Law and History Review

Forum: Liberalism and the Liberal State

Charles Evans Hughes and the Strange Death of Liberal America

James A. Henretta

“Liberalism! Not in all history has a word been so wrenched away from its true meaning and dragged through the gutter of defilement,” the Wilsonian Progressive George Creel protested angrily in a memoir of 1947: “Where it once stood for the dignity of man, … it now stands for the obliteration of individualism at the lands of a ruthless, all-powerful state.” For nearly fifty years, most scholars have given little heed to the rage vented by Creel and other critics of New Deal “liberalism.” Amidst the expansion of the American welfare state, the outlook and ideas of the anti-New Dealers seemed at best naively outdated and at worst positively pernicious. History—in the form of an increasingly massive, paternalist, neo-mercantilist, bureaucratic state—seemed to be firmly on the side of those who advocated the expansion of federal authority over more aspects of American life.

James A. Henretta is the Priscilla Alden Burke Professor of American History at the University of Maryland <>. In 1991–1992 he was the Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University, where he delivered a very preliminary version of this article as his Inaugural Lecture. He would like to express his thanks to the Trustees of the Rothermere Foundation and Major and Mrs. Vivian Harmsworth for their kind support, and to Provost and Fellows of the Queen's College for their hospitality. Various colleagues in England and the United States—Bruce Ackerman, James Banner, Alan Brinkley, John Buenker, Gary Gerstle, James Gilbert, David Grimsted, Stanley Katz, James Kloppenberg, Robyn Muncy, J. R. Pole, Daniel Rodgers, John Rowett, Christopher Tomlins, and Rebecca Starr—offered helpful criticism and suggestions, as did members of the Washington Seminar on American History and Culture. The author revised this article while enjoying the John Hope Franklin Senior Fellowship at the National Humanities Center.