[This article appeared in the Winter 1991 issue of the Tamkang Journal of American Studies, pp.1-16.]
Modern Liberalism’s Devaluation of Mainstream Values:
A Key Factor in Understanding American History, 1820-1991
Dwight D. Murphey
It is not too much to say that
, as originally founded, was in most ways a child of the Enlightenment, despite the many qualifications that such a statement would require. The Founding Fathers breathed the ethos of the eighteenth century, spoke often of John Locke, and drew much sustenance from the principles of the British common law. America
Within a few years after the Revolutionary War and the
convention, however, a major change occurred in the intellectual climate of Philadelphia Europe, a change that was soon reflected in the . The Romantic Movement that grew in United States Europein the wake of the excesses of the French Revolution and of Napoleon expressed a vast revulsion against the Enlightenment. By the early nineteenth century, the ideals of neither the American nor the French Revolution remained in vogue among the European intelligentsia.
One of the most fateful results of this was the rise, beginning in the 1820s and 1830s, of the world Left in its many manifestations. Since that time, the alienated intelligentsia has sought an alliance with any disaffected or unassimilated group, and the ideologies of socialism in its many egalitarian variations and of “modern liberalism” in the
have been the result. (In United States , there was the rise, too, of “right-wing Hegelianism” and of the German volkish movement which together asserted a tribalistic collectivism that denounced a social order based on individual freedom. The foundation thus was paved for the eventual rise of Hitler under the pressures that followed World War I.) Germany
By way of contrast, the Revolutionary War and the ideals of the Founding Fathers constituted for most Americans a “compact experience” that welded them together as a people. By the 1820s, there was a growing reverence for the Constitution that helped form a common bond. Mainstream Americans took seriously the notion expressed by Thomas Paine during the Revolution that “we have it in our hands to make the world over again,” and saw the American experiment as having historic and noble implications. A good example of such sentiments is to be found in Andrew Jackson’s Farewell Address in 1837.
The intelligentsia of
New England, however, did not follow the mainstream. Instead, they were greatly influenced by the Romantic revulsion against the Enlightenment. The result was a phenomenon known among scholars as “the alienation of the intellectual.” The denunciations of modernity reverberating throughout Europewere echoed by an American intelligentsia that, in sharp contrast to mainstream American opinion, bitterly denounced the great flow of American life. The intelligentsia no longer shared the optimism of the American experiment, but rather felt the mainstream befouled and diseased. This alienation was both commented upon and reflected by the “Sage of Concord,” Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his lecture “Man the Reformer” in 1841, he pointed to the intelligentsia’s flight from ordinary life: “It is when your facts and persons grow unreal and fantastic by too much falsehood, that the scholar flies for refuge to the world of ideas….” Along the same lines, in his lecture on the “New England Reformers” in 1844 he observed that “there was in all the practical activities of New England for the last quarter of a century, a gradual withdrawal of tender consciences from the social organizations….”
The result, Emerson said, was that during “the last twenty-five years [there had been a]… great activity of thought and experimenting… appearing in temperance and non-resistance societies, in movements of abolitionists and of socialists, and in very significant assemblies called Sabbath and Bible Conventions, composed of ultraists, of seekers, of all the soul of the soldiery of dissent…” (emphasis added).
There was at that time no consensus about what was wrong—only a shared alienation from a society that was perceived as diseased. “What a fertility of projects for the salvation of the world!,” Emerson exclaimed. “One apostle thought all men should go to farming, and another that no man should buy or sell, that the use of money was the cardinal evil; another that the mischief was in our diet, that we eat and drink damnation… Others attacked the institution of marriage as the fountain of social evils.”
Emerson, of course, was both a witness to and a participant in the alienation. The later historian C. S. Griffin reinforces Emerson’s observations when he says: “During the years from 1830 to 1860 a host of reformers in a variety of reform movements together examined and attacked every American institution” (emphasis added). 
