Liberalism is the oldest and most enduring American tradition, a philosophy and way of life we inherited from the Founding Fathers. This is the central idea of The Essential America by George McGovern, America's best-known (and most consistent) liberal.
Referring us to our moral and spiritual foundations, McGovern not only presents a resounding defense of liberalism as "the most practical and hopeful compass to guide the American ship of state" but offers specific proposals for keeping the tradition vibrant.
The Essential America proposes programs for feeding the world's malnourished children. Rather than sending our armies abroad, McGovern spells out policies that confront the causes of terrorism. He proposes cutting our military budget (echoing Dwight D. Eisenhower's powerful warning about the military-industrial complex). He condemns preemptive war, criticizes tax cuts for the rich, and warns against government for the powerful minority.
Americans have traditionally stood for progress, generosity, tolerance, and protection of the needy, McGovern states -- as well as for multi- lateralism in foreign policy and "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind." He reminds us that while creative tension between liberalism and conservatism is the genius of American politics, it is the liberals who have been responsible for every forward step in our national history. They built "the Essential America."
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Simon & Schuster
June 30, 2004
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Excerpt from The Essential America by George McGovern
Chapter 1: Faith of Our Fathers
Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty.
-- Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, 1927
My father, J. C. McGovern, was a Methodist clergyman -- a follower of the eighteenth-century English founder of Methodism, John Wesley. A fierce opponent of slavery and an ardent defender of the poor and unfortunate members of society, Wesley had a stronger following in the slums and sweatshops of London than in the castles and country estates of the realm. A proponent of personal salvation, he was equally committed to what a century later was called "the social gospel." He believed that the Judeo-Christian ethic called upon believers to demonstrate compassion for the homeless, the sick, the vulnerable, and for the miners and factory workers. As one biographer noted, "Wesley was passionate about the need to alter economic policies that encourage greed and punish the poor. He was an advocate of lowering taxes and reducing the national debt by minimizing military spending." (Ronald Stone, John Wesley's Life and Ethics, Abingdon Press, 2001)
Following his death, in 1791, England's widely read Gentleman's Magazine, whose editorial views were not always compatible with Wesley's thinking, observed: "His personal influence was greater perhaps than any private gentleman in this country." His biographer concluded that "Wesley made the most rational and persuasive arguments against slavery of any person in the 18th Century."
Wesley's social conscience and his message of individual salvation were brought by Francis Asbury to early America, where he found eager recipients.
George Whitefield, the English fellow Methodist of Wesley and Asbury and a powerful pulpit orator, came to America in 1739 in the first of a series of visits to the colonies. Utilizing the revival meeting technique first employed by Jonathan Edwards, he preached to large open-air crowds, drawing multitudes of listeners from virtually every religious denomination. His appeals to personal salvation given in highly emotional language shook up the established churches and in the early 1740s set off "the Great Awakening" of spiritual concern throughout the colonies. The messages and articles by Whitefield gained broad circulation after being printed by a young Philadelphia printer, Ben Franklin. Despite his then meager income, Franklin reportedly said that he found it difficult to avoid giving all that he had to Whitefield.
No one who overlooks the moral and spiritual views of our founders can fully grasp the enduring strength of American freedom. Who were the founding fathers Perhaps no two historians would suggest the same list of the personalities who led the thirteen colonies to independence from Britain and then shaped the new American nation. Here is a suggested list: