Guest Essayist: Professor William Morrisey


By August 1910, Theodore Roosevelt had been out of office for a year and a half. He was unhappy with President William Howard Taft’s performance. Although Roosevelt had effectively designated Taft as his successor and continued to esteem him personally, Taft wanted no part of the rising Progressive movement in American politics. By 1910, Roosevelt did, for reasons that remain controversial.

What was Progressivism? The Progressives, who would rename themselves `liberals’ by the time of the New Deal, proposed not only a series of substantial reforms in American government and economics; they also put moral and political thought on foundation profoundly different from that of the American founders. As every reader of “Constituting America” knows, the founders embraced what the Declaration of Independence calls the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, set down by a Creator who endowed all human beings with equal and unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Governments, the Declaration goes on to say, derive their powers from the consent—the reasoned assent—of a given group of human beings, who design the form of their government with the intention of securing those natural rights. Paramount in the minds of the founders was the aim of limiting government to such powers and such tasks as secure such rights: nothing more. So, for example, although the United States Constitution of 1787 grants the federal government more powers than the Articles of Confederation of 1777 did, those powers are carefully enumerated and the government itself divided into three separate, co-equal branches, each capable of defending itself from encroachments by the others.

Progressives rejected the founders’ thought in two main ways. They replaced the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God with what they believed to be the laws of History. That is, they derived moral and political right not from an understanding of the nature of human beings; this they deemed useless because human beings, like all other things in the universe, are constantly evolving, changing. To this day, politicians who think along Progressive lines promise us “change.” They further assume that this change will be good, and this is why they call themselves Progressives; History isn’t merely evolving, they contend, it is getting better and better as it does. Human beings—no longer beings with a fixed nature—are getting better all the time. Morality and politics have a trajectory, and that trajectory goes onward and upward.

This means that government need no longer be strictly limited. If human beings have natural rights but their nature remains flawed, then a strong but limited government makes sense. But if we are progressing, if we are evolving, if we are getting better than that, then surely can begin to trust our government more. Surely government must evolve along with everything else, in order to have the power to do more good than ever before. With the new science of administration developed in Germany and France, then imported to the United States in the decades after the Civil War, government can now manage society more efficiently and justly than ever before. In America, we therefore need not only a republican or representative government but an administrative state, which will replace the old patronage system, scour out corruption, and regulate the selfish `special interests.’

By 1912, Theodore Roosevelt would split the Republican Party and run on the ticket of the Progressive Party as a full-throated advocate of these Progressive doctrines. Previously, before and during his presidency, Roosevelt had vigorously advocated reform of American government at every level (beginning with the city government in his native New York); as president he had enhanced executive power on the basis of his “stewardship” theory of the presidency. His foundational principles were, however, inconsistent. In the years 1880-1910 he can be found celebrating the Bible, nature, utility, and History, at various times and on various occasions, as the sources of moral and political right. Although his moral views themselves held steady, he seems not to have thought very hard about their basis. He was a moralist-politician indignantly opposed to the many immoralist-politicians, but he seemed not much to care where men and women took their morality from, so long as they held moral standards high.

Osawatomie, Kansas had seen a lot more trouble than even the ebullient Mr. Roosevelt wanted to cause. There, the abolitionist John Brown had fought the pro-slavery Kansans led by John Reid in 1856, two years before Roosevelt was born. Brown’s small band lost, and Reid’s men burned the town, but Brown became a hero to abolitionists.

The state of Kansas had become a battleground as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed two years earlier, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and placed the fate of slavery in the U. S. territories in the hands of voters. This led both abolitionist and pro-slavers to flood Kansas into the state, where they clashed bloodily. “Popular sovereignty” had been the cry of the foremost Northern Democrat, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, a prime mover of the Act. When Douglas faced off against former Congressman Abraham Lincoln in the senatorial campaign of 1858, Lincoln opposed the founders’ doctrine of natural right to Douglas’s doctrine of unbridled majority rule. The issue of extending slavery into the territories ignited the highly combustible moral and political materials that soon fueled civil war.

Roosevelt began his Osawatomie speech by effectually attempting to reconcile “real democracy” with the principles of the Declaration. The “Square Deal” tries to square a circle. Speaking before veterans of the Civil War, Roosevelt praised the men for having “justified the wisdom of Washington and Washington’s colleagues”: “It was you who crowned Washington’s work, as you carried to achievement the high purpose of Abraham Lincoln.” Although America had had the Declaration of Independence “in name” since 1776, “we gave the lie to our acts to the words of the Declaration of Independence until 1865” by countenancing the existence of slavery on our soil—slavery, which contradicts the core Declaration principle of equal natural rights for all human beings. In so doing, the Union troops had also prevented the vast, rich lands of North America and their enterprising people from dissolving into “a dozen little squabbling contemptible commonwealths.” Instead, we belong “to the mightiest nation upon which the sun shines. American nationalism rests not on shared blood—as it does in Europe—but in the shared moral and political principles of natural rights and republicanism. The challenge today, in 1910, is “to apply to the problems of the present precisely the qualities which in other crises enabled the men of that day to meet those crises.”

