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Did the Progressive Movement Diverge from Founding Principles and Did It Affect the Purpose of Government?

Two scholars debate this question.

Written by: (Claim A) Mark Thomas, University of Virginia; (Claim B) Joseph Postell, University of Colorado, at Colorado Springs

Suggested Sequencing

Issue on the Table

Was the Progressive movement fulfilling the purposes of the Founding and using the legitimate powers of the government to adapt to the new industrial age, or did it diverge from the Founding constitutionally and with the purposes, scale, and scope of government?


Read the two arguments in response to the question, paying close attention to the supporting evidence and reasoning used for each. Then, complete the comparison questions that follow. Note that the arguments in this essay are not the personal views of the scholars but are illustrative of larger historical debates.

Claim A

Progressivism arose toward the end of the nineteenth century in response to the challenges raised by the spread of industrialism and urbanism, the rise of large corporations, the closing of the frontier, and the emergence of America as a global power. Although shaped also by broader intellectual forces—within and beyond American borders—progressivism was fundamentally pragmatic. It led to new government policies that have been viewed by some critics as establishing a new interpretation of the Constitution, at odds with the purposes and presumptions of the Founders. However, progressivism was consistent and compatible with the aspirations of the Founders and the aims and purposes of the Constitution.

Progressivism’s critics maintain that progressive reformers, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, rejected the basic tenets of the Constitution to replace a fundamentally passive (as well as limited) central government with an activist (and expansive) agenda of new policies—such as conservation and trust busting—and new federal agencies such as the Federal Reserve Board and the Food and Drug Administration. The critics also argue that such new policies reflected new assumptions about the relationship between citizens and the state, making the people more reliant on government for their needs and the legitimacy of government policy making more dependent on the popular will. They point out the irony of Progressivism’s championing of democracy while granting great power to experts to create new regulations and bureaucrats to enforce them.

First, the Founders did not have a single, unified vision of the basic tenets of good government. The debates that took place at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia show this clearly. Moreover, the calls for a new constitution were not motivated by a desire to enshrine a set of timeless principles that would govern the new polity but were instead a pragmatic response to the perceived inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation.

Second, the Constitution was an enabling document and made clear the areas where the federal government had certain powers, but it did not dictate what policies should be followed when exercising those powers. For example, the government has the power to establish tariffs, but nowhere does the Constitution tell the government how it should use that power—whether it should set tariffs high or low, raise revenue, or protect American industry.

Third, the policies pursued under the new Constitution reveal a diversity of opinions as to what determined good government. Hamilton and Jefferson—each revered for their role in the Founding—had radically different ideas about the role of the federal government. Hamilton advocated an expansive agenda of strong national government, whereas Jefferson wanted most of the power to be exercised by the states. This debate has continued throughout American history.

But perhaps most important was how the progressives interpreted what they viewed as the Founders’ different views of the people. They believed that Federalists such as Hamilton supported a centralized model of government run by the moneyed elites and that the Jeffersonians believed in decentralized government and the popular will. Whether these characterizations were true or not, the progressives used their viewpoints to influence their vision of government.

Jeffersonian principles were used by some thinkers in the Progressive Era to advance the idea that government would protect individuals from inequality. Progressive Louis Brandeis argued “regulation is essential to the preservation of competition and to its best development just as regulation is necessary to the preservation and development of civil or political liberty. . . excesses of competition lead to monopoly just as excesses of liberty have led to despotism.” Brandeis believed small businesses needed to be protected from the unethical and rapacious behavior of trusts and monopolists.

Later in life, after his presidency, Jefferson argued that laws and institutions should progress with changing economic and social circumstances. Woodrow Wilson said much the same thing almost a century later in his speech “What is Progress?,” couching the concept in the language of Darwinian evolutionary science: “All that Progressives ask. . . is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine. Government. . . must be understood as a living organism, adapting to its environment. And so too must the Constitution be understood.” Wilson believed his new doctrine of the “living” Constitution had roots in Jeffersonian thinking.

The Progressive movement was not radical because it rejected the ideas and ideals of the Founders but because it melded the contrasting approaches of Jefferson and Hamilton into a single, unified philosophy of government. In The Promise of American Life, Herbert Croly, a leading progressive intellectual, founder of the New Republic, and a powerful influence on Roosevelt and Wilson, recommended a Hamiltonian approach to government to achieve Jeffersonian goals. Croly, like Brandeis, thought “the existing concentration of wealth and financial power in the hands of a few irresponsible men is. . . inimical to democracy, because it tends to erect political abuses and social inequalities into the system.” The solution, Croly argued, was a strong central government staffed by a civic-minded elite of expert administrators who would design policies to promote social justice, allowing individuals the full rights to pursue their individual happiness and thus build a stronger republic. In the words of another major progressive intellectual, John Dewey, in the modern age, it was necessary to rely on the power of the government to guarantee the fundamental “Jeffersonian principles of self-government, of the prime authority of the people, of general happiness or welfare as the end of government” in the face of antidemocratic forces unleashed by modernization.

