At the 1896 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, a former Congressman from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan, gave a stirring oration in favor of the party’s “pro-silver” political platform. Filled with passion and a near-revolutionary fire, the speech concluded with a warning to those who wanted the United States to maintain a gold standard for the dollar, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Bryan underscored this patently religious analogy by posing at its conclusion with his arms outstretched like someone nailed to a cross. The convention erupted in pandemonium. The ecstatic reaction of the delegates resulted in the “Boy Orator of the Platte River” receiving the party’s nomination for president of the United States at age 36, the youngest major party nominee ever. He became the Democrats’ presidential standard bearer twice more, in 1900 and 1908, again the only major party nominee to do so. He lost each time.
In addition to the Democratic Party nomination, Bryan received that of the more radical, mostly rural-based Populist Party, which favored federal government intervention in the economy. The Populists split after the 1896 election, with most supporters voting for Democrats, while others, typically urban workers, drifted to the Socialist Party. Although historians have long debated the direct influence of the Populist Party on the Progressive movement of the turn of the 20th century, there are clearly identifiable connections between them in regards to economic and political reforms. One difference, however, is in their class identification. The Populist movement was working class and agrarian. The Progressive reformers were upper-middle class urbanites, many from the Midwest. Related to that difference was the greater support for Progressivism among intellectuals and “scribblers,” which produced a more coherent political program and a stronger ideological framework. Ultimately, this produced far greater political success for the Progressive agenda—and more lasting repercussions.
As that passage from the “Cross of Gold” speech suggests, Bryan had a strong evangelical and Calvinist bent. He had a religious conversion experience as a teenager and in his entire life remained a theological conservative who preached a social gospel. His resort to religious imagery and apocalyptic language was not uncommon among Progressives. Theodore Roosevelt could thunder to the assembled delegates at the Progressive Party convention in 1912, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord,” as his enraptured supporters marched around the hall, singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and similar spirited hymns.
Those Progressives who were more skeptical of religion nevertheless had similarly messianic visions of reform which would deliver the country from its ills and lead to the Promised Land. The forces for change would be a democratized political structure invigorated by mass participation; a concerted program to attack the root causes of societal dysfunctions, from poverty to alcohol, narcotics, gambling, and prostitution; laws to prevent exploitation of the large urban working class; and, most fundamental, a rational system of policy-making controlled by a strong executive and a stable bureaucracy of technological and scientific experts. As presidential nominee Woodrow Wilson announced in his campaign platform in 1912, “This is nothing short of a new social age, a new era of human relationships, a new stage-setting for the drama of life.” Certainly nothing picayune or transitory about that!
The first of those goals was accomplished over time with the popular election of Senators through the 17th Amendment, and through the adoption by many states of the initiative and referendum process, primary elections for nominations for public office, more expanded “home rule” for localities, and non-partisan elections for local offices. Further, the half of American women excluded from the franchise received it through the 19th Amendment, adopted in 1920. On the other hand, by the late 1920s, the Progressives’ nativism eliminated the previous practice in a number of states of letting non-citizen immigrants vote.
The second came in the form of state laws against vice. Lotteries became illegal. Prostitution, which was ubiquitous at the turn of the 20th century typically in the form of brothels, was already against the law; those laws began to be enforced more vigorously. Another of America’s periodic movements to ban alcohol got under way. Because state laws often proved unable to control interstate markets of vice made possible through easier modes of transportation, the federal government became involved. Narcotics were regulated through taxation under the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. The interstate transportation of lottery tickets was prohibited in 1895 through a federal law upheld by the Supreme Court in Champion v. Ames in 1903. The Mann Act, or White Slave Traffic Act of 1910, prohibited taking a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. That law was upheld by the Supreme Court in Hoke v. United States in 1913 and extended to non-prostitution private dalliances in Caminetti v. United States in 1917. After 27 states declared themselves “dry,” and others adopted “local options” to prohibit alcohol, temperance groups, especially those connected to upper-middle class women’s organizations, succeeded in having the 18th Amendment adopted in 1919. That national ban on production, sale, and transportation of alcohol for drinking was quickly followed by enabling legislation, the Volstead Act, that same year.
The third area of social reform was advanced through the adoption of maximum hour laws, minimum wage laws, unionization protections, and anti-child labor laws around the turn of the 20th century. Some such efforts, especially by Congress, initially came a cropper before the Supreme Court as violations of the United States Constitution. They fared better during the next wave of Progressivism under President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.
