-William R. Brafford

If we’re going to get around to a libertarian history of the United States, we’ve got to start with the classic story, the story that gets taught in schools: the March of Equality.

We all know how this one goes, so I hope my summary won’t be too tedious. The Declaration of Independence planted a seed—“all men are created equal”—that slowly but surely grew up through the rocky soil of prejudice and self-interest. A provisional list of the moments of great expansion: the Declaration, the Bill of Rights, post-Civil-War amendments, the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement and the end of Jim Crow. Each moment has a first-rate piece of American rhetoric associated with it. The Declaration, obviously, is rhetoric; the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers preserve an elegant argument over the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; Lincoln’s speeches define, for most, the meaning of the Civil War; Franklin Roosevelt invested the statement “necessitous men are not free men” with a grand authority; and the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr., made his movement’s moral claims undeniable by way of unforgettable language.

I think it’s safe to say that, for most everyone in my generation, the New Deal is the only questionable entry in this list. It’s also the key step, since Roosevelt’s justifications made the strong connection between economic equality and political liberty that was the theme of twentieth-century American liberalism. Roosevelt put it very succinctly: “If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.” If you can embrace the 1936 speech from which this statement is taken, chances are good that you are a liberal (“progressive”?) in the contemporary American sense of the word.

Any other telling of American history will have to be a counter-narrative to this one. As it has often been observed, we’re all basically liberals here; few people would discard this story completely, or argue that equality should be wholly subordinate to some other good. (Here I can’t resist linking to Austin Bramwell’s argument that legitimacy is the primary political good, though note well that I’m not endorsing it.) Most are content to make some combination of the following objections:

i.) Roosevelt’s definition of equality was wrong: we should be aiming at a different form of equality.

ii.) Roosevelt’s path to equality was wrong: government programs will not get us to where we want to go.

iii.) Roosevelt’s exclusive focus on equality was wrong: we need to balance our egalitarianism with respect for some other good.

I’m not arguing that this is the best way to tell the story of the United States, only that it seems to be the baseline narrative for pretty much everyone. The big question: what does this story leave out? At the very least, we need to include the battle between Andrew Jackson and Nicholas Biddle over the central bank; the political theories of Calhoun, Clay, and Webster; and the New Nationalism/New Freedom debate between Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 election. How does the libertarian string these events together?