Front Page Titles (by Subject) Civic Virtue, Mercantilism, and Liberalism - Literature of Liberty, April/June 1979, vol. 2, No. 2
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Civic Virtue, Mercantilism, and Liberalism - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, April/June 1979, vol. 2, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Civic Virtue, Mercantilism, and Liberalism
“The Social Origins of American Revolutionary Ideology.” Journal of American History 64 (March 1978): 935–958.
Neo-Whig historians of the last decade have largely dispelled the characterization of eighteenth-century American thought as unphilosophical, simple, and merely derivative of John Locke. Rather than emphasize the revolutionaries' political pragmatism as had the consensus historians of the 1950s, historians such as Bernard Bailyn, Richard Buel, Jack Green, and Gordon Wood have argued that American intellectuals of the revolutionary generation produced a sophisticated analysis of their complex social, economic, and political structure. This wave of revisionism viewed the revolutionaries as acutely sensitive moralists and intensely interested in designing governments which lent themselves to civic virtue rather than political corruption.
These revisionists have thus produced a more believable colonial past by elucidating the philosophical, moralizing, and social dimensions of revolutionary constitutionalism. However, this colonial past ill-suits the needs of historians working with later periods. Where do scholars find in this moralizing emphasis on civic virtue, fear of tyranny, and frenzy over corruption, the foundations of the later individualism, optimistic materialism, and pragmatic interest-group politics which emerged early in the nineteenth century?
The weakness in revisionists' interpretation is its emphasis on one intellectual tradition that was itself born in reaction to the liberal tradition with its economic and political writers who asserted that governments should step aside in the marketplace and allow enterprising individuals the economic freedom to fulfill themselves. This liberal position opposed the reactionary stance of many prominent British and colonial leaders who saw in the mercantile system of market organization a mechanism for balancing the desires of individuals for personal growth with the needs of the political system for social stability.
It is with these early English, so-called mercantilists, that the idea emerges of a natural order supporting economic relationships. Such a paradigm characterized all subsequent liberal writing in economics. This thinking was particularly prevalent at the end of the seventeenth century, and, after passing into eclipse during the early part of the eighteenth century, it re-emerged in the 1750s as a powerful force in both British and American politics. Not surprisingly, the liberal position strongly appealed to the youthful, upwardly mobile, American colonists. Its appeal was so strong, moreover, that the titanic clash between Crown and colony over the imperial economic system can be successfully viewed as a clash between liberal and reactionary ideas of economic freedom.
The Neo-Whig interpretation cogently interprets the Revolutionary period, but works from a perspective which rarely views its liberal past. Civic virtue was the rallying cry of the court party, the reactionaries, who politically dreaded confronting the demands of upwardly mobile entrepreneurs to withdraw the government from the marketplace. The liberal stance, so largely in evidence in the nineteenth century, had firmly established itself by the time of the American Revolution. Its slighting at the hands of Neo-Whig historians may be accounted as either an oversight or as unvirtuous indifference.