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Republicanism, along with a form of classical liberalism, remains the dominant ideology. Central documents include the Declaration of Independence (1776), Constitution (1787), The Federalist Papers (1788), Bill of Rights (1791), and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (1863), among others. The political scientist Louis Hartz articulated this theme in American political culture in The Liberal Tradition in America (1955). Hartz saw the antebellum South as breaking away from this central ideology in the 1820s as it constructed a fantasy to support hierarchical, feudal society. Others, such as David Gordon of the libertarian, Alabama-based Mises Institute argue that the secessionists who formed the Confederacy in 1861 retained the values of classical liberalism. Among the core tenets of this ideology are the following:

Civic duty: Citizens have the responsibility to understand and support the government, participate in elections, pay taxes, and perform military service.
Opposition to Political corruption
Democracy: The government is answerable to citizens, who may change the representatives through elections.
Equality before the law: The laws should attach no special privilege to any citizen. Government officials are subject to the law just as others are
Freedom of religion: The government can neither support nor suppress religion
Freedom of speech: The government cannot restrict through law or action the personal speech of a citizen; a marketplace of ideas

In response to Hartz and others, political scientist Rogers M. Smith argued in Civic Ideals (1999) that in addition to liberalism and republicanism, United States political culture has historically served to exclude various populations from access to full citizenship. Terming this ideological tradition "ascriptive inegalitarianism," Smith traces its relevance in nativist, sexist, and racist beliefs and practices alongside struggles over citizenship laws from the early colonial period to the Progressive Era, and further political debates in the following century.

At the time of the United States' founding, agriculture and small private businesses dominated the economy, and state government left welfare issues to private or local initiative. Laissez-faire ideology was largely abandoned in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Between the 1930s and 1970s, fiscal policy was characterized by the Keynesian consensus, a time during which modern American liberalism dominated economic policy virtually unchallenged. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, laissez-faire ideology, as explained especially by Milton Friedman, has once more become a powerful force in American politics. While the American welfare state expanded more than threefold after World War II, it has been at 20% of GDP since the late 1970s. As of 2014 modern American liberalism, and modern American conservatism are engaged in a continuous political battle, characterized by what The Economist describes as "greater divisiveness [and] close, but bitterly fought elections."

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