From Liberty to Liberality: The Transformation of the Pennsylvania Legislature, 1776–1820 (review)
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Keywords

Pennsylvania, Capitalism, Liberalism, Legislators, Property

From Liberty to Liberality: The Transformation of the Pennsylvania Legislature, 1776–1820. By Antony Joseph. (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2012. Pp. 220. Cloth $65.00.)

Anthony Joseph challenges early American historians with a new perspective on the period in which Americans went from Revolution to the nascent stages of American capitalism. He rejects the contention that capitalism guided Americans toward developing the public good through the pursuit of private interest; rather, he espouses the idea of liberality, a “generous, rational, broadminded, and moderate” set of principles that had their foundation in the birth of republicanism in 1776, and that influenced Americans to harmonize “the interests of private individuals to produce the good of all” (6).

Joseph traces the traditional historiographical interpretations of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, beginning with Louis Hartz, who depicted a middling class that pursued its own interests after the war without interference from the state. This view was challenged by later historians, who suggested the emergence of a Revolutionary era “republicanism” that was “profoundly communal and state-conscious.” That latter paradigm valued the protection of the individual from tyranny as its supreme responsibility. Joseph writes, however, that historians agree that republicanism was eased out of its place in American political culture and replaced with an emerging classical liberalism that stressed an individualistic, market-driven society where state and national legislatures became arenas for “clashing interests.” That particular school of thought, however, had competition from historians who posited that classical liberalism, which emphasized individualism, private property, and natural rights existing independent of any government, was always the driving force behind early American political and social development. That would link the Revolutionary era and the early National period to such eighteenth-century thinkers as Adam Smith and to the early nineteenth-century Jeffersonians. Joseph finally focuses on Gordon Wood, one of the architects of the republican synthesis, and argues that Wood drops the word “liberalism” in his latest work and instead describes the post-war order as a democratic middle class, which takes the interpretation full circle back to Hartz. [End Page 149]

For Joseph, however, the entire debate has missed the point as historians mistakenly conflated the essence of classical liberalism with American liberalism, the latter having found its partial origins in “liberality,” itself a body of thought and behavior that emerged from republicanism, but which is distinct from that idea. Liberality, he contends, is a classical virtue that emphasizes a rational generosity that avoids extravagance and parsimony, that comprehends an issue “in its full sweep,” and that is open to a broad range of possibilities. Its opposites are parochialism and “narrow mindedness” (5–6). The argument is subtle, as he hinges his thesis on the way in which Americans perceived their role in the development of their political economy. The theory of classical liberalism, according to Joseph, was not in “widespread use” until after the American Civil War, and thus was not the operating principle for early nineteenth-century Americans; rather, they perceived that their behavior reflected an emerging sense of liberality, a perception that borrowed the republican sense of economy and suspicion of any institution’s ability to become abusive in its powers, and combined it with a growing willingness to have government use its authority to fund private citizens in their individual pursuits, which, in turn, promoted the public good.

To substantiate his argument, Joseph examines the changing nature of the Pennsylvania state legislature from 1776 to 1820, a period in which that institution, born in the fire of republicanism, gradually transformed itself into an entity that found liberality as its central defining core. He surely is correct when he observes that the early state legislatures are excellent laboratories for examining the democratic experiment being brought to fruition. But he argues further that the state legislature enables historians to witness both the emergence of liberality as a political ideology and the origins of a modern democratic governing body. In order to understand how that happened, he breaks down his study of the state legislature into the following parts: the role of petitions and the maturation of the legislature in handling them...


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