This lecture comes in three parts. First, a bit of general scene setting about the peculiarity of the current debate over Progressivism; second, a look at a few case studies of individual figures--my "Eminent Progressives" of the title--for what they can tell us about some of the current aspects of Progressivism that are on our mind, and third, some reflection on the ways in which nearly everyone has overlooked the role of conservative thought in preparing the way for Progressivism and how it has contribute to our current confusion and controversy about the topic.
The recent and intense interest in Progressivism is a curious thing. On the surface, it makes perfect sense that people of the left, having seen the venerable term "liberal" discredited by its own mistakes and lustily demonized by conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s, would embrace a term that at once harkens back to an age of bipartisan reform, and employs willy-nilly a Lakovian turn toward positive language, for who, except for cranks like Glenn Beck and Jonah Goldberg and James Bowman, could possibly be against Progress?
Of course, no one is really fooled by this ruse, which comes to first sight as a way for contemporary liberals to reboot a disfavored franchise, sort of the New Deal and Great Society as re-envisioned by J.J. Abrams or the Coen Brothers. Out of necessity both right and left have therefore trained their sights on the Progressive Era, which turns out to be largely new territory for both. Modern conservatives directed their ire for two generations on the New Deal as the vortex of all that they despise, largely overlooking the subtle and profound transformations that trace to the Progressive Era that made the New Deal possible. But the lengthening shadow of the modern administrative state has made more conservatives recognize that any serious program of restoring the Founders' vision of limited government requires fighting our way back through Progressivism. Hence, "Founders' Friday" on the Glenn Beck show, where the clash between the Founders' views and the Progressive repudiation of the Founding are dilated, though in perhaps a less than fully Socratic fashion. Still, who could have imagined such a thing, even on Fox News?
Modern liberals, meanwhile, have hitherto seemed mired in the 1960s, as if stuck in suspended animation between the Port Huron Statement and the 1972 Democratic Platform, and, with a few abstruse exceptions such as Richard Rorty, largely uninterested in their intellectual patrimony. Who on the left over the last 40 years has devoted much time or attention to arguing the current relevance or usefulness of Herbert Croly, or even John Dewey, in the same fashion conservatives divine contemporary applications from old books by their favorite dead white males. This too has changed, as thinkers on the left, especially Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin at the Center for American Progress, have begun reviving the core of Progressive thought and thinkers of a hundred years ago. To which I say--game on!
And yet from another point of view, the revival of the Progressive Era has to rank as one of the great surprises of our time. Academic and intellectual historians have consigned Progressivism to the lost and found department of American historiography for the last 40 years. Unlike the New Deal, or the New Left in the 1960s--whose basic character is not a matter of controversy or uncertainty--Progressivism is a murky affair, full of contradiction and confusion. Everyone agrees broadly what the New Deal was, and what it did. Ditto for the 1960s. There is no such agreement about Progressivism and the Progressive Era.
The current interest in Progressivism has more paradoxes than a G.K. Chesterton novel. We might call it: The Movement That Was Last Thursday. This turns out to have been true even at the time. A representative work such as Benjamin Parke DeWitt's 1915 book The Progressive Movement acknowledged that Progressivism was "an umbrella term, an historical shorthand . . . a many-sided affair." By mid-century, liberals of the so-called "consensus school"--think of Louis Hartz and Richard Hofstadter especially--rendered Progressivism and its Era as a coherent reform movement, another key milestone in the long story of the American liberal tradition. But by the 1970s this view had come to be seen as an aberration, as American historiography adopted as its central axiom that Hofstadter was wrong about everything--what's the question? For example, we have John Braeman, author of a 1971 biography of Albert Beveridge, who wrote: "[R]esearch and reflection have convinced me that there is no such thing as 'a typical progressive'--no such thing, in fact, as a 'progressive movement' with a coherent program and ideology. . . Today we have to discard the very notion of a movement in the sense of a unified entity." Again, would anyone say that "there is no such thing as a 'typical New Dealer'" or a "typical Great Society liberal"?