The fourth, a government and society directed by an unelected technocratic elite of policy-making experts, lay at the heart of the Progressive movement. It proved to be a long-term project. To understand the “Progressive mindset” requires a closer examination of two men, Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly. There were other influential intellectuals, such as Walter Lippmann (who wrote A Preface to Politics in 1913, among many other works) and Brooks Adams (who was a grandson of President John Quincy Adams and wrote A Theory of Social Revolution that same year), but Wilson and Croly were renowned.
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was dour, humorless, and convinced of the fallen nature of all but the elect few. For human progress to flourish, he postulated the need for strong leaders with proper principles who would provide the discipline and vision for the moral guidance of the weak at home and abroad. Calvinist in appearance, outlook, and family background (his father and grandfather having been Presbyterian ministers), he embodied the caricature of a Puritan divine. Those traits also made him a perfect Progressive.
Before becoming president of the United States, Wilson was a professor at Princeton University, later becoming its president. He also was elected governor of New Jersey. During his academic tenure, he wrote several influential books which set forth his criticisms of American constitutional structure. His proposed solutions cemented his bona fides as a Progressive.
Wilson was strongly influenced by 19th century German intellectual thought, especially Hegel’s views of the State as the evolutionary path of an Idea through history, and by contemporary adaptations of Darwinian theories to social science. Indeed, so enamored was Wilson of German philosophy and university research that his wife, Ellen, learned the language just to translate German works of political science for him.
Wilson enthusiastically embraced the nascent ideology of the State. He characterized that entity as organic and contrasted it with what he described as the mechanical nature of the Constitution with its structure of interacting and counterbalancing parts. As he wrote in Constitutional Government in 1908, “The trouble with [the Framers’ approach] is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.”
The “organic” State tied to the people in some mystical union must not be shackled by a fusty piece of parchment with its artifice of checks and balances. An entirely new constitutional order must be created that reflects the inevitable ascendancy of the State in human affairs. If that was not a realistic option due to reactionary political forces or sentimental popular attachments, the parchment must be broadly amended. During Wilson’s first presidential term, constitutional amendments to authorize a federal income tax and to elect Senators by popular vote were approved.
Beyond formal amendment of the Constitution, the various components of the government had to be marshaled into the service of Progressivism. Thus, Congress must pass far-reaching laws that increase state power at the expense of laissez-faire individualism. The result was a series of federal regulatory laws in union-management affairs, antitrust, child labor, tax, and—through the creation of the Federal Reserve system—banking. That activism was replicated in many states. The era of big government had arrived.
As usual, the Supreme Court took longer. Though the Court upheld various particulars of Progressive legislation, the organic theory of the state was not embodied forthrightly in its decisions until the later New Deal years and the post-Second World War emergence of the “Living Constitution” jurisprudence. Adherents to the Progressive deification of the State, then and now, have sought to remake judicial doctrine by untethering it from formal constitutional structure in favor of ideological dogma. Their efforts have focused on an expansive interpretation of Congressional powers, disregard of the prohibition against excessive delegation of power to bureaucracies, and a transformation of the Equal Protection Clause into a contrivance for “positive” equality. On that last point, success has been slow in coming. But since every political entity necessarily has a constitution, for Progressives it is beyond cavil that their “organic state” requires a progressive living constitution, one that prioritizes social justice and secures equality of condition. Exempting, perhaps, the governing elite.
That left the Presidency. Wilson’s early work, Congressional Government from 1885, reflected his contempt for American separation of powers and urged constitutional change to a parliamentary-style system with centralized power and an expanded federal bureaucracy. He dismissed the president as a mere “clerk of the Congress.” Over the next two decades, his perceptions about the Presidency changed significantly. Wilson regarded the administrations of Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt as exemplary. His last major work, Constitutional Government, published in 1908, focused on the Presidency as the engine for change.
Wilson’s eventual views of the Presidency were thoroughly 20th century. He treated the formal constitutional powers of the office as minor matters and regarded its occupant as increasingly burdened by obligations as party leader and as executor of the laws and administrator of Congressional policies. That burden had become impossible for a single man, a refrain frequently heard before and since. This fact of political life would only become more pressing with the inevitable—and welcome—evolution to a more powerful and controlling State.
Therefore, a president will and must leave the performance of those duties increasingly in the hands of subordinates. The appointment of trusted officials was more important than the selection of wise men of different opinion to give him counsel, as George Washington did, or of leaders of prominent factions within the party coalition, as was the practice of, among others, Abraham Lincoln. Instead, as Wilson wrote, presidents must become “directors of affairs and leaders of the nation,—men of counsel and of the sort of action that makes for enlightenment.”
