In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the progressives created numerous agencies in the executive branch of government that were supposed to bring more rationality, efficiency, and order to American society. They were to be run by scientific experts who would oversee a civil service bureaucracy that would govern objectivity as they made decisions free of politics and partisanship.
The Treasury is not simply executing its task of printing money for legal tender and updating its design to thwart counterfeiters. It is pursuing an ideological agenda outside of its authority.
The cliché that America is a “nation of immigrants” is true as successive waves of immigrants throughout its history came to this country for its freedoms and opportunity. The Statue of Liberty symbolically welcomes immigrants to America. Over the past 150 years, American immigration policy has alternated between restriction and liberalization. But, whatever vacillating nature of immigration laws, the unifying core was that constitutionalism generally guided the process of laws regarding immigration.
On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and killed 2,500 American servicemen. Japan’s ally, Germany, followed up the attack by declaring war on the United States. Just after noon on the following day President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the shocked members of Congress and told them that the sneak attack was a “date which will live in infamy.” The Congress declared war on Japan by an 82-0 vote in the Senate and nearly unanimous vote of 388-1 in the House. When Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States, Congress responded in kind on December 10. World War II became the last war in which the United States declared war against a foe.
John F. Kennedy, “Commencement Address at Yale University”
Throughout the twentieth century, one of the most fundamental tenets of progressive ideology was what many historians called the “gospel of efficiency” that found salvation in scientific rather than republican government. Progressives believed that democratic, partisan politics based upon representative government was often corrupt but always too messy. The people were too uninformed, the Progressives believed, and political compromise did not always result in the “best solutions.”
The Progressives thought that they had a much better alternative. They believed that if policymaking were removed from the hands of the sovereign people and their representatives and placed in the hands of the academic experts in executive agencies, then scientific government could rationalize all areas of American life to bring order and efficiency out of democratic chaos. The gospel of efficiency became indisputable truth and worshipped as a creed by those who simply knew better than ordinary people.
The result of this for progressive liberals has been to believe arrogantly that they are acting scientifically and rationally while conservatives rest their arguments on platitudes and slogans. This was recently seen in the debate over gun control in the wake of several tragic mass shootings. The supporters of increased gun control described their reforms as “reasonable,” “common sense,” or “moderate,” implying that anyone who opposed them were irrational extremists. Progressives after all were academic experts – they simply knew better than everyone else, who should simply passively accept the policies handed down to them.
President John F. Kennedy clearly expressed his belief in the kind of progressive ideals described above. His 1962 Commencement Address at Yale University reads like a Progressive manifesto on the superiority of progressive over consensual government.
After some amusing digs at Yale from a Harvard Man, Kennedy tells the graduates that the central domestic issues of his administration were not based upon “basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals – to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues.” Kennedy explains some of the hidden meaning behind his statement. The Republicans and conservatives, though without naming them, rest their arguments on “myths,” “clichés,” “repetition of stale phrases,” “illusions,” and “platitudes.” Instead, Kennedy offers a post-partisan, progressive solution. “We need not partisan wrangling, but common concentration on common problems,” he explains to his audience. If the Republicans would simply accepted Kennedy’s ideas about government, then there wouldn’t be a problem.
He uses the occasion to shatter three prevailing illusions that “prevent effective action.” The first myth is that government is too large and that government is bad. He seeks to demolish this myth with the argument that the size of the government bureaucracy and federal debt had grown less rapidly than the size of the economy and any other sector of national life. Moreover, he argues that the large size of government “can bring benefits.” For example, even though he proudly states that three out of every four dollars for medical and scientific research comes from the federal government, “American scientists remain second to none in their independence and in their individualism.”
The second myth is that the growing federal debt is a problem. As proof, Kennedy states that although the debt was growing, it was decreasing as per capita and relative to Gross National Product. Additionally, he maintains that the public debt is increasing at a slower pace than private debt or the debt of state governments. If Kennedy can be forgiven for not guessing that our debt would reach a staggering seventeen trillion dollars, he might have foreseen that his support of a much larger government with almost limitless responsibility might contribute mightily to an unsustainable federal debt.
The third myth that Kennedy debunks is that business lacked confidence in his administration leading to stagnation. The president argues instead that confidence is rooted upon institutions – business, labor, and government – all fulfilling their obvious “obligations to the public.” The “solid ground of mutual confidence is the necessary partnership of government with all of the sectors of our society in the steady quest for economic progress.” The national administrative state run by experts necessarily reaches into every aspect of American life to usher in a perfect society not just for the United States but the world. Indeed, he continues, arguing that, “The safety of all the world – the very future of freedom – depends as never before upon the sensible and clearheaded management of the domestic affairs of the United States.”
What is at stake, Kennedy avers, is not contending rival visions of liberals and conservatives who would debate as politicians in a republican system, but the “practical management of a modern economy” by experts who could solve “sophisticated and technical questions.” Political compromise and representative government may have been adequate in a bygone age but the modern era had more subtle challenges for which only “technical answers, not political answers, must be provided.”
Kennedy’s embrace of progressivism traced its lineage back to Woodrow Wilson and the early twentieth century. Kennedy advocates a government based upon the European model when he promotes a government by experts and an increasingly large government that manages society,. Just as Wilson admired the German model and philosophy, Kennedy thinks America should become more like Europe. “The example of Western Europe,” Kennedy explains, “shows that they are capable of solution – that governments . . . prepared to face technical problems without ideological preconceptions, can coordinate the elements of a national economy and bring about growth and prosperity.”