In retrospect, this was an amazing turn for American life to have taken. It meant that the intellectual culture, influenced so greatly by the mood of European thought, was giving up on
at a time when, in historic terms, our republican experiment had just barely begun. True, it called for “reform,” and thereby can arguably be said to have been seeking a better society consistently with the Enlightenment itself—but the spirit was one of hostility and despair. “Reform” came to possess an incompatible double aspect that, in the main, has characterized it ever since: the movement for change was both an extension of the Enlightenment and a bloodying of the main society, itself largely a product of the Enlightenment, by those who were deeply alienated against it. America
A Skewed Hierarchy of Values
What is most important to the analysis I will be making in this article is that the “alienation of the intellectual” that began in American life in approximately 1820 led to a serious skewing of the intellectual culture’s hierarchy of values, at least as seen from the perspective of anyone who has valued the main civilization. The distortion came from the fact that because the mainstream of our national life was seen as diseased, the values and institutions of that mainstream were devalued. As such, they were given a much lesser weight than the mainstream society gave them. Indeed, they were valued by the intelligentsia in some cases only as something to be opposed. At the same time, whatever “reform” or “Idea” the alienated intelligentsia came to embrace was given a much heightened value. This resulted in the “reforms” being given an immediacy and urgency that have caused the “reformer” to take little account of the offsetting costs.
Such a hierarchy of values differs immensely from the perspective that a “reasonable man” would hold within the main society. To such a person, it is precisely a balance of values, in all due proportion, that is desirable. Costs are very much to be considered, since they come at the expense of things that are themselves given meaningful value. Social change, to such a person, does not occur in the type of alienated vacuum that results from the devaluation of all else. (It is appropriate in this context to recall nihilism; the nineteenth century Russian nihilist indulged in precisely the same skewing of the hierarchy of values.)
The writings of Emerson and of his younger contemporary Henry David Thoreau made the alienated structuring of values abundantly clear. A “smoking gun” so far as this is concerned appears in Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience:
“Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even this state and this American government are, in many respects, very admirable and rare things, to be thankful for, such as a great many have described them; but seen from a point of view a little higher, they are what I have described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of at all?”
The first part of this passage is by no means candid about the extent of Thoreau’s alienation from the society in which he lived, an alienation that he made abundantly clear in Walden. But the second half addresses his willingness to subordinate the values and institutions of that society, which to him are hardly “worth looking at or thinking of at all.”
An Early Result: The Highest Value Given to Abolition
So far, I have spoken only of the alienation and of its effect on the intelligentsia’s value-structure. If now we apply this specifically to the issue of slavery, which became so all-absorbing as time went on, we see that Thoreau’s subordination of mainstream values freed him to make Abolition his exclusive focus: “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”
This was the spirit in which Wendell Phillips could shout in 1843: “I say, my curse be on the Constitution of the
.” Emerson was able to say in 1851: “I question the value of our civilization….” The important thing to notice is that in each of these statements there is a devaluation of the main society combined with the raising of a single value to the highest position. United States
To point this out is not, of course, to deny that slavery was an enormous evil. Prior to the hardening of positions that occurred as the Abolitionist agitation proceeded, slavery was increasingly perceived as an evil by thoughtful people in all sections of the country, both north and south. This reflected a long-term trend within
Europeand . Over the period of centuries with the progress of civilization, the “threshold of compassion” had been lowered to a point at which more and more people came to be included within the expanding circle of sympathetic concern. A point that stands out in Otto Scott’s excellent biography James I is that America became increasingly humane during the last half of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Brutalities that had been commonplace became repugnant. Subject to many exceptions, Western civilization was advancing to a higher level. One of the significant consequences of this long-term movement was that by the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the enslavement of blacks came to be seen as morally intolerable. England
But a conviction that slavery was an outrage was not the same thing as a willingness to shatter the American compact over the issue, at the cost of endangering the very precious values, themselves centered upon individual liberty, embodied in the American experiment. To those who valued the main society, the solution to slavery had to be worked out compatibly with the original understanding upon which the former colonies had come together. This was an understanding that most certainly had not declared an entire section of the country despicable. It was for this reason that a great many men of good will sought compromises on the slavery issue. While they are called “moderates,” their moderation lay in seeking to serve a multiplicity of values rather than to elevate a single moral sensibility, however important, to an overarching position.
