How Progressives Changed The Way We View Our Rights And The Constitution

How Progressives Changed The Way We View Our Rights And The Constitution

Progressives like Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt expanded the role of government to a degree that shrunk the rights of American citizens.
Bre Payton
By

In the eighth lecture of Hillsdale College’s free online Constitution 101 course (which you can take along with me here) Ronald J. Pestritto, dean of the college’s Graduate School of Statesmanship, explains how Progressives sought to expand the role of government and get rid of many constraints the Founding Fathers put in place.

Teddy Roosevelt Altered U.S. Government Forever

Theodore Roosevelt was frequently irritated at the judiciary branch of government for thwarting Progressive aims to expand the role of government and its efforts to, in his mind, make life better for working-class Americans. In a speech delivered in 1912, Roosevelt said courts often obstruct the will of the people in an unproductive manner.

I have stated that the courts of the several States—not always but often—have construed the ‘due process’ clause of the State Constitutions as if it prohibited the whole people of the State from adopting methods of regulating the use of property so that human life, particularly the lives of the working men, shall be safer, freer, and happier.

He continues to say that property rights and human rights are in opposition to one another — a departure from the Founding Fathers’ conception of how these two things relied on one another in order for people to be free. America’s Founders understood the ability to own and acquire property as an essential aspect of human rights. They also believed it was okay to punish or discourage behavior that would strain another’s ability to thrive, as one’s labor and earnings should not be unnecessarily taxed in order to subsidize others.

“I urge that in such cases where the courts construe the due process clause as if property rights, to the exclusion of human rights, had a first mortgage on the Constitution,” Roosevelt said. His words mark a continued rejection of natural law theory as an outdated, eighteenth-century concept by progressives. Because Roosevelt saw natural law theory, and the rights and privileges it afforded to everyone, as no longer beneficial to twentieth-century Americans, he sought to dismantle aspects of our governmental framework.

Roosevelt also favored direct democracy over a democratic republic, and resented the institutions — the Electoral College, separation of powers, etc. — that made America a republic. Woodrow Wilson, another pioneering Progressive, admired the British Parliamentary system, which had virtually no separation between its legislative and executive branches. He also liked that its constitution was not written down in one particular place. Instead, its common law system enabled it to perpetually evolve to fit the needs of its people.

Progressives Hate Gridlock In Government

The separation of powers present in U.S. government frustrated many progressives, as it necessitated gridlock, which the Founders treated as a feature, not a bug. Wilson argued that the slow pace at which America governed was irresponsible, as it could not quickly address problems.

Wilson thought the role of the presidency and the powers afforded to its office should be expanded in order to circumvent the separation of powers. The modern understanding of the office of the presidency — our expectation that a president will have a legislative agenda and assert regulatory control to change industries or rules — is a very different set of expectations than what was originally given to the president.

In Federalist 84, Alexander Hamilton argued that a Bill of Rights could be dangerous because it could be interpreted that rights not specifically outlined in a document are rights the people do not have. He also said it could make way for a tyrant to abuse the powers granted to him.

I go further, and affirm that bills of rights, in the sense and to the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed Constitution, but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers not granted; and, on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed? I will not contend that such a provision would confer a regulating power; but it is evident that it would furnish, to men disposed to usurp, a plausible pretense for claiming that power. They might urge with a semblance of reason, that the Constitution ought not to be charged with the absurdity of providing against the abuse of an authority which was not given, and that the provision against restraining the liberty of the press afforded a clear implication, that a power to prescribe proper regulations concerning it was intended to be vested in the national government. This may serve as a specimen of the numerous handles which would be given to the doctrine of constructive powers, by the indulgence of an injudicious zeal for bills of rights.

Little more than 100 years later, Roosevelt changed our fundamental understanding of rights and the powers of government. Instead of government only being able to do what is outlined as their right to govern in the Constitution, we assume that government has the right to regulate and govern everything, unless the Constitution specifically states otherwise. In concluding his lecture, Pestritto argues that the Progressive understanding of government — that it has the right and responsibility to subsidize people even if that infringes upon another’s liberties — is the biggest Progressive intellectual accomplishment.

Bre Payton is a staff writer at The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter.
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