Progressivism was a movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Whatever its different iterations, progressivism was rooted in the belief that the natural rights principles of the American founding were fine for an earlier age but no longer relevant in a mass, industrial society. The modern age, as the Progressives saw it, was characterized by great inequality and concentrations of wealth. The “interests” controlled the masses for their own self-interest rather than the public good.
In order to remedy social inequality and combat the interests, Progressives envisioned a stronger federal state that would regulate the use of property and wealth in the public interest rather than narrow individual self-interest. They implemented a series of reforms that created executive agencies that would fundamentally alter the relationship of the government to the people. These agencies would be part of a greatly expanded bureaucracy that would be administered by scientific experts guided by the ideals of efficiency and order. The Progressives rejected popular, consensual government of and by the people.
As the Hillsdale College Constitution Reader makes plain, the ideology of progressivism persisted throughout the twentieth century, but it reached its first high tide during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. The hallmarks of the progressive Wilson administration were the creation of the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Sixteenth Amendment that allowed a federal income tax (contrary to the Founders and the express prohibition in Article I, section 9 of the Constitution), among other reforms. Wilson also persuaded Congress to wage an idealistic, progressive war to “make the world safe for democracy.” The ideas for these reforms were laid down clearly in Wilson’s writings decades before when he was a graduate student and young professor in search of a permanent position.
In the 1880s, Woodrow Wilson was pursuing a quintessentially Progressive educational path. Attending graduate school based upon the German model, Wilson earned a Ph.D. in political science and history at Johns Hopkins University in 1886. Until he found a home at Princeton in 1890, he was a professor at Cornell, Bryn Mawr, and Wesleyan. Like any aspiring professor, he produced a number of publications. They unapologetically revealed his embrace of progressivism and a large administrative state.
Written in 1887, few of Wilson’s writings more blatantly spell out his praise of a state with virtually unlimited authority than “Socialism and Democracy.” As he states, the new question that Progressives were asking was “not whether the community has power to act as it may please in these matters, but how it can act with practical advantage — a question of policy.” The philosophical argument of limited constitutional government is swept aside by a triumphal progressivism that announces the victory of the federal state and simply decides the best reforms to pursue.
Wilson states that although some thinkers have attempted to turn the public mind against socialism, he is trying to render it not only intelligible but attractive and valid. He proudly supports the idea of unlimited government and public control. “It proposes,” Wilson argues, “that all idea of a limitation of public authority by individual rights be put out of view, and that the State consider itself bound to stop only at what is unwise or futile in its universal superintendence alike of individual and of public interests.” Could any statement more clearly illustrate how far the Progressives had come from American founding principles?
If anyone thought that Wilson was merely theoretically praising socialism, he then shockingly equated socialism with democracy on the grounds that both agree that there are no limits on government power. “It is very clear,” he writes, “that in fundamental theory socialism and democracy are almost if not quite one and the same. They both rest upon the absolute right of the community to determine its own destiny and that of its members. Men as communities are supreme over men as individuals. Limits of wisdom and convenience to the public control there may be: limits of principle there are, upon strict analysis, none.” As he states only a bit farther down in the essay: “The germinal conceptions of democracy are as free from all thought of a limitation of the public authority as are the corresponding conceptions of socialism.”
In the founding conception of American constitutional government in the Declaration of Independence, a limited government was created for the express purpose of protecting God-given rights of individuals. The great fear of the Founders was that the government would violate those rights and become tyrannical. The sovereign people then had the right of rebellion when the government broke the terms of the social compact. But, according to Wilson, “The contest is no longer between government and individuals; it is now between government and dangerous combinations.” In light of the circumstances of the modern industrial age, the government must “lay aside all timid scruple and boldly make itself an agency for social reform as well as for political control.”
If the history of American government in the twentieth century shows anything, it reveals the startling success of Wilson’s progressive view of the federal state. Only some of the proofs that the Wilsonian vision has became a reality in this century are a massive administrative state free of popular control and yet are ironically controlled by the very interests the Progressives originally sought to control, massive government taxation and spending (and debt), a government that reaches into nearly every aspect of American life, and politicians who routinely consider themselves above the law.
Read Woodrow Wilson’s “Socialism and Democracy” here: http://constitutingamerica.org/?p=4344
Tony Williams is the Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA, which teaches teachers American founding principles. Free downloads of the WJMI Guide to the Constitution are available at http://www.thefederalistpapers.org/ebooks/jefferson-and-madisons-guide-to-the-constitution He is the author of American Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.