When liberals and conservatives debate, the latter will sometimes insist conservatism, supposedly the ideology of small government and personal freedom, was the driving political force behind the expansion of freedom for oppressed peoples like African Americans and women. (I write “supposedly” because while perhaps true in modern times concerning taxes, economic regulations, and aid to the poor, it is consistently untrue for social issues like marriage, abortion, drug use, prostitution, pornography, privacy rights during wartime, and so on.)
Such a claim usually comes after a conservative has pointed out Republicans freed black slaves and pushed through civil rights legislation despite Democratic opposition, ignorant to the fact that the Republican Party used to be the more liberal party (already explored in Republicans Used to be Liberal, Democrats Conservative). But even when this interesting history of anti-black voters flocking from one party to another is explained in full, room still exists to consider if liberalism or conservatism did more to broaden freedom for marginalized and mistreated people. We need to disconnect party name from ideology and examine the latter.
Answering such a question may sound easy, but should not be done without historical evidence.
Several things must be addressed. First, what are the definitions of “liberal” and “conservative”? Second, when did the terms as we know them begin to be used? Third, what policies did those who called themselves “liberal” support? What policies did conservatives support?
The terms and their origins
The official modern definition of a liberal is someone “open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values,” while a conservative is “a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes.”
Of course, few would think these definitions complete and satisfactory. For example, in modern politics the liberal must be described as someone who believes the government should play a larger role in creating a more prosperous society for all, while conservatives believe this only leaves citizens worse off — that is, when it comes to economics. In terms of social issues, the feelings of conservatives are reversed. Liberals still feel the government should take a leading role (say, protecting abortion rights), while conservatives suddenly agree, in order to protect the moral fabric of the nation (say, banning abortion), no matter whose personal freedoms get trampled. Good definitions don’t contain contradictions. For this reason, the role of the State will take a secondary, marginalized part in this article.
There is also the idea that liberals stress equality over freedom, while conservatives stress freedom over equality. This is mostly nonsense, because if we’re speaking of social issues then “freedom” usually translates to “freedom to discriminate.” If we mean actual freedom, such as an African American’s right to vote, it’s obvious to all that you can’t have freedom without equality, nor equality without freedom. A black American under Jim Crow would never be free until he or she had equal voting rights as whites. Perhaps the definition might work better with economic issues (say, if we pretend a minimum wage is trying to promote wage “equality” with the better-off and takes away businesses’ “freedom” to pay people under $7.25 an hour). But with social issues, the definition is not helpful — it only works if it’s liberals stressing equality over the freedom of a private business to not serve gay people due to religious preferences, or conservatives stressing the freedom to discriminate over equality for people who happen to not be straight. Since one can’t have true freedom without equality, and since the freedom to discriminate is not something most people think is acceptable in a decent society anymore, this definition can be put aside.
Therefore, the first definition is what we must use, even if imperfect.
The root word for “conservative” is the Latin word servare, meaning “to make safe, guard, or protect.” The word “liberal” comes from the Latin word liberalis, meaning “courteous, generous, or gentlemanly.” While those were the Latin roots, the terms as we know them came from England and France.
“Liberal” had different meanings over the years in these countries. In the 14th and 15th centuries, according to the Etymology Dictionary, it meant one who was “nobly born” and “free,” then later one who was “selfless,” “generous,” and “admirable,” then one who was a bit too “extravagant, unrestrained.” In the 16th and 17th centuries, it grew into a more political word, concerning being “free from restraint in speech or action,” which is why Scotsman Adam Smith used the term often in his 1776 Wealth of Nations, which stressed free trade and free markets. According to The Atlantic, another Scotsman, William Robertson, did most to popularize the term on the British Isles, starting with a 1769 work. It spread across Europe and then to North America.
But by the late 1770s and early 1780s, the term was also used to mean “free from prejudice, tolerant, not bigoted or narrow,” and by the first years of the 1800s it concerned being open to personal freedoms, but “also (especially in U.S. politics) tending to mean ‘favorable to government action to effect social change,’ which seems at times to draw more from the religious sense of ‘free from prejudice in favor of traditional opinions and established institutions’ (and thus open to new ideas and plans of reform), which dates from 1823.”
The French followers of Edmund Burke first coined “conservative” after the French Revolution of the 1790s.
Burke opposed revolutions and utopian ideas, and predicted the Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s coup, arguing violent revolutions lead to violent counterrevolutions. As Salvo writes,
Edmund Burke…believed that society should rarely be swayed by new ideas and promises of utopia because such ideas too often reflect the untested preferences of either a single individual or a single generation. Tradition, on the other hand, has been tested by time; it draws on the experience of many generations and is grounded in such important institutions as the Church and the family. Progress, argued Burke, should thus be piecemeal and organic; it should conserve inherited wisdom and avoid hasty modifications based on trendy doctrines or theories.
