Skip to content
Breaking News Alert Scotland County, Missouri Becomes Latest Locality To Ditch 'Zuckbucks 2.0' Group

The Federalist and The Promise of American Life


The death of the American Progressive Party early in the 20th century was a testimony to its ideological victory, coinciding with the embrace of progressivism by leading Republicans and Democrats. Herbert Croly, founder of The New Republic and father of its house progressivism, discovered in Republican Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson two giant political egos willing to take up the cause of a “new nationalism” — a program of federal intervention that aimed to fulfill what he believed was the egalitarian promise of American life.

While fully understanding the radical nature of his political project, Croly provided in his The Promise of American Life (1909), an imperfect description of the American republic as originally intended. How did Americans first define the rules of their political life? Croly writes,

The ordinary American answer to this question is contained in the assertion of Lincoln, that our government is “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln’s phrasing of the principle was due to the fact that the obnoxious and undemocratic system of negro slavery was uppermost in his mind when he made his Gettysburg address; but he meant by his assertion of the principle of equality substantially what is meant to-day by the principle of “equal rights for all and special privileges for none.” Government by the people has its natural and logical complement in government for the people. Every state with a legal framework must grant certain rights to individuals; and every state, in so far as it is efficient, must guarantee to the individual that his rights, as legally defined, are secure. But an essentially democratic state consists in the circumstance that all citizens enjoy these rights equally. If any citizen or any group of citizens enjoys by virtue of the law any advantage over their fellow-citizens, then the most sacred principle of democracy is violated. On the other hand, a community in which no man or no group of men are granted by law any advantage over their fellow-citizens is the type of the perfect and fruitful democratic state. Society is organized politically for the benefit of all the people. Such an organization may permit radical differences among individuals in the opportunities and possessions they actually enjoy; but no man would be able to impute his own success or failure to the legal framework of society.
Therefore the founders and Lincoln’s principle that “equals be treated equally” must on pragmatic grounds be set aside, since it was not required by any natural principle of justice.

In Croly’s account, democratic governments grant rights to citizens equally whereas for Lincoln and the Founders the first task of government was to protect already existing, God-given (equal) natural rights. For Croly, referencing (or even applying) the moral standard of human equality was suspect if it permitted “radical differences among individuals in the opportunities and possessions they actually enjoy.”

Therefore the founders and Lincoln’s principle that “equals be treated equally” must on pragmatic grounds be set aside, since it was not required by any natural principle of justice. Only the building of a national government with leviathanic power that intentionally discriminated in the pursuit of equal outcomes would fulfill the promise of American life.

The reality of progressive power politics has been much different. The celebrated 20th century assault on natural and circumstantial inequality has empowered a ruling class and its bureaucratic minions, and often only added by its artifice to the permanency and severity of the inequality it purports to combat.

In order to make everybody equal, some have to be more equal than others.

What did the Founders know about the promise of American life that we have forgotten in our day? To begin with, they had much less confidence in politics as the means of securing human flourishing.

The second volume of The Federalist (essays 37-85) begins with James Madison addressing the limits of political wisdom and closes with Alexander Hamilton quoting the Scottish philosopher David Hume on the same theme. There is an obvious rhetorical value to the argument: it will be easier to convince skeptics to support the ratification of the Constitution if they are willing to “doubt a little of [their] own infallibility,” as Benjamin Franklin put it at the close of the Constitutional Convention. But it is not a merely rhetorical point.

The case for limited, republican government that runs beneath The Federalist’s defense of the Constitution is itself dependent on a modest view of the possibilities of political life, as several of its most famous arguments illustrate:

  • The effects of faction can be controlled, but the causes cannot be prevented (Federalist 10).

  • Ambition can counteract ambition, but there are no angelic statesmen to govern the equally non-angelic people (Federalist 51).

  • The people must cement their union because “we are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue” (Federalist 6).

