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How Classical Liberalism Morphed Into New Deal Liberalism

How Classical Liberalism Morphed Into New Deal Liberalism

An excerpt from Eric Alterman's new book, The Cause, attempts to explain the long-asked question: How did classical liberalism transition into New Deal liberalism?

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt is shown signing a law that created the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933. President Roosevelt's so-called New Deal liberalism drew largely from ideas of classic liberalism.
<br /> (AP Photo)
President Franklin D. Roosevelt is shown signing a law that created the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933. President Roosevelt's so-called New Deal liberalism drew largely from ideas of classic liberalism.
(AP Photo)

Note: Eric Alterman is appearing at the Center for American Progress today for an event that is part of a tour promoting his new book, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. Here is an excerpt from the book that addresses the frequently asked question: How did classical liberalism morph into New Deal liberalism?

Classical liberalism is synonymous with a faith in reason, which had arisen out of the Enlightenment as a reaction to claims of divine rule by the clergy and royalty of the late Middle Ages. It found expression in the thoughts of many writers across Europe and the British Isles, including John Stuart Mill, John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, Voltaire, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, as well as in the political arguments of America’s founders, particularly Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and James Madison.[1] Liberal freedoms were primarily freedoms of the mind: freedom of thought, of expression, of religion, and of self-invention without regard to the customs of caste, creed, or crown. Above all, liberalism implied both an ability and a responsibility of people to think for themselves, to create their own destinies, and to follow their own consciences. Examining the evolution of liberal belief since its founding, the liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr observed in an article published on July 4, 1955, in The New Republic, that liberalism in the broadest sense was characterized by a commitment “to free the individual from the traditional restraints of a society, to endow the ‘governed’ with the power of the franchise, to establish the principle of the ‘consent of the governed’ as the basis of political society; to challenge all hereditary privileges and traditional restraints upon human initiative.”[2]

Over the course of the nineteenth century, however, the traditional or “classical” understanding of liberalism came to represent a kind of conservatism, as powerful institutions (including, primarily, corporations and trusts) found ways to constrict the freedom of individuals through the onerous working conditions of early industrial factories while at the same time paying tribute to the liberal virtues of self-reliance and freedom to choose one’s own path to prosperity. To address these developments the great liberal philosopher John Dewey called upon liberals to rethink some of their most fundamental assumptions. Dewey defended the same Enlightenment-based liberalism of old but redefined it so as to allow its believers to adapt to contemporary conditions. Liberalism, he wrote:

came into use to denote a new spirit that grew and spread with the rise of democracy. It implied a new interest in the common man and a new sense that the common man, the representative of the great masses of human beings, had possibilities that had been kept under, that had not been allowed to develop, because of institutional and political conditions. . . . It was marked by a generous attitude, by sympathy for the underdog, for those who were not given a chance. . . . [And] it aimed at enlarging the scope of free action on the part of those who for ages had had no part in public affairs and no lot in the benefits secured by this participation.[3]

Although Dewey, who was a much better philosopher than he was a political strategist, spent most of Roosevelt’s career denouncing the president as a sellout and supporting Socialist and other marginal candidates, Roosevelt’s political career did embody the new liberal spirit that Dewey had identified.

In his famous 1932 speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Roosevelt expressed his admiration for Woodrow Wilson as a politician who “saw the situation” of industrial power “more clearly.”[4] Even though, for political reasons, he needed to demonstrate his respect for his former boss and predecessor in office as America’s most recent Democratic president, FDR likely felt a greater affinity, as an example of the presidency, between his older cousin Teddy rather than Wilson. TR had been a rarity: a successful politician who was a genuine man of ideas (and a historian himself). He gravitated toward other such men, and in Herbert Croly, the founding editor of The New Republic, he found one able to articulate the kind of grand sweeping notion upon which he could not only base an entire political lifetime of proposed reform but even found a movement that almost succeeded in displacing the two established political parties.

