So this entry is a reaction to the following text that was part of a larger, pro-animal rights screed on Facebook:
“It was liberals who ignited the American Revolution! Liberals who crafted our Constitution! Liberals who opposed slavery! Liberals who fought for blacks to vote. Then for women’s suffrage! Liberals ended child labor, legalized unions, enacted Social Security, lead the fights for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights!
Conservatives were opposed to all these things!
As Tories, conservatives opposed the American Revolution. As Democrats they supported slavery and opposed giving African-Americans the right to vote. (Most people don’t know that the Republicans were the liberals in 1860, when Lincoln was elected. The last liberal Republican president was Teddy Roosevelt.)
As Republicans, conservatives opposed women’s right to vote. They were opposed to going to war against Hitler! Liberals fought for integration, conservatives fought to keep segregation.
Republicans and conservative Democrats opposed civil rights! They now oppose women’s rights to equal pay, gays’ rights to marry and adopt children, and animal rights!
I ask this simple question: When, in history, have Conservatives ever been right about anything? Think about it: Conservatives opposed the American Revolution. They supported slavery. They opposed women’s suffrage. They opposed unions. They opposed child labor laws. They opposed Social Security. They opposed World War II. They opposed integration. They opposed civil rights. They opposed inter-racial marriage. They opposed voting rights. Now, they oppose gay rights and animal rights. They have been a drogue anchor on the ship of civilization. They have delayed, but not prevented, social progress.”
Written by one Roland Vincent, link located here
The problem with this viewpoint, which is not uncommon, is two fold, first it is not entirely accurate as it simplifies a series of very complex historic situations and second, it is a tautology as defined, any politicians supporting the above causes were “liberals” and those who opposed them “conservatives” – but the argument that conservatives have always been on the wrong side of history and positive progress is also overly-simplistic and, bluntly put, often wrong. Now some of his points are valid but some aren’t, and in fine Fist tradition lets present a blow-by-blow breakdown:
Liberals and the American Revolution – the author posits that Conservatives all stood behind the King and Liberals sparked the American Revolution, in that particular conflict individuals who supported the King were labeled “Tories” by those in favor of Revolution, their name for themselves though was “Loyalist” and many of them had supported other efforts that helped lay the groundwork of opposition to the British Crown, including the anti-British goods boycotts that successfully ended certain detested tax laws imposed by the British parliament. Many Loyalists started out in the American Revolution trying to find a middle-ground that would maintain a connection to the British Crown but carve out a new unique space for the American colonies, it was over the course of outright rebellion that such efforts were squeezed out and a viewpoint of either for or against the war and Revolution became the only solution discussed. (For the record had the American Colonies remained part of the British Empire slavery might have been prolonged in the British Empire, rather than ended in 1833 with a gradual and peaceful ending. Wikipedia entry here.)
An example of the complexity of this issue can be found in Benjamin Franklin (pictured above) – who in the 1760s and early 1770s acted as an agent of moderation and reconciliation between the American colonies and the British crown, he initially supported the 1765 Stamp Act as a legitimate effort of Britain to gain extra revenue. When the American colonists reacted with overwhelming negativity to this action Franklin argued for the British Parliament repealing the tax, when they did, he considered it a mark the system worked politically. It wasn’t until 1774 when Franklin was publicly humiliated in front of the British parliament over some private letters he leaked that reflected poorly on the Massachusetts colonial leadership that he switched outlook entirely from pro-Crown to pro-Revolution, a position he maintained for the rest of his life. Which raises the question – does this kick him over to the Liberal camp, was he a secret Liberal the whole time, or are we seeing someone who shifted in their outlook on a complex issue? (Source here.)
Liberals crafted the Constitution – the “Father of the Constitution” and the “Father of the Bill of Rights” is James Madison (pictured above), also the fourth President of the United States. His plan, the “Virginia Plan”, was the instrument that was used at the 1787 Constitutional Convention as the foundation of the modern Constitution that the United States still operates under. Which by the above argument should make Madison a solid “Liberal” however throughout his political career he detested the idea of “excessive democracy” – meaning legislators that passed laws focused mainly upon their constituents demands rather than the long-term good of the state or nation, Madison believed that legislators should be detached, above political concerns, floating above the vulgar needs of the masses. He is also the creator of the three-fifths compromise that defined African-Americans for taxation, representation, and census purposes as 3/5 of a human being and for his entire life legitimately felt that African-Americans were not only inherently inferior to Caucasians but that bondage was their natural position in the world and the best possible position for them in the United States. He felt that their welfare was best protected by their limited representation in government (as 3/5 of a person, to remind you again gentle reader) – and that as slaves they should rely on their masters to protect them from excesses of the law. Both of these life-long outlooks would seem to move Madison more towards the Conservative side of the equation. (Wikipedia entry on Madison here.) [As a bonus point many of the more Liberal members of the original American Revolutionaries, like Patrick Henry, were anti-federalists and opposed the new Constitution as taking too much power to the center, so one can argue that many Liberals of the period sharply opposed the new Constitution.]
