This morning on NPR Juan Williams reported - or predicted (it's not clear how he knows such things) - that the core of the Republican attack on John Kerry would be the continued demonization of the word "liberal." What does the word mean to us? The President will have John Kerry "on the run" if he fails to define, for himself and for Democrats, the meaning of the choice offered by the dicotomy between "republican" and "liberal."
I don't have the answer, but I know where to start. Philip Hamburger wrote an excellent (and long) article that every political academic should read. Here is the citation:
Hamburger, Philip. "Liberality." Texas Law Review 78:6 (May 2000), 1215-1287.
It is available through the major search engines. Here and in the extended copy I have pasted some excerpts.
Did late eighteenth-century Americans ever consider themselves liberal? To many historians, this will seem a strange question. The concept of liberalism is widely held to be a nineteenth-century innovation, and therefore to inquire whether Americans in the previous century thought of themselves as liberal seems anachronistic.
Yet precisely because so many scholars take for granted the late evolution of liberal ideas, it may be all the more valuable to reexamine this assumption. Is there really no evidence that eighteenth-century Americans considered themselves liberal? Although they may not have embraced later concepts of liberalism, is it not at least possible that they had their own, earlier version of liberal thought?
Abundant evidence reveals that numerous late eighteenth-century Americans often conceived of themselves, their society and their institutions as liberal. Many congratulated themselves on what they called their "liberal sentiments" and believed that such sentiments underlay what they considered their "enlightened and liberal policy."(n1) Some Americans claimed their new nation was unusually liberal, declaring that American constitutions were "still more liberal" than England's and that "the citizens of America" were "distinguished for their ... liberality of sentiment."(n2) More generally, on both sides of the Atlantic, liberality was recognized to transcend nations and to be characteristic of the era. Americans spoke of "the liberal sentiments of the present age" and, as one American observed in 1776, "the liberal way of thinking...is daily more and more predominant in the present age."(n3) Today, in a very different period, the liberal thought of the eighteenth century can reveal much about the world in which it flourished.
The liberality that once, in the eighteenth century, was so familiar to many Englishmen and Americans has not fared well at the hands of historians. This liberality has the potential to escape the highly exaggerated conceptual deadlock created by what historians call "liberalism" and "republicanism." Thus far, however, rather than elude this overstated dichotomy, eighteenth-century liberality has only been obscured by it.
Eighteenth-century liberality can avoid the dichotomy between "republicanism" and "liberalism" because it differed from each of these concepts. Republicanism has been described as an attachment to government--an intense identification with the state that has seemed to thrive mostly in small, homogenous societies. In contrast, liberalism has been treated by historians as the individualistic pursuit of self-interest--as the sort of selfishness common in large, diverse and individuated populations. Thus, the concepts of republicanism and liberalism seem to define two opposite types of society, and they thereby offer modern scholars a bold dichotomy within which to understand the late eighteenth century. Yet these ideas, whether considered alone or coupled together, tend to reduce eighteenth-century political thought to a pair of extremes or some muddled compromise between them--a vision not made more appealing by the realization that, all too often, it is framed by an unabashedly modern liberalism and an exaggeration of eighteenth-century republicanism. Historians increasingly recognize that eighteenth-century American thought was not so simple and, accordingly, point to varied eighteenth-century ideals, including Christianity and natural law.(n4) In so doing, however, the historians have not displaced the dichotomy of republicanism and modern liberalism, which still dominates the study of eighteenth-century political culture. Hence, the capacity of a different sort of liberal thought--the liberality actually discussed by eighteenth-century Americans--to be so revealing. Corresponding to neither of the concepts that prevail in scholarly discussion, liberality opens up opportunities to observe much that the dominance of these conventional categories leaves obscure.
Eighteenth-century Americans viewed liberality as founded in sentiment rather than theory, and they understood it as a sentiment of generosity rather than of selfishness. According to long tradition, passions were turbulent threats to morality and therefore needed to be repressed.(n32) Increasingly, however, lighter, more benign dispositions--vaguely described as sentiments or feelings--were perceived and carefully cultivated as enlightened foundations of morality and even politics, and prominent among these were liberal sentiments of freedom and generosity.(n33) The freedom was that of a man who was candid, casual, unconstrained and open, and the generosity was that of one who was benevolent and gracious. Such liberality was considered a matter of sentiment rather than system, of feeling rather than reason, and it flourished in the eighteenth-century with the widespread elevation of sentiment or feeling as a foundation for moral order.
These liberal sentiments were assumed to underlie liberal behavior and policy. Contrary to what may be supposed from some modern academic ideas about the primacy of societal context and the subordinate character of thought, eighteenth-century Americans appear to have responded to their circumstances as perceived and understood by them. They responded to their circumstances as refracted through their ideas, opinions, sentiments, attitudes, perceptions and impressions, and they thereby altered their world. Touching upon aspects of this role of liberal sentiments, some Americans said that their sentiments were liberal and that liberal sentiments were a foundation of liberal conduct. Two hundred years later, such discussions of liberal sentiments remain suggestive of a psychology or pattern of feelings that often suffused the full range of an individual's ideas, identification and behavior.
In particular, liberality often thrived in America as a response to fragmentation and as a means of overcoming it. Growing numbers of Americans self-consciously adopted liberal sentiments and conduct at the time of the Revolution, but they did so not so much on account of their desire for independence from Britain as on account of their increasing sense of the need to cooperate and unite across local and other boundaries--on account of their desire to participate in, and identify with, their more expansive society. In response to the narrow interests and prejudices of the states, many Americans considered themselves liberal in their formation and adoption of the Constitution. In response to religious and other divisions, many also thought themselves liberal in their changing beliefs and mores. Transcending their fragmented situation, these Americans adopted liberal perceptions and inclinations, liberal institutions and even a liberal culture, and, already in the eighteenth century, this liberality was becoming a recognized (if hardly consistent) feature of American life.
Find and read the rest of the article for yourself.