This should be compared with the value-structure of those who drove the slavery issue to its ultimate conclusion. In his The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement, Otto Scott writes that “to zealots, moderation is insupportable; it is held to be merely a mask behind which reactionaries remain secure in their castle. By draining the moat of moderation, the castle stands naked to attack.”
It is easy for us today to lose sight of the costs that the zealots were willing to impose. With hindsight, we know that the North won the Civil War to which the country was driven, that slavery was abolished, and the
Unionwas patched back together. The horrendous costs—the piles of amputated limbs, for example, shown in Ken Burns’ recent television documentary “The Civil War”—are dropped from our calculation. But what were the prospects as seen, not with hindsight, but from, say, the 1840s or ’50s? They must certainly have been that the slavery issue, if pressed without mutually acceptable compromise, would lead to division. And the consequences of division were almost too terrible to consider, however they came out.
The most likely possibility was that there would be two nations, one without slavery and the other with. In that case the agitation would have brought about a shattering of the American experiment without even accomplishing its one overriding goal of abolishing slavery. These two antagonistic nations would then have warred with each other incessantly, at great human cost, especially as conflicts arose over westward expansion. That Abolitionists were willing to risk this tells us something very important about them: their deepest motivation was not to see an effective end to slavery so much as it was to express their alienation and hatred against the society as a whole, both South and North. Most Americans well understand the Abolitionists’ hatred of the South; what they don’t realize is the extent of the intelligentsia’s alienation against the North, as well.
The other possibility was that the North would seek a forced continuation of the political connection. Again looking ahead rather than backward with hindsight as we can today, the probability was that it would fail in this, since the North’s ability to conquer the South was by no means certain. Success in subduing a vast territory and a large and determined population, if it were to be accomplished, could only come at the expense of an enormously brutal military assault, followed by years of suppression.
I don’t want to obscure the complexities of the antebellum period. The time most effectively to have sought a reconciliation based on a balance of values was probably quite early, before the passions on each side had hardened positions and made mutually acceptable compromise unattainable. Many compromises were, in fact, sought. The clear onus of my analysis falls on those who drove the issue beyond reconciliation. It is precisely for this reason that historians as a whole don’t look with particular favor on the Abolitionists, despite the “great truth” they championed.
Another Skewing: The Desperate Value Choices Inherent in Subduing the South
Once the hatreds had built up to the point of division,
’s decision to resist secession cannot have been an easy one, even though today Americans think of “preserving the Lincoln Union” as a natural choice. At first, the assumption may have been that the Confederacy would succumb to a mere showing of the flag. But as soon as it became apparent that the South would raise massive resistance, ’s decision to continue was essentially a choice of imposing unspeakable losses on both the North and the South. People by the millions became grist for the most horrible grinder. As the casualty lists mounted, as the hospitals filled with mutilated combatants, only the fiercest single-mindedness could keep the machine going. That Lincoln was willing to make this choice, and to stay with it at whatever cost, runs counter to all I learned as a boy about his essential gentleness. The Idea of continued-union-despite-everything had been raised to the highest value; the lives of Northern boys were given a much lesser value; and the lives of Southerner, the existence of their cities, the values and institutions of their culture—all these had been devalued to the point at which they were hardly worth thinking of at all. Lincoln may not personally have felt the intelligentsia’s hatred for the society as a whole, but his choice reflected the value-skewing that had for forty years been a part of their rhetoric and “idealism.” How else are we to understand such persistence in the face of unending death? Lincoln
As the war went on,
’s decision to persist becomes more understandable. After a year or two, so many lives had been sunk that it would have been sacrilege to stop short of their vindication. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand the coolly brutal poetry of Lincoln ’s Second Inaugural. Sandwiched between now-famous expressions of compassion is to be found the following chilling assessment: “Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” This is beautiful language but draconian content. This, we must remember, wasn’t said in a vacuum; the words were uttered after almost 630,000 Americans, out of a population much smaller than ours today, had marched off to their deaths. Lincoln
To the overall point we must add the specific brutalities in the way the war was conducted. The historian Griffin writes that “in the war against the southern states would appear all those other less attractive attributes of antebellum reformers: hatred, a vengeful spirit, a meanness of mind, an inability or an unwillingness to see virtue in other men’s ideas and other ways of life.” In The Southern Tradition at Bay, Richard Weaver observed that “Generals Hunter, Sheridan, and Sherman put themselves on record, both by utterance and practice, as believing in the war of unlimited aggression, in the prosecution of which they received at least the tacit endorsement of the
Radical Reconstruction: The Devaluation Continues
Radical Reconstruction—as imposed by the post-war Congress in almost unbelievably intolerant opposition to President Andrew Johnson, who barely survived impeachment, and to the moderate approach to reconstruction that Lincoln had envisioned—continued the alienated skewing of values. The Abolitionist idea had by now been transformed into unadulterated vengefulness.
