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New Freedom


NEW FREEDOM. The reform philosophy of Woodrow Wilson, enunciated during the 1912 presidential race and embodied in the legislation of his first term. During the campaign, Wilson contrasted the New Freedom to Theodore Roosevelt's New Nationalism. Whereas Roosevelt argued that industrial concentration was inevitable and that government should regulate business for the common good, Wilson countered that economic concentration in any form threatened individualism and personal liberties. Wilson and his political adviser Louis Brandeis, chief architect of the New Freedom, believed government's responsibility lay in preserving competition by preventing the establishment of trusts. Their thinking reflected the doctrines of nineteenth-century political liberalism as well as the Jeffersonian belief in equality of rights and suspicion of all forms of concentrated power.

The implementation of this philosophy in subsequent legislation, however, contributed significantly to the growth of government regulation, in apparent contradiction to Wilson and Brandeis' stated aims. The New Freedom's legislative accomplishments included the Underwood Tariff Act of 1913 (which included a progressive income tax), the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914, all passed during the first session of the Sixty-third Congress, and most of which increased the regulatory power of government. Although Wilson's Jeffersonian pedigree made him opposed to measures benefiting special interests (including labor) or social welfare, or designed to reconcile government and business, political circumstances following the midterm elections in 1914 and his own political evolution pushed the New Freedom's agenda further leftwards in 1916. Beginning with the appointment of Brandeis to the Supreme Court in January, Wilson and the Democratic Congress enacted legislation furthering the reform agenda. This included the Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916, workers' compensation for federal employees, a law prohibiting the products of child labor from interstate commerce, and the Adamson Act of 1916, which mandated an eight-hour workday on interstate railways.

Growing involvement in World War I shifted the country's attention to military matters, and after 1916 the reform impulse withered. The New Freedom remains significant, however, in that it confirmed the modern Democratic Party's commitment to positive government as a means of preserving competition and the rights of economic smallholders, and established the foundations of the modern regulatory state.


Gould, Lewis L. Reform and Regulation: American Politics, 1900–1916. New York: Wiley, 1978.

Link, Arthur S. Wilson: The New Freedom. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1956.

Sarasohn, David. The Party of Reform: Democrats in the Progressive Era. Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

C. WyattEvans

See alsoAntitrust Laws ; Brandeis Confirmation Hearings ; Clayton Act, Labor Provisions ; New Nationalism .

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