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The Decline of American Liberalism Paperback – June, 1967

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--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews


“Ekirch argues in The Decline of American Liberalism that the main trend since the American Revolution has been to augment concentration of economic and state power and thus whittle away individual freedom. Mr. Ekirch admits that the decline of the liberal tradition has been paralleled by the advance of other philosophies and values—but his sustained argument pulls few punches in its well-written, hard-hitting pages. Professor Ekirch has written an intelligent and important book. That such a book could be written and published proves that liberalism in America can still be thoughtfully interpreted and eloquently championed.” —Merle E. Curti, the New York Times
“Although originally published in 1955 and much engaged with the Cold War’s chilling effects on civil liberties, Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.’s provocative The Decline of American Liberalism has perhaps never been more relevant. By stressing that, from the very start of American history, forces of centralized and decentralized power have been warring over the country, Ekirch makes a case for limited government and individual rights in a way that is extremely well-suited to the twilight years of the ‘American Century.’” —American Enterprise
"For [Ekirch], liberalism means the emergence of man over the State; it conveys a sense of the dignity and self-determination of the individual. The intellectuals of the present time have pre-empted the word ‘liberalism’ and corrupted it to mean the use of the State’s power to accomplish ‘social ends.’ But as this book makes clear, the true liberal—whether he calls himself a conservative, a libertarian, or an individualist—is the man who sets his heart and mind on the eternal but elusive goal of liberty.” —Sheldon Richmond, former Editor, The Freeman

"Brilliant, penetrating, and often illuminating study of American political history." —New Republic

“Taking as his standpoint the classical conception of liberalism as an attitude and including belief in limited representative government and economic freedom for the individual, Arthur Ekirch traces its decline from the beginning of our national history. . . . Professor Ekirch has contributed a stimulating interpretation and survey of American development. His chapters on the growth of the garrison state and the cult of national loyalty are a devastating commentary which has the virtue of relating these development to long term trends in this society.” —The Nation

“ . . . Mr. Ekirch has read widely and deeply in the history of the United States. America, in Mr. Ekirch’s view, began in the ‘liberal’ tradition of western civilization. This liberalism was in part a doctrine—the freedom of the individual. But in addition to being a doctrine it was a habit of mind, a tendency toward the reasonable, the tolerant, and the moderate. Since the American Revolution the story of the United States has been one of the steady decline of this liberalism. In recent times the welfare state and the military state have pushed political, economic, and ideological centralization to a point where ‘all the major values of the American liberal tradition’ are gravely menaced. . . . Mr. Ekirch systemically applies his thesis to each period in American history. . . .” —Saturday Review

“The New Deal and its successors substituted the ideals of security and equality for freedom and diversity. It is a formidable indictment, and Mr. Ekirch marshals a large body of evidence for it—enough to make his book stimulating and rewarding reading.” —The Economist

“To most people the term ‘liberalism’ is confusing. Some people equate it with the New Deal, others with any kind of leftist philosophy. In this powerful and brilliant book, Arthur Ekirch uses the term in the only way it can be properly used—in its historical and classical sense—not as a program, nor even as a well-defined system, but more as an attitude of mind. . . . Everyone who respects the worth and dignity of individual human beings and dislikes totalitarianism can read this distinguished book with profit.” —Dumas Malone, the History Book Club Review

The Decline of American Liberalism is an extremely interesting, thoughtful, and valuable book. It is one of the most stimulating surveys of American history that I have seen in years.” —Allan Nevins, Harmsworth Professor of American History, Oxford University

"Arthur Ekirch’s The Decline of American Liberalism is gloomier about liberalism and more loyal to the original (i.e. libertarian) understanding of it. Rather than celebrate the rise of reform, he laments its contribution to the decline of individualism. —Jonah Goldberg, editor at large, National Review Online

“Libertarian-ish Rand Paul is officially running for president. For those looking to understand libertarianism, or how it influences Paul, this book is a good place to start. . . . Originally published in 1955 with the Cold War at a full simmer, The Decline of American Liberalism offers up a unique reading of American history from the colonial period on as a struggle between forces of centralization and decentralization. A historian of militarism, Ekirch feared that in our quest to defeat the Soviet Union, we had ironically ended up valorizing the collective at the expense of the individual, ushering in an age of conformity in politics, culture, and commerce. ‘Liberal values associated with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—and especially that of individual freedom,’ wrote Ekirch in the year when The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit was published, ‘have slowly lost their primary importance in American life and thought.’ Big government, big business, big labor—all these things were more closely interrelated than anyone wanted to acknowledge, argued Ekirch. Ekirch’s titular liberalism refers to the 19th-century variety of the term, which is far closer to contemporary libertarianism than, say, Ted Kennedy’s policy agenda. A critic of the draft and economic planning—as well as of McCarthyism—Ekirch worried that living in a ‘garrison state’ that is forever on war footing inevitably limited all sorts of social and economic freedoms while granting the government more and more power to surveil and regulate citizens. Today’s great patriotic war, of course, is being fought not against international communism but Islamic terrorism. But to the extent that the war on terrorism is underwriting massive intervention abroad and at home, The Decline of American Liberalism is an essential guide to the connection between civil liberties and economic ones that libertarians take for granted but often seem puzzling to conventional conservatives and liberals.” —The Daily Beast

