In The Federalist No. 47 James Madison asserted that “accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands…may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Indeed, the importance of the separation of powers was so widely accepted by the American public in 1788 that Madison could confidently declare it to be “the sacred maxim of free government.” Today, however, government agencies routinely make, enforce, and adjudicate legally binding rules that have the full force and effect of laws passed by Congress. Such evidence leaves no doubt that there has been a revolutionary shift in the constitutional theory guiding American politics since the time of the American Founding. But how—and why—did this revolution come to be? The answer is to be found in a broad movement known as progressivism that came to dominate both the American academy and government in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century.
Progressivism arose at the end of the nineteenth century as both an intellectual and programmatic response to the overwhelming sense of change and widespread challenges unleashed by the industrial revolution, the expansion of urban society, and the development of the United States as a modern world power. Progressivism was not a monolithic movement. Its manifestations ranged from the establishment of new disciplines in the social sciences to the theological project known as the Social Gospel movement and its influence could be felt in nearly every aspect of society from the muckraking novels of Upton Sinclair, to the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and the revisionist history of Charles Beard.
But progressives of all stripes were profoundly shaped by two revolutionary, anti-foundational concepts. First, progressives rejected outright the very idea, at the heart of the Founders’ way of thinking, of political thought and practice being guided by permanent principles. They held that there were no fixed truths—certainly no objective or unchanging standards of right to guide politics—and that all truth claims are contingent, merely personal “values” relative to other equally valid claims. A second, related concept was what was called “historicism.” As developed by the German philosopher Hegel and his students, historicism held that not only are ideas relative to each other but all ideas and their meaning (and status) are relative to their moment in time and must constantly be adapted to various historical developments. What might have been suitable for one century inevitably becomes outdated in another, making the past inferior to the present and the present but a step on the way to the future.
The combination of these two concepts—that there are no fixed truths and that all ideas change and evolve with time—led to a serious reassessment of American political thought and practice. A number of leading political thinkers came to believe that the Founders’ political science could not adequately address the emerging character of society. It was not that the principles and political science of the Founders were objectively wrong—they had been appropriate in their own time. The problem with the American Founders, these new thinkers argued, is that they did not understand and account for the lack of permanence and the constant flux and change in all things. Progressives thus did not understand themselves to be rejecting the American Founding outright, but to be correcting the Founders’ mistaken assumptions and updating their flawed handiwork to reflect the newly discovered concepts of relativism and historicism. For if all ideas change and evolve, then the American political order, both in principle and form, would have to be updated continually in order to allow and bring about historical progress.
And so it was that progressives looked for new foundational ideas and other models of governance to replace the constitutional order established in the American Founding. Progressives looked outside of the United States, in what were perceived to be more modern nations like England, France, and especially Germany, for new ideas. There they saw a new model of government that was not based on the consent of the governed but rather upon scientific governance by expert administrators. Progressives were also particularly inspired by the emerging evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. Progressives argued that the American Founders had been influenced by the Newtonian theories of their day to construct an overly rigid model of government. But Darwin, they argued, taught that society is organic and must evolve with the times. Perhaps the clearest example of what this means for American politics and political thought comes from Woodrow Wilson, whose successful campaign for president of the United States in 1912 was premised on this new concept of progress. “Some citizens of this country have never got beyond the Declaration of Independence,” the former Princeton University president argued (in a speech titled “What Is Progress?”), but that document “did not mention the questions of our day” and “is of no consequence to us” unless it can be turned into a program of government action for modern circumstances. Consider how he describes the new idea of government and its relationship to the Constitution:
All that progressives ask or desire is permission—in an era when “development,” “evolution,” is the scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine. Government must develop consistent with the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. It must grow and change in order to keep fit and survive. It must be understood as a living organism, adapting to its environment. And so too must the Constitution be understood. In the minds of the new thinkers, this “refounding” marked the end of the old order and the birth of a new republic—based on a new theory of the state, a new understanding of rights, a new concept of national community, and a new doctrine of the “living” Constitution.
The new task of government was thus to be the principle voice and instigator of change. The progressives advocated more democracy and populist reform to open up the political system and to make it more responsive—hence their support for the open primary, the initiative process, and the referendum. They also advocated the direct elections of senators, which significantly weakened federalism by making senators elected by popular vote rather than appointed by (and so responsible to) state legislatures, an arrangement that had respected states as entities in the structure of the federal government.
But Progressives also insisted that change had to be directed according to new scientific methods of politics. In order to reconcile these seemingly contradictory objectives—allowing more democratic opinion and at the same time directing and managing that change—the progressives posited a sharp distinction between popular politics and what they called “administration.” Politics would remain the realm of expressing popular opinions (hence the need for democratic reforms to better reflect those opinions), but the real decisions and details of governing would be handled by administrators, separated and immune from the influence of opinion and partisan politics.
These administrators would be in charge of running a new form of government, designed to keep up with the expanding ends of government, called “the administrative state.” Where the Founders went to great lengths to moderate democracy and limit government, the progressives believed that barriers to change had to be removed or circumvented to speed popular change and grow government. Likewise, emphasis would be placed not on a separation of powers (which divided and checked government power) but rather a combination of powers (which would concentrate and direct government power) in order to bring about reform, consistent with the popular will.
The particulars of accomplishing the broad objectives of reform—the details of regulation and many rule-making functions previously left to legislatures—were to be given over to a new class of professionals who would reside in the recesses of agencies like the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission), or OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). As “objective” and “neutral” experts, so the theory went, these administrators would act above petty partisanship and faction, making decisions mostly unseen and beyond public scrutiny to accomplish the broad objectives of policy reform.
The rise of this so-called modern administrative state has fundamentally changed the idea of self-government in America. The anti-foundational assumptions progressives established within the American tradition can be seen playing out over the course of the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries, and have become widely accepted in our society. The result of this is that America has moved far away from its original principles and constitutional design. Progressive ideas have not completely won the day and, in many important ways, those ideas have had to adapt to the realities still defined by the American political tradition. Nonetheless, progressive arguments have become dominant in our schools, in the public square, and in our politics and has significantly—perhaps even permanently—altered the very foundations of American constitutionalism.
Matthew Spalding is Associate Vice President and Dean of Education Programs for Hillsdale College in Washington, D.C.