A Liberal Dose

Republicanism, George Washington, and cowboys

Author is a White County native, novelist, and history professor


 I’d like to talk this week about two concepts that may not mean exactly what you’d initially think: liberalism and republicanism. Now, I’m not talking about the 21st century usage of these words – liberal as a synonym for progressive, or republican as the conservative political party. I’m talking about the 18th century meanings, as used by the founding generations of our country and the framers of the Constitution. Sometimes people identify those earlier meanings with the terms “classical liberalism” and “small-r republicanism.”

The latter idea probably had the largest immediate impact on the establishment of our country. Strictly speaking, “republican” just means pertaining to a country whose form of government does not involve a monarch, but to George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and others, it meant far more to that. To them, following the example of the classical Roman statesman Cincinnatus, republicanism revolved around civic virtue, civic duty, and “promoting the general welfare” or the common good. If that last phrase sounds familiar, it is found in the preamble to the Constitution (which many of you know, because Burl Johnson spent decades at WCHS making people memorize it).

Let me reiterate that. Republicanism stresses civic virtue, civic duty, and the general welfare/common good. In other words, a good republican citizen feels it is their solemn duty to serve the needs of their community, even when doing so is a sacrifice - especially then. George Washington believed this, and that’s how they were able to convince him to stand for president even, although he really didn’t want to. He wanted to go back into retirement, at Mount Vernon. But when enough people told him that he was the only one with enough respect and clout to hold the new country together and that it would be in danger without him, he reluctantly gave in. It was even harder to convince him to run for a second term and impossible to make him do a third. But he did serve those two terms, because he felt his duty to the greater good compelled him to do so.

Now let’s talk about liberalism. It comes from Latin/French root words meaning “freedom” (like liberty and liberate). One of the most common definitions of “liberal” is generous or open-handed, not stingy. In the classical sense, though, liberalism pertains to individual freedom. Scottish economist Adam Smith’s 1776 classic book, Wealth of Nations, is a perfect example of 18th century liberalism. It called for the government to allow business a free hand in how the economy was run, as opposed to regulating it (which doesn’t sound liberal in the modern sense). Smith believed that if everyone in the economy is each looking out for their own profit, it will “raise all boats” by providing checks and balances and thereby benefiting everybody. James Madison was influenced by Smith, and those ideas, applied to politics instead of finance, made it into his draft of the Constitution, with the three branches of government designed to hold each other in check.

As you probably know, the Founding Fathers were somewhat divided on the idea of a Constitution that created a federal government. Some, like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, feared it would make the central government too powerful. Others, like Washington in particular, believed a powerful central government was needed in order to get things done. One thing the anti-federalists really didn’t like about the new Constitution: it barely even mentioned individual rights. As a compromise, the Bill of Rights –the first 10 amendments –was added to take care of that issue.

Here is my point. From the very beginning, some of the Founding Fathers talked about the importance of a strong national government that is empowered to promote the general welfare and the greater common good, while others talked about the importance of individual freedom and the need to enshrine protections of it. Most of them agreed that we needed to strike a balance that would do both of those things.

There is nothing more American than arguing about that balance between the community and the individual. It has even become enmeshed in our national mythology. By the 1830s, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing and many Americans feeling like cogs in a machine, pop culture of the time began to romanticize the frontiersman as a symbol of ruggedness, individualism, and freedom. Within a few decades, that imagery had been transferred to the American cowboy, and to a large degree still is. Think about all the westerns you have watched or read (and I have written a few, myself)… the cowboy is the lone hero who solves his own (and everybody else’s) problems with direct action (“I have to do this alone, this is my problem!”). But even then, there are two conflicting messages in the story. The cowboy isn’t really doing anything for HIMSELF; he is doing it for the good of others. And even in that mythic representation, the cowboy is only a “trailblazer” for a community to come in and grow, with schools, churches, etc. In real life, a working cowboy might occasionally be assigned to the line shack in winter and face some solitude, but for the most part he was a member of a group of cowboys who “rode for the brand” and were all-for-one, one-for-all.

Let me restate this: Arguing over where the balance is (or should be) between community and individual is an American exercise that dates back to the founding of our country.

But I’ll tell you something I think is NOT American: picking one of those two parts of the equation, community good or individual rights, and saying that is the ONLY thing that matters and the other thing is un-American and treasonous. America is both of these things at once and must always be so in order to stay true to the vision it was founded on. There are those – and this has been true for over a century but is especially true now – who say that any talk of the greater good whatsoever is socialism, communism, and treason. FDR’s political opponents called him a Communist because of Social Security. People called LBJ a Communist because of Medicaid and Medicare. Such people only believe in the rights of the individual and usually, in my experience, only of individuals very much like themselves. We see it today in the large number of folks who refuse to even consider wearing a mask during a pandemic because of their own discomfort or just due to the fact they were asked to do something for the public good. It can also be true on the other extreme. The progressive record of Woodrow Wilson was deeply stained by his administration’s suppression of individual rights during World War I.

So… is America about the public good or the individual? Yes. For that matter, is America about a strong national government or the rights of states? Yes. It is fine to want one of these things not to be overshadowed by the other. But if someone tells you one of these things is patriotic and the other is treason, they lack a clear understanding of what America is. And, more importantly, of what it should be.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.   


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