The “promise” in Croly’s The Promise of American Life (1909) referred to his belief that the United States would avoid the grotesque social and economic inequality found in Europe and could chart an independent course premised on its democratic faith. This faith was grounded in the Jeffersonian worldview, which was now being challenged by the closing of the frontier and the “concentration of economic power” in corporate trusts.[5] Suddenly Alexander Hamilton’s vision of America as a future industrial powerhouse with a strong central government was looking a great deal more prophetic than the agrarian republic envisioned by his famous philosophical adversary. By the turn of the century, Croly reasoned, the only power capable of counteracting the transformation of the American economy would have to be national in scope, for the nation itself remained “the best machinery as yet developed for raising the level of human association.”[6] But because he viewed the Hamiltonian tradition in American history as corrupted by its attachment to wealthy interests, particularly banking, he sought to employ Hamiltonian mechanisms in order to achieve a Jeffersonian vision of political equality: “The whole tendency of his programme,” he explained, “is to give a democratic meaning and purpose to the Hamiltonian tradition and method.”[7] The result would be a new definition of the hallowed tradition of American individualism.

Teddy Roosevelt laid the building blocks of the modern activist presidency through his belief that the office represented the will of the nation.[8] He made this point explicitly upon the passage of some of the most sweeping legislation in American history—the monitoring and regulation of the meat industry and drug trade—in 1906: “It is an absurdity to expect to eliminate the abuses in great corporations by State action. The National Government alone can deal adequately with these great corporations.”[9] He did so in part by channeling Populist rhetoric to mobilize the American people, deriding the “malefactors of great wealth” in ways that foreshadowed FDR’s chiding “economic royalists.”[10] His convictions only became bolder after he retired from the presidency. TR’s conception of “new nationalism”—the slogan for his run in 1912 as the candidate for the Progressive Party—also reflected a radical rethinking of liberalism, from which his younger cousin would later draw. In 1918, a year before he died, TR outlined a program of public works, hydroelectric power development, agricultural aid, pensions, and social insurance.[11] From there, it was a short step to the New Deal.

Franklin Roosevelt drew on all these traditions when he gave his famous speech on the “Four Freedoms” in his 1941 State of the Union address. There he enumerated what he defined as the rights everyone “everywhere in the world” ought to enjoy. These were “freedom of speech and expression,” “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way,” “freedom from want,” and “freedom from fear.”[12] Though it was hardly evident at the time, these foundational four freedoms proved the culmination of a far broader and significant intellectual project. As early as 1932 FDR had proclaimed, “Every man has a right to life, and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living.”[13] No longer would freedom be defined simply as protection from or against the abusive powers of government—the central idea of classical liberalism. (The philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously defined this as “negative” freedom.) While FDR accepted the importance of protection from an overreaching government, he sought to create one that could provide “positive” freedoms as well. This entailed providing citizens with the tools they needed to live lives of honor and dignity.

This radical reworking of the American creed could be seen in Roosevelt’s near-revolutionary State of the Union address—the last he delivered directly to Congress—on January 11, 1944, in which he called for a “Second Bill of Rights.”[14] The key concept in this speech was “security,” which FDR now expanded to include almost all areas of life. “Essential to peace,” the president insisted, was “a decent standard of living for all individual men and women and children in all nations. Freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want.” He demanded a “realistic tax law—which will tax all unreasonable profits, both individual and corporate, and reduce the ultimate cost of the war to our sons and daughters.” We “cannot be content,” he went on, “no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.” Then he listed the new rights he now considered to be fundamental to the American way of life:

  • The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation.
  • The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.
  • The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living.
  • The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.
  • The right of every family to a decent home.
  • The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.
  • The right to a good education.

FDR tied these rights to the struggle then underway to win the war. “America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”[15]

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.




1. For a learned and useful discussion of the ideas and influence of many of these thinkers, see Jonathan I. Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
2. Reinhold Niebuhr, “Liberalism: Illusions and Realities, The New Republic, July 4, 1955:
3. Jo Ann Boydston, ed., John Dewey: The Later Works 1925-1953 (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), 364-65
4. “Commonwealth Club Speech,” in Great Issues, ed. Richard Hofstadter, 347.
5. Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life (1909; reprint, New York: Capricorn, 1964), 23.
6. Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life, 284.
7. Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life, 169.
8. On the relations between the growth in executive power and the Progressive Era, see Maureen Flanagan, America Reformed, 283.
9. Quoted in Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent, 162.
10. Quoted in Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent, 317.
11. John Milton Cooper, The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1983), 259.
12. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, excerpted from the Annual Message to the Congress, January 6, 1941:
13. FDR in Great Issues in American History, ed. Richard Hofstadter, 350.
14. John Patrick Diggins, The Proud Decades: America in War and Peace, 1941-1960 (New York: Norton, 1988), 21-22.
15. Franklin D. Roosevelt, "State of the Union Message to Congress, January 11, 1944," available at

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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