Historian Daniel T. Rodgers noted in a notorious 1982 journal article:
Progressivism shuffled through the 1970s as a corpse that would not lie down. Few historians seriously tried to get along without the term "progressivism" or "progressive movement." For every historian who . . . declared outright that the covering term "progressivism" cannot withstand rigorous definition," there were others ready to try their hand at the task. But it was impossible to miss the mounting undertone of apology behind the efforts at definition, the increasingly elaborate qualifications attached to lists of shared "progressive" goals and values, the occasional candid admission that the conflicting interpretations of progressivism could not be made to add up, and the suggestions that the traditional questions had been played out, if not in some way misconceived.
Some of the more recent history simply turns everything we thought we knew about Progressivism on its head. Eldon Eisenach, one of the more interesting current academic writers on Progressivism, argues that there was a coherent Progressive ideology, but that the 1912 election of Woodrow Wilson--everyone's beau ideal of a Progressive figure--was actually a massive defeat for Progressivism. No one tell Glenn Beck, or Eisenach is going to end up as a chalk outline next to Wilson and Van Jones on the next Progressive Conspiracy update segment.
But Eisenach is the outlier; most academic historians have simply given up, and followed the lead of Peter Filene, who wrote "An Obituary for the Progressive Movement" in the American Quarterly: "'The Progressive movement never existed," Filene wrote, adding that "Salvage efforts should be resolutely resisted." Take note, Center for American Progress!
Now, it is tempting to blow by these and other dismissals of the gauzy character of Progressivism on account of the poverty of an academic historiography that can't see Pinchot's forest for the endangered trees any more on any subject, but that would be too easy. Yet, just how do we get Progressivism out of Filene's Basement, and bring into sharper focus some of the vexing issues it raises for today?
One way is to borrow a technique from the time itself, in this case, Lytton Strachey's famous debunkerific character sketches in Eminent Victorians. As Strachey wrote in the introduction:
It is not by the direct method of a scrupulous narration that the explorer of the past can hope to depict a singular epoch. If he is wise, he will adopt a subtler strategy. He will attack his subject in unexpected places; he will fall upon the flank, or the rear; he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity.
There are any number of figures one might select for scrutiny. Among economists, Richard T. Ely or Henry Carter Adams; among historians, Charles Beard or J. Allen Smith; among political essayists and philosophers one has too many to choose from, such as Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, John Burgess, Charles Merriam, Charles Warren, and especially John Dewey. Among literary figures: Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and William Allen White. Among political figures the obvious names--TR, Wilson, and Robert LaFollette--should be skipped in favor of second-tier figures who may be more useful in asking questions afresh.
Tonight I'll pick on just two pairs, for what they can tell us about two key questions: First, in what ways is today's Progressivism unlike or discontinuous with the Progressivism of the Era? For this, I'll spend a very few minutes with two key legal figures, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Louis Brandeis.
Second, how to explain the dog that did not bark in the Progressive Era, that is, why was there little or no significant conservative intellectual opposition to Progressive thought, and what might be called "the Progressive Turn" in American political life? Why didn't Dewey and Croly and Lippmann attract serious critical engagement? The more this question is probed, the more we begin to see clear parallels with today, where the conservative critique of Progressivism is sometimes as inchoate or contradictory as Progressivism itself.
For this we need to look for some clues in the right wing of Progressivism--for there was a right wing to it, represented by certain key Republicans. The two most interesting figures in my reckoning are Elihu Root and Albert J. Beveridge.
Root, the distinguished corporate lawyer, Nobel Prize winner, one-term senator from New York, and secretary of war and secretary of state, is one of the only prominent political figures of the time to express thoughtful opposition to many aspects of the Progressive agenda, even though he agreed with many key Progressive premises. He conspicuously broke with Roosevelt in 1912 over TR's Progressive Party run, and especially over the issue of "popular reversal" of court decisions. In the Senate and elsewhere Root offered strong critiques of the enthusiasms for the initiative, referendum, and recall--methods which Root described as "rehabilitating one of the most impracticable of Rousseau's theories."