One of Burke’s followers called his journal Le Conservateur, which favored the restoration of the French clergy and State. (The terms “left” and “right,” by the way, also came from France, when the French National Convention of 1789 commenced to draft a new constitution and the anti-monarchy revolutionaries sat on the left side of the hall and the pro-monarchy, aristocratic supporters of King Louis XVI sat on the right; the terms took on the meanings of change vs. tradition.) In 1830, the English Quarterly Review wrote that “what is called the Tory might with more propriety be called the Conservative party,” and by the 1840s the terms were linked: the Tories were conservatives (the Whigs in England were the liberals, who opposed monarchy). According to Stanford University,
by 1840 Thomas Carlyle used “conservatism” to describe what he regarded as opposition to progress. (“Tory” survives, as a label for the British party…) Mill’s “Essay on Bentham” (1838) described Bentham as a “Progressive”, and Coleridge as a “Conservative”. Other European languages borrowed “conservative” and “conservatism” from English.
The Whigs in the United States, while taking the same name as the British party (they saw President Andrew Jackson’s policies as too authoritarian, dubbing him “King Andrew”), called itself “conservative” in the Civil War and Reconstruction years. In 1899, Henry Cabot Lodge described Daniel Webster, head of the Whigs in the U.S. before the Civil War, as “the leader of the conservative party,” but although “an unvarying conservative throughout his life, he was incapable of bigotry,” even supporting the removal of a religious test for public office because it was not a necessary “evil.” Lodge wrote that this showed, “more clearly than even ultra-conservatism could, how free he was from any touch of the reforming or innovating spirit,” as “he did not urge, on general principles, religious tests were wrong…and in hopeless conflict with the fundamental doctrines of American liberty and democracy.” He did it because tests were an unnecessary government function. Webster had an “aversion to radical general principles as grounds for change, and [an] inborn hostility to far-reaching change.”
So we see that in American politics, by the mid-1800s the words “liberal” and “conservative” had come to take on modern meanings relating to resistance to change versus the push for change.
In 1911, Ambrose Pierce of Ohio, in his witty Devil’s Dictionary, poked fun at both sides of the aisle when he defined a conservative as: “A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”
In 1939, President Roosevelt said in a radio address, “A Conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned to walk forward… A Liberal is a man who uses his legs and his hands at the behest — at the command — of his head.”
Human Freedom and Progress
Here we arrive at our central question. Which ideology did the most to broaden freedom for the oppressed?
To answer this, it seems prudent to find in American history individuals who state clearly that they are liberals and support X, likewise conservatives who oppose X — or vice versa. It is not enough that historians call this “conservative” or that “liberal” — historical figures must describe their views as such. And it is not that there were not some liberals who surprised the majority of liberals by opposing X, nor that some conservatives supporting X was impossible. This article is speaking more generally, like how it is well understood today that liberals are more open to gay marriage than conservatives, but a minority of liberals may be opposed or a minority of conservatives be supportive.
Most importantly, this article examines the meaning of each ideology, as we have seen, and how those meanings related to movements for basic rights.
To determine which position broadened freedom (a subjective phrase itself), we will examine issues that today virtually all Americans agree with, no matter their political persuasion. Namely, that women should have the same rights as men and that blacks should have the same rights as white people. We will then look at a third, similar issue.
Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in The Woman’s Bible (1895), pushed for equality for women in the church and a woman’s right to divorce. She explained the book was created so “that we might have women’s commentaries on women’s position in the Old and New Testaments” and determine if such a position was sensible in the modern era, yet acknowledged that some “distinguished women” would not provide commentary out of
fear that they might compromise their evangelical faith by affiliating with those of more liberal views, who do not regard the Bible as the “Word of God,” but like any other book, to be judged by its merits. If the Bible teaches the equality of Woman, why does the church refuse to ordain women to preach the gospel…?
She urged full equality for women in the church, and said “protest” against a woman’s “present status in the Old and New Testament” was an important way to bring this about:
Come, come, my conservative friend, wipe the dew off your spectacles, and see that the world is moving. Whatever your views may be as to the importance of the proposed work, your political and social degradation are but an outgrowth of your status in the Bible.
