A Study in Progressivism

Progressivism is a reform movement that began in the late 19th century during which leading intellectuals and social reforms sought to address the economic, political, and cultural questions that had been brought about by the Industrial Revolution. It was a total rejection in theory and a partial rejection in practice of the principles and policies on which America was founded.

Our Founders believed that all men are created equal with certain inalienable rights.  All are obliged to obey the natural law under which we have not only rights but duties.  We are obliged “to respect those rights in others which we value in ourselves” (Thomas Jefferson).  Our main rights were life and liberty, including the liberty to organize one’s own church, to associate at work or at home with whomever one pleases, and to use one’s talents to acquire and own property.  For our Founders, it was a natural moral order – rules discovered by human reason that promote human well-being, rules that can and must guide human life and politics.

Progressives rejected these claims as naïve and unhistorical.  In the progressive view – man was not born free.   John Dewey wrote that freedom is not “something that individuals have as a ready-made possession”  It is “something to be achieved.”   Freedom is not a gift of God – it is a product of human making, a gift of the state.  Man is a product of his own history through which he collectively creates himself.    Since humans are not naturally free, there can be no natural rights or natural law.  Dewey wrote that “natural rights and natural liberties exist only in the kingdom of mythological social zoology.”   The views of the “most enlightened” are true because they are in conformity with where history is going.

Our Founders believed that government began with the recognition that, what man is given by nature – his capacity for reason and the moral law discovered by reason – is, in the most important respect, more valuable than anything government can give him.   Civilization is indispensable for human well-being.  Government is necessary but can also be a threat to liberty.  “If man were angels, no government would be necessary.” (James Madison)  But, since men are not angels, without government, human beings would live in “a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger.”

Our Founders also believed our bodies and minds were the basis of our talents achieved by cultivating our natural gifts.  An individual’s existence and freedom are not a gift of government They are a gift of God and natureGovernment is by extension always and fundamentally in the service of the individual with the responsibility to enforce the natural law for members of the political community by securing the people’s natural rights.   Liberty that was to be secured by government was not freedom from necessity or poverty – it was freedom from the despotic and predatory domination of some human beings over others.

Progressives feel that the Founders’ scheme was defective because it relied on limited government.  The progressive goal of politics is freedom from the limits imposed by nature and necessity.  Freedom is redefined as the fulfillment of human capacities which becomes the primary task of the state.  The state has the responsibility for creating institutions under which individuals can effectively realize the potentialities that are theirs.”  (Dewey)

Creating individuals versus protecting individuals sums up the difference between Progressives’ and our Founders’ concept of government.

Our Founders taught that political society is “formed by a voluntary association of individuals governed by certain laws for the common good.” (Massachusetts Constitution of 1780).  Government was to be conducted under laws made by locally elected officials accountable through elections by those who chose them.  The people would be directly involved in governing through their participation in juries selected by lot.

Progressives treat the social compact idea with scorn.  Charles Merriam, a leading progressive political scientist wrote “The individualistic ideas of the “natural rights school of political theory, endorsed in the Revolution, are discredited and repudiated. . .The origin of the state is regarded, not as the result of a deliberate agreement among men, but as the result of historical development, instinctive rather than conscious; and rights are considered to have their source not in nature, but in law.”

Our Founders, both Christian and Jew, believed in the God of the Bible as the author of liberty and natural law by which people are guided.

Progressives redefine God as human freedom achieved through the right political organization or else reject God outright as a myth.  John Burgess, a prominent progressive political scientist wrote that the purpose of the state is the “perfection of humanity, the civilization of the world; the perfect development of the human reason, and its attainment to universal command over individualism; the apotheosis of man (man becoming God).”  Progressive CINO’s like Walter Rauschenbusch redefined Christianity as a social gospel of progress.

Our Founders believed the purpose of government was to protect the private sphere which they regarded as both the high and low, of the important the merely urgent, of God, religion, and science, as well as providing for the needs of the body.  Government had to be limited both because it was dangerous if it became too powerful and because it was not supposed to provide for the highest things in life.