While Root supported the 16th Amendment that created the income tax, he stoutly opposed the 17th Amendment that provided for direct popular election of senators. Cynics naturally attribute this opposition to his distaste for having to engage in the grubby art of populist politicking should he wish to gain a second term in the Senate in 1916, but in fact he discerned the highest and most serious ground for skepticism of direct election, namely, that it would accelerate the centralization of power in Washington, which would be bad for both Washington, and state governments. Although Root declared himself to he a firm Hamiltonian, and agreed fully that the national government needed to gain "effective control over the great developments of business activity" because the states, by themselves, could not do what needed to be done, he nonetheless foresaw the hazards of the increasingly casual disregard Progressives had for the constitutional limits on government power. In his speech upon accepting appointment to the Senate in 1909, Root told the New York legislature in Albany:
The activities of the general government are continually widening, step by step, covering ground formerly occupied by state action. . . But there are two dangers. . . One is the danger that the national Government will break down in its machinery through the burden which threatens to be cast upon it. This country is too large, its people are too numerous, its interests are too varied and its activity too great for one central government at Washington to carry the burden of governing all of the country in its local concerns. . . The other danger is the danger of breaking down the local self-government of the states. . . The tendency to vest all power in the central government in Washington is likely to produce the decadence of the powers of the states.
Root's most considered treatment of the political scene was his short 1913 tract, Experiments in Government and the Essentials of the Constitution. Here he readily joins with Progressives in noting that the rise of the modern industrial economy changes the social conditions of the nation and requires political adjustments: "In the movement of these mighty forces of organization, the individual laborer, the individual stockholder, the individual consumer, is helpless. . . It is manifest that the laws which were entirely adequate under the conditions of a century ago to secure individual and public welfare must be in many respects inadequate to accomplish the same results under all these new conditions; and our people are now engaged in the difficult but imperative duty of adapting their laws to the life of to-day."
So far Root is on the same page as any liberal Progressive you care to name. But not for long. He continues: "The process of devising and trying new laws to meet new conditions naturally leads to the question of whether we need not merely to make new laws but also to modify the principles upon which our government is based and the institutions of government designed for the application of those principles to the affairs of life. Upon this question it is of the utmost importance that we proceed with considerate wisdom."
From this point on however Root dissents sharply from the currents of Wilsonian Progressivism that see the Founding and its core principles as obsolete or superseded by modern science and philosophy. We do not need to modify our principles. Root champions the Declaration of Independence, which Woodrow Wilson said should be ignored or discarded, and discerns the limits of government as arising from nature, which could not be changed willy-nilly by the exertions of government. Indeed, Root anticipates future conservative intellectuals such as, for example, Eric Voegelin, in saying the Progressive enthusiasm to reach to human nature itself is "millenarian." Above all, he sees the positivist implications of Progressive thought for our understanding of the basis of individual rights and the legitimacy of government power: "There are but two underlying theories of man in the social relation to the state: One is the theory of the ancient republics, under which the state is the starting point from which rights are deduced, and the individual holds rights only as a member of the state. . . The other is. . . of the American Republic, that the individual has inalienable rights, of which no government may deprive him, but to secure which all governments exist." It was precisely this Lockean-Jeffersonian view that Wilson and other Progressives explicitly rejected, and you hear echoes today among some Progressive thinkers that individual rights, especially property rights, owe their existence to the State, and not to any natural right.
Here Root puts his finger squarely on what I have called the dubious achievement of American Progressivism, namely, that having worked to kill off once and for all the divine right of kings in the 18th century, American Progressivism revived it in the form of the divine right of the State, inside the shell of the Founders' institutional forms.
Above all, a key theme of all of Root's work is that self-government requires self-control on the part of citizens, in other words, what those fusty Founders occasionally called "virtue." "Popular government," Root said in a lecture at Yale in 1907, "is organized self-control."