Stanton wrote of divorce laws, and which states were more favorable to women:
What Canada was to the Southern slaves under the old regime, a State with liberal divorce laws is to fugitive wives. If a dozen learned judges should get together, as is proposed, to revise the divorce laws, they would make them more stringent in liberal States instead of more lax in conservative States. When such a commission is decided upon, one-half of the members should be women, as they have an equal interest in the marriage and divorce laws… Though I should like to see New York and South Carolina liberalized, I should not like to see South Dakota and Indiana more conservative.
An anonymous commentator in the book said that
Jesus was the great leading Radical of his age. Everything that he was and said and did alienated and angered the Conservatives, those that represented and stood for the established order of what they believed to be the fixed and final revelation of God. Is it any wonder that they procured his death?
Here we have examples of “liberal” and “conservative” being used as they are used today (read the whole book for more), by a feminist who clearly favors liberalism. And Stanton is of course not alone. Teddy Roosevelt said in a 1913 speech supporting women’s right to vote that “we have advanced to a far better ideal, the ideal of equal partnership between man and woman… Conservative friends tell me that woman’s duty is the home. Certainly. So is man’s. The duty of a woman to the home isn’t any more than the man’s… The average woman needs fifteen minutes to vote, and I want to point out to the alarmist that she will have left 364 days, twenty-three hours and forty-five minutes.”
But what of the other side of the coin? Do we also have people seeking to hold women back, using conservative values as justification?
In the 1910s, the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, a New York-based organization, distributed a pamphlet outlining several reasons why women should not be allowed to vote, such as “Because in some States more voting women than voting men will place the Government under petticoat rule.” The last argument, echoing conservative meaning, was: “Because it is unwise to risk the good we already have for the evil which may occur.”
At a February 1907 hearing on an amendment to give women the vote in New York, an anti-suffragist named Emil Kuichling read the “official paper” for her colleagues:
Impulse is a thing which the legislator, of all men, should guard against, the thing be has no right to yield to. The New York legislator, as a rule, is a man who realizes this. We are proud of the fact that New York is a conservative state. She is rightly and truly progressive but she does not make a fetich [sic] of the word “progressive” and sacrifice common sense at its shrine.
Would it not be a rather impulsive act for the New York legislator, moved by the appeals of a minority, to favor the grave social experiment of giving the suffrage to more than two million women whom the suffragists, after sixty years of missionary work, cannot convert into wanting it? Women have been accused of being impulsive, but they are far seeing enough to be conservative on this question. Shall the New York legislator be less conservative than the New York woman?
But Anne F. Miller, a suffragist, gave a clever speech comparing resistance to the female vote with her resistance to owning a telephone:
I sympathize with [anti-suffragists] and I pity them, for I have been, for a short time, in a way an anti myself. Not in regard to the use of the ballot by the women, for I was born suffragist and have continued an enthusiastic suffragist; but I was an anti toward the use of the telephone in my own house! That seems absurd, does it not? But I didn’t want a telephone. I knew that we should come to it some day (as here and there an anti-suffragist admits in regard to the ballot), but I wanted to put off the day, for I knew when it came we should never again consider life complete without a telephone. We had hitherto lived very comfortably, and, hoped usefully, without one… I clung to what I called my freedom from the added responsibility of this new connection with life outside the home, but I knew in my heart that the days of my conservativism were numbered.
They came to an end very naturally, through an awakening to the needs of others. My eyes were open to the selfishness of my position… As I listened yesterday to the anti-suffragists…I was reminded of my own one-time attitude toward the telephone. Their objections seemed to me to be based as mine were. (1) On an entire satisfaction with the old way. (2) On a reluctance to open a new avenue of responsibility in a life which seemed already filled. But I awoke, as I am sure my sister antis will soon awake, to the selfishness of such a position.
The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage described its work as “conservative” in 1906, and in 1908, in its “Thirteenth Annual Report,” the association described its principles as “conservative”:
The Executive Committee contributed 1,000 pamphlets for use at the State Fair, held in September, at Syracuse, where through the exertions of the Albany Auxiliary a booth was secured. On this was inscribed the conspicuous words “Opposed to Woman Suffrage.” The conservative principles of the Association were strictly adhered to by Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Hamilton and Mrs. Heath, who had the matter in charge.
In 1909, the Remonstrance, a quarterly publication of the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women, wrote with relief: “As to municipal suffrage, in 1894 the House actually passed a municipal suffrage bill by a vote of 122 to 106, and only the conservatism of the Senate prevented its enactment… Does not this look as if the suffrage movement were ‘in process of defeat?'”
Clearly, our terms were used back then in the same manner as they are used today, to defend certain policies, some looked back on with admiration and others with disgust.
