After far too many years of FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, Ronald Reagan gave his all for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for President. In October, Reagan addressed the people of America in one of his finest televised speeches, A Time For Choosing. He ended with this: “We can preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we can sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.”
Reagan understood that the system established by the founders, one with Constitutional protections for the universal, pre-political natural rights of every American, was fading out as a newer competing system was rising. These two systems are fundamentally different. As Lincoln understood, we cannot accept both; we would have to become one thing or the other. The founders believed that man has an unchanging nature, endowed with natural rights, a being that both requires a government protective of those natural rights and yet is capable of self government. Madison had noted that we were men, not angels, that the powers of government must be limited, that sovereignty lay outside government, which acts only through representation of the people, and that the people can delegate the powers of government to different groups through vertical federalism and horizontal separation of powers. The inheritors of the progressive tradition believe that governance must change with different times and circumstances, that government must be big to deal with a more complex society, that the right kind of government can control anything and everything for the people’s benefit, and that the designed restraints of the founders are too limiting to a modern government. In 1964, Ronald Reagan understood that it really was a time for choosing—and that the wrong choice would ill serve America and the world.
Franklin Roosevelt’s speech to California’s Commonwealth Club in the run-up to the 1932 election left no doubt where he stood:
“The Declaration of Independence discusses the problem of government in terms of a contract. Government is a relation of give and take, a contract, perforce, if we would follow the thinking out of which it grew. Under such a contract rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights. The task of statesmanship has always been the redefinition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order. New conditions impose new requirements upon government and those who conduct government.”
A more telling misreading of the Declaration can scarcely be imagined. Unalienable rights cannot be modified by contract. The Declaration is universal, applicable to all times and circumstances, because it emerges from an understanding of unchanging human nature. Roosevelt was promoting the progressive narrative: that since conditions had changed, the Declaration must be understood in modern terms with redefined rights.
So, what were these new rights that would replace the political rights to life, liberty, and individual pursuit of happiness (including the possession of property)? Roosevelt’s 1944 Message to Congress noted that “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” A second bill of rights was required under which “a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all…” Government would guarantee as a “right” a useful and remunerative job, with earnings enough to provide adequate food, clothing, and recreation; an adequate return on sale of products by every farmer; freedom from “unfair” competition for every businessman; a decent home; adequate medical care; protection from personal economic fears; and a good education. You were no longer to be responsible for yourself and your family. The government would take care of you. And how would government provide these “rights,” these guarantees of security for all? The government would require an ever greater claim on everyone’s private property to fund its largesse. People’s property would be taken for new public uses without the just compensation required by our Constitution. People would no longer lend their sovereignty to representatives limited in their powers. Instead, the government would be sovereign and the people would obey their patrons.
The progressive vision is hardly something new. Virtually all government systems have featured some preferred class that would rule over the masses, whether termed aristocrats, theocrats, the dictatorship of the proletariat, or something else. In the case of the progressives, we are offered the administrative state. A professionally qualified and scientifically trained bureaucracy would problem solve as neutral arbiters, acting outside Constitutional restraints, often wrapping up executive, legislative, and judicial powers in one agency. These chosen ones could be trusted to act in the public interest since they would be tenured and their wants satisfied to prevent corruption. These supermen, these guardians, our betters would help us all adjust to changing circumstances and shelter us from want and failure. Our problems were no longer those of production, merely those of distribution. Well, we all know how such simple-minded beliefs have turned out over the too many years of progressive rule.
The founders provided us with real revolutionary principles of government. Alexander Hamilton may have said it best: “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself…”
Presented in this way, it is clear that the two systems cannot coexist; they contradict one another, and both agree that the other way is disaster. Unfortunately, most of the thought and speech of the past hundred plus years have advocated the progressive vision.
With one shining exception. The economic crisis of the 1970’s brought us now President Ronald Reagan. He understood the choice, and the need to return America to a Constitutional path. His First Inaugural Address recovered our founding traditions. “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?….We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around. And that makes us special among the nations of the earth. Our government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.” Reagan promised to remove the “roadblocks” of government that had slowed the economy and reduced productivity.
In some of the most beautiful passages in any inaugural address, President Reagan spoke of American heroes. The ceremony overlooked our most important monuments. Reagan celebrated George Washington’s humility combined with leadership. He recognized Thomas Jefferson, whose Declaration of Independence “flames with his eloquence.” And Abraham Lincoln: “Whoever would understand in his heart the meaning of America will find it in the life of Abraham Lincoln.” But American heroes are not only the great men of history. “You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter—and they are on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They are individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet but deep. Their values sustain our national life.”
Reagan well understood American exceptionalism and the founders’ universal principles, and what this could and should mean to people everywhere. “And as we renew ourselves in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.”
President Reagan ended by acknowledging the heroism of our warriors. “Under one such marker lies a young man—Martin Treptoe—who left his job in a small town barber shop in 1917 to go to France with the famed Rainbow Division. There, on the western front, he was killed trying to carry a message between battalions under heavy artillery fire. We are told that on his body was found a diary. On the flyleaf under the heading, ‘My Pledge,’ he had written these words: ‘America must win this war. Therefore, I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.’”
Has there ever been a better statement of citizen responsibility, of what the founders’ system really means? Each of us possesses an equal share of the power and responsibility of a self governing system. We are the sovereign, the government limited to our servant. As we live our lives, pursue our goals, fulfill our responsibilities, we are the heroes. We are strong, not weak and dependent. We are productive, not incompetent. We are brave, not fearful. We are the inheritors of the founding, not subjects of appointed “betters.”
Today, Ronald Reagan is revered by almost everyone, even as our government has regressed to the ancient and reactionary way of elite command and control. Yet, if a Ronald Reagan can defy the progressive vision, can achieve political success with founding principles, then the question is still open to us. We need not lay down our lives, as did Martin Treptoe. We need only keep the conversation alive. We can write, speak, and electioneer in support of our founding system. We can make the nature of the choice understandable to all our fellow citizens. We can engage intellectually with the progressives, demonstrating the superiority of the founding in comparison with the empty utopianism of the administrative state. The greatness of our nation will continue to exist as long as our citizens can read of our founding, and can understand its principles in the Declaration, and its structure in the Constitution.
Have we met Ronald Reagan’s 1964 challenge? Have we done all that could be done?
This lesson is taught by Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College since 2000. Dr. Arnn is also a Professor of Politics and History at Hillsdale, and teaches courses on Aristotle, Winston Churchill, and the American Constitution. He is on the board of directors of both the Heritage Foundation and the Claremont Institute. Dr. Arnn received his BA from Arkansas State University, and his MA and PhD from Claremont Graduate School.
This is the final lesson of the series. The entire series is available on the internet at Constitution.Hillsdale.edu. There is no fee. Along with a video of each lecture, you will find supplementary reading materials and e-mail Q&A. Experiencing all this material for yourselves is well worth your time. If we don’t fully understand the nature of the Constitutional crisis, American exceptionalism must be forfeit to our lack of necessary action for Constitutional restoration.