Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution – Lecture 9

The Progressive Rejection Of The Founding

Man is endowed with pre-political, unalienable, equal natural rights, universal at all times and in all places, and the main purpose of government is to secure these rights for the benefit of all individuals in the polity. Or man has no rights save those granted by the government, and the main purpose of the government is to solve social problems in ways that will differ in varying historical contexts and places. If you accept the former formulation, you align with the founders and Jefferson’s Declaration. If you accept the latter formulation, you align with the progressives and reject our founding principles. Is man primarily an individual, and only secondarily a member of society, or primarily a member of society, and only secondarily an individual?

Historians date the Progressive Era in America from the 1880’s to around 1920. Progressivism was very influential. It entered our philosophical bloodstream as an import from the German university system. Faculty in major American universities had obtained their graduate degrees in Germany, or at least had been taught by those who had studied there. Georg Hegel and the German historicists held that the ends and scope of government must be redefined in each historical period, that the meaning of just government depends on historical contingency. Progressives argued that we must move beyond the political principles of our founding. Times had changed, things were different, and we needed to think more historically to deal with our contemporary problems. Historical circumstances such as massive industrialization, high levels of immigration, and growing economic inequalities and problems required a vast enlargement of the scope and power of our national government. The founders had derived their principles of limited government from an unchanging human nature. But this view was now outdated as the founders could never have envisioned current conditions in America.

The most important thinkers and many of the main political figures of the period were unabashed progressives. These included such eminences as John Dewey, Herbert Croly (founder of the New Republic), Frank Goodnow (first president of the American Political Science Association), Robert LaFollette, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. These men were both intelligent and honest, and they didn’t hide their hostility to the Declaration and the Constitution. This was the first period in American history when the dominant theme of our most important thinkers was direct and open hostility to our founding documents, and the principles they represented. The progressives rejected the idea of pre-political natural rights and Lockean social compact. They knew that the Constitution was a framework for limited government in its mechanics of checks and balances, and therefore a major obstacle to implementing progressive policy objectives: a series of legislative programs to regulate a significant part of the American economy and society, and to redistribute property in accordance with social justice.

To this idea of an activist, unlimited government busily solving social problems effectively and efficiently, was wedded a deep faith in historical progress. Because of increasing enlightenment among leading citizens and establishment of democratic institutions, we no longer had to worry about a dangerous government. Rather, our society had to use the tool of government to solve our contemporary problems. Natural rights philosophy was okay for the founders in their time as an instrument to deal with an oppressive English king. Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s regard for universal natural rights, transcending time and space, should no longer be applicable. In a speech ostensibly praising Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson said: “If you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface.” Of course, it is this preface that enshrines the protection of natural rights as the main purpose of a just government. What is left is the litany of grievances. The Declaration becomes merely a practical document, an article of history, a set of time bound responses to specific historical conditions. Government purpose must be tied to specific things happening now, and as these change, government must change.

The idea of liberty is not frozen in time, but evolves in a progressive direction as we move to a more mature, socially responsible concept of liberty. In a 1916 speech at Brown University, Frank Goodnow explained his view of the superiority of European ideas over American ones: “The rights which he possesses are, it is believed, conferred upon him, not by his Creator, but rather by the society to which he belongs. What they are is to be determined by the legislative authority in view of the needs of that society. Social expediency, rather than natural right, is thus to determine the sphere of individual freedom of action.”

Indeed, John Dewey in Liberalism and Social Action wrote about the ideas of the Declaration as relics of old liberalism in America: “The earlier liberals lacked historic sense and interest….But disregard of history took its revenge. It blinded the eyes of liberals to the fact that their own special interpretations of liberty, individuality and intelligence were themselves historically conditioned, and were relevant only to their own time. They put forward their ideas as immutable truths, good at all times and places; they had no idea of historic relativity, either in general or in its application to themselves.” In other words, Jefferson was a boob, who didn’t understand that his principles could only apply to his own time.

It is interesting that this apologia for unlimited government echoed ideas from some of the anti-federalists. They also argued that enlightenment and historical progress had helped us overcome our passions and factions, and that therefore self government in a system of unconnected states was possible and desirable. Madison had called this vision utopian.