This theme of virtue is what connects him with Albert Beveridge, who is otherwise quite different than Root. First selected to the Senate from Indiana at the age of 36, Beverage was a leading proponent of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, child labor legislation, and trade tariff reform. Unlike Root, Beveridge bolted the Republican Party to follow TR in 1912, and delivered the keynote address at the Progressive Party convention. This effectively ended his own presidential ambitions; having marked himself out as perhaps the first RINO of the 20th century, he lost senate and gubernatorial elections in Indiana, at which point he turned fully to his literary career, about which more in a moment.
Beveridge was a full-throated Progressive in most respects, even spelling "Progress" with a capital "P" in his speeches and writings, and he spoke of the new "Progressive Liberty" in much the same way Woodrow Wilson conceived of "mature freedom." Like Wilson, there is the touch of dime-store Hegelianism in his sentiments: "Progress is the large reasoning of a Higher Intelligence working through the deeds of men," he said in a 1902 speech: "and only history reveals its syllogisms." He could be said to have been a small-p-pragmatist: "We are wedded to no theory," he said in a 1902 speech.
But he was very much a "living, evolving Constitution" man. "In interpreting the Constitution," he wrote, "we are not confined to its written words. . . I respect not that constitutional charlatanism that fastens its eye on the printed page alone. . . the Constitution must steadily grow, because the requirements of the people steadily grow." And there are many other statements of this kind, including what would appear to us as boilerplate skepticism that the "intent of the Framers" is useful or necessary for contemporary inquiries.
But before we consign Beveridge as a Progressive precursor to Larry Tribe or Cass Sunstein, let us probe a little further. He also said that if the Constitution does not allow for the control of the trusts, then we should amend the Constitution.
More noteworthy was Beveridge's role in the Senate during the 1907 debate over child labor legislation. The original bill proposed regulation of child labor in the District of Columbia only, where Congress's constitutional authority was undoubted. Beveridge proposed an amendment to prohibit the products of child labor from being transported across state lines, thereby extending the reach of regulation to the states. For three days Beveridge held forth on the constitutional justification of his amendment. He laid out detailed arguments, citing both judicial and congressional precedents, concluding with the peroration:
"Some Senators seem to think that the words "delegated power" and "constitutional government" are mysterious terms by which the progress of the people and the safety of the people are imperiled. It is a curious thing to me that every "constitutional" fight that has been made in the Supreme Court against laws prohibiting something in interstate commerce has been made only when some business interest was affected by it."
Never mind the strengths and weaknesses of Beveridge's legal arguments. What is notable is that he saw that a serious constitutional argument was necessary. This contrasts rather sharply with the answer given by the last Speaker of the House when asked by an impertinent reporter about the constitutional justification for Obamacare. Whereas Beveridge held forth for three days, Speaker Pelosi held forth for all of three words: "Are you kidding?"
"From three days to three words" might well be taken as the constitutional regress of what is called Progressivism today.
The gulf between Beveridge and today's Progressives grows larger when you look at two other aspects of Beveridge's thought. He was a full-throated imperialist, and an enthusiastic American Exceptionalist--both things that cause today's Progressives to break out in hives.
Beveridge thought the U.S. should keep the Philippines, and govern it firmly (he also wanted us to keep Cuba, rather than setting it loose). And he rooted his view, so to speak, in a surprising place: the Declaration of Independence. America, he said, is "the trustee of the world's progress," and that it was our "divine mission" to lead the world to the uplit sunlands of progress. "Every progressive nation of Europe today is seeking lands to colonize and governments to administer," he said in a 1900 speech entitled "The Star of Empire." And America was the best suited to the task because it aimed to spread an empire of liberty. But spreading liberty did not necessarily mean spreading self-government. In his speech on the Senate floor defending our administration of the Philippines, Beveridge offered a close reading and careful exegesis the Declaration that anticipates AEI's own Martin Diamond:
The Declaration does not contemplate that all government must have the consent of the governed. It announces that man's "inalienable rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." [These] are the important things; "consent of the governed" is one of the means to those ends.
