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Louis Hartz: The Liberal Tradition in America

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Hartz, Louis. The Liberal Tradition in America (San Diego: Harvest Books, 1991)

Hartz's book is excessively dry, even for someone like myself with a taste for the academic-bordering-on-pedantic style. Hartz assumes the reader's great familiarity with political thinkers both famous and obscure from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth. He frequently stresses our national reliance on Lockean liberalism (although he prefers "Lockian"), as in this passage: "Locke dominates American political thought, as no thinker anywhere dominates the political thought of a nation. He is a massive national cliché." (p. 140)

Hartz fails in a particularly bothersome way in the area of documentation, as in the case of this remark: "Maistre gloomily predicted that the American Constitution would not last because it was created out of the whole cloth of reason." (p. 49) Although no source is cited for this statement, Hartz is presumably alluding to this passage from Maistre's Considerations on France (Cambridge University Press, trans. Richard Lebrun, pp. 60-1):

"I see nothing favouring this chimerical system of deliberation and political construction by abstract reasoning. [...] All that is new in their government, all those things that are the result of popular deliberation, are the most fragile parts of the system; one could scarcely combine more symptoms of weakness and decay."

This passage, continued below, shows the depth of Maistre's erroneous pessimism:

Not only do I doubt the stability of the American government, but the particular establishments of English America inspire no confidence in me. The cities, for example, animated by a hardly respectable jealousy, have not been able to agree as to where the Congress should meet; none of them wanted to concede the honour to another. In consequence they have decided to build a new city to be the capital. They have chosen a very favourable location on the banks of a great river and decreed that the city should be called Washington. The sites of all the public buildings have been marked out, the work has begun, and the plan of this queen city has already made the rounds in Europe. Essentially there is nothing in all this that surpasses human power; a city may easily be built. Nevertheless, there is too much deliberation, too much humanity in this business, and one could bet a thousand to one that the city will not be built, that it will not be called Washington, and that the Congress will not meet there.

It's fortunate that Maistre didn't wager anything; that thousand-to-one bet would have been an expensive mistake.

Hartz's style, as well as his thoroughness, often leaves much to be desired; sentences like this make me wish he had been a better writer:

There can be no doubt that the Ricardo-Malthus analysis of Edmund Ruffin cuts behind Jefferson's political obsession just as cleanly as the Comtian analysis of George Frederick Holmes. (p. 192)

For all that I found wanting in Hartz's prose, his insights made its reading a worthwhile task. The point he makes here is but one example:

Thus while millions of Europeans have fled to America to discover the freedom of Paine, there have been few Americans, only a few of course, who have fled to Europe to discover the freedom of Burke. The ironic flaw in American liberalism lies in the fact that we have never had a real conservative tradition. (p. 57)

Hartz may well have chosen to rewrite the end of that passage if he had the opportunity, but the initial observation is a telling one.

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