Claim B

The main body of the people who called themselves “progressives” rejected fundamental aspects of the political philosophy of the American Founding. To a much greater degree than any other previous political movement, progressives sought to move the country beyond its Founding principles. They attempted to modify the Constitution’s structure of government and to expand the national government’s powers far beyond the framework created by the Founders. In so doing, they sought to transform government to accomplish new goals that were never the object of the government the Founders envisioned.

Those new goals or purposes for government were derived from a new theory of liberty. For the Founders, liberty meant the absence of governmental interference in people’s lives. This kind of liberty could be called “negative,” because it only seeks to remove restraints on individual choices.

Progressives thought this kind of liberty was too narrow. Simply removing the impediments to a person’s choice was not enough if they did not have the positive resources necessary to accomplish their goals. The progressives aimed at a “positive” understanding of liberty that required government to be more active in giving people the ability to carry out their desires—even if this conception of liberty imposed a cost on some to provide a benefit to others.

Progressives wanted a government that would take care of the needs of the people so they would have positive resources provided to them to pursue their own happiness. This meant government had to be dramatically expanded and altered. For the Founders, the national government was limited to certain enumerated powers, such as those specified in Article I of the Constitution. Those powers were relatively meager: establish post roads, coin money, regulate interstate commerce, establish uniform rules of immigration and naturalization, and so forth. (There were also implied powers, of course, that were necessary and proper to accomplish the tasks enumerated in Article I, but those were modest in comparison with government’s powers today.) The progressives and Founders had significantly different conceptions of rights and liberties. The Founders believed in negative liberty or rights, which meant that government protects individuals from having their rights infringed. The progressives believed in positive liberty that obliges the government or others to provide something or act. Most of the protection of the negative liberty that the Founders envisioned would be protected by basic police rules at the state and local levels, such as restrictions on theft, assault, murder, and so forth. Progressives wanted government to take on much more authority to guarantee their preferred, expanded notion of positive liberty. Therefore, they sought to increase the government’s power to tax citizens (the Sixteenth Amendment, adopted in 1913, gave the national government the power to establish an income tax), and to control the economy through regulation by executive agencies. The much larger government we have today is a legacy of progressive efforts to expand government in the early twentieth century.

In addition to expanding the government, progressives sought to alter its structure and transform how it operates. First, they wanted to transform the government from a republic based on representation to a direct democracy. The Seventeenth Amendment (also ratified in 1913) ended the indirect election of U.S. senators by state legislatures, a practice that supported the principle of federalism. Progressives changed state laws to set up initiatives and referenda so citizens could vote directly on laws. They worked to institute direct primaries so citizens rather than parties could select candidates and place them on the ballot.

At the same time, however, progressives wanted to establish a federal bureaucracy that would be both removed from public accountability and would undermine the Constitution’s separation of powers. They successfully challenged the established rule against Congress delegating legislative powers to the executive, opening the door for the creation of an expanded presidential administration. The administration would be responsible for making and executing the law. Progressives argued that this would be both more efficient than the gridlock of the Constitution’s checks and balances and that it would keep experts who understand the intricacies of the economy in charge, instead of the people acting through elected representatives.

In sum, when one reads progressive writings on liberty and government, it is clear they were deeply skeptical of the Constitution as it was written and ratified in the 1780s. They wanted to transform the Constitution, and the government it established, in fundamental ways. For better or worse, today’s government is not only a legacy solely of the Founders’ vision but also a legacy of the progressives’ transformation of its role and structure.

Historical Reasoning Questions

Use Handout A: Point-Counterpoint Graphic Organizer to answer historical reasoning questions about this point-counterpoint.

Primary Sources (Claim A)

Dewey, John and James Tufts. “Responsibility and Freedom” and “Rights and Obligations.” The First Principles Series. The Heritage Foundation

Merriam, Charles. “Recent Tendencies.” The First Principles Series. The Heritage Foundation

Wilson, Woodrow. “What is Progress?” In The New Freedom. New York: Doubleday, Page, & Co., 1913, chapter 2.

Primary Sources (Claim B)

Eighteenth Amendment: Prohibition of Liquor.

Seventeenth Amendment.

Sixteenth Amendment.

Suggested Resources (Claim A)

Dawley, Alan. Struggles for Justice: Social Responsibility and the Liberal State. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Lears, Jackson. The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920. New York: Harper, 2009.

McGerr, Michael. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877–1919. New York: W.W. Norton, 1987.

Suggested Resources (Claim B)

Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. New York: Knopf, 1955.

Marini, John, and Ken Masugi, eds. The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

Milkis, Sidney M., and Jerome Mileur. Progressivism and the New Democracy. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Pestritto, Ronald J., and William J. Atto, eds. American Progressivism: A Reader. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008.

Wiebe, Robert H. The Search for Order, 1877–1920. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

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