Progressives  view the state as divine  and  the private sphere as a realm of selfishness and oppression.  Private property is singled out for criticism.  Some progressives openly speak of themselves as socialists.  Woodrow Wilson, in an unpublished writing, said that a society like the Founders’ that limited itself to protecting life, liberty, and property was one in which “all that government had to do was to put on a policeman’s uniform and say – Now don’t anybody hurt anybody else.”  Such a society was unable to deal with the conditions of modern times.  Wilson rejected the view that “the ideal of government was for every man to be left alone and not interfered with, except when he interfered with somebody else; and that the best government was the government that did as little governing as possible.”  Wilson thought that the Founder’s government left men at the mercy of predatory corporations and without government management the poor would be destined to indefinite victimization by the wealthy thereby previous limits on the government must be abolished.

Our Founders domestic policy concentrated on securing the persons and properties of the people against violence through tough criminal law against murder, rape, robbery, etc. and civil law to provide for the poor to have access to acquiring property by allowing the buying and selling of labor and property through voluntary contracts.  The burden of proof was on government if there was to be any limitation on the free use of that property, thus licensing and zoning were rare.  Laws regulating sexual conduct aimed at the formation of lasting marriages so that children would be born and provided for with minimal government involvement.  They tried to promote morals by laws  and educational institutions that would encourage such virtues as honesty, moderation, justice, patriotism, courage, frugality and industry.

Progressives feel it is the government’s duty to  protect the poor and victims of capitalism through redistribution of resources, anti-trust laws, government control over the details of commerce and production.  They also feel that government must become involved in the “spiritual” development of its citizens, not through the promotion of religion but through protecting the environment, education and through subsidy and promotion of the arts and cultures.

Our Founders felt that foreign and domestic policy were to serve the same end – the security of the people in their person and property.  Foreign policy was conceived primarily as defensive.  Foreign attack was to be deterred by having strong arms or repulsed by force.  Alliances were to be entered into with the understanding that a self-governing nation must keep itself aloof from the quarrels of other nations and government had no right to tax or endanger the lives of their citizens to spread democracy to other nations.

Progressives believe that a historical process was leading all mankind to freedom –  that the scientifically educated leaders of the advanced nations should not hesitate to rule the less advance nations in the interest of ultimately bringing the world into freedom.  Charles Merriam, a progressive political scientists said that The Teutonic races must civilize the politically uncivilizedThey must have  colonial policy.  Barbaric races, if incapable, may be swept away. . .”

Our Founders believed that laws should be made by a body of elected officials with roots in the local communities.

Progressives  want to sweep away what they regarded as this amateurism in politics.  Only those educated in the top universities, preferably the social sciences, were thought to be capable of governing.  Politics was too complex for common sense to cope with.   They feel that people should take power out of the hands of locally elected officials and political parties and place it into the hands of  a central government which would establish administrative agencies, run by scientifically trained experts, to translate the people’s will into concrete policies.

The roots of today’s liberalism lie in the progressive era.   In regard to science, today’s liberals have a far more ambivalent attitude than the progressives do. .   Liberalism today has become preoccupied with sex.  Sexuality activity is to be freed from all traditional restraints.   Our Founders believed that sex was something that had to be regulated because of its tie to the production and raising of children. 

Today’s liberals believe that an individual has the right to  define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life – that these concepts are a fundamental right – all barriers to one’s sexual idiosyncrasies must be eliminated  – to the detriment of families and society as a whole.

There are men regarded today as brilliant economists who deprecate savings and recommend squandering on a national scale as the way of economic salvation; and when anyone points to what the consequences of these policies will be in the long run, they reply flippantly, as might the prodigal son of a warning father:  “In the long run, we are all dead.”  And such shallow wisecracks pass as devastating epigrams and the ripest of wisdom.    Henry Hazlitt, “Economics in One Lesson”


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