Lesson One: The Founders’ Constitution and the Challenge of Progressivism
Progressivism began in the later part of the nineteenth century and has continued toAmerica’s present day. It is characterized by extravagant promises that use of its methods will rectify all social problems with decisive improvements in public policy outcomes. It attempts to draw on modern science for its authority, replacing the Founders’ principles with the administrative state, rule by bureaucrat experts. Science is powerful authority, but it can be easily misused, particularly when it is merged with governing practices. There is little doubt that Progressives have been quite successful in changing our Constitutional system over the past 100 plus years. Governments at all levels are growing so large that they threaten to overwhelm our private institutions. We have tried to maintain two systems side by side: that of the Founders and that of the Progressives. We are approaching the point where we will have to make an ultimate choice of what vision we as a people prefer to follow. Lincoln understood that America could not continue to exist half slave and half free, that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” We are approaching a similar point. We cannot continue half Founders, half Progressives in our government arrangements. We will need to choose one vision or the other. Knowledge of what constitutes each tradition is essential to an informed choice. Hence, this course.
American history can be understood in three phases. First, our founding principles emerged during the Revolution and its aftermath, and were reflected in the Declaration and the Constitution. We accepted universal pre-political rights that were not granted by governments, but rather were birthrights arising from “laws of nature and nature’s God.” Government exists to secure these rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, and violations of them justified our revolt against the King and our separation from English rule. We are all equal in the possession of these rights. Constitutional government is a practical way for a sovereign people to rule themselves through the selection of representatives to whom those sovereign powers are delegated. Second, the Civil War, still our most bloody war, tested our commitment to equality of rights. Our Founders could not end slavery in the south, and hoped the institution would die out over time. Instead, southern politicians attempted to expand slavery into the territories. We fought a war to secure the equal rights of black Americans in a unified country. Third, in the post-Civil War era, Progressives began to contest the ideas underlying our founding documents. It is no accident that our governing system has changed so profoundly over time. These changes have been pushed by Progressives as they have pursued other political ideas and different purposes for government.
The essence of the Constitution is found not in the many details of the document, but instead in its three pillars of construction. American government is supposed to be limited government, restricted to enumerated powers and subject to our Bill of Rights. It is meant to provide representation of the people, where the government is not bigger than the people it governs. It was the first purely representative government, although that representation was sometimes accomplished in indirect and balanced ways. There is separation of powers among legislature, executive, and judiciary. Such separation relies on a sovereign people exercising that sovereignty through votes for their representatives within a system that distributes potentially dangerous government power to separate authorities. Popular will, reflected directly or indirectly, is ultimately required before anyone is granted a part of government power.
Interestingly, these three pillars of the Constitution respond to the complaints found in the middle part of the Declaration that listed examples of violations of these principles by the King. New imposed controls and involvements had grown English power over the colonies, the work of local legislative bodies was thwarted from afar, and the King meddled in all aspects of colonial governance. We knew what we didn’t want.
Government necessarily reflects human nature. Madison well understood that neither were men angels nor were men governed by angels. There would be no unlimited government power for the Founders, and careful constitutional construction would ensure to the extent possible that we would be governed by reason and not by evanescent passions.
The Declaration proclaimed the beliefs and principles of the Founders. There is a way to live in all times and under all conditions that is in accordance with the nature of things, including that of humans; and while we may not always follow this right path, we should always strive to do so. The Constitution was framed to actualize this founding vision.
The Progressive vision is quite different. There are no universal truths, but instead each age must develop truths for itself based on the conditions of those times. History is a process that can be shaped by scientific and administrative tools of improvement that can continually remake the world—and the people in it. As America grows more powerful and unified, change becomes the most important value because it yields Progress. The checks and balances of limited government and separated/divided powers merely get in the way of necessary government action. Society is more important than the individuals that inhabit it, so rights are granted by society through the instrument of government. Expert problem solvers operate most effectively outside popular control, so the people’s power of representative government is replaced with an administrative state. Executive commissions are granted both legislative and judicial authority, all of this administered by largely unaccountable bureaucrats. Legislature and courthouse make and interpret far less public policy than these regulatory bodies. These commissions make rules, execute rules, and hold hearings to adjudicate rule violations. Citizens are constantly threatened by expensive and arbitrary administrative proceedings.
A vision that relies on the power of modern science for much of its authority neglects to question how that power is likely to be used. Excessive power grants to any group of people are likely to be abused. That is an understanding of the Founders that has not yet been accepted by the Progressives. Its reality can be seen in the fact that the richest country in the history of the world has accumulated the largest debt in history.