Liberals opposed slavery/Liberals supported the Black Vote – Broadly this is correct, the Republicans (the Liberal party of the 1860s) were instrumental in backing the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives, however the amendment was also supported by several powerful Democratic (Conservative) elements in the nation, including the Tammany Hall machine that dominated New York politics (run by Boss Tweed, pictured above.) Passage was supported by sixteen Democrats, and all the Republicans in the House, and although the sixteen Democratic supporters were mostly lame-ducks after the 1864 election, not all of them were. (Wikipedia entry here.) Liberals (Republicans again) were strongly in favor of providing African-Americans with the vote through the Fifteenth Amendment but its passage was fiercely opposed by many Woman’s Suffragist supporters (very Liberal) for providing African-American men with the vote ahead of Caucasian women, leading to some of the most ugly racist rhetoric you’ll see coming out of this period. The debate split the suffragist movement and two key, very Liberal leaders of the cause for women’s voting, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth C. Stanton, considered the Fifteenth Amendment a gross insult to women and only reluctantly, decades later, embraced it. (Wikipedia entry here.)
Liberals gave Women Suffrage – Actually no, the 19th Amendment was favored by both Conservatives and Liberals and was passed in May 1919 by a House and Senate dominated by the Republican Party (by the above rhetoric Conservative again.) The states mostly ratified it quickly but the key final ratification was by Tennessee, where a highly Conservative young voter switched his vote unexpectedly in favor, leading to the that state being the final key approval needed to make the 19th the law of the land. (The representative passed it in part due to a letter from his mother advising him to do so.) (Wikipedia entry here.) [The above image is of the Speaker of the House in 1919, Frederick Gillett, a Conservative, signing the legislation proposing the 19th amendment after the House passed that bad boy.]
Liberals ended child labor, legalized unions, enacted Social Security, lead the fights for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights – so first lets get the following out of the way, the author is correct on the following points: ending child labor, legalizing unions, enacting Social Security, and leading the fight on women’s rights (1970s-1980s) and gay rights (1970s – 1990s) he is correct, Liberals get a clear support point on this. On the first three FDR was a key figure in the 1938 shift to the left of the New Deal that lead to all of those major social reforms and they passed due to a uniform position of power in the legislature held by Democrats. Now during this period the Republicans went through a centrist period, which is too much detail for this entry, but I’ll give liberals these without opposition.
But when it comes to Civil Rights the happy harmony train has to come to an end, both Liberals and Conservatives alternated between getting cuddly with Civil Rights and backing away from it, due to the support the Democratic Party (Liberals) had from the Solid South (very not Liberal on this issue.) From Roosevelt through Kennedy you have Democratic Party Presidents who were extremely cautious about doing anything to antagonize the South and Civil Rights languished under their watch. It wasn’t really until Lyndon Johnson got into the Presidency that the Civil Rights movement got a serious kick of federal support.
The last liberal Republican president was Teddy Roosevelt – this argument just annoys me to no small end and is a commonly held up troupe on the Internet. The above is William Howard Taft, president immediately after Teddy Roosevelt and a trust-busting, pro-corporate income tax, pro-law, anti-politics, and pro-federal budget President one has to see Taft as a generally Progressive President. More critically he was a crap President on politics because he believed in the rule of law, the rule of efficiency, and the rule of competence over political gains in most situations. This, of course, made him terrible at the parts of the job of President that most people actually dislike publicly but embrace privately, the wheeling and dealing for the party that backed the candidate into office. (Wikipedia entry here.)
They were opposed to going to war against Hitler – Actually no, the U.S. isolationist movement in the United States pulled support from many sectors, including Conservatives and Liberals. However of particularly fascinating note is first that the Stimson Doctrine, which was created in 1931 and attested that the U.S. would not recognize territorial gains through aggressive military actions, was created and supported under the Herbert Hoover administration, a staunch Republican and a poster-boy (unfortunately) for “out-of-touch economically” Republicans with the rise of the Great Depression. Furthermore when Roosevelt attempted to pass legislation through Congress allowing the President to “consult” with other nations dealing with aggression the move died in Congress, in part due to strong opposition from highly Progressive (read Mega-Liberal) Senators Hiram Johnson of California, William Borah of Idaho, and Robert La Follette of Wisconsin. Senator La Follette (pictured above) is an interesting example of this period’s political complexities, in 1926 he got into office as a Republican but in 1934 and 1940 he got into office as a Progressive and was a leading member of the Wisconsin Progressive Party. That political party collapsed and in 1946 he ran as a Republican again and lost. He was a staunch isolationist and yet was a major supporter of organized labor. Conservative or Liberal I leave as an exercise to the reader. (Wikipedia entry on La Follette Jr. here and article on 1930s U.S. isolationism here.)
One could argue though that in all of this I have merely refuted his individual examples but not his core points, that I have not proven any case where Conservatives lead the way to social progress, to which I respond as follows:
Richard M. Nixon – poster boy of the Conservative forces in the U.S. in the late 1960s, elected by his so-called “Silent Majority” who wanted to see a return to “law and order” and an end to rioting and the domestic unrest riling the U.S. over many issues including Vietnam, Civil Rights, and Women’s Rights, just to name a few. A President so manipulative he was nearly impeached and remains the only President to resign from office. He also happened to be the key leader in passing/creating:
- the Environmental Protection Agency
- the Clean Air Act of 1970
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration
- Endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment
- Philadelphia Plan (first Federal Affirmative Action plan)
- Normalized relations with the Peoples Republic of China
- Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and reduced tensions with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic
(Wikipedia entry on Nixon here.)
Bottom Line on it all – nothing is simplistic and arguing that one broad political movement is “opposed” to progress while another is “supporting” progress is overly simplistic, the reality in U.S. history is far more messy, far more nuanced, and far more fascinating.