There could have been no real expectation that years of hostile domination of the South would be the most effective way either to ameliorate the condition of the newly emancipated blacks or to pacify the hatreds that had come out of the war. The purpose was rather to make the South grovel. We owe it to ourselves, if we seek an appropriate understanding, to think long and hard about just how barbarous it was to put a proud people, once they had been defeated, under the governance of a triad of mainly illiterate former slaves, of outsiders coming down from among the hated conqueror (the “carpetbaggers”), and of the Southerners’ fellow-countrymen who had not joined the cause of their neighbors in a desperate struggle (the “scalawags”). Nothing could have been more calculated to produce a legacy of hatred.
Even to have given the blacks a vote before they had any education and experience in freedom is almost beyond belief. Weaver wrote that “the idea of enfranchising the Negroes was exclusively a Northern notion. Not one white person in a thousand, not even those most generously disposed, who wanted to see the blacks begin their new life with advantages, was willing to grant that the freedmen were ready for participation in government.” That the enfranchisement was a product of revenge rather than reasoned policy is evident from the fact that, as the historian E. Merton Coulter tells us, “few of the Northern states allowed the Negroes to vote and none ever promoted a Negro into any office, however intelligent the Negro or lowly the position.”
The vengefulness can perhaps be best seen in the little things. There were men in the Confederacy who had earned pensions as soldiers for the
in past wars. These pensions were withdrawn, not just from the men themselves, but from their widows—even from the widows of soldiers who had fought in the Revolutionary War. United States
Booker T. Washington Versus W. E. B. DuBois: The Same Conflict of Values
The argument over how best to improve the condition of the blacks took form quite early after Reconstruction. The opposing views were found in the writings of the two leading black thinkers: Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.
While there are obviously gray areas between the two views and there are measures that both positions may support, the two are substantially different:
’s view says that harmony among peoples must come through the growth of mutual respect. This requires laying the groundwork precisely for respect and allowing human feelings and relationships to develop over time. DuBois’ says that it is intolerable for the attainment of just relationships, being a matter of right, to be delayed at all. Equity is to be insisted upon, and forced if not quickly granted. Washington
It is apparent that this is at least on the surface a disagreement about timing and means. One is gradualistic, the other urgent. One counts on the nurturing of feelings freely given, the other demands them “of right.”
Thus, Hugh Hawkins, writing about Booker T. Washington, can speak of “the sharp contrast between his philosophy of construction and cooperation and that of aggressive attack.” When a critic, Oswald Garrison Villard, complained to Washington that “you are keeping silent about evils in regard to which you should speak out,” Washington responded by saying that “ours is a work of construction rather than a work of destruction.” Although passionately devoted to the improvement of the condition of his fellow blacks, Booker T. Washington gave priority to the development of skills and to a harmonious working-together. In his Atlanta Exposition address in 1885, he said that “we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labor and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life… In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to human progress.”
