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The Progressive Era was the first major period in American political development to feature, as a primary characteristic, the open and direct criticism of the Constitution. While criticism of the Constitution can be found during any period of American history from 1787 onward, the Progressive Era was unique in that such criticism formed the backbone of the entire movement. Progressive Era criticism of the Constitution came not from a few fringe figures, but from the most prominent think­ers and politicians of that time. Readers are reminded, in almost any progressive text they will pick up, that the Constitution is old, and that it was written to deal with circumstances that had long ago been replaced by a whole new set of pressing social and economic ills. The progressives understood the intention and structure of the Constitution very well; they knew that it established a framework for limited government, and that these limits were to be upheld by a variety of institutional restraints and checks. They also knew that the limits placed on the national government by the Constitution represented major obstacles to implementing the progressive policy agenda. Progressives had in mind a variety of legisla­tive programs aimed at regulating significant portions of the American economy and society, and at redistributing private property in the name of social justice. The Constitution, if interpreted and applied faithfully, stood in the way of this agenda.

Progressive Era criticism of the Constitution came not from a few fringe figures, but from the most prominent think­ers and politicians of that time.

The Constitution, however, was only a means to an end. It was crafted and adopted for the sake of achieving the natural rights principles of the Declaration of Independence. The progressives understood this very clearly, which is why many of the more theoretical works written by pro­gressives feature sharp attacks on social compact theory and on the notion that the fundamental purpose of government is to secure the individual natural rights of citizens. While most of the founders and nearly all ordinary Americans did not subscribe to the radical epistemology of the social compact theorists, they did believe, in Lockean fashion, that men as individuals possessed rights by nature—rights that any just government was bound to uphold and which stood as inherent limits to the authority of government over individual liberty and property. The regulatory and redistributive aims of the progressive policy agenda, therefore, were on a collision course with the political theory of the founding. This basic fact makes understandable Woodrow Wilson’s admonition—in an address ostensibly honoring Thomas Jefferson—that “if you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface.” Do not, in other words, repeat that part of the Declaration which enshrines natural rights as the focal point of American government.

Taking Wilson’s advice here would turn our attention away from the timelessness of the Declaration’s conception of government and would focus us instead on the litany of grievances made against George III; in other words, it would show the Declaration as a merely practical docu­ment, to be understood as a specific, time-bound response to a set of specific historical circumstances. Once the circumstances change, so too must our conception of government. It is with this in mind that Wilson urged that “we are not bound to adhere to the doctrines held by the signers of the Declaration of Independence,” and that every Fourth of July, instead of a celebration of the timeless principles of the Declaration, should instead “be a time for examining our standards, our purposes, for determining afresh what principles, what forms of power we think most likely to effect our safety and happiness.” Like Wilson, the progressive academic Frank Goodnow acknowledged that the founders’ system of government “was permeated by the theories of social compact and natu­ral right,” and he complained that such theories were “worse than useless,” since they “retard development”—that is, that the protections for individ­ual liberty and property inhibit the expansion of government. In contrast to the principle of natural rights that undergirded the American system, Goodnow praised political systems in Europe where, he explained, “the rights which [an individual] 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.”

The great sin committed by the founding generation was not, then, its adherence to the doctrine of natural rights, but rather its notion that that doctrine was meant to transcend the particular circumstances of that day. 

Goodnow, Wilson, and other progressives championed historical contingency against the Declaration’s talk of the permanent principles of just government. The natural rights understanding of government may have been appropriate, they conceded, as a response to the prevailing tyranny of that day, but, they argued, all government has to be understood as a product of its particular historical context. The great sin committed by the founding generation was not, then, its adherence to the doctrine of natural rights, but rather its notion that that doctrine was meant to transcend the particular circumstances of that day. It was this very facet of the founders’ thinking that Abraham Lincoln recognized, and praised, in 1859 when he wrote of the Declaration and its primary author: “All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” Recognizing the very same characteristic of the founders’ thought, John Dewey complained, by contrast, that the founding generation “lacked historic sense and interest” and that it had a “disregard of history.” As if speaking directly to Lincoln’s praise of the founding, Dewey endorsed, instead, the doctrine of histori­cal contingency. Natural rights theory, Dewey argued, “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.” The idea of liberty was not frozen in time, Dewey argued, but had instead a history of evolving meaning. The history of liberalism, about which Dewey wrote in Liberalism and Social Action, was progres­sive—it told a story of the move from more primitive to more mature conceptions of liberty. Modern liberalism, therefore, represented a vast improvement over classical (or what Dewey called “early”) liberalism.