If "any form of government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it," says the Declaration. "Any form" includes all forms. Thus the Declaration itself recognizes other forms of government than those resting on the consent of the governed. The word "consent" itself recognizes other forms, for "consent" means the understanding of the thing to which the "consent" is given; and there are people in the world who do not understand any form of government. And the sense in which "consent" is used in the Declaration means participation in the government "consented" to. And yet these people who are not capable of "consenting" to any form of government must be governed.
And so the Declaration contemplates all forms of government which secure the fundamental rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness--self government, when that will best secure these ends, as in the case of people capable of self-government; other appropriate forms, when people are not capable of self-government.
This suggests the observation that if Beveridge were alive today, he'd unquestionably align himself with those critics such as George Will who think it folly to attempt to install democratic self-government in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other hand, today's antiwar Progressives would find no ally in Beveridge.
There is one other aspect of both Beveridge and Root that mark out their Progressive sympathies from today's--the aforementioned notice of virtue, self-control, and citizen duty. Like Root, Beveridge connected the moral energy of Progressivism with individual character. "The highest human purpose is the development of the soul of man," he said in a campaign speech in 1906. "The purpose of this Republic is to produce manhood and womanhood. After all, the whole object of civilization is character."
Quite separate from his political works, Beveridge wrote a charming tract called The Young Man and the World--a work of almost Dear Abby-style advice for ambitious up-and-comers, on everything from exercise, diet, smoking and drinking (Beveridge frowned upon both), whether to go to college and if so what kind of clubs to join or avoid, what literature to read, the status of women, how to be a good lawyer, and many more.
That is it--be a man; a great, strong, willing, kindly man--calm in the glory of a fearless heart, serene in your trust and belief in God, the Father of the world, and so sure of the justice of His providence that you go about your daily business free from those silly cares which corrode and ruin manhood itself.
Beveridge clearly held what we might call "nuanced" views of the value of higher education.
Is not our college training responsible for some of this melancholy negativeness of life? However it happens, the truth is that too few young men come out of our great universities with the greater part of the boldness of youth left in them.
You cannot dally with brilliant indirectness; you must make every man and woman understand that you are goldenly sincere, forcefully earnest, earnestly honest, high of intention, sound of purpose, direct of method.
Beveridge could also sound line a "family values" man:
No wonder that Bismarck considered the perpetuation of the German home. . . the purpose and end of all statesmanship. . . It would be far better for America if our public men were more interested in these simple, vital, elemental matters than in "great problems of statesmanship," many of which, on analysis, are found to be imaginary and suppositious.
It could hardly be better put by Calvin Coolidge. The contrast with the scope and scale of Progressivism today is obvious. The mind boggles at the thought of Cass Sunstein offering character advice to young adults, or suggesting particular paths of virtue. This is regarded by contemporary Progressives as a purely private matter, best left to Bill Bennett and his books of virtue.
There needs to be asked why this aspect of Progressive thought decayed and fell away, while certain fragments of it remain current, such as the fact that our children eat too many Twinkies. Is there not something odd about a public crusade over childhood obesity that deigns not to discuss whether that child has two parents to instruct the child's nutrition? The point is, some of the old Progressives seemed to know things, and speak about things, that today's Progressives do not.
The final aspect of Beveridge that is of keen interest is his literary career, taken up in earnest when his political career ebbed. Among his books was a copious, four-volume biography of John Marshall, that, while favorable to Marshall and harshly critical of Jefferson, had the defect of turning Marshall into a judicial nationalist if not a judicial supremacist--a politician in robes, and paving the way, perhaps not intentionally, for the expansion of legal realism. Beveridge's Marshall was enormously influential. Edward Corwin's own book on John Marshall a few years later acknowledged that Beveridge's account had superseded all others, and it is Beveridge's account of the Marbury case as a crafty, politically-driven ruling that dominates the presentation of it to law students in virtually every law school today.
This opens the window, though only a tiny crack this evening, to my second pair of eminent progressive figures: Brandeis and Holmes, for they best exemplify the intersection of social and legal thought as it unfolded in the Progressive Era and afterward. Brandeis, the Ralph Nader of his time, is of course known as being the de facto founder of public interest law and what has been called "sociological jurisprudence."