President John F. Kennedy sought to administer government by progressive experts rather than the people. He sought to bring efficiency and order to democratic politics and free enterprise. He sought to impose a European vision of statism on American institutions, and then promised that this was the way to protect and promote freedom. It would supposedly “demonstrate anew to the world the superior vitality and the strength of a free society.” Perhaps we are living with the illusion that one could live freely and enjoy prosperity in a managed society.
Tony Williams is the Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA, which teaches teachers American founding principles. Free downloads of its recently published 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 four books including American Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.
On June 27, 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Despite all of the success in getting Congress to pass New Deal legislation during his first administration and his excellent chances for re-election, FDR felt beleaguered. Republicans in Congress and conservatives such as Herbert Hoover and the Liberty League continued to oppose the legislation he believed would solve the economic crisis and transform America. Populist radicals such as Huey Long and Charles Townshend went even further than FDR in seeking to provide a guaranteed income for Americans and won some of his support. Read more
In 1932, the Democratic candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the privileged scion of a wealthy family who ran a campaign that was committed to the Progressive vision of American society and government from the turn of the century. In his “Commonwealth Club Address,” FDR embraced the Progressive idea that pitted the “interests” against the people. He also promised the continued growth of the administrative state managed by enlightened bureaucratic elites in the name of the people. Even more importantly, FDR maintained that the purpose of government under the social compact was to preserve rights, but he was bold enough to assert that a redefinition of rights was necessary in an industrial age. Achieving this vision would usher in a secular utopia of progress and equality. Read more
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. Read more
We’re No Longer Lockeans Now: John Dewey & the Rise of Modern Liberalism, by Tony Williams
In his 1861 “Cornerstone” speech, Vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens argued that Thomas Jefferson and the Founders really meant all humans, including blacks, were created equal in the Declaration of Independence. He just believed that they were wrong. John Dewey, in his “Liberalism and Social Action,” does much the same thing. He largely summarizes the ideas of John Locke correctly and notes his influence on the Founding. Again, much like Stephens did, he rejects those ideas, this time because of his belief in the new liberalism of the modern Progressive administrative state. Read more
1859 was an ominous year for America as civil war between the sections threatened despite the attempts to avert it. Back in 1854, Stephen Douglas had tried to quell sectionalism with the Kansas-Nebraska Act that would grant the seeming American principle of popular sovereignty regarding slavery in the territories, but Kansas became “bleeding Kansas” as a shooting war between pro and anti-slavery forces erupted after they flooded the state to institute their vision of popular sovereignty. In 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney injected the Court into the political question and tried to help prevent civil war with the Dred Scott opinion, Read more
In his “House Divided” speech, Abraham Lincoln contested the “popular sovereignty” doctrine of Stephen Douglas by stating “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” His opponent for the Illinois senate seat, Douglas, nicknamed the “Little Giant,” answered Lincoln’s charges a few weeks later in a speech in Chicago. Douglas adamantly defended the principle of popular sovereignty and revealed his understanding of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination for the vacant U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. His opponent in the election would be Stephen Douglas. Upon his nomination, Lincoln delivered the “House Divided” speech in the war of words of what would culminate in the Lincoln-Douglas debates later that year. Read more
“Conscience is the Most Sacred of Property”: James Madison’s Essay on Property
by Tony Williams
On January 24, 1774, James Madison wrote to a college friend praising the Boston Tea Party, which had occurred only weeks before. He praised the Boston patriots for their boldness in “defending liberty and property.” Equating political and civil liberty, he warned that if the Church of England had established itself as the official religion of all the colonies, then “slavery and subjection might and would have been gradually insinuated among us.” Read more
On January 1, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson received a thirteen-foot mammoth cheese weighing some 1,200 pounds. It was delivered by dissenting Baptist minister and long-time advocate of religious liberty, Reverend John Leland, who then preached a sermon to the president and members of Congress at the Capitol two days later. Jefferson took the opportunity to compose a letter to the Danbury Baptists on the relationship between government and religion that would shape the course of twentieth-century jurisprudence. Read more
When Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were creating the University of Virginia, they decided that the three American documents that would best illuminate the meaning of the Constitution when teaching future statesmen were the Declaration of Independence (along with the ideas of John Locke and Algernon Sidney), George Washington’s Farewell Address, and the Federalist.
Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence expressed the universal principle that all men were endowed by a Creator with natural, unalienable rights. Influenced by the ideas of John Locke’s social compact theory, the purpose of government was to protect those natural rights.
If any government became tyrannical, or destructive of the ends for which it was created, the people had a right to overthrow that government and to institute a government that would protect their rights. Read more
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics & American Republican Government
After George Washington was sworn-in as the first president of the new American republic on April 30, 1789, he delivered his First Inaugural Address to the people’s representatives in Congress. He started the speech with his characteristic humility, stating that although he wished to retire to Mount Vernon and did not have the requisite skill to govern a country, he was nevertheless answering the call of his country. The address struck a distinctly Aristotelian chord in Washington’s wishes for his country.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, describes his understanding of the basic nature of man. Humans are rational creatures, he maintains, and must use that reason to exercise self-restraint over their passions. That same rationality allows humans to be ethical, Read more