The influence of German political philosophy is evident not only from looking at the ideas espoused by progressives, but also from the historical pedigree of the most influential progressive thinkers. 

This coupling of historical contingency with the doctrine of prog­ress—shared by all progressives to one degree or another—reveals how the progressive movement became the means by which German histori­cism was imported into the American political tradition. The influence of German political philosophy is evident not only from looking at the ideas espoused by progressives, but also from the historical pedigree of the most influential progressive thinkers. Almost all of them were either educated in Germany in the nineteenth century or had as teachers those who were. This fact reflects the sea change that had occurred in American higher education in the second half of the nineteenth century, a time when most Americans who wanted an advanced degree went to Europe to get one. By 1900, the faculties of American colleges and universities had become populated with European Ph.D.s, and the historical think­ing which dominated Europe (especially Germany) in the nineteenth century came to permeate American higher education. Johns Hopkins University, founded in 1876, was established for the express purpose of bringing the German educational model to the United States. It produced several prominent progressives, including Wilson, Dewey, and Frederick Jackson Turner.

As a living entity, the progressives reasoned, government had to evolve and adapt in response to changing circumstances. 

Among other things, American progressives took from the Germans—and especially from the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel and his disciples—their critique of individual rights and social compact theory, and their organic or “living” notion of the national state. Wilson, in reflecting on what it meant to be a progressive, wrote of government as a “living thing,” which was to be understood according to “the theory of organic life.” This “living” notion of a constitution, Wilson contended, was far superior to the founders’ model, which had considered government a kind of “machine” which could be constantly limited through checks and balances. As a living entity, the progressives reasoned, government had to evolve and adapt in response to changing circumstances. While early American conceptions of national government had carefully cir­cumscribed its power due to the perceived threat to individual liberties, progressives argued that history had brought about an improvement in the human condition, such that the will of the people was no longer in danger of becoming factious. Citing a whole new host of economic and social ills that called out for a governmental remedy, progressives took this doctrine of progress and translated it into a call for a sharp increase in the scope of governmental power.

There may be no greater example of this phenomenon than Theodore Roosevelt’s speech on the New Nationalism in 1910, which became the foundation for his 1912 campaign to regain the presidency. The speech reflects Roosevelt’s turn, after his presidency, to a more radical brand of progressivism, demonstrating the extent to which other progres­sives like Herbert Croly had come to influence his thinking. In the New Nationalism speech, Roosevelt called for the state to take an active role in effecting economic equality by way of superintending the use of private property. Private property rights, which had been serving as a brake on the more aggressive progressive policy proposals, were to be respected, Roosevelt argued, only insofar as the government approved of the prop­erty’s social utility:

We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained with­out doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.

New circumstances, Roosevelt argued, necessitated a new conception of government, and natural rights were no longer to serve as a principled boundary that the state was prohibited from crossing.

New circumstances, Roosevelt argued, necessitated a new conception of government, and natural rights were no longer to serve as a principled boundary that the state was prohibited from crossing. Wilson had out­lined a similar view of the extent of state power in a concise but revealing essay on the relationship between socialism and democracy. Wilson’s essay starts out by defining socialism, suggesting that it stands for unfet­tered state power, which trumps any notion of individual rights. It “pro­poses that all idea of a limitation of public authority by individual rights be put out of view” and “that no line can be drawn between private and public affairs which the State may not cross at will.” After laying out this definition of socialism, Wilson explained that he found nothing wrong with it in principle, since it was merely the logical extension of genuine democratic theory. It gives all power to the people, in their collective capacity, to carry out their will through the exercise of governmental power, unlimited by any undemocratic idea like individual rights. He elaborated:

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. Limits of wisdom and convenience to the public control there may be: limits of principle there are, upon strict analysis, none.

In this view, rights-based theories of self-government, such as the republi­canism to which the American founders subscribed and of which Wilson was sharply critical, are far less democratic than socialism. As Wilson and his fellow progressives believed, rights-based theories of government limit the state’s sphere of action, thus limiting the ability of the people to implement their collective will and consequently representing something less than a real democracy.

Ronald J. Pestritto is graduate dean and professor of politics at Hillsdale College, where he teaches political philosophy, American political thought, and American politics. Dr. Pestritto holds the Charles and Lucia Shipley Chair in the American Constitution and serves as a senior fellow of the College’s Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship. He is also a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and an academic fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

This article originally ran on realclearpublicaffairs.com.

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