While we are on the subject of fierce women, Eleanor Roosevelt’s writings on a wide array of subjects provide later illumination. In the early 1950s, she wrote that “the welfare state, so much denounced, has obviously come to stay: the direct moral responsibility for minimum standards of living and social services which it took for granted, are today accepted without a murmur by the most conservative politicians in Western democracies.” Writing of famed socialist Norman Thomas, Roosevelt declared: “Mr. Thomas has seen many of the ideas that he tried to persuade people to accept finally become acceptable in the most conservative circles. So I think he must have the satisfaction of feeling that he has done something to make the world a better place for the majority of people to live in.”
Many of the most famous black leaders were so far left they called themselves socialists, like A. Phillip Randolph, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr. (sorry, he wasn’t a conservative), and the Black Panther leaders, who were inspired by Malcolm X. While it is tempting to dive into their thoughts on socialism and show how the radical left led the fight for black rights (also vocalized by abolitionists and slaveowners alike), this article is about liberalism and conservatism, so we must not digress.
Where else to begin but with infamous racist George Wallace, governor of Alabama and leading opponent of the civil rights movement, who said in a 1963 speech, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
In July 1964, Wallace gave a speech called, “The Civil Rights Movement: Fraud, Sham and Hoax.” He called the Civil Rights Act, just signed into law by President Johnson, banning race discrimination and segregation in employment, public places, and schools, “the most monstrous piece of legislation ever enacted by the United States Congress.” He continued:
Never before in the history of this nation have so many human and property rights been destroyed by a single enactment of the Congress. It is an act of tyranny. It is the assassin’s knife stuck in the back of liberty.
With this assassin’s knife and a blackjack in the hand of the Federal force-cult, the left-wing liberals will try to force us back into bondage. Bondage to a tyranny more brutal than that imposed by the British monarchy which claimed power to rule over the lives of our forefathers under sanction of the Divine Right of kings.
He foams at the mouth at great length over how the bill would “enslave our nation,” how it is meant to “destroy the rights of private property” and “will destroy neighborhood schools” and “destroys your right — and my right — to choose my neighbors — or to sell my house to whomever I choose.” After saying the Supreme Court has more power than Hitler ever did, and ranting about Communists, Wallace declares:
I am a candidate for President of the United States… I am a conservative. I intend to give the American people a clear choice. I welcome a fight between our philosophy and the liberal left-wing dogma which now threatens to engulf every man, woman, and child in the United States.
To Wallace, the true conservative stands for “liberty and justice for all,” opposing the “senseless bloodletting now being performed on the body of liberty” by forcing whites to allow blacks into their schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, parks, and so on.
What of the “left-wing liberals”? Did they connect their liberal ideology with black equality, as Wallace clearly implies?
Here we turn to John F. Kennedy.
While JFK was not the most radically pro-civil rights figure, and was too slow on the issue in countless ways, he was on the right side of history. If you recall, the battle to integrate Alabama colleges was a President Kennedy-George Wallace showdown. On June 11, 1963, Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama auditorium with police and refused to allow black students to enter and register for classes.
Segregation in schools had been illegal in the U.S. since the Brown case nine years ago, but Alabama had not integrated. Wallace had been swearing for a year that he would personally stand in the doorway of any Alabama school that was ordered to let in blacks; the Kennedy administration pressured him for months before the June incident to follow federal law. When he wouldn’t, Kennedy ordered the Alabama National Guard mobilized with the famous Executive Order 11111. Wallace backed down.
In 1960, Kennedy was running for president as a Democrat — and a Liberal. He was nominated as the Democratic candidate in July 1960, but also became the candidate for the Liberal Party in New York in September 1960. The Liberal Party formed in the 1940s, an offshoot of the American Labor Party. Liberal Party members were unionists and liberals who didn’t like the pro-Communist leanings of the Labor Party, but stood for things like rent control, abortion rights, separation of church and state, ending corporate influence in government, and civil rights. Accepting the Liberal nomination helped Kennedy win New York.
On September 14, 1960, Kennedy gave a speech accepting the Liberal Party nomination. He said:
What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.” But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”
“Someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions” — the textbook definition of a liberal, whether lowercase or uppercase, with a mention of “civil rights” included.
On the evening of June 11, 1963, Kennedy addressed the nation concerning the crisis at the University of Alabama, which ended mere hours before:
This afternoon, following a series of threats and defiant statements, the presence of Alabama National Guardsmen was required on the University of Alabama to carry out the final and unequivocal order of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Alabama. That order called for the admission of two clearly qualified young Alabama residents who happened to have been born Negro.