Utopian or not, key politicians bought into the critique of individual rights within a social compact. Teddy Roosevelt saw almost no limits to the proper power of the national government, especially if he was to be in charge of it. When he delivered his New Nationalism speech in 1910, kicking off his campaign to displace Taft in 1912 and return to the Presidency, he had come to support “economic justice”, including government redistribution and superintendency of private property. We needed a “living Constitution” flexible enough to achieve such goals.

Woodrow Wilson campaigned in 1912 as a progressive, and explained the necessity to change our concept of government from a mechanical process in a Newtonian universe to a living thing subject to Darwinian evolution: “Politics, in their (the founders’) thought, was a variety of mechanics….The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine but a living thing. It falls not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other as checks and live.” Those pesky checks and balances in our Constitutional system!

Wilson had dealt with the question of socialism as a scholar. In 1887’s Socialism and Democracy, Wilson explained that in a socialist system there was no line the state cannot cross. “’State socialism’ is willing to act through state authority….It proposes that all ideas of a limitation of public authority by individual rights be put out of view, and that the State consider itself bound to stop only at what is unwise or futile in its universal superintendence alike of individual and of public interests.”

Wilson saw socialism as a similar concept to democracy, where the majority will of the people would not be limited by any boundaries to government action, where no individual or minority rights existed to limit the actions of the majority. That is, what the founders feared as tyranny of the majority. “In fundamental theory socialism and democracy are almost if not quite one and the same. They both rest at bottom upon the absolute right of the community to determine its own destiny and that of its members. Men as communities are supreme over men as individuals. Limits of wisdom and convenience to the public control there may be: limits of principle there are, upon strict analysis, none.”

We have seen the fruits of socialism, often accompanying repression of individuals with abandonment of democratic process. We have seen precisely how effective and efficient government is in solving problems as bloated bureaucracies struggle against markets and citizens rely on handouts instead of work. The progressives gave us the administrative state, centralized rule by inefficient and unknown “experts,” and the welfare state, ballooned into a hammock rather than safety net.

Progressivism didn’t really end in 1920. Franklin Roosevelt related his New Deal to the ideas of the progressives. Modern American administrations have all accepted the underlying idea of an activist, problem solving state. Activity spiked in President Johnson’s War on Poverty, and President Obama’s Affordable Care Act is but another in a long line of government programs doomed to eventual failure. Unfortunately, we are all progressives now, to a lesser or greater extent.

Why was progressivism so successful in changing America? How did we come to so easily reject the founding? The European ideas that were enthusiastically adopted in American universities trickled down into the broader public culture. There is no better demonstration of the power of education. Ideas do indeed have consequences.

Education is likewise our hope for the future. If we are to recover the founding, this can only be accomplished through an intellectual renaissance. And Hillsdale may become its point of origin.

Stephen Zierak, CPCU/ARM, graduated from Boston University with a BA in Political Science in 1969. After a forty year career in property casualty insurance underwriting, Mr. Zierak retired as a Vice President of Swiss Re America in 2010. At that time, he relocated to Hawaii, a move he had always wanted to make, but had delayed due to lack of appropriate professional opportunities here. Mr. Zierak plans to continue his studies in Political Science, never really abandoned even during his professional career, and to write on matters of public policy. Recently, he produced for Grass Root Institute summaries of Hillsdale’s ten part internet course on our Constitution. Stephen Zierak is married to the love his life, Teodora, and they reside in Honolulu.

This lesson is taught by Dr. Ronald Pestritto, Associate Professor of Politics and Dean of the Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. Dr. Pestritto is a senior fellow at Hillsdale’s Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship. He teaches courses in American politics and political philosophy. Dr. Pestritto is also a senior fellow at Claremont Institute and an academic fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has published extensively, both books and articles, particularly concerning his main focus on the political thought of the progressives. He received his BA from Claremont McKenna College, and his MA and PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University. This lecture was posted on the internet April 16, and those interested may register at Constitution.Hillsdale.edu. There is no fee. The final lecture in this series will be The Recovery Of The Constitution, taught by Dr. Larry Arnn, and available next Monday, April 23.

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