What are the problems of the present? They stem from an economic problem. Quoting Lincoln on the priority of labor to capital—capital is the result of labor done previously—Roosevelt identifies the “actual conflict which faces us today” as the decline of “equality of opportunity” for men and women to labor in such a way as to accumulate capital. This has caused a “conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess.” Those who possess more than they have earned form “the special interests” which have exercised undue influence on the government in an exercise of what a century later we call `crony capitalism.’ “We must drive the special interests out of politics” by refusing corporations legal status as persons.

In doing so, Americans can then demand of corporations a level of public disclosure of their activities that we would hesitate to demand of real persons. We should also “prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes”; supervise “the capitalization, not only of public-service corporations, including, particularly, railways, but of all corporations doing an interstate business”; and treat private industries that “control necessaries of life, such as meat, oil, or coal” as we treat public-service corporations. Because trust-busting has “substantially failed” to prevent the formation of monopolies and quasi-monopolies, the only alternative lies “in completely controlling them in the interest of the public welfare” by means of the administrative state. Accordingly, the powers of such agencies as the Federal Bureau of Corporations and the Interstate Commerce Commission “should be largely increased.” “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.”

If anything, this is even more so in the financial sector than in manufacturing and commerce, because “the really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means.” Roosevelt does not explain exactly what he means by this, but it is likely that does call for investigation of the operation of the financial markets which have caused “the people of the United States [to] suffer from periodical financial panics to a degree substantially unknown in other nations.” This must mean that he suspects a man like J. P. Morgan of deploying his vast wealth to manipulate the markets, profiting even as masses of his fellow-citizens get thrown out of work.

These new conditions of economic life, which had arisen in the decades after the war for the Union that ended slavery, require us to reconceive “the relations of property to human welfare.” By pushing “the rights of property” “too far” against “the rights of man,” capitalists impel Americans to insist that “every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.” Further, the community also has “the right to regulate the terms and conditions of labor, which is the chief element of wealth, directly in the interest of the public good,” specifically, with workman’s compensation laws, the regulation of child and women’s labor, and vocational education in the schools. And still further, “the betterment which we seek must be accomplished, I believe, mainly through the National Government” and, within that, in large measure through the executive branch acting as “the steward of the general welfare.”

The New Nationalism consists in part of just such increased centralization of government as a counter to the increased power of the special interests. As a professional organization, this government will be staffed by more efficient administrators—more efficient because professionally trained, no longer political appointees. The democratic element of the regime will be maintained by the use of direct primary elections of nominees for representative offices; such elections will weaken the power of the party bosses who are too easily controlled by the special interests. None of this will work, however, without “a genuine and permanent moral awakening” among the citizens. This awakening has already begun in the movement for reform itself; two years later, Roosevelt’s nomination by the Progressive Party was celebrated by a rousing chorus of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” by the delegates. “The prime problem of our nation is to get the right type of good citizenship, and, to get it, we must have progress, and our public men must be genuinely progressive.”

Thus by 1910 we already see many of the elements of Progressivism marching in place in the mind of Roosevelt. Increased statism and nationalism inspired by “a genuine and permanent moral awakening” all suggest that what Roosevelt calls “the long struggle for the uplift of humanity” has reached or has nearly reached a new stage of historical evolution. The Square Deal can square the circle between Lincolnian natural right and Douglasite popular sovereignty through the ever-evolving course of human events, through the ever-upward march of History, which will uphold human rights through the very vehicle the founders thought both necessary and dangerous: the modern, centralized state.

Roosevelt nonetheless declines to jettison the principles of the Declaration of Independence altogether, although he does seem on the verge of transforming natural rights into historical rights—on the verge of the shift from nature to `natural history’—a term that had become more current since Darwin. The naturalist Roosevelt had grown up in the midst of that historicist re-conception of nature, and he had begun to apply it to an effort to transform the character of the American regime. By 1912 his re-conception would be complete, the rock upon which the Republican Party would split. This enabled the Democratic Party—now also firmly committed to its own brand of Progressivism as embodied by its candidate, Woodrow Wilson—to win the first of a series of electoral victories inspired by reformist novelties, including Wilson’s New Freedom, FDR’s New Deal, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Eventually, the regime designed by the founders would find itself much diminished, and the moral basis of that regime, animated by the (once) self-evident truths of the Declaration, would be obscured.

This remains so to this day, as presidential candidates along with the citizens who must choose among them struggle to define exactly what such baggy catch-phrases as “change” and “greatness” actually ought to mean to Americans.

Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.

1 reply
  1. Barb Zakszewski
    Barb Zakszewski says:

    The dawn of progressivism… Still astonishing to read about its roots. Presidents such as Teddy R., and Wilson, started the march, over a century ago. Arrogance and power even back then. People like Obama, Clinton and others are the finishers of the Progressive movement.


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