Progressives are not unintelligent people. They are advocates of “social justice” who have come to believe that they have better solutions than the Founders provided. Woodrow Wilson is still the only PhD to ever become President. A speech during his 1912 campaign expressed his frustration with checks and balances (amazing the intellectual level of speeches from that period!): “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 toNewton. 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. On the contrary, its life is dependent upon their quick cooperation….Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of life, not mechanics; it must develop.”
All that Wilson and his intellectual brethren asked was that the Constitution be interpreted according to Darwinian principles, and that we admit to facing new tyrannies never anticipated by the Declaration. Wilson followed the practices of most Progressives in trying to associate the ideas of the Progressives with founding principles through redefinition. We require a living Constitution and a revised understanding of the meaning of the Declaration to address modern times. Or, if we would just throw out the clear meaning of the documents, it would be okay to continue our veneration of the documents. The redefinition of equality of inalienable rights to government granted equality of material condition is yet another confusion sponsored by Progressives to confound understanding of founding principles.
The controversy over these competing visions has become very sharp in recent years. When Speaker Pelosi was asked whether the Affordable Care Act was Constitutional, she responded with impatience and derision, “Are you serious? Are you serious?” Contrast that with President Madison’s attempt to provide federal funding for a National University, which was undone by a Congressmen Mitchell of Georgia, who observed that such a project was outside the enumerated powers. We have interpreted a “living Constitution” in ways our Founders would have neither believed nor accepted.
“Science” has justified much government oppression. National Socialism justified its program on the science of genetics. Within our own history, it is chilling to read Alexander Stephens’ (Vice President of the Confederacy) celebration of the Confederate Constitution. From his infamous “Cornerstone Speech” of 1861: “Its (new government of the Confederacy) foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth….The truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo…” We have seen in the twentieth century what “science” can end up justifying because those with power refuse to accept the need to evaluate changing sciences in the context of self-evident principles of individual rights based on understanding of what it has always meant to be human.
Frank Goodnow, first president of the American Political Science Association, delivered a speech atBrownUniversityin 1916 that called on us to learn from Europe (sound familiar to today?): “Man is regarded now throughout Europe…as primarily a member of society and secondarily as an individual….Social expediency rather than natural right is thus to determine the sphere of individual freedom of action….The political philosophy of the eighteenth century was formulated before the announcement and acceptance of the theory of evolutionary development….The actual rights which at the close of the eighteenth century were recognized were, however, as a matter of fact influenced in large measure by the social and economic conditions of the time when the recognition was made. Those conditions have certainly been subjected to great modification….The sphere of governmental action is continually widening and the actual content of individual private rights is being increasingly narrowed….The efficiency of the social group is taking on in our eyes a greater importance than it once had.” So, as early as 1916, one of our premier social scientists had noticed how the Constitutional order was being twisted to accommodate Progressive ideas.
To some extent the Progressive ethic is a response to a state of despair. We have no objective access to any true thing. Instead, we are dominated by conditions around us that we cannot address without giving our power to government. Good now despaired of the power of teachers to influence students except by accommodating changes of conditions in their teaching—or at any rate to get with the program and refrain from impeding progress.
Philosophers of the Enlightenment, and our Founders, liberated us from oppressive government power. Their ideas had consequences, which can be discovered in our Founding and the history of the Republic through the time of the Civil War. Progressives, in their zeal to perfect society and the people within it, have lost sight of what the power of unlimited and largely unaccountable government means for our lives and our livelihoods. Do we really believe that a satisfying life is impossible without the continual tending of the state? After finally attaining liberty, are we really so anxious to rediscover the status of subject of the state?
The second lesson of this course will be available on line. The topic will be: Woodrow Wilson and the Rejection of the Founders’ Principles, taught by Dr. Ronald Pestritto.
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.
Stephen Zierak, a GRIH correspondent is sitting in on the lectures. His reports will summarize the material from the presentations and readings, along with providing some of his personal observations.
Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College since May, 2000, delivers the first lecture. 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 Heritage Foundation and the Claremont Institute. Dr. Arnn received his BA from Arkansas State University, and his MA and PhD from Claremont Graduate School.
As a follow on to Constitution 101, Hillsdale College is offering a free ten lesson course on the Progressives’ challenge to our founding principles, as those principles are embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. The public may participate through a series of online webcasts, supplemented by provided readings and by community e-mail commentary. For more information, or to register/donate to the project, you can go to: constitution.hillsdale.edu. You may also register for the previous series, Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution. Lesson One of this new series was posted on the internet on September 4, and is available for viewing at any time.