One aspect of Brandeis's general views commands special attention for consideration today: his views on the scale of modern institutions. In sharp contrast to TR, Beveridge, and others who believed in the distinction between "good" trusts and "bad" trusts, though without any coherent principle beyond the inchoate "rule of reason" to make this distinction, Brandeis thought the largeness of organizations itself threatened individual and middle class well-being. So what would Brandeis make of the scale of the national government today? And what would the author of that dubious dissent in the New State Ice case that spoke of the states as the "laboratories of democracy" make of Obamacare, with its rigid mandates on both the states and individuals? Given his views on the regulation of insurance and other sectors, and his pro-regulatory views generally, it is easy to suppose he would approve of it, but the unease which which it sits alongside his general views of bigness raise the question of whether there is any point at which the growth and reach of modern government tips the Progressive scale as Brandeis understood it.
Holmes is the much more problematic and ironic case all the way around. It is a mystery why Holmes commands so much attention and respect, when it is obvious that he could not be confirmed to the Supreme Court today. I concur with the judgment of our own Walter Berns, who wrote 40 years ago about Holmes: "No man who ever sat on the Supreme Court was less inclined and so poorly equipped to be a statesman or to teach, as a philosopher is supposed to teach, what a people needs to know in order to govern itself well."
Both left and right would find Holmes unsuitable today. He lacked "empathy," for one thing. He certainly held no sentimental brief for the Progressive movement, writing once that "As to progress of the world, I don't know what it means." He didn't think much of John Marshall, the ultimate filial impiety that explains his relative indifference as a judicial activist.
He was skeptical of social legislation, such as minimum wages and maximum hour laws. "I can see no justification in a government undertaking to rectify social desires," he wrote in a letter to Harold Laski, "except on an aristocratic assumption that you know what is good for them better than they." He goes on to tell Laski that "I equally fail to respect the passion for equality." If that wasn't enough to strike him from any list of prospective Democratic nominees, another admission would surely do him in: Holmes not only thought well of Calvin Coolidge, but was inclined to vote for him. He also delighted in the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse, which would arouse the ire of the politically correct today.
That alone would not be enough for conservatives to warm up to Holmes, who think first of his notorious opinion in Buck v. Bell, justifying state power to engage in forcible sterilization that culminated in the phrase--"three generations of imbeciles are enough"--a decision, he wrote to friends, that gave him real pleasure and pride. He wrote to Laski that he felt "I was getting near the first principle of real reform."
Analysts of Holmes have argued about whether he was a pragmatist (though he found John Dewey largely unreadable), a utilitarian, a quirky Progressive, an existentialist even, but by his own admission he was a Malthusian, who, like many at that time, openly advocated for eugenics and active population control. "I look at men through Malthus's glasses--as like flies--here swept away by a pestilence--there multiplying unduly and paying for it."
Connected to this is Holmes' well-known and frequently expressed rejection of individual rights. "All my life I have sneered at the natural rights of man--and at times I have thought that the bills of rights in Constitutions were overworked," he wrote in 1916.
It is important here to draw a distinction between Holmes' rejection of the philosophy of the American Founding and Woodrow Wilson's. Wilson, a more theoretical man, thought Lockean natural rights liberalism had been supplanted by Hegelian historicism, which still preserved some sphere of individual liberty, however attenuated and problematic. Holmes's rejection is much more fundamental. In a 1929 letter to Frederick Pollack, Holmes writes: "I see no reason for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or to a grain of sand."
Now, we know that Holmes embraced Bentham's formula that natural rights are "nonsense on stilts," but Holmes offers a better echo of the famous Social Darwinist William Graham Sumner, who wrote: "Before the tribunal of nature, a man has no more rights than a rattlesnake; he has no more right to liberty than any wild beast. . . There can be no rights against nature or against God."
