As an historian, I‘ve always been struck by how political journalists resort to an inappropriate use of history to sell their pet projects. Advocates of government expansion insist we need a “second New Deal,” as if we’ve wandered away from the much more ambitious planning practiced by Franklin Roosevelt. Actually our federal and state governments are much larger and more intrusive than they were in the 1930s, and the level of government control that our two national parties accept reflects increases in bureaucratic power since the 1960s. Most New Dealers, if they returned from the dead, would be surprised at how government intervention and social engineering, especially in the name of protecting an expanding list of minorities, have taken off.
The latest anachronism I’ve encountered by someone trying to sell government snake oil is the appeal by the New York Times-official conservative David Brooks to the “third ancient tradition” in American political history. In addition to the “liberal tradition that believes in using government to enhance equality” and the non-Brooks conservatives who “believe in limiting government to enhance freedom,” we can now celebrate the Whigs who worked at “enhancing opportunity and social mobility.” Represented by Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and (before he switched to the infant Republican Party) Abraham Lincoln, the Whigs got their start in the 1830s when they “fought the divisive populist Jacksonians” and “argued it is better to help people move between classes than to pit classes against each other.”
The Whigs, according to Brooks, were “interventionist in economics while they were traditionalist and family-oriented in their moral and social attitudes. They believed America should step boldly into the industrial age, even as they championed large infrastructure projects and significant public investments, even as they believed in sacred property rights.” In the name of the Whigs, who dissolved into the Republican Party in the mid-1850s, Brooks wishes to have government “expand early childhood education,” help get “young men wage subsidies so they are worth marrying,” and search for ways “to train or provide jobs for middle-aged, unemployed workers.” How about the government providing Plain Jane with a date in the name of Henry Clay or Daniel Webster?
I don’t know where to begin to correct this appeal to the supposed lessons of the past. The Whigs were certainly not less “divisive” than the Jacksonian Democrats. Whig politicians inflicted burdensome tariffs on farmers and workers to protect the interests of their merchant- industrialist donors. Their special interest politics aggravated sectional divisions between the industrialized North and the largely agrarian South, and even without slavery, sectional hostility would have risen, thanks to Whig economic policy. But the Whigs’ public projects amounted to exceedingly little next to the massive managerial state that Brooks takes as a given. Neither Clay nor Webster nor Lincoln (before he was faced by internal war) advocated a government in any way as large as the one that Brooks wants to expand. And what are those “traditional” family values that Brooks, who endorses gay marriage, claims to be taking from Victorian Christians? From his rhetoric it would seem that government-run, early education and jobs-programs was the family morality that the Whigs had in mind. Perhaps it took Brooks to discover their real message.
The Whigs may have collapsed because of their moderateness. They opposed slavery but not boldly enough to please those abolitionists who formed the Republican Party. And though they favored high tariffs, these tariffs were not high enough to accommodate people like Pennsylvania iron magnate Thaddeus Stevens. This later Republican congressman from Lancaster combined violent opposition to slavery with a call for government protection against foreign industrial competition. Stevens found the Whigs to be inadequate for either of his concerns.
Allow me to observe that Brook’s column exemplifies the cultural and historical illiteracy of many of our journalistic celebrities. People who know very little about the past are writing for those who know even less. And when they decide to push a big-government program, they identify it with some long-dead figure or movement, in order to impress the yokels. This false display of learning may be particularly tempting for someone who is billed as a “conservative,” at a paper not known to be favorable to the Right. Words like “tradition,” “family-oriented” and “sacred property rights” help set the mood for what turns out to be a conventional Times’ advocacy piece. What could Brooks invent as a follow-up, providing his recent appeal to non-existent history resonates with his readers? Perhaps in his next call for new government initiatives, he could depict Francis Drake battling the Spanish Armada (unless that’s considered a politically incorrect comparison). What about the image of Washington crossing the Delaware, which may be a less offensive image than blowing up Spanish sailors, unless the reader happens to be descended from a Hessian?
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