonian Republicans ruled but became conservative while fighting the War of 1812. Andrew Jackson’s Democrats took up the revolutionary ideals of restrained government, anti-bank policy, and the expansion of poor white man’s rights. The conservative Whig party countered with the American System, using the national government to promote economic interests through a national bank, internal improvements, and protective tariffs. However, the Democrats mostly prevailed between 1828 and 1860.

But during the 1850’s, southerners dominated the Democratic party and were obsessed in protecting the traditional southern institution of slavery. Anti-slavery and Abolitionist folks gathered under the new Republican party to advocate the free labor ideology and Abraham Lincoln’s equality of opportunity under the law. The two forces fought a bloody civil war. The liberal result was the passage of the reconstruction amendments abolishing slavery and guaranteeing citizenship and black suffrage.

Populists, Progressives, and Ronald Reagan

After the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution gained steam. Both the Democratic and Republican parties assumed a generally conservative character. Populist and Progressive movements were born to seek reforms to alleviate the suffering caused by industrial expansion. While the Democrats absorbed the Populists, the Progressives dueled with the conservatives in the Republican party. Despite Theodore Roosevelt’s success in anti-trust and consumer protection actions, by the 1920’s the conservatives were in control.

Calvin Coolidge’s comment, “the business of America is business,” reflected the laissez faire economy of the 1920’s. The urban areas prospered. Then the stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression changed the people’s political outlook. They demanded federal action over the conservative’s “rugged individualism” and got it with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Not only were there reforms in banking, agriculture, and industry, but a safety net was developed with emergency relief and Social Security.

The liberals dominated politics for several decades thereafter, culminating in Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, which expanded on the New Deal. Concerned that the expansion of government regulation and welfare programs inhibited freedoms and business, the conservatives made noise. Starting with Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy in 1964, the conservative movement grew and found a leader in Ronald Reagan. The “Reagan Revolution” came to fruition in the 1980’s, with tax cuts and deregulation.

With the election of Barack Obama, perhaps the liberals are now ascendant for awhile. Judging by the heated health care reform debate, the conservative-liberal debate is still raging. It has been raging since the nation’s founding, with each side alternating in dominance.