That was only the beginning of Sumner's contempt for and rejection of the American Founding, which was shared in equal measure by that other paragon of Social Darwinism, Herbert Spencer. The point is, the Social Darwinists, as Eric Goldman observed, "dismissed the Declaration [of Independence] as a collection of windy generalities."
But the Social Darwinists have forever remained in our historical lore as the main "conservative" ideology of the Gilded Age, an understandable confusion, but nonetheless one that Clinton Rossiter rightly described as "the great train robbery in American intellectual history."
While Sumner and Spencer may have represented the "right wing" of social Darwinist thought, it was but a short step to the left-wing or Progressive version of the same, best seen perhaps in the work of the author of Dynamic Sociology, Lester Ward. This was the book that proposed the idea that something called "sociocracy" would replace democracy. But there was one thing in the way. Ward wrote, "[T]he new science is destined to be strongly antagonized by the growth of erroneous ideas respecting liberty. The so-called 'abstract rights' of mankind must be denied if society is ever to become the arbiter of its own destiny. . ."
From here it is but a short step to Woodrow Wilson's embrace of the idea of a "Darwinian" constitution, built on the same ground that the philosophy of the American Founding was obsolete. It is the ultimate paradox of Progressivism: the Constitution is living, but the rich philosophy that gave rise to it is dead.
Progressivism today has drawn back from Wilson's dime-store Hegelianism and Holmes's Malthusian-Darwinism. One thinks, for example, of that eminent Progressive, Joe Biden, lecturing Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas 20 years ago on the distinction between "good" natural rights and "bad" natural rights, reminiscent of TR's distinction between "good" trusts and "bad" trusts.
I think the proximate reason the Progressive rejection of the American Founding moderated is now largely overlooked: the Second World War. As we all know, the enthusiasm for Eugenics and the kind of population control Holmes celebrated in Buck v. Bell was swiftly abandoned in the face of the experience of Nazism, though without much sequential thought as to why our supposedly non-extreme versions of eugenics were now regarded as unspeakable.
Holmes died in 1935, and I've often wondered, for example, what he or Woodrow Wilson for that matter would have made of the Nuremburg Trials.
But is it a mere coincidence that post-war liberal writers such as Hartz and Schlesinger sounded a very different from pre-war liberal writers such as Vernon Parrington and J. Allen Smith.
One figure in particular straddles this divide and illustrates the point exceptionally well: Carl Becker. In his 1922 book on the Declaration of Independence, Becker expressed the historicist Progressive mind perfectly when he wrote that "To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question." Meaningless, because, for Becker, Darwin had shown us the mutability of all nature, including human nature. The faith of the founders, Becker concluded, "could not survive the harsh realities of the modern world."
And yet, when Becker reissued his book in the fall of 1941--in the shadow of the European and soon to be American war--he struck a very different note in a new introduction:
"[It] may be thought that just now, when political freedom, already lost in many countries, is everywhere threatened, the readers of books would be more than ordinarily interested in the political principles of the Declaration of Independence. Certainly recent events throughout the world have aroused an unwonted attention to the immemorial problem of human liberty."
Suddenly, the idea of liberty, taken for granted as simple and solved by Woodrow Wilson and other Progressives, has returned as an "immemorial problem" in need of foundations. To continue with Becker:
"The incredible cynicism and brutality of Adolf Hitler's ambitions, made every day more real by the servile and remorseless activities of his bleak-faced, humorless Nazi supporters, have forced men everywhere to re-appraise the validity of half-forgotten ideas, and enabled them once more to entertain convictions as to the substance of things not evident to the senses."
Today's conditions are less extreme than what Becker saw in 1941--the overheated rhetoric of events in Arizona notwithstanding--but we are still wrestling with half-forgotten ideas and half-abandoned critiques of them. I'll close very abruptly now by suggesting that Beveridge--an ambiguous eminent Progressive, as I've suggested, nonetheless had the right inclinations about all of this, when he wrote in The Young Man and the World:
"What! Go back to the old conditions?" says the World. "Never! Never! Progress, alone, for me!" But sometimes it means motion, not progress; for true progress might possibly be a return to old and superior methods.
Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI.