According to a December 2004 survey by the Pew Research Center, about 9 percent of the electorate —enough to carry a tight race—prefers candidates who offer the basic libertarian mix of fiscal conservatism and social tolerance. With Republicans apparently uninterested in pleasing the libertarian segments of their coalition, some liberals and libertarians—Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas, former Democratic National Committee press secretary Terry Michael, and Reason contributor Matt Welch among them—have suggested an alternative: the libertarian Democrat, the sort of liberal who favors both free speech and free trade, both the right to bare pornography and the right to bear arms.
It’s far from clear, however, that the Democratic Party has room for candidates who favor a smaller, less intrusive government. But it did once. The Democratic Party actually has a very distinguished libertarian legacy, one that combined principled anti-imperialism, respect for economic liberty, and a firm commitment to civil rights. If the would-be libertarian Democrats are looking for a historical model, they should consider the Boston attorney Moorfield Storey (1845–1929).
A fierce critic of imperialism and militarism, Storey was a founder and president of the Anti-Imperialist League, which opposed U.S. annexation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War and counted Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and President Grover Cleveland among its members. An advocate of free trade, freedom of contract, and the gold standard, Storey also helped organize the independent National Democratic Party, also known as the Gold Democrats, who fought the anti-gold populist William Jennings Bryan’s presidential bid in 1896. An individualist and anti-racist, Storey was the first president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he argued and won the group’s first major Supreme Court victory, Buchanan v. Warley (1917), a decision that relied on property rights to strike down a residential segregation law.
Born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1845, Moorfield Storey was a successful lawyer whose politics tended toward “good government” reform until the mid-1890s. Then came the presidential election of 1896, when the Democrats selected the agrarian insurgent William Jennings Bryan as their candidate. Bryan’s chief cause was “Free Silver,” a call for the government to coin unlimited amounts of silver at an artificially inflated rate. As the historians David and Linda Beito have noted, “the result would have been a pell-mell rush of silver holders to exchange their metal for dollars, and hence rapid dollar inflation and a corresponding depreciation of the currency.” Bryan expected and welcomed this result, believing it would put cheap dollars in the hands of debt-ridden farmers, leaving the banks and other hated creditors to absorb the losses.
Opposition to Bryan’s “50-cent Democrats” fractured the party. (Republicans were mostly united against Free Silver.) The luminaries in the Democratic gold camp included President Cleveland, Treasury Secretary John C. Carlisle, Nation publisher E.L. Godkin, Agriculture Secretary J. Sterling Morton, and textile manufacturer Edward Atkinson. They also included Storey, who denounced Free Silver to an audience of fellow Cleveland Democrats as a scam “organized and promoted by men directly interested in the promotion of that metal.” From this opposition emerged the Gold Democrats, a third party that offered its nomination to Cleveland and, after he turned it down, ran Sen. John C. Palmer (D-Ill.) for president instead. (Cleveland himself encouraged but never formally endorsed Palmer’s ticket.) Palmer’s anti-Bryan campaign drew just 134,000 votes, less than 1 percent of the total. But the same split that divided the party drove many Democrats to support the pro-gold Republican William McKinley, who beat Bryan by a decisive 600,000 votes, collecting 271 electors to Bryan’s 176.
William McKinley’s Wars
Though pleased at Bryan’s defeat, Storey saw little reason to cheer the new president. For one thing, there was McKinley’s support for high trade barriers—arising, Storey said, from McKinley’s ties to businessmen who “wish[ed] the taxing power of the government used to increase the value of their products.” The president’s signature on the tariff-hiking Dingley Act in 1897 did little to change Storey’s mind. But the worst was still to come.
In Cuba, armed rebels were fighting to end four centuries of Spanish rule. The Spanish responded with mass arrests and the infamous reconcentrado camps, pen-like enclosures where both guerrilla fighters and innocent civilians were herded and “pacified” through brutal methods ranging from torture to deliberate starvation.
With such drama unfolding just 90 miles off the Florida coast, America’s yellow press worked overtime, loudly trumpeting the call for armed intervention and “Cuba Libre.” For those with expansionist sympathies, particularly the officers, journalists, and politicians orbiting the charming and pugnacious assistant secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, the Cuban revolt was an opportunity to extend Old Glory’s reach. After the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, Congress and the White House agreed, and on April 19, the United States declared war on Spain. “The condition of affairs in Cuba is a constant menace to our peace, and entails upon this government an enormous expense,” President McKinley said in his war message to Congress. “It is no answer to say that this is all in another country, belonging to another nation, and is therefore none of our business. It is specially our duty, for it is right at our door.”
In victory, the U.S. acquired Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam, which were granted a relative degree of liberty and self-government, and the Philippines, which were not. In the opinion of the Filipino rebels, who had also fought the Spanish and had allied with U.S. Admiral George Dewey after his naval victory at Manila Bay, the Philippines deserved the same freedom as Cuba. Instead, it got an American occupation followed by a full-scale war.
“The first blow was struck by the inhabitants,” McKinley declared, referring to a minor and otherwise forgettable skirmish between closely situated U.S. and Filipino troops. “They assailed our sovereignty, and there will be no useless parley, no pause, until the insurrection is suppressed and American authority acknowledged and established.” And so the Philippine War came.
Storey had already opposed the fully declared Spanish War, which he denounced as an act of imperialist meddling, but he was especially outraged by McKinley’s undeclared war in the Philippines. (Even Cleveland, a member of the Anti-Imperialist League, had been too much of a sabre-rattler for Storey. In 1895, when Cleveland forcefully intervened on Venezuela’s behalf in a border dispute with British-held Guiana, Storey declared that the administration’s “demagogues go too far in the way of rousing the jingo feeling.”) In his devastating 1926 post-mortem, The Conquest of the Philippines by the United States, Storey argued that McKinley “sanctioned a war without the authority of Congress, he refused to parley, and he told Congress that the question would not be open until the Conquest by arms had been completed. What wearer of a ‘kingly crown’ could more despotically have dealt with a question of such vital importance to the nation?”
It was the American people, via their elected representatives, Storey maintained, that had the authority to declare war, not “kingly” McKinley. “The President not only has no power to make the decision for them,” Storey raged in a letter to the Wisconsin progressive Robert M. LaFollette, “but has no right to take steps which commit the country to war, so that the people cannot deliberately decide for or against it.”
Today, as the Bush administration claims sweeping new war powers
of its own, including the right to detain American citizens without
trial and to torture so-called enemy combatants, Storey’s antiwar
arguments strike an eerily familiar note.
In Storey’s view, the U.S. government had no right, legal or moral, to impose democracy or any other system on another country. “When the white man governs himself that is self-government,” Storey said, quoting Abraham Lincoln. “But when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism.”
Storey found the very idea of an American empire to be toxic. Anticipating Randolph Bourne’s famous observation that “war is the health of the state,” Storey cautioned that “power is always used to benefit him who wields it.” Thus, “the king aims to preserve and strengthen his dynasty. The oligarchy clings to its privileges at the expense of the people.”
Furthermore, Storey correctly worried that the subjugation of the dark-skinned Filipinos would encourage greater racism at home. “The Philippine war has paralyzed the conscience of the Republican party,” he charged. “It cannot denounce the suppression of the Negro vote in the South by any argument that does not return to condemn the suppression of the Philippine vote in Luzon and Samar.”