I always thought the conservative movement was trying to undo the New Deal and take us back to the time of McKinley. It turns out it’s even more reactionary than that.
I’ve been reading James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”, a one volume history of the Civil War era. He describes the strangeness of the conflict at the time: both the north and south claimed to be defending liberty, but the south was claiming the liberty to enslave others. Say what?
The dilemma, according to McPherson, results from defining liberty only in negative terms, as a restriction of government power. This was the primary concern of the first amendments to the Constitution—restricting the power of government to interfere with free speech, the press, and so on. Lincoln came to believe that when the concept of negative liberty was taken so far as to justify slavery, it had gone too far. In this case government power had a positive role to play. Liberty could only be established and maintained if the government took action. McPherson calls the two definitions of liberty “positive” and “negative”. After the Civil War…
Positive liberty… became the newly dominant American understanding of liberty. Liberty and power were no longer in conflict… . This new concept of positive liberty permanently transformed the U.S. Constitution starting with t13th, 14th, and 15th amendments which abolished slavery and granted equal civil and political rights… . Instead of the “shall nots” of previous constitutional amendments, these three contained the language “Congress shall have the power to enforce this article… .”
… The libertarians and southern conservatives of the 1980’s and 1990’s who wanted to revive the exclusively negative form of liberty that prevailed before the Civil War were right to make Lincoln a target of their intellectual artillery.
So the party of Lincoln is trying to take us back to the pre Civil War era? Say it isn’t so. If Lincoln were alive today Rush Limbaugh would be mocking him as a lib-socialist.
Eternal vigilance against the tyrannical power of government remains the price of our negative liberties, to be sure. But it is equally true that the instruments of government power remain necessary to defend the equal justice under law of positive liberty.”