Theodore Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit” construct of the Presidency was the new model. The traditional chief executive dealt with the congressional chieftains to influence policy as it emerged within those chambers in response to the broadly-felt needs of the times. Instead, the modern president would bypass the ordinary channels of political power and appeal to the public to shape policy to his creative vision. Wilson wrote, “The President is at liberty, both in law and in conscience, to be as big a man as he can. His capacity will set the limit….” This Nietzschean conception of the Presidency as a vessel for its occupants to exercise their will to power is quintessentially fascist. The focus on the charismatic and messianic leader as the ideal of government and the vehicle for progress to a utopian just society is a hallmark of American progressivism to this day and has also characterized the more virulent forms of collectivism. There are telling appellations: Il Duce Mussolini, Der Fuehrer Hitler, Vozhd Joe Stalin, El Líder Castro, and North Korea’s Kims (Great Leader, Dear Leader, and Respected Leader). All convey the same meaning. Personality cults inevitably accompany Progressive-style leaders.
Wilson’s descriptions of the Presidency and the reality of political practice had a core of truth, lest his prescriptions not be plausible. To get to those prescriptions, however, he set ablaze many constitutional straw men. Though he paid lip service to the Constitution’s framers’ sagacity, he understated their practical appreciation of the office. Alexander Hamilton wrote several Federalist Papers that extolled the need for energy and accountability in the Presidency which he argued were furthered by the Constitution’s structure of the unitary executive. Through his Pacificus Letters, Hamilton became the foundational advocate of a theory of broad implied executive authority on which later presidents relied, including Wilson’s model, Theodore Roosevelt. George Washington shaped the contours of the Executive Branch by his actions within the purposely ambiguous contours of presidential powers under the Constitution. There were serious debates in the Washington administration about the nature of the president’s cabinet and the constitutional relationship between the president and the officers, debates that were generally resolved in favor of presidential control over those officers.
Wilson decried what he saw as a lack of accountability in the Constitution’s formal separation of powers. Yet it was his system where the president is “above the fray,” while little-known and uncontrolled subordinates carry out all manner of critical policies without, allegedly, his awareness. Events over the past two years have amply demonstrated the flaws of rule by credentialed, but unaccountable “experts” at all levels of government. Their decrees, too often based on misunderstood or even fabricated “evidence” and produced in a closed culture implacably hostile to dissent, affected Americans in profound economic, psychological, and social ways. Long-cherished individual rights were brushed aside, selectively, by this pretended clerisy through appeals to the greater health of the society and the common good, appeals which were frequently shown not to affect the behavior of the elite elect. All the while, politicians sought to deflect responsibility onto those bureaucrats.
Herbert Croly was perhaps the most important intellectual of Progressivism, next to Wilson. That seems odd, given the tortuous language and convoluted emotive passages that characterize his work. The Promise of American Life, published in 1909, is Croly’s most significant contribution to public debate, one that supposedly so influenced Theodore Roosevelt it is said to have been the catalyst for Roosevelt’s return to politics as a third-party “Bull Moose” presidential candidate in the 1912 election. Whereas Wilson dealt with constitutional structure and politics, Croly focused on political economy.
In Promise, Croly described himself and his vision as Hamiltonian. But it painted as “Hamiltonian” something that Alexander Hamilton would have foresworn. Croly argued for organization of the economy through coordination among large nationalized corporations, powerful and exclusive labor unions, and a strong and activist central government. This was the classic corporatist model of “rationalizing” the economy. It embraced the essence of fascist political economy and, with some tinkering, of socialist and Progressive systems. Whereas Hamilton proposed to use government incentives to unleash the entrepreneurial and inventive spirit of Americans to create wealth which ultimately would benefit all, Croly wanted the national government to throttle such entrepreneurial opportunity in favor of large entities, enhance the powers of the few, and use public policy to legislate a welfare state for the poor. However, haphazard social welfare legislation would be inadequate. As noted, the program had to be comprehensive of the whole of society. Independent small businesses, as elements within traditional American republicanism, were the bane of Progressive true believers in mass organization. Theirs would be a coalition of the wealthy few, an administrative elite, the working class, and the mass of poor against the broad middle.
Another book, Progressive Democracy from 1914, extended Croly’s Progressive canon. It rested on the usual Progressive premises, such as the omnipotent, all-caring, and morally perfect Hegelian God-state that would be the inevitable evolutionary end of Progressive politics. It posited the notion—so common in Progressive and other leftist theory—of stages of human social and political development that have been left behind and whose outdated institutions are an impediment to ultimate progress. Hence, Croly insisted, the Constitution’s structure of representative government and separation and division of powers needed to be, and would be, changed. Unlike the societal realities of the late 18th century which had produced American republicanism in the form of representative government within a federal structure, “In the twentieth century, however, these practical conditions of political association have again changed, and have changed in a manner which enables the mass of the people to assume some immediate control of their political destinies.”