Underneath these opposing approaches, however, we can find the same difference over the hierarchy of values that we have traced thus far. The gradualistic, voluntaristic view of a Booker T. Washington most certainly does value improvement; it does not, however, denigrate the people and the social context in which the improvement is to occur. It does not see them as so befouled that the possibility of an improvement is an illusion. Its view is considerably more optimistic about people and institutions, given their free development. Urgency is not properly called for, since, on balance, things will work at their best through normal development.
Those who, such as DuBois, would agitate for improved relations, and force them where they could, give reform their highest value and again devalue the existing people and processes. Because of this devaluation, they don’t feel it necessary to count costs, which are costs in the context of the very things they have devalued. (These are also costs in terms of accomplishing the goal, since coerced change by its very nature encourages resistance and reinforces conflict and separation. Again, this causes us to speculate about whether there are not other motives than simply to attain the reform. Just as alienated artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe derive a large measure of their pleasure precisely from the “stupid bourgeoisie’s” distress over their art, those who use coercion to force change receive satisfaction from the very fact that it is being forced. There is positive enjoyment in confrontation with those one despises.)
So little do those who are alienated from the mainstream trust their contemporaries that they can’t even imagine that the gradualistic approach is sincere; they understand it simply as a ruse. I quoted Otto Scott’s observation when I was talking about the Abolitionists; it is instructive to see how much it applies, too, to the debate a few years later: “To zealots, moderation is insupportable; it is held to be merely a moat behind which reactionaries remain secure in their castle.”
The devaluation of the people and their normal processes is rooted, again, in alienation. Booker T. Washington saw this, at least in part, when he wrote to Villard that “I think you are brought into contact with that group of people who have not succeeded in any large degree—dissatisfied and unhappy. I wish you could come more constantly into contact with that group of our people who are succeeding, who have accomplished something, and who are not continually sour and disappointed.” (What is missing from
’s observation is a broader understanding that Villard, like DuBois, had absorbed the ethos of this country’s alienated intellectual culture, not just the attitudes of blacks who hadn’t succeeded.) Washington
Urgency and Forced Fraternity Since World War II
During the “civil rights crusade” since World War II, we have seen an unending succession of coercive measures to force, it is always hoped, a quick end to inequalities wherever found—racial, sexual, ethnic, involving the handicapped, and the like.
When I first read the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I was horrified. It prohibited manifestations of racial preference in what would literally amount to millions of human relationships in any brief span of time. It expanded the federal police power a thousand fold. If the Act were enforced to even a medium degree, much less fully, there would have to be hundreds of thousands of investigators and prosecutors. (We can thank the beneficent effects of a pervasive hypocrisy for the fact that such forebodings have only in small part been realized.)
It is beyond the scope of my article to review the many forms of coercive legislation, court action and social agitation that have been applied on behalf of “equality” for all of the various “victimized” groups that the alienated intellectual culture claims exist in American society.
The historian C. S. Griffin, quoted earlier, was talking about early nineteenth-century reformers when he made this statement, but it fits post-World War II America extremely well. “Every reformer who saw some uses for politics, indeed, turned to the coercive power of government for aid. The emphasis on laws as means of reform, moreover, appeared very early in several movements; reformers were so eager for success that they saw no reason to use only the slower processes of persuasion.”
The coercive legislation can best be understood by keeping in mind the alienated intelligentsia’s skewing of the hierarchy of values. The coercion’s underlying premises arise out of devaluation: the great majority of people are not to be trusted; and the processes of their own free interaction are to be given virtually no weight.
This sheds considerable light on the Carter administration’s having sent 600 “testers” into forty cities to detect the collective perfidies of real estate brokers, sellers, buyers, landlords and tenants. The underlying assumptions are also illustrated in such a thing as the current legal situation relating to clubs and associations. High value is given to minorities’ and women’s being able to come together in associations of their own. Neither Caucasians nor males, meanwhile, are Constitutionally protected in having groups of their own, which are barred by statute in most states.
