In the wake of modern day interpretations of history in politics, especially the pernicious and deceptive “the parties switched” narratives, Something to be understood about Truman was that he was a liberal Democrat in his day. His policies were embraced by the left-wing Americans for Democratic Action, and what they counted as “liberal” back then is on their website in their voting records dating back to 1947. Truman also wished to enact single-payer healthcare but he found intense opposition from Republicans and Southern Democrats, the combination sufficient to scuttle any such plan. I recently found some choice quotes from his memoirs regarding history, and I find them quite illuminating and not only that, they tell me I’ve been on the right path in ideological identification of political figures of the past.
Some interesting tidbits, all are from 1946-52, Years of Trial and Hope: Volume 2, pages 246 and 248:
“The real political battle of our early days came in 1828, when the modern political parties shaped up in the form in which we know them today. Jackson was recognized as the “man of the people” – an advocate of the liberal interpretation of democracy as practiced by Jefferson. Adams ran for re-election with the support of the people who controlled the United States Bank and who opposed the settlement of the new West without the supervision of private interests. Adams was also supported by the anti-Masons. He always claimed that Jackson won in 1828 with the support of the Masons, which made Adams a bitter anti-Mason for the rest of his life.”
“…the Democratic Party became completely revitalized under Jackson, and its liberal ideas were put into effect for the benefit of the people.”
“Johnson was one of the most mistreated of all Presidents. The press attacked him unmercifully for almost everything he did, including the purchase of Alaska for $7.2 million.”
“Hayes made a good President; he ordered the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.”
“Cleveland had a lot of strikes and riots, but the Democratic Party, as usual, was on the liberal side during his second administration. But the President was not. He became an ultra-conservative. His older son became a leading Republican activist in Baltimore, Maryland.”
“McKinley was sometimes described as “the President Mark Hanna made.” Hanna was the millionaire senator from Cleveland who virtually bought the election while McKinley stayed at home and spoke only to such delegations as came to his house from time to time.”
“He was one of my heroes.” – On William Jennings Bryan.
“Teddy had been far to the left for a Republican – but still right of center as far as the Democrats were concerned – and had put into effort a lot of liberal ideas such as conservation of natural resources and the checking of “malefactors of great wealth.” Taft was an ultra-conservative and partial to the special interests. He was not willing to use the full power of the presidency.”
“I recalled the 1928 Democratic convention in Houston. There were two or three native-son nominations that year, including Jim Reed of Missouri. But Al Smith was given the nomination, and that set off the most vicious anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-Black movement that we have ever had during any political campaign.”
Some comments on his writings:
. It has only been recently that the Democratic Party has chosen to forsake their party’s traditional heroes, Jefferson and Jackson.
. He applies the term “liberal” to Jackson and the Democrats of the 19th century as it was meant in the time he was writing his memoirs…1954-55. Truman regards liberalism as a long-standing trend in the Democratic Party, whereas many historians today disagree at least in part in the name of tarring and feathering contemporary conservatism, refusing to believe that conservatives could support civil rights for minorities. This “liberalism” was not “classical liberalism”, as the term “liberalism” had already been associated with New Deal policies by this point.
. How people looked at Andrew Johnson has changed greatly since the 1950s, in Truman’s case his view of Johnson as a victim can be attributed to his family’s affinity for the Confederacy given their unpleasant experiences with Union forces during the Civil War.
. Truman’s reason for positively assessing Hayes is why many historians do not care for him.
. Truman’s view of McKinley seems to be the old and inaccurate idea that he was a puppet of Mark Hanna.
. Truman’s hero is William Jennings Bryan as he credited him for saving liberalism.
A few words about Truman himself:
Although through contemporary eyes it seems an insane disconnect that President Truman, the first Democratic president to back a civil rights program and who ordered the desegregation of the army, embraced the anti-Reconstruction narrative of the Dunning School. However, it must be noted that many Democrats did not think it inconsistent to consider Reconstruction to be wrong and to support civil rights after World War II, and this includes JFK. Truman himself hadn’t in his heart come around to supporting civil rights until after World War II, as he was casting pro-civil rights votes to win the black vote in Missouri.
In truth, Truman was a man who was born and bred on racism: in 1911, he wrote to his future wife, ″I think one man is just as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman” (Leuchtenberg, 1991). By contrast, in 1946 he wrote, “But my very stomach turned over when I learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten. Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as President I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evils like this” (Leuchtenberg, 1991). Truman also backed the foundation of the state of Israel despite anti-Semitic private writings.
President Truman himself is a perfect example of the Democratic Party’s change on racial attitudes: he went from being openly prejudiced to taking action to reduce it in society. I find it fascinating when someone in politics acts contrary to their old prejudices, LBJ and Nixon did so as well. Old habits die hard, however, as after his presidency Truman still told racist jokes, still used racial slurs, opposed sit-in protests, opposed interracial marriage (as did most whites in his day) and referred to MLK as a “troublemaker”. One of the purposes of my blog has been to oppose reductionist thinking in the understanding of history, and Harry S. Truman is an example of a figure who had complicated views on race and history.
Leuchtenberg, W.E. (November 1991). The Conversion Of Harry Truman. American Heritage, 42(7)
Truman, H.S. (2014). 1946-52: Years of trial and hope, memoirs: volume 2. Boston, MA: New Word City.