The new political mechanism was direct democracy, the most authentic expression of popular will. It was beloved of leftists of all stripes. At least in theory. However, Croly considered reforms such as the initiative, referendum, primaries, and popular election of Senators to be misdirected and inauthentic if they were used only to restrict government power and to correct government abuses. As such, they were still shackled by old conceptions about the primacy of individual rights and by the suspicion of powerful government that had characterized the earlier period of Jeffersonian republicanism. “If the active political responsibilities which it [direct democracy] grants to the electorate are redeemed in the negative and suspicious spirit which characterized the attitude of the American democracy towards its official organization during its long and barren alliance with legalism [the Constitution as a formal system of checks and balances that controls the actions of the political majority], direct democracy will merely become a source of additional confusion and disorganization.”
There were, then, bad and good direct democracy. The good form was one that produced the proper, Progressive social policy, and accepted the dominance of powerful state organs which could accomplish that policy: “Direct democracy…has little meaning except in a community which is resolutely pursuing a vigorous social program. It must become one of a group of political institutions, whose object is fundamentally to invigorate and socialize the action of American public opinion.” Note some key words: A political system must be measured by “meaning,” such as the quintessentially Progressive “Politics of Meaning,” long associated with manifestos of the American Left. “Vigor” and “action,” two words that were markers of Progressive ideology and rhetoric at the personal, as well as the political, level. Wilson, the two Roosevelts, and John and Robert Kennedy strove mightily to present themselves as embodying those very characteristics, often to hide physical limitations. Finally, “social” or “socialize,” as the antidote to the traditional American insistence on the rights of individuals that were derived from sources outside the State and which trumped the demands of the collective.
In that “good” form, popular participation was, in effect, a thermometer to measure the temperature of the public’s support for an activist political program. Croly advised, “A negative individualistic social policy implies a weak and irresponsible government. A positive comprehensive social policy implies a strong, efficient and responsible government….A social policy is concerned in the most intimate and comprehensive way with the lives of the people. In order to be successful, it must rest on the basis of abundant and cordial popular support.” Instead of a structure constrained by the text and the received traditions of fundamental law, government would be limited only by vague measures of its policies’ popularity.
Despite Croly’s perfunctory disclaimer, popular participation was to be little more than a plebiscite on actions to be taken by a legislature otherwise unrestrained by the formal structures of the “Law.” “The government must have the power to determine the Law instead of being circumscribed by the Law,” he wrote in Progressive Democracy. As Croly—and Wilson— recognized, legislatures would not be up to the task of supervising such an increasingly intrusive paternalistic State. Hence, a powerful administrative apparatus was required. That signature component of the modern regulatory state—the vast, unelected bureaucracy—was necessarily beyond the control of the people. True, it might be a dictatorship of the technocratic elite, but it would be a benevolent one, we are assured, always loyally and selflessly laboring for our weal.
But like H.G. Wells’ society of Eloi and Morlocks in The Time Machine, the Progressive state was not as benign as its propagandists depicted it on the surface. The Progressives had a strong Darwinian bent. If Woodrow Wilson identified the State as an organism governed by the biological laws of Darwin, those laws raised some uncomfortable topics. Evolution and change are the constants of such a system; evolution requires adaptation to change. But in the State, unlike nature, adaptation could not be left to chance but must be directed rationally. Where survival of the fittest was the rule, only the fittest could rule. That the government was not under more direct control of the people was due to what Croly euphemistically described as the small size of the fund of social reason.
In view of that scarcity of social reason, Croly explained, “[the] work of extracting the stores of reason from the bosom of society must be subordinated to the more fundamental object of augmenting the supply of social reason and improving its distribution.” This was a task critical to the success of government unconstrained by the old Constitutional structures. “The electorate must be required as the result of its own actual experience and unavoidable responsibilities to develop those very qualities of intelligence, character, faith and sympathy which are necessary for the success of the democratic experiment.”
While Croly proposed that education would provide the means of human progress and the nurturing of social reason among the mass of people, there were those who were unfit for such efforts. Croly, like Woodrow Wilson and unlike William Jennings Bryan, believed in the need for state regulation of marriage and reproduction to combat crime and insanity and to promote the propagation of the truly fittest. When he was governor of New Jersey, Wilson signed a law of just such tenor that targeted various “defectives” for sterilization. Therein is mirrored one of the traits commonly attributed to the progressive intellectual. He professes to idolize humanity and the principle of popular government, but he despises humans and distrusts individual autonomy and political choice.
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.