The Federalist, in other words, suggests that there are important limits to both what we can know and what we can do in politics. In Federalist 85, Hamilton particularly notes (citing Hume) how much of political wisdom must be uncovered piecemeal, through the “judgments of many,” guided by “experience” gained through often painful “inconveniences” over the course of “time”–and, as Hume’s reference to “inconveniences” suggests, we often learn more about what doesn’t work than we learn about what does.

What set progressivism apart from other, earlier challenges to the founders’ political vision was its explicit rejection of these limits. As Croly argues, the American regime “must cease to be a democracy of indiscriminate individualism, and become one of selected individuals who are obliged constantly to justify their selection.” An elite class must henceforth impose order upon American society and “make [popular government] expressly and permanently responsible for the amelioration of the individual and society.”

If all goes well, the wise and worthy will take up this burden, to be replaced when they cease to be wise and worthy. But replaced how? By whom? There is much less left to the chance results of popular elections in the progressive system, as powerful new EPA “climate change” and FCC “net neutrality” regulations make clear.

If, then, the same bruised reeds that Publius wrote about attain these now much higher and more secure offices, will they not be tempted to perpetuate their power far past the expiration of its public usefulness? Will they not be likely to bring others into the ruling class who confirm, rather than challenge, their prejudices, who are stamped with the same seal of approval from the same credentialing agencies–the same universities, political networks, and social classes? Will they not in the name of fighting political, economic, and social inequality, secure their unequal perch through force, fraud, and plutocratic fraternité?

The ruling class is always the ones they, at least, have been waiting for. And, thus, when their supposed wisdom turns out to be profoundly unwise, how will they know–especially if they have, as, increasing, our ruling class has, managed to fence themselves off from the “inconveniences” their folly imposes upon others?

Progressivism, in sum, requires a capacity for self-criticism that its epistemic pride and solipsistic self-flattery make all but impossible. President Obama’s comical self-confidence is but the logical outcome of his ideology.

How fundamentally different was the political vision of Abraham Lincoln who gave his Second Inaugural Address 150 years ago this week. President Obama recently claimed credit for “saving the economy.” Lincoln might have crowed that he had (all-but) saved the Union and the republic. Instead, he delivered a speech unlike any other in American political history, confessing, before a divided nation, how little the American people, north and south–and he foremost among them–had understood the origins, meaning, and consequences of the civil war that was only then drawing to a close.

In the first half of the speech, Lincoln uses “all” four times and “both” twice to suggest the surprising unity of mind and purpose among the friends and enemies of the Union. His litany of similarities ends with the sobering observation: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”

The pride of mid-19th century Americans did not manifest itself in their confidence in the latest social science metrics, but rather, Lincoln suggested, in their confidence that God was on their side.

The pride of mid-19th century Americans did not manifest itself in their confidence in the latest social science metrics, but rather, Lincoln suggested, in their confidence that God was on their side. Logically, as Lincoln noted, both parties could not be right. But, more fundamentally, he argued: “The Almighty has His own purposes.” Those purposes, it was plain by March, 1865, had not been to vindicate either side in the conflict. Might they have been, instead, to humble both (Lincoln suggests a better prayer: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.”) and pay down the American (not southern) debt to justice accumulated “by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil”? Lincoln was not sure, but, if so, none could complain. Quoting Psalm 19, he asserted: “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

It would do violence to language and mock an enormous toll in human suffering to call the Civil War an “inconvenience,” but Lincoln would not miss the lesson it taught. Given the malice toward many bound up in the history of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and much of our politics today, it is not clear that the nation learned it equally well.

Today’s largely secular ruling class might not identify with Lincoln’s biblical call to humility any more than with the religious pride Lincoln opposed. But it would do well to doubt a little of its own infallibility and, more than that, the virtue of its judgments and the purity of its motives. A regime that seeks “equality for all and special favors for none” may leave many social challenges to non-expert friends and neighbors, but it will also avoid the “inconveniences” and gross injustices (from unfunded pensions and entitlements to crony capitalism and abortion on demand) a century of progressivism has imposed on our nation–and vindicate, in our day, the founding generation’s “honorable determination . . . to rest all our experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”