The American Liberal Tradition Reconsidered

The Contested Legacy of Louis Hartz

Edited by Mark Hulliung

Once upon a time in America, Herbert Hoover accused Franklin D. Roosevelt of usurping the coveted label "liberal." Nowadays, Republicans have so successfully stigmatized the word that even Democrats run from it. But in 1955, Louis Hartz offered perhaps the most famous interpretation of American history of the second half of the twentieth century in his book The Liberal Tradition in America, to which students of American political culture have found themselves returning time and again over the last several decades.

Hartz argued that America is inherently liberal, since it lacked a feudal heritage, was born middle class, and consequently did not develop either a strong conservative or socialist movement. Liberalism's Lockean outlook was America's one and only political philosophy, he believed.

“There is a lot to like in this book. Historians may enjoy the debate over Hartz’s connection to Alexis de Tocqueville, while more general readers will probably appreciate the implications for current events. If the purpose of history is to learn from the past, the ambitions of people like Hartz and the subsequent analysis of people like Hulliung and his colleagues are necessary ingredients.

—The Historian

“Because the quality of the contributors is so high and their arguments are so well formulated, readers will learn a lot about contemporary academic culture in the US and the differences that divide historians, political theorists, and students of American political development.

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In this new book, eight prominent scholars consider whether Hartz's analysis should be repudiated or updated and whether a study of America as a "liberal society" is still a rewarding undertaking. Offering their own respective understandings of the significance of The Liberal Tradition in America in the worlds of yesterday and today, they reassess the Hartzian legacy after half a century while also addressing the triumphs, failures, trials, and tribulations of liberalism in America.

These eight distinguished scholars offer insights that are often critical of Hartz, representing a plurality of viewpoints that suggest no definitive conclusion as to the status today of his famous book. But although some may judge Hartz's work as misguided, they affirm that his concern for the fate of liberal society is still with us.

These stimulating essays will reward all readers who seek a better understanding of both the Hartzian legacy and America's brand of liberalism today. More than just engaging with Hartz, they bring their own views of the American liberal tradition to the fore.

About the Author

Mark Hulliung is Richard Koret Professor of History at Brandeis University. His two most recent books are Citizens and Citoyens: Republicans and Liberals in America and France and The Social Contract in America: From the Revolution to the Present Age, also from Kansas.

Additional Titles in the American Political Thought Series