The Original “Progressives”

“A well-meaning man may vaguely think of himself as a Progressive without having even the faintest conception of what a Progressive is.” Theodore Roosevelt

In recent years the word “progressive” has had a resurgence in popularity among American leftists (perhaps because the word “liberal” is too well understood by the American public). In 1991 the most liberal members of the United States Congress joined together to form the “Progressive Caucus.” Hosts on the now-defunct Air America radio network billed themselves as “The Aggressive Progressives.” Income tax structures that force high wage earners to pay taxes disproportionate to their income are called “progressive,” while tax structures that require everyone to pay in proportion to income are derided as “regressive.”  Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter what name left wingers use for their agenda. The agenda never changes.

The word “progressive” comes to us from the early twentieth century, when leftists like US Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson used it to portray themselves as agents of progress. History textbooks refer to the period during which these three men ran the government (1901 to 1919), as the “Progressive Era.” Most modern textbooks reflect the leftist bias of their authors by framing this period as a time when enlightened leaders used the power of government to promote “social justice.”1 The other side of the story, generally downplayed by history professors and other leftists, is the way the original “Progressive” politicians trampled on the Constitutional principle of checks and balances, and ushered in an era of unprecedented government power.

The View from the Ivory Tower

The left-leaning scholars who write most of our history textbooks portray the Progressive Era as a time of bold leaders motivated by high ideals. Progressives, according to Columbia University Professor Eric Foner, inclulded “forward-looking businessmen,” working hand-in-hand with reformers “who hoped to protect women and children from exploitation,” and “social scientists who believed that academic research would help to solve social problems…”

The widely used freshman textbook Making a Nation2 tells students that early twentieth century progressives “shared an optimistic conviction that modern institutions could be made humane, responsive, and moral.” (The same book, in a somewhat surprising display of candor, credits the progressive movement with having “made universities into centers of advocacy.”)

Progressivism Peaks under Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson, the first and only US President who was elected to the office after having worked as a university professor, is widely recognized as the most progressive of the Progressive Era Presidents. The textbook Nation of Nations3 says of Wilson “All his life, he believed he was meant to accomplish great things, and he did. Under him, progressivism peaked.” Those of us who take a more conservative point of view would use different words to describe Wilson’s legacy.

Wilson had little regard for tradition. In a 1912 campaign speech he boasted that during his time as a university professor and university president he had frequently stated “that I should like to make the young gentlemen…as unlike their fathers as possible.”4

In the same speech Wilson espoused a philosophy of government based on atheistic Darwinism; in contrast to the Founders’ vision of a Constitutional government constrained by checks and balances.

Now, it came to me, as this interesting man talked, that the Constitution of the United States had been made under the dominion of the Newtonian Theory. You have only to read the papers of the Federalist to see that fact written on every page. The speak of the “checks and balances” of the Constitution, and use to express their idea the simile of the organization of the universe, and particularly of the Solar System – how by the attraction of gravitation the various parts are held in their orbits; and then they proceed to represent Congress, the Judiciary, and the President as a sort of imitation of the Solar System. …

The Constitution was founded on the law of gravitation. The government was to exist and move by virtue of the efficacy of “checks and balances.”

The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. …It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live. …Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice.

Wilson’s concept of a “living constitution,” offered up in opposition to the old-fashioned idea of a binding written Constitution, has become an article of faith among liberals today. Vice President Al Gore, for example, promised during his 2000 presidential campaign that he would appoint Supreme Court Justices who viewed the US Constitution as a “living, breathing document,” subject to such ad hoc changes as they might see fit. No one had ever suggested such a thing before the Progressive Era.

Progressives Deny Jefferson’s Doctrine of “Unalienable Rights”

Another leader of the Progressive movement was Dr. Frank Goodnow. Goodnow, like many other radical leftists, taught at Columbia University.

Today most liberals, while pushing for larger and more powerful government, nonetheless do at least give lip service to the idea of protecting the rights freedoms of the individual. Things were different in the Progressive Era. Goodnow and some of his fellow Progressives candidly opposed the founding principles of the United States, including the doctrine of “natural,” or God-given, individual rights.

In a typical lecture ((footnote: ))  Goodnow tries to refute the ideas of Locke and Rousseau, which had provided the philosophical underpinnings of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights

The end of the eighteenth century was marked by the formulation and general acceptance by thinking men in Europe of a political philosophy which laid great emphasis on individual private rights. Man was by this philosophy conceived of as endowed at the time of his birth with certain inalienable rights. Thus, Rousseau in his “Social Contract” treated man primarily as an individual and only secondarily as a member of human society. Society itself was regarded as based upon a contract made between the individuals by whose union it was formed. At the time of making this contract these individuals were deemed to have reserved certain rights spoken of as “natural” rights. These rights could neither be taken away nor be limited without the consent of the individual affected.

Such a theory, of course, had no historical justification.5

Progressives like Goodnow understood that the doctrine of inalienable individual rights was antithetical to the kind of all-powerful central government they envisioned for the United States. If Government was to re-order every aspect of society in accordance with the Progressives’ agenda, it would have to have to have the power to over-ride individual rights in the service of the public good. Goodnow argued that only the repudiation of individual rights could allow the kind of progress that changing economic conditions required.

Changed conditions, it has been thought, must bring in their train different conceptions of private rights if society is to be advantageously carried on. In other words, while insistence on individual rights may have been of great advantage at a time when social organization was not highly developed, it may become a menace when social rather than individual efficiency is the necessary prerequisite of progress.6

Then and Now

Whether liberal ideas are called “liberal” or “progressive” or even “populist,” they are always pretty much the same: Only government can do good things, and government must get bigger and more powerful in order to more good. The only real difference between the progressives of today and the Progressives of a hundred years ago is that those original progressives were more candid about their agenda.

1Davidson, Gienapp, Heyrman, Lytle, and Stoff; Nation of Nations, p. 640
2Boydston, Cullather, Lewis, McGerr, and Oakes; Making a Nation, 2004 edition
3Davidson, Gienapp, Heyrman, Lytle, and Stoff; Nation of Nations
4American Progressivism: A Reader, edited by Pestritto and Atto, 2008 paperback, p. 48
5Ibid., pp. 55-56
6Ibid.

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