Progressivism is the belief that America needs to move or “progress” beyond the principles of the American Founding. Organized politically more than a hundred years ago, Progressivism insists upon flexibility in political forms unbound by fixed and universal principles. Progressives hold that human nature is malleable and that society is perfectible. Affirming the inexorable, positive march of history, Progressives see the need for unelected experts who would supervise a vast administration of government.

Progressivism is rooted in the philosophy of European thinkers, most notably the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. Progressivism takes its name from a faith in “historical progress.” According to the leading lights of Progressivism, including Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Dewey, human nature has evolved beyond the limitations that the Founders identified. Far from fearing man’s capacity for evil, Progressives held that properly enlightened human beings could be entrusted with power and not abuse it.

The Progressive idea of historical progress is tied to the idea of historical contingency, which means that each period of history is guided by different and unique values that change over time. The “self-evident truths” that the Founders upheld in the Declaration of Independence, including natural rights, are no longer applicable. Circumstances, not eternal principles, ultimately dictate justice.

If human nature is improving, and fixed principles do not exist, government must be updated according to the new reality. The Constitution’s arrangement of government, based upon the separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism, only impeded effective government, according to Progressives. The limited government of the Founding is rejected in favor of a “living Constitution.” 

Thoroughly educated in these Progressive principles, Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that the task of statesmanship is to redefine our rights “in the terms of a changing and growing social order.” While the Founders thought the truths they celebrated in the Declaration of Independence were self-evident and so also timeless and unchanging, FDR argued for a new self-evident economic truth. His proposed “Economic Bill of Rights” lays out the means by which our new economic rights are to be secured, thereby achieving social equality and social justice.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society is the logical extension of Progressive political thought and FDR’s New Deal. While the Founders held that the task of good government is to secure its citizens’ natural rights, LBJ argued that government must eradicate all external constraints—legal, economic, educational, and environmental—which hamper the “spiritual fulfillment” of its citizens. While the Founders intended for the government to protect each citizen's right to pursue happiness, the extensive regulations and programs of the Great Society reached further, aiming to guarantee every citizen's full happiness.

 

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Fundamental Writings and Videos  |  Primary Sources  |  Further Reading  |  Progressivism in History

 

The Founders' Constitution and the Challenge of Progressivism

 

This lecture is  part of Hillsdale College's free, 10-part online course, Constitution 201: The Progressive Rejection of the Founding and the Rise of Bureaucratic Despotism.

 

FUNDAMENTAL WRITINGS AND VIDEOS

Constitution 201: The Progressive Rejection of the Founding and the Rise of Bureaucratic Despotism
Hillsdale College Politics Faculty  |  2012

The Progressive Rejection of the Founding
Ronald J. Pestritto  |  The U.S. Constitution: A Reader

How Did the Fourth Branch of Government Come to Be?
Ronald J. Pestritto  |  January 28, 2012

The New New Deal
Charles R. Kesler  |  May 2010  |  Imprimis

Barack Obama and the Fourth Wave of Liberalism 
Charles R. Kesler  |  September 20, 2012  |  Lecture

 

PRIMARY SOURCES

 

Liberalism and Social Action

John Dewey

As a leading Progressive scholar from the 1880s onward, John Dewey, who taught mainly at Columbia University, devoted much of his life to redefining the idea of education. His thought was influenced by German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, and central to it was a denial of objective truth and an embrace of historicism and moral relativism. As such he was critical of the American founding.

The American Conception of Liberty

Frank Goodnow

Progressive political science was based on the assumption that society could be organized in such a way that social ills would disappear. Frank Goodnow, president of Johns Hopkins University and the first president of the American Political Science Association, helped pioneer the idea that separating politics from administration was the key to progress. In this speech, given at Brown University, he addresses the need to move beyond the ideas of the Founders.

What is Progress?

Woodrow Wilson

After earning a Ph. D. in both history and political science at Johns Hopkins University, Woodrow Wilson held various academic positions, culminating in the presidency of Princeton University. Throughout this period, he came to see the Constitution as a cumbersome instrument unfit for the government of a large and vibrant nation. This speech, delivered during his successful campaign for president in 1912 and included in a collection of speeches called The New Freedom, puts forward the idea of an evolving or "living" constitution.

The Presidency: Making an Old Party Progressive

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt's ascension to the presidency in 1901, upon the assassination of William McKinely, marked the emergence of Progressivism on the national scene. From trust busting to railroad regulation, Roosevelt sought to expand federal power over a large swath of the American economy. In this excerpt from his autobiography, he offers a view of the Constitution that is compatible with his Progressive politics.

Progressive Democracy

Herbert Croly

In this book, Croly, a leading Progressive theorist and founder of The New Republic magazine, criticizes the Founders' fear of tyranny of the majority and rejects their idea that government exists to protect individual rights.

The Commonwealth Club Address

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Delivered by Franklin Roosevelt to California's Commonwealth Club during his first run for the White House, this speech was penned byAdolf Berle, a noted scholar and a member of Roosevelt's "Brain Trust" who drew upon earlier Progressive though, especially that of John Dewey.

Remarks at the University of Michigan

Lyndon B. Johnson

In this commencement address, President Lyndon B. Johnson introduces his Progressive idea of a "Great Society."

 

FURTHER READING

 

   

I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism

Charles R. Kesler

Liberal Fascism

Jonah Goldberg

Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism

Ronald J. Pestritto

 

American Progressivism: A Reader

Ronald J. Pestritto and William Atto

The American State from the Civil War to the New Deal: The Twilight of Constitutionalism and the Triumph of Progressivism

Paul Moreno

 

 

PROGRESSIVISM IN HISTORY

 

Election of 1912
1912

In 1912, former President Teddy Roosevelt, incumbent President William Howard Taft, New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, and Socialist candidate Eugene Debs campaigned in a four-party election. Roosevelt was nominated by a new “Progressive Party,” known as the “Bull Moose Party.” Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote, and Wilson won the presidency by a wide margin.

Election of 1932
1932

Following President Herbert Hoover’s failure to end the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to the White House by a landslide. Democrats also gained control of both houses of Congress.

The New Deal
1933

Franklin D. Roosevelt promised the American people a 'new deal," designed to end the Great Depression through a series of new government agencies and commissions, most of which were passed by Congress between 1933 and 1935.

New Deal Expansion
1935

Following the success of the initial New Deal legislation, Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed additional expansive legislation in his 1935 State of the Union. Over the following two years, Congress created numerous new programs, agencies, and entitlements including Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Banking Act.

FDR's Court-Packing Plan
1937

The Supreme Court’s rulings against several New Deal programs prompted Roosevelt to unveil the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937. Popularly called the “Court Packing Plan,” the bill would give the president the power to appoint an additional justice to the Supreme Court for every current justice over the age of 70. Public outcry over the attack on the separation of powers led to the bill’s defeat.

NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation
1937

This decision, famously called "the switch in time that saved nine," marked the end of the Supreme Court's opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and the growth of federal independent regulatory agencies.

 

The Great Society
1964

As president, Lyndon B. Johnson proposed a series of domestic economic programs in pursuit of creating what he called the "Great Society." It included many new agencies and entitlement programs including the War on Poverty, Medicare, and Medicaid.