Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


The First Challenges to Progressivism

Every time I teach a course or give a talk on the seemingly irresistible rise of Progressivism in the early twentieth century, a dismayed student inevitably asks whether anyone at the time spoke out in defense of the Constitution and the principles of the American Founding. The answer, of course, is "yes," but with little sustained success. Still, Jonathan O'Neill has provided a very useful account of these "First Conservatives" in a recent Heritage Foundation First Principles essay. O'Neill summarizes the anti-Progressive arguments of Irving Babbitt, Frank L. Owsley, and Albert Jay Nock and their contributions to later forms of Conservatism and Libertarianism, but also identifies their common defect - a rejection of the natural rights doctrine of the American Founding. There were some Conservatives, however, such as David Jayne Hill and Elihu Root, who offered a more principled opposition to Progressivism. Hill was a founder of the National Association for Constitutional Government, which published The Constitutional Review, distributed pocket-sized copies of the Constitution, and even persuaded the American Bar Association "to help lawyers communicate constitutional principles to popular audiences at the local level." Unlike many other Conservatives at the time, the NACG defended the Constitution on the grounds that it was essential for the security of natural rights. In the work of the NACG and others, O'Neill identifies a useful model for the modern Conservative opposition to Liberal Progressivism. Definitely worth a careful read.

Categories > Conservatism

Discussions - 5 Comments

I am surprised no one commented on this. The O'Neill article is nicely done. Yet, to paraphrase Herbert Hoover, who can be against Progress?

Yes, thanks for sharing this, Chris. I plan on using some of the NACG readings next time I teach the Progressive Era MAHG course.

Glad you found it useful. If you click on the link to the NACG in the post, it takes you to the first two volumes of the Constitutional Review. The book reviews are especially interesting, especialy the review of Charles Beard's "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution" in Volume 2 page 120.

Don't the progressives also love the Constitution?

Have the progressives abandoned the ACS or the ACLU?

"a dismayed student inevitably asks whether anyone at the time spoke out in defense of the Constitution and the principles of the American Founding."

The dismayed student isn't thinking clearly. Charles Beard for example spoke out continuously in defense of the Constitution and the principles of the American founding, in part by showing how these principles were tied to economic interests.

It was this understanding of smoke screens that led Charles Beard to split from FDR, and being on a different side of an event like World War II should be enough to cause a thinking student to question the "smoke screen" that is "Progressivism".

So Charles Beard's contribution lies in how "isms" (or constitutional principles/ideology) are/is packaged or comoditized, to include how "Progressivism" is comodotized.

In other words if you can sell "Progressivism" to include Beard and FDR and every other thinker you want to include in the Era, you skip over so much disagreement that you basically have mush.

It is a word that is malleable and ready to be used for all sorts of tasks.

As Scalia says: "Such a docile and useful monster is worth keeping around, at least in a somnolent state; one never knows when one might need him."

"The secret of the Lemon test's survival, I think, is that it is so easy to kill. It is there to scare us (and our audience) when we wish it to do so, but we can command it to return to the tomb at will."

"like some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad after being repeatedly killed and buried, Lemon stalks our Establishment Clause jurisprudence once again, frightening the little children and school attorneys of Center Moriches Union Free School District."

Scalia is talking about Lemon, but the observation applies to any "principle" that would hold itself out as providing intelligible guidance.

Supposing for the sake of intellectual clarity that you took a Scalia, Karl Popper route and adopted the view that a principle or rule must be capable of falsification, you would at the very least reject a political science that can talk about "Progressivism" and include so many disperate characters and principles.

But there is an economic interest in talking about "Conservatism" and about "Progressivism" and the economic interest is directly linked to the maleability of the "ism".

Without a doubt the Lemon Test is less of a fraud, that is more capable of clear application, than a confused historical amalgamation like "Progressivism" with its attendant Beard v. FDR schism on World War II.

Beard was probably wrong because he tried to overgeneralize, but there is clearly an economic interest in packaging "maleable" isms and principles. Lawyers argue both sides, and in general the prevailing economic interests triumphs. No one argues that Jefferson freed his slaves, and no one argues that Madison didn't say that if men where angels government wouldn't be necessary. So men who were not simply high minded designed our constitution, and might have designed it better for being realists, but no doubt also for themselves.

You aren't exactly speaking out for Jefferson or Madison if you don't get them right, and in part because Jefferson didn't believe in dead hand control (and Beard was right about South Carolina and certain devises like the fee-tail...) there is not much understanding in blind loyalty...

I think you could make a case for Charles Beard the anti-federalist, or Charles Beard the paleo-conservative. Pick your label and then defend it as producing an intellegible shot group. Pat Buchanan is a fan for example.

A careful reading of the NACG review of Beard's work shows that they got it right -- Beard was a conservative whose work was appropriated by Progressives and used in their critique of the Founding. The NACG reviewer writes:

"It unfortunately happens sometimes that the fruits of a pure and abstract scholarship can be seized upon and perverted to an unimagined use, by those who lack both scholarship and the ability to see more than one side of a question. And thus we may find an eminent authority acclaimed (to his discomfort, one may surmise) as the high priest of a cult to which he has no leaning and the preacher of a gospel in which he does not believe."

But it is hard to impeach the use Progressives made of Beard. The problem with Beard's defense of the Founding on economic terms is that it also provided an indirect justification of their supposed indifference to the injustice of slavery. Progressive historians latched on to this and discredited the founders as hypocrites on the issue of slavery. Beard played right into their agenda, since many Progressives believed that discrediting the past was essential to fixing the public gaze on the future. Beard's economic interpretation of the Constitution itself justifies slavery, as will any purely economic explanation of motives in human affairs. Despite Beard's conservatism and his "innocent" intentions, his economic thesis had the same effect as Stephen Douglas' understanding of popular sovereignty, which Lincoln condemned thus: "I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest."

Did Progressives (as opposed to progressives generally) also love the Constitution? Yes, if one agrees that the meaning of the Constitution MUST be wholly contingent on history, as interpreted by experts with a keen sensitivity to the demands of the spirit of the age, and without any reference to the ground of unchanging nature.

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