“With its brilliant emphasis on ongoing, never-ending battles between forces of centralization and decentralization since our colonial days, The Decline of American Liberalism provides the key to fully understanding not only our country’s past but its present and future too.” —Nick Gillespie, editor, Reason Online and Reason TV
--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

About the Author

Arthur A. Ekirch Jr. was a leading scholar of American intellectual history and a professor emeritus of history at the State University of New York–Albany. He is the author of numerous books, including The American Democratic TraditionThe Civilian and the Military, and Man and Nature in America.
--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 401 pages
  • Publisher: Atheneum (June 1967)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0689700695
  • ISBN-13: 978-0689700699
  • Product Dimensions: 7.2 x 4.3 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #7,380,802 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By David M. Dougherty VINE VOICE on October 14, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This review is on the 2009 edition, although I did not compare it to the earlier editions of 1955 and 1966. At any rate the ideas are not new, but the events in 2009 where American politicians and the Presidency have taken the United States on a giant leap to the left and collectivism (Socialism, Marxism and big government) have made this book more important than ever.

The gist of the matter is that liberalism as originally defined in the 18th century and earlier meant limited government and a maximum of individual liberty for the population of a country to determine its own and individual way of life. As the author states, the apogee of this movement was reached shortly after the American Revolution and began to decline after the Jefferson Presidency. The publisher of this work, the Independent Institute, has published a number of works from the viewpoint of maximizing individual liberty, most notable Eland's book selecting the best presidents by virtue of their governing least and maximizing individual liberty. In line with this thinking, Presidents like Wilson, Roosevelt and Obama rank among the worst as they increase the size of the Federal Government, reduce individual liberty, and move the country towards collectivism.

Today, liberals no longer espouse the liberal philosophy of the 18th century -- libertarians do (as much as possible.) Liberals have sought to maximize social engineering, creating a massive government bureaucracy dedicated to governing the lives of American citizens supposedly for their own good. One of their heroes, Walter Lippmann even adressed the idea that social engineering needed to be extended into procreation in that actions needed to be taken to assure the "best" Americans breed while undesirables do not.
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Ekirch tells the history of the liberal ideal in America, from the founding though to the end of the Second World War. Both modern Conservatices and Liberals will find this book fascinating as he traces the ideal of individual liberty, democratic rule and how it has stood up through a revolutionary war, a civil war, two world wars, the depression, and civil rights. The author leaves you holding mixed feelings by the end of the book - you can't help but bemoan the obvious fact that civil liberties have and will probably continue to erode with every new challenge that befalls America, but at the same time the country seems to be blessed with some kind of resiliency that allows itself to weather and at least sustain the endless attack on the individual.
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Nobel laureate Gary Becker is known to observe that people have an inherent bias against free markets, because the notion that individuals acting in self-interest often produce better results on behalf of their fellow citizens than public agencies directed by democratically elected officials, however evident, is "just too counter-intuitive." In "The Decline of American Liberalism," Ekirch does for history what Becker and his colleagues have done for economics: provide a robust intellectual defense in favor of liberty.

While this might be considered a fringe interpretation of history, it is by no means hyperbolic, polemic, distorted or reactionary. By all appearances, and judging by the comments of professional historians, it is impeccably researched and largely dispassionate in its portrayal of events and attitudes. It continuously acknowledges the mainstream view, even if only to manifest the naïveté thereof in some cases.

In fact, I was tempted to put this book down halfway into it, as it had thus far seemed a rather pedestrian rehash of the usual Jeffersonian vs. Hamiltonian and pro-slavery vs. abolitionist historical narrative that I was taught in school. But that all changes beginning with post Civil War reconstruction. The vast degree to which wealth and privilege then began being permanently transferred from individuals to corporations under the guise of new citizen entitlements (which in many cases merely displaced the jurisdiction of states to administer such entitlements, thereby effectively nullifying the individual's previous right to opt out by relocating) is truly astounding, and almost wholly discounted by mainstream history as I know it.

There is still an unacknowledged elephant in the room, however.
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I simply found this book extremely interesting and had a hard time putting it down. The author incorporates most of the major US history events and relates to the social acceptance of rights. One strange thing to consider, in 1955, the word "liberalism" is probably considered more what today we call a "conservative". It takes a bit of getting use to. But I thought the most interesting idea he wrote about was the founding fathers (specifically T. Jefferson) and what it meant to have human rights (and state rights). He wrote that T. Jefferson was more about rights until he himself became president. I wonder if the reality of politics makes one feel one way then the office of president gives them a reality check. Another interesting point was how the US Constitution gave the Federal govt so much power while the spirit of the revolution was freedom for the individual (and individual state). In summary, a wonderful book for all of us that love freedom.
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