He made several inspiring calls for integration and equality, before calling for legislation that would soon be called the Civil Rights Act of 1964:
I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened…
The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?…
One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression…
Yet he also said something with an untruthful implication:
Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics. This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue.
The truth is political beliefs were a major obstacle to uniting on the race issue. JFK knew it, and so did Wallace.
Ordinary people understood this, too. C. Howard Britain, a doctor, wrote to the American Journal of Nursing in December 1963:
I have read the editorial concerning the merits of integration — if there are any… I rebuke you and the ANA [American Nurses Association] for supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1963 (H.R. 7152). Either you are grossly ignorant or it is your purpose to mislead your readers into thinking that this bill is in the best interests of Americans. I, and millions of other Americans, are fed up with these magazines which are saturated with liberal thinkers and left-wing editors.
As one can see, there is not much difference at all in the way people used these political terms.
We will not spend much time on this issue — not because it is less important, but because there is far less confusion as to where followers of each ideology usually stand. It is widely accepted that opponents of an issue like gay marriage tend to be conservative, while supporters tend to be liberal. Yet some day in the future, when the hysteria over homosexuality has passed (or at least been confined to the rightwing fringe, such as modern conservative critics of women’s voting rights or conservatives being slightly less likely to approve of interracial marriage), people may forget — just as they have forgotten what conservatism meant to the black American under Jim Crow or the woman in a world ruled exclusively by men.
Thus I will offer quick quotes from two modern political thinkers. Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry said, “I’m an authentic conservative” and made it explicit that “Gay marriage is not fine with me” and that like alcoholism, “Whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle, you have the ability to decide not to do that.” In other words, gay people should practice self-repression. Don’t flirt with members of the same sex, don’t date them, don’t marry them, certainly don’t have sex with them. If homosexuals would just go through life acting like heterosexuals, there’d be no need for bothersome equal rights laws like gay marriage legalization. But Democratic Congressman Barney Frank said:
I do have things I would like to see adopted on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people: they include the right to marry the individual of our choice; the right to serve in the military to defend our country; and the right to a job based solely on our own qualifications. I acknowledge that this is an agenda, but I do not think that any self-respecting radical in history would have considered advocating people’s rights to get married, join the army, and earn a living as a terribly inspiring revolutionary platform.
He made clear elsewhere: “I am a liberal.”
Remember, dear readers from present or future, that this does not mean all conservatives opposed gay marriage nor all liberals supported it. Just remember that self-described conservatives were consistently more than twice as likely to oppose gay marriage than self-described liberals (Barney Frank is a gay man himself, but that doesn’t change this fact).
The Subjectivity of Freedom
Freedom is subjective.
The white owner wants the freedom to keep black people out of his restaurant; blacks want the freedom to eat where they wish. The man wants the freedom to govern without female interference; the woman wants the freedom to partake in democracy. The Christian owner wants freedom from providing goods or service to gay people, the religious county clerk the freedom to deny legal marriage licenses; the LGBTQ American wants the freedom to shop where he wish or get her marriage license without any worry of discrimination. American progress is defined by a battle between opposing ideas of freedom.
As Ambrose Pierce implied, to one the status quo is evil, to the other the evil is undoing the status quo — change. The definitions of conservative and liberal align neatly, by the way, with modern psychological research indicating a person who thinks in less abstract ways or has a larger right amygdala, which influences fear and anxiety, tends to be conservative. Fear of “the Other” is a real factor of political ideology.
I didn’t mention gay rights in the “Human Freedom and Progress” section because Americans are not in a place of overwhelming agreement like the issues of women’s basic rights or blacks’ basic rights — I wanted the connection of all three to hit home at the end. Eventually, whether in 50 years, 100, or 500, people will look back and likewise marvel that there was such bickering over gay rights. They will be amazed that society appeased the people who wanted the freedom to turn gay people away, justified using religion, for so long! In the future, homosexuality will be considered (because scientific evidence has finally been accepted) a completely natural biological trait, as natural as heterosexuality, and more people will have rejected ancient religious texts as embarrassingly poor codes of moral conduct. People certainly won’t take seriously the argument that sexuality is so different than race or gender that it’s OK to withhold equal rights from homosexuals (that it’s specifically vilified in the Bible won’t matter either, as people will remember that a plethora of verses condoned slavery and the oppression of women but are now ignored).
And of course, future Americans will look at political ideology. They will consider the definitions of “liberal” and “conservative,” and then read of the liberals pushing for one type of freedom and conservatives pushing for another.
They will shake their heads, amazed such a battle was ever necessary.