American society today accepts such double standards out of a benign feeling that the ends justify the means. But the very fact that there is a double-tracked system of law and principle reflects the fact that “reform” is given a paramount value, while mainstream processes are devalued and treated as inconsequential.
This double-tracking has been a matter of Constitutional principle since Justice Stone’s famous footnote in the Caroline Products case in 1938. (It would not be far-fetched to say that we have had “three Constitutions” in American history: the original as ratified following the Philadelphia Convention in 1787; that which came into being with the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments; and a third formulated as “Footnote 4” in the Caroline Products decision.) This footnote says that government is to be given a virtually free hand (subjected, according to current parlance, to “lesser scrutiny”) when it is dealing with the mainstream, but is to be tightly constrained (subjected to “heightened scrutiny”) when dealing with “insular and discrete minorities.” Instead of having, any longer, a unified body of Constitutional protection applicable to all, there is to be one body of law for the majority, another for minorities.
Justice Stone stood in the savant grade of contemporary “liberalism” (with its post-World War II emphasis on racial and other minority equality) when he laid down, as early as 1938, the theoretical justification for such things as “affirmative action” (compensatory racial preferences) and minority set-asides.
Most recently, the
has seen the phenomenon of “political correctness” in our media and on our college campuses. All views that embrace the Left’s program for gender and ethnic equality are welcomed; all views that urge a balance of values or a differing perception of the issues are ostracized and subjected to iron-clad taboos. The resulting atmosphere is as close as we have ever come to fascism. Here, too, we see alienation supporting an Idea and a devaluation of mainstream interests. United States
One of the more important facts about American civilization during the past one and three-quarter centuries has been the “alienation of the intellectual.” The phrase “silent majority” graphically captures the situation of the mainstream, which has little voice so long as the intellectual culture is apart and hostile.
During that entire period, our social conflicts and legislation have largely reflected the displacement of values that has resulted from the alienation. This is as true today as it was during the antebellum years or during Radical Reconstruction. Mainstream values are subordinated, if not completely denigrated; social change is elevated, and sought to be pushed through coercively with great urgency. (The urgency remains years after the push begins, a telling sign that coercive means don’t really effect such rapid change, after all.)
If a balance of values is to be restored (which is also arguably the most effective way to achieve the improvement of everyone’s condition), the solution must lie in a free society’s developing an intellectual culture appropriate to itself: one whose members do not feel themselves deeply alienated from the great run of their contemporaries, and who accordingly seek to protect and preserve mainstream values, while at the same time seeking to enrich and elevate the society through reflection and persuasion. Mainstream values will never be seen to “occupy the moral high ground” so long as the articulation of moral sensibility is almost exclusively in the hands of those who despise the mainstream.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson, lecture “Man the Reformer,” The Portable Emerson (New York: The Viking Press, 1946), p. 70.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson, lecture “New England Reformers,” The Portable Emerson ( New York: The Viking Press, 1946), p. 110.
 Ibid, p. 110.
 Ibid, p. 111.
 C. S. Griffin, The Ferment of Reform, 1830-1860 (
: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1967), p. 2. New York
 Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Essay on Civil Disobedience (New York: Airmont Publishing Company, Inc., 1965), p. 251.
 Ibid, p. 237.
 Otto Scott, The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement (New York: Times Books, 1979), p. 149.
 Otto Scott, James I: The Fool as King (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1976).
 Scott, Secret Six, p. 103.
 James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1897 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1897), Vol. VI, p. 277.
, Ferment of Reform, p. 88. Griffin
 Richard M. Weaver, The Southern Tradition at Bay (New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1968), p. 214.
 Ibid, p. 261.
 E. Merton Coulter, The South During Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1947), p. 141.
 Ibid, p. 13.
 Hugh Hawkins, ed., Booker T. Washington and His Critics (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath and Company, 1962), p. 97.
 Ibid, p. 20.
 Ibid, p. 16.
 Ibid, pp. 97-8.
, Ferment of Reform, p. 60. Griffin
v. Carolene Products Co., 304 United States 144 (1938). U.S.